Put simply, weight loss occurs when the body is in a negative energy balance – a calorie deficit. It is possible irrespective of food quality or timing.
Maintaining or even increasing muscle mass while losing body fat follows the same basic principle of caloric restriction, but requires a little more fine-tuning in terms of nutrient Timing (when to eat), Type (what to eat) and Total (how much to eat): together coined the ‘three Ts of nutrition’.
1. Eat protein, regularly
Breakfast is often cited as the most important meal of the day, but how true is that?
In terms of human physiology, the body is in a constant flux between muscle protein synthesis (muscle building – MPS) and muscle protein breakdown (muscle loss – MPB), and where muscle mass is concerned, stimulating MPS is crucial.
That is especially true while in a calorie deficit, as the body competes for nutrients, further heightening MPB in an effort to find fuel for bodily functions.
So, unless a reduction in muscle mass is your aim, stimulating MPS is important. This can be achieved through consuming approximately 20-30g of protein – which is broken down in to its amino acids constituents and delivered to the muscle – over the course of approximately three to four hours.
After that period, you must again consume protein to remain in a state of MPS and retain hard-earned muscle. Remember, skeletal muscle is metabolically active, meaning the more you have, the more energy you will burn.
Consider now going to bed for eight hours and fasting (no food). The result when you wake up? A heightened state of MPB and significant reduction in MPS.
Consuming some form of protein food such as eggs or yogurt at breakfast is therefore essential for the maintenance (and growth) of muscle mass ESPECIALLY while in a calorie deficit.
Following this principle, aim to eat three to five protein-based meals or snacks spread three to four hours apart throughout the day.
2. Eat a rainbow a day
Energy metabolism is heavily regulated by dietary vitamins and minerals, and the adverse effects linked with deficiencies of these micronutrients is well recognised.
Each colour associated with a particular fruit or vegetable is formed by specific phytonutrients, each indicating an abundance of specific vitamins and minerals.
Consuming a variety of colours – or eating a rainbow a day – results in a balanced intake of micronutrients supporting the body’s functions, including fat loss and muscle gain.
Fibre-rich foods (largely vegetables) also satiate the body for longer due to their denser structure and slower digestion rates, meaning you will feel fuller for longer.
Filling your plate with colourful veggies is therefor an easy way to feel full while not racking up the calories.
TIP: combine with protein to keep the hunger at bay while stimulating MPS and providing essential nutrients.
3. Don’t neglect carbs
Now we have a standardised protein/micronutrient base for your meals, you must consider energy provision which will largely depend on the types of activity you will be engaging in.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re exercising it’s important to fuel well before your session (one to three hours prior to allow for digestion) and to refuel appropriately after your workout to replenish muscle glycogen (energy) and promote recovery.
Carbohydrate intake structured in this way will NOT make you fat; only an energy excess will cause fat gain.
That said, in general terms you should reduce your carbohydrate intake from pastas, potatoes and grains to reflect the energy demands of that day. For example, an office worker who moves very little will require significantly less carbohydrates (energy) than an individual with a laborious job requiring a higher intake to sustain work.
4. Drink plenty of water
Water is an essential component of the human body, making up approximately 70% of all the body’s cells. Functions include transportation of nutrients, elimination of waste products, regulation of body temperature, maintenance of blood circulation, and facilitation of digestion.
Dehydration reduces the body’s ability to regulate all of these processes in varying degrees, all of which can have profound and detrimental effects. For example, dehydration may reduce absorption of nutrients in the gut resulting in less effective bodily processes due to the lack of micronutrients (such as fat loss).
Research has also shown that consuming 500ml water prior to food reduces caloric intake of meals and leads to greater weight loss. To avoid dehydration, consume approximately 0.04L water per kg body mass. So if you weight 75kg, aim for 3L water a day.
5. Consistency and the 85:15 rule
We are all human and, on occasion, fall victim to cravings. This is completely normal – in fact, indulging a little every now and then may actually help you to stick to the longer term plan.
Sustainability is the KEY to success. Studies have shown that through restriction, you are much more likely to completely abandon your dietary efforts comparatively to those who treat themselves, sensibly, every now and then.
From my experience both personally and anecdotally working with professional athletes, if you look after your meals approximately 85% of the time, the other 15% should not significantly impact you.
Enjoy yourself, but quickly get back on track.