Diet Strategy to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle

Conventional wisdom tells us to eat less to lose fat and eat more to gain muscle. How should you eat if you want to do both at the same time?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #406

Joseph recently emailed with a common dilemma:

“We’re told that we need to reduce calories if we want to lose fat, and to eat more if we want to gain muscle. What’s the best diet strategy if I am trying to do both at the same time?”

The answer depends on whether you are primarily interested in changing your body weight or your body composition. The two are not the same thing.

How to Change Your Body Weight

Changing your body weight requires changing the balance between how many calories you take in and how many calories you burn. If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to burn more calories than you eat. If you want to gain weight, you’ll have to take in more calories than you burn. And obviously, if you want to stay the same weight, you’re looking for equilibrium between calories in and calories out.

There are a lot of ways to change the balance between calories in and calories out, by the way. You can adjust calories in by changing what and how much you eat. You can adjust calories out by changing how much you exercise and move around during the day.  You can adjust both at the same time—hopefully in opposite directions!

Can You Lose Weight by Changing Your Metabolism?

A lot of people also try to affect the “calories out” part of the equation by trying to manipulate their metabolism through various means, such as drinking green tea or vinegar, eating more protein or fewer carbs, taking cold baths and so on. Although some of these techniques may help you burn an extra calorie or two, it’s definitely the long way around the block.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to energy balance. Change the balance between energy in and energy out, and you’ll change your weight.  And no matter what your app tells you about how many calories you need to take in or what your wearable device tells you about how many calories you’re burning each day, the bathroom scale is the ultimate authority on whether you’ve got that balance right.

See also: Weight Fluctuation: How Much is Normal?

How to Change Your Body Composition

Changing your body composition, on the other hand, usually involves a change in how you use your body. If you stop using your muscles, they atrophy or get smaller. When you challenge your muscles to work harder, you’ll generally gain muscle tissue. This can be enhanced by giving the body adequate protein, which it needs to build muscle.

You can change your body composition (that is, increase muscle and decrease fat) without changing your weight.  To do this, you’d work your muscles more and increase your energy intake only enough to compensate for the extra calories you’re burning during your workouts (which is probably less than you think).

Keep reading to find out whether you can change you can actually increase muscle while gaining fat.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.