In order for a weight loss program to be successful, the end product should be a “transformed” physique; drastic decreases in body fat accompanied by visually lean, toned muscles. Unfortunately, most weight loss programs fail; the dieter either gives up, eating everything in site and gaining all the weight back or they starve themselves, shedding muscle mass and essentially ending up with a scaled down version of their old body. Ironically, the latter case also contributes to future weight gain, as the metabolism slows to a crawl and the body goes into “starvation mode”. Under these conditions body fat is spared at the expense of metabolically expensive muscle tissue.
Our response to diets such as this is an artifact of the cave-man days. The reason the human race was able to make it through the ice-ages was that during times of famine we were able to shed energetically-costly muscle tissue while sparing vital fat stores for survival. During the infrequent times when food was available, body fat stores were loaded up in preparation for the next famine. Starvation primes our ability to store body fat.
While most people would not willingly starve themselves to lose weight, common practices of simply eliminating a meal (or two or three meals) a day puts the body into “starvation mode”. Many people skip breakfast, only sometimes have lunch, and then eat a large dinner at the end of the day. Infrequent feeding drastically slows down the metabolism, and the body is essentially primed to store as much fat as possible at the end of the day. The metabolism slows down so much that body fat is preserved, muscle is lost, and weight loss comes to a screeching halt.
The remedy for this is to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day, at least three and as many as five meals; this will keep the metabolism humming along at a nice pace. It is not enough just to increase meal frequency however; we still need to reduce calories, but in the context of small, frequent meals. In order to begin such a diet we need a rough estimate of how many calories we need to maintain bodyweight; the BMR (basal metabolic rate). There are a number of ways to estimate your BMR. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, however, that your maintenance calorie level is 2750 calories. For weight loss, we are going to reduce your daily calorie requirement by 250 calories per day to 2500. A pound of body fat contains 3500 calories, so theoretically, we will have a (250×7) = 1750 calorie/week deficit, allowing us to shed ½ pound of fat per week just from your diet. Let’s also assume that you are working out, doing 3 cardio sessions and training with weights 2-3 times/week. The energy deficit from your diet, along with your workout program should be sufficient to lose 1-2 pounds of fat/week. If you are in a hurry, calories can be reduced more or activity level increased, just remember, however, that diets which cause weight loss to happen very quickly will also cause more muscle loss. Too much muscle tends to be lost when weight loss exceeds 2-3 pounds/week; remember, we do not want your body to think it is starving, we are tricking it into shedding fat while maintaining or gaining muscle.
Following my recommendations, you will be able to gain muscle while you are losing body fat. Keep in mind that muscle weighs more than fat so do not rely too heavily on the scale; often dieters lose body fat and gain muscle in close to a 1: ratio, sometimes resulting in no change at all according to the scale. If you take somebody that has gained ten pounds of muscle and lost ten pounds of fat however, you will see a drastically transformed physique. We will achieve this end by both manipulating the macronutrient ratio of your diet (i.e. carbs, fats, and proteins) while simultaneously cutting calories. Generally, if you have been following a typical low-fat diet you are most likely eating 50-60% carbohydrates with variable levels of protein and a low percentage of fat. We are going to reduce carbohydrate intake, while increasing fat intake and keeping protein intake an ideal level.
The typical dieter, if they follow USDA guidelines, does not get enough protein while most “muscle-heads” such as weightlifters or bodybuilders tend to eat way more than they need. (Too much protein just gets converted to fat- there are much more fun ways out there to gain body fat than overeating on protein!). We will use protein intake as the starting point to determine how many calories you need from fat and carbs. Once the protein requirement as a percent of calories is established, we will then move on to fat and carbs. My recommendation is to get 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean mass- lets assume you weigh 200lb with a lean mass of 160 lb- this would mean your protein requirement is 160-240g of protein. We will assume you are doing lots of cardio and intense weight training as part of your exercise program so we will go with 1.5g/lb of lean mass, or 240 g protein. Doing the math, 1 g of protein is approximately 4 kcal (I have referred to kcal-which is actually 1000 calories, simply as “calories” up to this point- for simplicity I will continue to use the term “calorie”).
240g x 4kcal/g = 960 calories.
(960 calories of protein/ 2500 total calories) x 100 ~ 38% calories from protein.
With 26% protein in our diet program we now need to determine how much many carbs to eat. The important thing here is that we have an overall reduction in the % of calories form carbohydrate sources. A range of anywhere from 15-40% carbohydrate could be ideal- this is largely an individual matter. Some people do not need to decrease carbs quite as low while others will only do well on a lower carbohydrate diet. A good approach is to start on the lower end to jump start your diet into action and then to slowly increase carbohydrate as you become more insulin sensitive. (Consult a good personal trainer who is also an expert in nutrition a custom=designed approach). Again, as an example, we will assume that we want to eat 30% of our calories from carbs. If you have been following the typical low-fat diet this will be a significant reduction. Like protein, carbohydrates have 4 kcal/gram so we do a similar calculation:
30% calories from carbs = (0.30 x 2500)= 750 calories.
(750 calories)/ (4 kcal/gram) = ~ 188 g of carbs.
According to our calculations above, we need 188 g of (low glycemic) carbohydrates to satisfy our 30% carbohydrate requirement.
Last but not least, we need to calculate how much dietary fat to eat. So far we have 38% of our calories coming from protein while 30% are from low glycemic carbohydrate sources. This leaves us with 32% of our calories coming from fat. Unlike proteins and carbs, fats have 9 kcal/gram:
(0.32 x 2500 calories) = 800 calories from fat.
(800 calories)/(9 kcal/gram) = ~ 89g of fat.
Most people who are used to eating the lowest amount of fat possible in their diet are shocked at this recommendation- no worries, your calories are controlled so you won’t get fat-you will loose fat and build muscle. As far as fat sources, there are many choices but I personally like to use walnuts, salmon, flax seed oil, olive oil, and fish oil while keeping saturated fat as low as possible. As an example’ 1/4 cup of walnuts has 20 g of fat. Most oils have roughly 14g/tablespoon. Many of my clients like to eat salads with fat free Italian dressing (get the stuff that also has low carbs). Add this with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and flax seed oil to your salad giving and additional 28 g of fat (use more/less oil depending on your individual requirements- I tend to use 2 tbs of olive oil to 1 tbs flax oil). A 7-ounce serving of broiled or baked salmon has around 6-9 g of fat. Fish oil tabs generally have around 1g of fat /tab ( I take 10-12 every night before bed). Don’t forget to factor in the trace fats you are getting from certain carbohydrate sources and from animal proteins.
Manipulating your diet in this way described will allow you to maintain or even build muscle mass while on a reduced calorie diet. While calorie restriction is the fundamental law of weight loss, most people are too hungry and loose too much muscle on the typical low fat/low calorie diet. Reducing carbohydrate intake and increasing healthy fats can drastically improve the effectiveness of a diet allowing you to build muscle and lose fat, totally transforming your body.