Can You Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?

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Eat fewer calories than you burn each day and you’ll lose weight. There’s one major issue with this time-tested approach: you’ll probably strip away more than just body fat. Weight loss, especially fast weight loss, achieved after crash dieting or drastically slashing calorie intake, leads to a decrease in muscle mass and subsequent drop in metabolism. A slower metabolism means your body needs even fewer calories to maintain your new weight (weight loss alone = fewer calories needed to carry around a smaller body, add muscle loss and your calorie needs drop even more). In addition, with less muscle you won’t be able to push yourself as hard during workouts (and therefore burn as many calories). This can put you on the fast track to yo-yo dieting, weight loss and regain. There’s a much better approach and a recently published study highlights how you can lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time.

crash dieting leads to muscle loss

In this article I’ll cover:

  1. How dieting can slow your metabolism;
  2. The latest evidence on losing fat and building muscle at the same time;
  3. Why researchers didn’t use a low carbohydrate diet;
  4. How you can keep the weight off.

How Dieting Slows Your Metabolism

When you eat fewer calories than you need each day, your body is forced to pull from its backup supply, body fat and muscle, to maintain your energy (calorie) needs. Some people lose a substantial amount of muscle when dieting, 30% or more, of their initial muscle mass. In addition to a decrease in muscle mass and slower metabolism, lower calorie diets decrease the intracellular signaling necessary for the synthesis of new proteins in muscle. Plus, muscle tissue may be less sensitive to protein when you’re dieting. In other words, it’s really tough to build muscle when dieting to lose weight. Based on these physiological changes, there’s an age-old theory suggesting it’s impossible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. However, scientists from McMaster University in Canada found it is not only possible but also, doable even when losing a substantial amount of body fat in a relatively short period of time.

Building Muscle While Losing Body Fat

In the McMaster University study, young overweight recreationally active men (prior to the study they exercised 1-2 times per week) were placed on an intense four-week diet and exercise program. Their diet contained 40% fewer calories each day than needed for weight maintenance. All meals were prepared and provided to participants during the study. The men were randomly selected for one of two diet groups:

  Higher Protein Group

 

Lower Protein (Control Group)

 

Total daily calorie intake 15 calories per pound of lean body mass 15 calories per pound of lean body mass
Macronutrients 35% protein, 50% carbohydrate and 15% fat 15% protein, 50% carbohydrates, 35% fat
Total daily protein intake 1.09 grams of protein per lb. body weight (2.4 grams of protein per kg) 0.55 grams of protein per lb. bodyweight (1.2 grams of protein per kg) – 2x the RDA (0.8 g/kg) for protein

 

Per meal protein intake 0.22 grams of protein per lb. of body weight

 

0.10 grams of protein per lb. of body weight

 

Dairy shakes 3- 4 / day including one after exercise (depending on body weight; higher protein, lower carbohydrate shakes compared to the Lower Protein Group)

 

3- 4 / day including one after exercise (depending on body weight; lower protein, higher carbohydrate shakes compared to the Higher Protein Group)

 

Training Program
Supervised workouts consisted of full-body resistance circuit training twice per week and high intensity interval training six days per week. In addition to their structured exercise program, all participants were instructed to get at least 10,000 steps per day as monitored by a pedometer worn on their hip.

Resistance Training Circuit
2 times per week
3 sets of 10 reps at 80% 1 RM with the last set of each exercise to failure
No rest between sets
1-minute rest between each circuit

Sprint Interval Training
1 time per week
Four to eight 30-second bouts on a stationary bike (participants started with four sets and progressed to eight sets)
4 minutes rest between bouts

Modified High Intensity Interval Training
1 time per week
10 bouts of all-out sprint for one minute at 90% VO2max
1-minute rest intervals at 50% VO2max

Time Trial
1 time per week as fast as possible until approximately 250 calories were burned

Plyometric bodyweight circuit
30-second rest between exercises

Results
Both the lower protein and higher protein groups lost weight with no significant difference between groups. Men in the higher protein group gained 2.64 lbs. of muscle and lost 10.56 lbs. of body fat while men in the control group gained little muscle (0.22 lbs.) and lost 7.7 lbs. of fat. Both groups improved all but one measure of strength in addition to aerobic and anaerobic capacity. There were no differences between groups in strength, power, aerobic fitness or performance at the end of the study.

In this study, a higher protein, reduced calorie diet combined with a high intensity circuit-training program including interval training and sprints helped participants build muscle. In addition to their total protein intake, participants in the higher protein group also consumed more protein per meal (approximately 49 grams per meal) than those in the lower protein group (approximately 22 grams per meal).

Why Didn’t They Cut Carbohydrates?

Low carbohydrate diets are not only popular, but they may lead to greater weight loss (in overweight and obese individuals), initially, than higher carbohydrate, low fat diets (some of this is water weight). However, when giving up carbohydrates you also sacrifice something else, intense training. Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel used during high-intensity exercise because your body can readily access and utilize them for energy. Fat is a slow source of energy and therefore, your body cannot access and use fat quickly enough to sustain high intensity training. In this study, both groups of participants consumed 50% of their calorie intake from carbohydrate. If the study authors cut carbohydrates, the participants wouldn’t make it through their high intensity training program that was specifically designed to take off fat and increase muscle mass.

Keeping the Weight Off

Consider a program like the one used in this study a short-term jumpstart. It isn’t sustainable over a long period of time. The transition to a longer-term approach after weight loss should include a gradual increase in calorie intake while maintaining a higher protein diet (at least 0.55 grams of protein per lb. of body weight to maintain muscle while considerably more, along the lines of 1.09 – 1.41 grams of protein per lb. of body weight may be necessary to continue building muscle during periods of reduced calorie intake). This gradual increase in calorie intake is important because substantial weight loss results in a slower metabolism even if you maintain or build muscle during your jumpstart weight loss program. It isn’t entirely clear why this happens and the drop is greater than scientists can predict based on a decrease in muscle mass. Even if you build some muscle, this won’t rev fire up your metabolism to make up for a drastic decrease in body weight.

One pound of muscle burns a measly 5.9 calories per day at rest while a pound of fat burns 2 calories per day at rest.

Greater weight lost while dieting means an even greater drop in metabolism – something dieters must account for so they can maintain their new weight.

In addition to slowly increasing calorie intake and consuming a higher protein diet, each meal should contain at least 25 – 30 grams of protein. We don’t know the exact amount of protein per meal needed to maximally stimulate muscle building.

Your exercise regimen should continue to include resistance training and you’d be wise to continually vary your training program. Be sure to move each day as well. Research shows many people naturally adjust to greater amounts of aerobic exercise by decreasing their activities of daily living. They exercise intensely at the gym and then sit the rest of the day. Circumvent this by using one of the many devices that counts steps each day. Also, consider doing more work around your house including cleaning, mowing your lawn, gardening, and washing your car. Get moving and stay moving all day long.

If you want to get rid of your love handles while building a six-pack at the same time, combine an effective resistance training and high intensity interval-training program with a reduced calorie, higher protein diet. Your diet and exercise program does not need to be as rigorous as the one in this study. Instead, you can adjust the McMaster University approach to fit your lifestyle, though your results may take more time. Once you reach your goal weight, slowly transition your training program and diet to an approach you can live with.

References
Weinheimer EM, Sands LP, Campbell WW. A systematic review of the separate and combined effects of energy restriction and exercise on fat free mass in middle-aged and older adults: implications for sarcopenic obesity. Nutr Rev 2010;68:375–88.

Stiegler P, Cunliffe A. The role of diet and exercise for the maintenance of fat-free mass and resting metabolic rate during weight loss. Sports Med 2006;36(3):239-62.

Heymsfield SB, Gonzalez MCC, Shen W, Redman L, Thomas D. Weight Loss Composition is One-Fourth Fat-Free Mass: A Critical Review and Critique of This Widely Cited Rule. Obes Rev 2014; 15(4):310–321.

Deurenberg P, Weststrate JA, Hautvast JG. Changes in fat-free mass during weight loss measured by bioelectrical impedance and by densitometry. Am J Clin Nutr 1989;49(1):33-6.

Johannsen DL, Knuth ND, Huizenga R, Rood JC, Ravussin E, Hall KD. Metabolic Slowing with Massive Weight Loss despite Preservation of Fat-Free Mass. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2012; 97(7): 2489–2496.

Ravussin E, Bogardus C. Review Relationship of genetics, age, and physical fitness to daily energy expenditure and fuel utilization. Am J Clin Nutr 1989; 49(5 Suppl):968-75.

Phillips SM. A Brief Review of Higher Dietary Protein Diets in Weight Loss: A Focus on Athletes. Sports Med 2014; 44(Suppl 2): 149–153.

Longland T, Oikawa SY, Mitchell CJ, Devries MC, Phillips S. Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2016;103:738-46.

Heydari M, Freund J, Boutcher SH. The effect of high-intensity intermittent exercise on body composition of overweight young males. J Obes 2012;2012:480467.

Areta JL, Burke LM, Camera DM, West DW, Crawshay S, Moore DR,Stellingwerff T, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, Coffey VG. Reduced resting skeletal muscle protein synthesis is rescued by resistance exercise and protein ingestion following short-term energy deficit. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2014;306:E989–97.

Pasiakos SM, Vislocky LM, Carbone JW, Altieri N, Konopelski K, Freake HC, Anderson JM, Ferrando AA, Wolfe RR, Rodriguez NR. Acute energy deprivation affects skeletal muscle protein synthesis and associated intracellular signaling proteins in physically active adults. J Nutr 2010;140:745–51.

Hector AJ, Marcotte GR, Churchward-Venne TA, Murphy CH, Breen, von AM, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Whey protein supplementation preserves postprandial myofibrillar protein synthesis during short-term energy restriction in overweight and obese adults. J Nutr 2015;145:246–52.

Murphy CH, Churchward-Venne TA, Mitchell CJ, Kolar NM, KassisA, Karagounis LG, Burke LM, Hawley JA, Phillips SM. Hypoenergetic diet-induced reductions in myofibrillar protein synthesis are restored with resistance training and balanced daily protein ingestion in older men. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2015;308:E734–43.

Chaston TB, Dixon JB, O’Brien PE. Changes in fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond) 2007; 31(5):743-50.

Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2011; 21(2):97-104.

Churchward-Venne TA, Murphy CH, Longland TM, Phillips SM. Role of protein and amino acids in promoting lean mass accretion with resistance exercise and attenuating lean mass loss during energy deficit in humans. Amino Acids 2013; 45(2):231-40.

Helms ER, Zinn C, Rowlands DS, Brown SR. A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: a case for higher intakes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2014; 24(2):127-38.

Protein Before Bed for Greater Muscle Gains?

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protein before bedA recently published study found a protein rich snack before bedtime led to greater gains in muscle mass, strength, and type II muscle fiber size in young men participating in a resistance training program. Yet a closer look at the details of this study suggest the timing (before bed) might not matter at all.

In this study 44 young men were given a supplement containing 27.5 grams of casein and 15 grams of carbohydrate or a placebo that contained no protein, carbs or calories before they went to sleep each night for 12 weeks. They also lifted weights 3 times a week under the direction of a supervised and periodized program. The young men were instructed not to change their diet (other than the supplement). Food logs were taken to access dietary intake. Both groups consumed about 1.3 grams of protein per kg bodyweight before the study started. However, the group given the supplement consumed a total of 1.9 grams per kg bodyweight during the study while the placebo group continued eating the same amount of protein as they did before the study started – 1.3 grams per kg bodyweight. So, was it the timing of protein before bed, the total difference in protein intake or both that led to the results? We don’t know. However, the total protein intake of the placebo group was on the lower end of the recommended range (1.2 – 2.0 though higher values may be beneficial for some, especially those who are cutting calories) anyone should consume if they want to get stronger and bigger.

So what’s the bottom line?

We don’t know if consuming protein right before bed will help young, healthy and active adults make greater gains from their strength training program compared to consuming the same total amount of protein each day without a protein-rich bedtime snack.

My protein recommendation for now:

Meet your daily protein needs based on your goals first and if a pre-bedtime protein-rich snack helps you do this and sleep well at the same time, then great. If eating or drinking before bed interferes with your sleep (running to the bathroom counts as interfering) then this strategy may do more harm than good.

References:
Snijders T, Res PT,Smeets JSJ, van Vliet S, van Kranenburg J, Maase K, Kies AK, Verdijk LB, van Loon LJC. Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men. J Nutr 2015.

Res PT, Groen B, Pennings B, Beelen M, Wallis GA, Gijsen, AP, Senden JM, Van Loon LJ. Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2012;44:1560–1569.

Effective Strategies for Weight Loss

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Last Friday I spoke at the NSCA’s Personal Trainers meeting in Las, Vegas. They put on one heck of a meeting and I love meeting NSCA members and learning from them as well as the speakers. And one thing I really liked about this meeting was the fact that several speakers challenged commonly held beliefs about nutrition and exercise. Here’s a condensed overview (not all points included) of my talk on Effective Strategies for Weight Loss:

1) Lift Weights or engage in some other type of resistance training, regularly. Muscle tissue doesn’t burn many more calories than fat (despite what people say) – about 4 calories more per day per pound. But, those calories add up over time and more importantly, adults start a gradual slow progression of losing muscle around age 40 (sarcopenia). Less muscle means you can’t exercise as hard which means you won’t burn as many calories while working out (and those activities of daily living like washing your car or lifting groceries will seem tough at some point).

2) Calories Matter. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble who thinks you can eat as much as you want as long as you slash so called “bad calories,” but calories count. If you don’t believe me, check out how nutrition professor Mark Haub lost 27 lbs and significantly improved his blood lipids on a 10-week diet of Twinkies, Doritos, sugary cereals and Hostess cupcakes. Want more evidence published in research journals? Okay, check out the POUNDS LOST trial which found that how much you eat matters more than the proportion of fat, carbohydrate and protein. And, that adherence to a diet determines success (and sticking with extreme diets that cut out food groups sucks so many people don’t last long on them).

3) Calories Matter but Protein is Crucial. Protein preserves muscle during weight loss and the lower your diet is in calories, the more you need protein. How important is protein for preserving muscle? Well, I love the overfeeding study published in JAMA earlier this year in which the study authors overfed participants by 40% more calories than they needed to maintain their weight. The participants were randomized to receive either 5%, 15% or 25% of their calories from protein. Now, 5% may seem low but because of their total daily caloric intake that 5% meant 47 grams per day – that’s 1 gram more than the protein RDA set by our government for women! All groups gained a similar amount of fat and the 15% and 25% group also gained muscle (and therefore more total weight) but, the group consuming 1 gram of protein more than the RDA set for women LOST 0.70 kg lean body mass! Take home points: over consume calories and you’ll gain fat. Make protein a greater proportion of the calories you over consume and you’ll also gain muscle. Follow the RDA and you may lose lean body mass.

4) Change your Environment for Success. Eat off smaller plates and bowls, choose smaller packages, get the food you don’t want to eat out of your house (if it is there, you will eat it at some point). Put healthy food within your line of vision. Avoid constant refills (chip basket at restaurants, bread basket, that never ending tub of beer bottles). And, surround yourself with people who encourage your success vs. those who will get in the way.

5) Keep your stress levels down. For more information on how stress impacts weight, click here.

6) Figure out WHY you are eating. You can have all the nutrition knowledge in the world and weight loss strategies but if you don’t delve into what is making you eat vs. using other coping mechanisms, long term success will elude you.

Now, you are probably wondering “well what about Forks Over Knives, the documentary that covered the supposed evils of animal protein?” I promise I’ll give my uncensored opinion (slashing) of that documentary in my next post in addition to more about protein 🙂

For a hilarious and insightful overview of this conference, check out fitness and nutrition expert Alan Aragon’s post. And, here’s a post from another one of my favorite writers, renowned fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld.

Post Workout Nutrition – what do you really need?

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Are you confused about what to consume post workout? RD-to-be Sara Shipley breaks down the basics and provides excellent suggestions for post workout nutrition:

We’ve heard it all before: “You need protein after a workout!”

But why? And how much? Will two scoops of any protein powder in your morning smoothie cover all of your bases? Maybe, but here’s what else you need to know about properly refueling and repairing your muscles so you can get back to your life and get ready for tomorrow’s workout.

After strenuous activity our muscle tissue is damaged (this is normal) and our glycogen (carbohydrate stored in our muscle) is depleted. And, depending on how much fluid you consumed while exercising, you may also need to replace a good amount of fluid lost through sweat (and possibly electrolytes too). The right combination of protein, carbohydrate and fluids consumed post-workout will help your muscles recover faster with less soreness and fatigue. Here’s a breakdown on how much you should take:

Protein will help your muscles repair and build new muscle tissue (especially after a bout of resistance training). You can consume protein rich foods or sports supplements for convenience. However, you should aim for a minimum of 25 grams after resistance training (lifting weights for instance) and at least 10 grams after endurance training. If you are choosing food-based sources of protein opt for lean, high quality protein such as egg whites, skinless chicken, turkey breast, 1% cottage cheese, low-fat yogurt.

Carbohydrate is the fuel that powers your workouts. Your body’s stores of carbohydrate, in the form of glycogen, last about 2 hours (less if you are exercising very intensely). And, we now that athletic performance suffers when our carbohydrate stores become depleted. Therefore, carbs post-workout are vital to replacing glycogen stores. Aim for at least 60-75 grams or more. Bagels, pretzels and pasta are all good bets. If you aren’t hungry, try liquid carbs in the form of a sports drink or flavored milk.

Hydration and electrolytes are lost through sweat. And, drinking during your workout may seem like a no brainer, but sometimes you can’t quite makeup for your fluid losses through sweat. If your workout was intense, you need to replace electrolytes (primarily sodium) lost through sweat as well (especially if you are a salty sweater as evidenced by white salt crystals on your face, ears or neck). Sports drinks are a great way to re-hydrate or you can opt for other hydrating beverages (water, juice, milk) consumed in combination with salty foods.

Another thought to consider: post-workout inflammation. Some inflammation is good but too much inflammation may slow the recovery process. So, choose foods that may help combat inflammation including tart cherry juice (or eat cherries), mango, fresh pineapple whey protein and deeply colored fruits and vegetables.

Some of my favorite post-workout foods:

  • chocolate milk
  • eggs on a toasted whole wheat English muffin, with a sprinkle of cheese
  • cottage cheese with sliced cherry tomatoes and whole grain pretzels
  • Greek yogurt with blueberries and whole grain granola
  • soup with grilled cheese (bonus – great for replacing sodium!)
  • skinless grilled chicken and wholegrain brown rice
  • whole grain pita filled with hummus, grilled veggies and a dollop of plain yogurt, paired with a large glass of milk
  • Clif or Luna bar
  • Sports drink
  • Smoothie made with whey protein, any mix of berries, skim milk and ice (you can also add mango or pineapple)