Have you ever noticed how some people actually seem weaker after losing weight? They are super-skinny, skin-and-bones. Not to be mean, but they make you wonder whether losing all that weight was better for them.
This is a problem that comes down to nutrition. When losing weight (especially over an extended period of time), most people lose muscle mass. Although a large amount of their weight comes from fat stores, a significant amount is also drawn from muscle. Why? The simple explanation is that the body needs energy, and muscle(like fat) is potential energy.
But does that mean losing weight is just a way of trading one undesirable body for another? Absolutely not! However, this does highlight an important fact. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to lose weight. As far as muscle goes, the way you diet, and the way you exercise, will determine if you keep those bad boys or send them off for good. This is where we get into the good part. To keep muscle, you need to do a few things. First, make sure your caloric deficit is not too extreme. Losing one to two pounds a week is ideal. Second, exercise – and exercise right. I have a whole article on that here. Finally, you must – I repeat – you must keep your protein intake up. Without delving too deeply into the science of it all, muscle is made from protein. Everyday, your body replaces old muscle cells with new, using protein as the building block. When dieting, that process is put under more stress. It runs less-efficently, and (with exercise) there is a greater demand to rebuild. All of this means you must have enough protein for your body to rebuild muscle. Otherwise, that muscle will be lost.
You may notice that today’s article sounds like a previous publication of mine. That article, “Where do you get your protein?”, was primarily geared toward helping my fellow vegetarians. But the truth is, everyone needs to watch their protein intake. Whether you eat meat or not, there’s a lot of work involved in getting the necessary quantity in your diet. And today, we’re going to talk about how you can do that.
How Much Do You Need
You know you need it, so how much do you need? 0.37 grams per pound of body weight is the suggested guildeline. That’s your weight multiplied by 0.37. Unlike most nutritional requirements, protein has some wild swings based of your current situation.
Dieting. As we mentioned above, being on a diet changes the amount of protein you need. By how much? One study found that increasing intake to 0.6-0.8 grams per lbs significantly reduced muscle loss. Clearly, protein needs make a major jump when dieting. So what should you aim for? Truthfully, although studies have proven people who diet need more than the suggested protein intake, studies have not definitively found an optimal intake. Throughout my diet, I followed the goal of 0.8-1g per pound of body weight. And I can say that I maintained a large amount of muscle, despite losing more than 80 lbs. What works for each person will vary. Keep track of your body fat percentage, and your weight loss. With a four function calculator, it will be easy to tell whether your losing mostly muscle, fat, or some combination in between.
Muscle Growth. So your hitting the gym trying to build those biceps. How do you make sure your diet isn’t stunting your growth(quite literally)? Protein, protein, and more protein! It’s a well-accepted fact that to build muscle, you need protein. All those protein powders, bars, shakes, and smoothies didn’t come from a whim. But how much do you need? This is probably the most hotly debated question in any gym, and one that can’t be definitively answered. Realistically, how much you need varies from person to person. I follow a very common standard of 1g per pound of body weight. It’s a nice middle ground, but avoids the extremes(there are a few crazies who aim for twice their body weight. Not only is that generally unnecessary, but it actually could overwhelm the body with too much protein).
Cutting. Unless you’re familiar with the weight-lifting world, the term “cutting” may be foreign to you. Basically, most people gain some fat as they build muscle(depending on a number of factors). Eventually, they need to “cut” that fat off to get beach-ready. So “cutting” is just a fancy word for dieting. There is, however, a reason to address it seperately. Anyone who’s “cutting” is probably a very active person. They’ve worked hard to build muscle, and work hard to maintain it. With this extra strain on their body, it’s easy for them to lose muscle while cutting. That’s why protein intake is so crucial for this group.
How much do you need while cutting? Again, there is no definitive answer. But it should go up from your muscle building protein intake. This could see you over 1g per pound intake. Keep track of your body fat percentage, and make sure you aren’t losing muscle. If you do, up your protein or lessen your caloric deficit(which should be minimal to begin with).
Where To Get It:
Meats are probably the easiest place to get your protein(and mind you, this is coming from a vegetarian). With just a little googling, you’ll find that: a 3oz steak has 24g of protein; half a fillet of salmon has 39g; a 3oz chicken breast has 19g. In other words, meat is a great source of protein.
It should be noted, however, that not all meat belongs in your diet. Greasy burgers, fatty steaks, and deep-fried chicken all have protein, but they could leave you with some major health problems. It’s important to remember that calories cause weight gain. If you’re just downing anything in front of you, you’re bound to end up in trouble. Even for those trying to build muscle, lean meats go a lot further toward a healthy body. Just like any other food group, choosing unhealthy meat-options will leave you unhealthy.
Meats are not the only source of protein. Many people(such as myself) manage to eat enough protein without any meat in their diet. To that end, eggs are one of the best options. A large egg has 6g of protein, and only 70 calories. And with the endless options for preparing an egg, they’re a great way to add variety to your menu. Eggs are, overall, a very healthy food choice. Like many other foods, that can change with how you prepare them. But if you’re trying to build a successful menu to reach your protein needs, eggs have a place on the list.
Like eggs, dairy is a great source of protein. The amount of calories in dairy products is also flexible. For those trying to lose weight, skim milk offers 8g of protein for only 90 calories. Greek yogurt provides a remarkable 17g for every 100 calories. For those trying to build muscle, switching to a higher-fat dairy product is an ideal way to get those extra calories while not eating junk food. Dairy is tasty, versatile, full of other important nutrients and deserves a place in your menu.
Another great source of protein, nuts are a great way to mix things up while getting the protein you need. One cup of walnuts, for example, has 18g of protein. It should be noted, however, that nuts are not great for a diet. Although they are healthy, they’re also high in calories. So for those trying to lose weight, this food will have to be limited. On the other hand, this is one of the best muscle-building foods. High in protein and high in calories, nuts are a great way to hit both of those goals each day.
5. Beans & Lentils
One of my personal favorites, beans and lentils provide another staple for getting the protein you need. A cup of dried black beans has 36g of protein with only 280 calories. These two dishes open up a world of possibilites – from soups to burritos, and chili’s to Buddha bowls. If you’re dieting, beans & lentils are one of the best ways to keep calories low while getting the protein you need. For those who are muscle-building, simple additions can help you bump up the calories on any of these dishes(for example, why not try the guacamole recipe I posted under The Burrito Buddha Bowl?).
It is possible to get enough protein without supplements. However, for those with high protein needs, especially those with a restricted-calorie intake(a.k.a. “a diet”), supplements are a great way to alleviate the stress of “protein counting”. There are all sorts of protein supplements. The two most common are powders and snack bars. Both of these are generally derived from milk, although there are some out there with egg, pea, soy, and other bases. These supplements have a very high protein content with very minimal calories(although there are supplements available – called “gainers” – with very high calories). Among protein powders, it is common to see nutrition facts like 24g of protein for every 120 calories. Protein bars generally have a lower protein-to-calorie ratio(the brand in my cabinet, for example, offers 20g of for every 250 calories), but are still an excellent source of protein.
It’s probably not best to depend on supplements for most of your protein. If nothing else, you miss out on the fun of eating good food. Not to mention, protein supplements are not designed to provide all the vitamins your body needs – just the protein. With that said, supplements do make life easier. If your protein needs seem unattainable, why not consider adding a protein supplement?
My Weekly Update:
This is more like a bi-weekly update, as I failed to get a post published last week(sorry about that). As you’ll remember, the weekly update is a little column I post to tell you how I’m doing each week. Just like you, I have my own dietary goals. And just like you, I’m still learning, and still working toward the “ideal me”.
So first off: my competition with my dad. I have to give him props, as he managed to lose more body fat than me over the course of our challenge. But even though I’m still a bit sulky about this, my progress was also in line with what I wanted.
Recently, I’ve been trying to decide how to get to my intermediate goal. That goal is to get definition(which is a fancy way of saying “I want abs!”). Right now, I still have a bit too much stomach fat for that to happen. But I’m also facing a novel dilemma – I don’t want to lose any more weight. At this point, I weight in at 169.5 lbs. That’s 81.5lbs. below my starting weight. And referencing a well-known suit commercial: “I like the way I look.” All of this has led me to wonder: “is there a way to lose fat and build muscle at the same time?” Up to now, I’ve avoided that question. The two processes are almost contradictory, so it seems like paddling against the current to try doing both. However, I’ve decided to try a new diet with this end.
As we’ve talked about before, you lose weight when more energy goes out than that which is going in. This process sparks weight loss, but it generally inhibits muscle growth. However, studies have found that some people can grow muscle while losing weight*. The key seems to be having a small caloric deficit(in other words, “losing weight slowly”). So I’ve decided to try this approach. I will only eat 500 calories less than I need a day. My protein intake will remain high. My weight lifting will remain intense. Over the next month, I’ll track my progress to see if I lose fat while building muscle.
Well that’s it for me. Hopefully this little addition gave you some insight into my fitness journey. The diet I’m on now – which could be called “body recomposition” – is something I plan to write about in the future. If that would interest you, definitely mention it in the comments below.