by Peter Fitschen
TIP #1: Diet at an appropriate rate
Most people try to lose as much bodyweight as quickly as possible. However, this may not be the most effective approach to maintaining muscle mass while dieting. Studies have shown that losing more than 1% of your bodyweight a week can result in a greater reduction of muscle mass, strength and anabolic hormones when compared to losing 0.5-1% of your bodyweight a week. (1-3). This means that if you weigh 200 pounds, you should be looking to lose around 1-2 pounds a week to maximize muscle retention while dieting.
TIP#2: Use a flexible approach
Many individuals significantly restrict food choices or follow a set meal plan while dieting. While this may work in the short term, it is not sustainable long term. Dieting flexibly has been shown to be associated with a lower BMI than a rigid dieting approach (4). In addition, a correlation was found between a rigid dieting approach and overeating (5). Rigid dieting has also been shown to lead to an increased prevalence of eating disorders (4). When dieting, use a flexible approach of tracking macros rather than following a meal plan, and avoid complete elimination of foods or food groups – as long as you don’t have any medically diagnosed dietary restrictions.
TIP #3: Eat adequate protein
Protein is important for muscle recovery. It can also help you feel full while dieting (6). Protein needs may be increased in someone who is dieting, training hard, and very lean (7) – however, many individuals overdo it with the amount of protein they consume while dieting. In reality, a protein intake of 1 gram per pound is adequate for most individuals attempting to maintain as much muscle mass as possible while reducing body fat. Individuals who are significantly overweight may want to lower this number slightly, while individuals who are very lean and training hard may require slightly more. Bottom line: a 1 gram of protein per pound intake is a good place to start for most people who are looking to lose body fat while maintaining muscle mass (3, 7).
TIP #4: Don’t eliminate carbohydrates or fat
It’s common for most people to significantly restrict or even eliminate fat and/or carbs while attempting to lose weight. However, removal of carbohydrates can decrease performance during a workout, which may lead to increased muscle loss while dieting (3). Furthermore, eating high-fiber carbohydrate sources can help you feel full while dieting. On the other hand, very low dietary fat intake can have adverse effects on anabolic hormones and potentially contribute to greater muscle loss (3). If you’re looking for maximal retention of muscle mass while dieting, don’t eliminate carbs or fat.
TIP #5: Keep food as high as possible while still making progress
Dieting results in a number of physiologic changes, including metabolic adaptation to the reduced caloric intake and caloric deficit (8). This leads to plateaus in weight loss along the way. Many people panic when weight loss plateaus. What they don’t realize, however, is that plateaus are normal and weight loss is often not linear – just because you lost two pounds last week doesn’t necessarily mean you will lose that amount next week. By keeping food intake as high as possible while still making appropriate progress, you will have room to pull back food later, if needed, and reduce your chances of getting to a point that is absolutely miserable due to an extremely low caloric intake.
TIP #6: Don’t stress over the small details
Most people sweat over a lot of small details trying to lose fat. However, many of these small details aren’t worth worrying about. For example, many people restrict carbs or don’t eat after a certain time. Yet a recent study actually reported more weight loss when a majority of carbs were eaten at night (9). This doesn’t necessarily mean that eating all of your carbs at night is better, of course. A better approach is to spread your carbs out throughout the day and not worry about eating them after a certain time. Another detail others stress about is meal frequency; yet long-term studies on meal frequency and weight/fat loss have been inconclusive (3). Based on the available data, macronutrient and caloric intake appears to have a significantly great impact on weight loss/fat loss than differences in meal frequency. Meal timing – precisely what and when to eat post-workout is another one of those details. However, recent studies have shown no effect of a post-workout shake taken immediately after a workout when macronutrient intake is equal throughout the day and athletes are not training fasted (10, 11). If athletes are training fasted, a post-workout shake may be more important.
TIP #7: Supplements will not make up for a poor diet
We’re not telling you supplements are worthless. But taking an excessive amount of supplements won’t make up for inconsistent nutrition and training habits. (3). Instead, focus on eating a variety of foods from all food groups, hitting your macronutrient/calorie numbers, and being consistent with your diet rather than looking to supplements to magically solve all of your fat-loss problems.
Garthe, I., et al., 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): p. 97-104.
Mero, A.A., et al., Moderate energy restriction with high protein diet results in healthier outcome in women. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2010. 7(1): p. 4.
Helms, E.R., A.A. Aragon, and P.J. Fitschen, Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2014. 11: p. 20.
Stewart, T.M., D.A. Williamson, and M.A. White, Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 2002. 38(1): p. 39-44.
Smith, C.F., et al., Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 1999. 32(3): p. 295-305.
Westerterp-Plantenga, M.S., S.G. Lemmens, and K.R. Westerterp, Dietary protein – its role in satiety, energetics, weight loss and health. Br J Nutr, 2012. 108 Suppl 2: p. S105-12.
Helms, E.R., et al., 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): p. 127-38.
Trexler, E.T., A.E. Smith-Ryan, and L.E. Norton, Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2014. 11(1): p. 7.
Sofer, S., et al., Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. Obesity (Silver Spring), 2011. 19(10): p. 2006-14.
Aragon, A.A. and B.J. Schoenfeld, Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2013. 10(1): p. 5.
Schoenfeld, B.J., A.A. Aragon, and J.W. Krieger, The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2013. 10(1): p. 53.
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