Maintaining Muscle Mass In A Calorie Deficit
Maintaining Muscle Mass In A Calorie Deficit
We’ve all heard that weight loss is a simple formula. That formula is:
Calories consumed < calories burned = weight loss
Pretty straightforward, right? All you have to do is make sure you are burning more calories per day than you eat (also known as a calorie deficit), and you’re on the path to weight loss.
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The problem is that your body has only two ways to combat a calorie deficit:
- (And this is what you REALLY want) It taps into stored fat as an energy source, activating inert fatty acids to burn for fuel.
- It taps into muscle mass and the energy stored therein for fuel.
Guess which one is more likely to happen. You got it: your body will ALWAYS break down muscle before it breaks down fat.
You see, your body’s fat-storing mechanism is similar to the way squirrels store nuts for winter. Your body is preparing for the inevitable “starvation periods” (calorie deficits) by storing fat, which it will access if you ever find yourself desperate for food. The problem is that in our modern society with its unlimited access to food, your body will never be that desperate.
Stored fat is your “last-ditch resource”, the one your body only taps into when it has no other choice. Muscular energy, on the other hand, is a much more dynamic, changing energy source. Your muscles burn that energy every time they contract, and it has to be replaced in order for your muscles to keep working.
But in a caloric deficit, your body has to choose where to pull energy from. Obviously it’s going to take the long-term view, and thus it keeps the fat stores and taps into muscle mass. Over the course of weeks or months of a caloric deficit, you can lose a lot of muscle mass.
UNLESS, of course, you do the following:
Exercise – Your body distributes energy according to the organs and internal functions that are most important (brain, heart, liver, digestive system, etc.). But if your muscles are always working, it has to use available energy to replenish the energy burned up during muscle contractions. Thus, keeping your muscles active in a calorie deficit will reduce the risk of muscle mass breakdown.
What does this mean? Simple: lift weights!
Weightlifting and resistance training keep your body focused on repairing the muscle tissue damaged by the heavy lifting (a good thing!). After all, if you’re using your muscles every day, you signal to your body that it needs to keep sending energy to those muscles. The body can’t break down and build at the same time. Daily resistance training will prevent muscle mass breakdown even in a caloric deficit.
Exercise also activates stored fatty acids, providing your body an alternative energy source (the RIGHT one). By exercising, you protect your muscle muss and encourage the activation/burning of fat cells.
Eat More Protein – Remember how the body “can’t break down and build at the same time”? If you give your body the amino acids needed to build muscle, it will be in an anabolic (growth) state. When it comes time to break down tissues for energy, your body will be forced to look elsewhere. With less than sufficient energy in your bloodstream and liver, there is no choice but to activate stored fatty acids.
A high-protein diet can help to prevent muscle mass breakdown, and you can still cut calories to encourage fat-burning.
Eat More Fat – This may sound counterintuitive. After all, eating MORE fat should make it harder for your body to burn fat, right?
Well, let me explain: the average American has a very high-carb diet. Over time, we’ve trained our bodies to burn primarily carbs for energy instead of fat. The body adapts to its environment, the exercise we do, and the food we feed it. If you feed it high-fat foods, it will adapt to burn fat more easily.
But this better fat-burning isn’t restricted to only the fat you consume in your daily diet. As you increase your body’s fat metabolism, you’ll make it more efficient at burning the fat cells it activates for energy. It will be able to turn that stored fat into a form of energy your body can use more easily. Over time, thanks to your high-protein calorie deficit diet, you’ll burn through the fat stores.
This, of course, only works if you’re depriving your body of its primary energy source: carbohydrates. This is where the next point comes into play…
Eat the Right Carbs – The “right” carbs mean any carbohydrates that are loaded with dietary fiber: fruits, whole grains, seeds, nuts, legumes. The dietary fiber slows down the absorption rate of the carbs, providing a slow, steady burn of energy. These carbs will give your body the energy needed for short-term exercise and activity. Once it runs out, it will turn to the fat you’ve eaten and absorbed, then the stored fat it has activated.
The key to weight loss success—which really means FAT loss—is to cut back on the amount of carbohydrates you eat and increase the amount of fats you eat. By reducing your carb intake, you put your body into a fat-burning state. But keeping SOME carbs (the right ones) in your diet ensures that you have the energy required for high-intensity activity.
And that’s it! A calorie deficit can be the most effective long-term solution to weight loss. By following the four guidelines listed above, you will be able to promote better fat burning without losing muscle mass. In fact, thanks to the exercise and high protein intake, you’ll actually INCREASE muscle mass while DECREASING fat mass—a total win-win!
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