Don't eat too many calories, don't eat too few calories — coming up with meals to lose weight and gain muscle can be tough when there's so much advice out there on the best way to do it. Are you better off loading up on protein? Or should you emphasize carbs instead?
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Despite any misconceptions you might have heard in the past, it's possible to improve your muscle strength and performance while you still lose weight. And no, you don't have to follow any fancy eating plan. Focusing instead on basic nutritional wisdom and exercise guidelines will help you achieve an improved body composition. Here's what you should know, along with a few ideas for meal plans and recipes to lose fat and gain muscle.
The Basics of Weight Loss
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, losing weight shouldn't be about fad diets or temporary programs. Instead, you should focus on creating habits that you can enjoy for an entire lifetime, ultimately achieving a healthy weight that you can maintain over time because of the way you regularly eat and exercise. Meals to lose weight and gain muscle become meals to maintain balance and fuel your active lifestyle.
Even if you have a lot of weight to lose, you shouldn't rush it — losing even 5 to 10 percent of your body weight has benefits like lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, improved blood sugar levels and reduced risk of chronic diseases.
The challenge comes in that when you lose weight, you're not just losing body fat — you're also losing lean body mass. In fact, back in 2009, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) estimated that if you lose weight through a caloric deficit (that is, cutting calories) from dieting but without exercise, as much as 25 percent of your weight loss could be from muscle loss. If you're somebody who is trying to get stronger or build muscle while you're losing weight, then that's counterproductive.
Read more: I'm Overweight: Can I Build Muscle?
Losing Weight Vs. Losing Fat
ACE recommends you do resistance training to build up your lean mass and focus on reducing your body fat percentage. This can be difficult because methods of measuring body fat, such as calipers, can be prone to error and aren't as readily available as your bathroom scale. However, if you have access to finding out and tracking your body fat percentage, this will help you measure whether you are maintaining or building muscle while you lose weight.
Some body fat is essential. Those assigned male at birth (AMAB) need a minimum of 2 to 5 percent of essential body fat, and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) need a minimum of 10 to 13 percent body fat for essential stores.
But the minimum still isn't necessarily the recommended body fat percentage. Athletic/fit adults AMAB will range from 6 to 17 percent body fat, and athletic/fit adults AFAB will be around 14 to 24 percent as having extra body fat can help the body perform optimally, especially in regards to reproductive health. Average is around 18 to 24 percent for those AMAB and 25 to 31 percent for those AFAB. A higher body fat percentage puts a person at higher risk for obesity.
If you're trying to determine your ideal weight based on your ideal body composition, use this formula:
Desired body weight = Lean body weight / (1 – desired body fat percentage expressed as a decimal)
So if you're a 180-pound man with 25 percent body fat, then 45 pounds of your body weight is fat and 135 pounds is lean mass. Let's say you want to get down to 15 percent body fat. You would subtract that 0.15 ideal body fat from 1 to get 0.85. Divide your lean body mass (135) by 0.85, and you've determined your ideal weight is 159, meaning you would need to lose 21 pounds of fat.
Diet and Exercise
Some people prefer to lose weight through dieting. Others prefer to exercise. As the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains, losing weight is all about burning more calories than you take in, and cutting 500 calories a day can help you lose about 1 pound a week — but if you're trying to lose that weight in the form of fat and build muscle at the same time, then you need to do the right workout and eat the right meals to lose weight and gain muscle. You can't do simply one or the other.
A January 2018 study published by the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise looked at 40 premenopausal adults who were divided into three groups: a dieting group, a resistance training group and a group that did both. The group that did resistance training and dieting in conjunction saw the most fat loss (though the group that did resistance training without dietary intervention was the only group that saw increased lean mass; it also saw the least fat loss of all the groups involved).
Along the same lines, a May 2017 review published in Advances in Nutrition looked at available research and found that a reduced-calorie diet with adequate but not excessive protein and exercise can help maintain muscle mass and improve muscle strength in people with obesity.
Columbia University puts this into simpler terms by explaining that the process of building muscle, formally described as anabolism, requires calories. If you're somebody who hasn't worked out in a long time, you're likely going to have an easier time gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time when you start to engage in cardiovascular and resistance training.
But if you're somebody who already has some lean muscle mass and is looking to drop some fat, don't go for extremes — when you're putting yourself in a calorie deficit to lose fat, you should focus on resistance and cardiovascular training and eating enough protein to maintain your strength and muscle tone.
Combining the Right Nutrients
Don't be so quick to start eating nothing but protein — any healthy recipes for weight loss and muscle gain should provide an ideal ratio of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It will also have sufficient calories to give you the energy you need.
The American Academy of Family Physicians explains that your specific caloric needs will depend on your age, height, weight and activity level. A doctor or dietitian can help guide you, but most people need between 1,500 and 2,000 calories, although athletes may need about 500 to 1,000 more.
Good nutrition is an important part of getting the most out of your strength training routine. It will give you the energy you need to accomplish your workout and will help your body recover. While most people think of protein as their go-to nutrient, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says only 10 to 35 percent of your calories should come from protein. The average adult needs about 0.37 grams of protein per pound of body weight; for example, a 150-pound adult would need 56 grams of protein daily.
You will also need high-quality carbohydrates, which should make up about half your caloric intake, and unsaturated fats, which should be about 20 to 35 percent of your total calories.
Eating Meals to Lose Weight and Gain Muscle
Although it's important to eat the right types of meals to lose weight and gain muscle, food will only do so much for you in the way of gaining strength. The American Academy of Family Physicians explains that exercise causes damage to muscle fiber; when the body repairs its muscle fibers, they come back stronger. This builds muscle tissue.
For this reason, it's important that when you're eating to lose weight and gain muscle, you get carbohydrates before a workout to give you energy. Afterward, you want to eat a combination of carbohydrates to replenish your energy stores and protein to help rebuild your muscles. Your pre-workout snack and your post-workout snack should be eaten within an hour of exercise.
Read more: 5 Things You Should Do Instead of Dieting in 2020
Some great snacks for workout recovery, as recommended by the American Academy of Family Physicians, are chocolate milk, a hard boiled egg on whole-wheat toast, hummus and carrots, celery and peanut butter, apple and cheese on crackers or half a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread. The academy also notes that exercising without eating could cause you to burn muscle instead of building it, and that more muscle means an increased metabolism, so it can be helpful in losing weight.
You can work these great exercise recovery snacks around a varied diet with calories that are in an ideal range for your needs. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute offers a sample eating plan for a day with an approximate total of 1,200 calories and a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Each of the three square meals has between 300 and 450 calories.
With this suggested eating plan, breakfast could be one medium slice of whole-wheat bread with 2 teaspoons of jelly; a half-cup of shredded wheat cereal with 1 cup of 1 percent milk; three-quarters of a cup of orange juice; and 1 cup of regular coffee. The total for this breakfast is 389 calories.
Lunch could be a roast beef sandwich consisting of 2 ounces of lean roast beef such as this gremolata beef from LIVESTRONG.com, with one lettuce leaf, three medium slices of tomato, 1 teaspoon of mayonnaise on two medium slices of whole-wheat bread; one medium apple and a cup of water, for a total of 305 calories.
Dinner could be 2 ounces of salmon (try out recipe for salmon) cooked in 1.5 teaspoons of vegetable oil, three-quarters of a medium baked potato with 1 teaspoon of margarine. LIVESTRONG.com has some other great recipes, such as a half-cup of green beans; carrots; one small white dinner roll; and a cup of unsweetened iced tea. The total for this meal is 454 calories.
Finally, the eating plan includes an evening snack of 2.5 cups of our popcorn with three-quarters of a teaspoon of margarine, for a total of 100 calories.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass”
- American Council on Exercise: “What are the Guidelines for Percentage of Body Fat Loss?”
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “Nutrition for Athletes”
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “What to Eat Before and After a Workout”
- Advances in Nutrition: “Preserving Healthy Muscle During Weight Loss”
- International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism: “Resistance Training Combined With Diet Decreases Body Fat While Preserving Lean Mass Independent of Resting Metabolic Rate”
- Columbia University: “Losing Fat and Building Muscle Mass: Can This Be Done Simultaneously?”
- The U.S. National Library of Medicine: “10 Ways to Cut 500 Calories a Day”
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “Traditional American Cuisine: 1,200 Calories”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “What Is Healthy Weight Loss?”