Nutrition for Muscle Gain vs. Fat Loss
When it comes to nutrition for performance, muscle gain or fat loss, as with most things your requirements are going to be highly individual dependent on your age, sex, body composition, health goals, and physical activity (including duration, intensity and type). What I want to share with you is an understanding of the basic principles of muscle gain vs. fat loss, and evidence-based nutrition info that can help you get started. You will then need to experiment and adjust as necessary to suit your individual needs.
Nutrition for Muscle Gain
The key factors for gaining lean muscle include:
1. Maintaining a calorie surplus
A calorie surplus (consuming more calories than your body expends) is required to facilitate anabolic (growth) processes and support increasing resistance-training demands. Consuming protein provides the amino acids required to ensure a positive muscle protein balance (i.e. muscle synthesis must exceed muscle breakdown), whilst carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in muscles and act to spare muscle breakdown. Depending on your body type a calorie surplus would be approx. 200-500 calories above maintenance. Start with the lower end and track your weight. To minimise gaining excess body fat your nutrition needs to be quite structured (you will gain a little but don’t let this worry you - its part of the process). Aim for a weekly weight gain of no more than around 100g for females and up to 250g for males.
2. Adequate protein intake
The amount of daily protein required depends on your weight, level of physical activity and goal. Studies show the requirements for people physically active (or “everyday athletes” as I like to call us!) differ from sedentary individuals. Protein requirements could be anywhere from 1.2g/kg body weight for sedentary individuals all the way up to 3.3g/kg for someone very very lean and trying to gain weight (which is very high and not an amount I’d typically suggest for the majority of people). Further studies also indicate that over 2.2g/kg is not going to lead to more muscle gain and anything over this is likely only used for individuals who struggle to maintain or gain weight. I would also question the negative effects on the gut microbiome and additional burden on the kidneys and liver to process and excrete excess protein (as urea and creatinine) if excess amounts were consumed.
Just also note the amount suggested by the Australian Dietary Guidelines (which I have listed here) is the MINIMUM amount likely needed to stop muscle wasting in an average sedentary individual.
The below table from Examine.com is a great way to understand your individual protein requirements.
Between 1.4g/kg and 2.2g/kg protein is optimal for those of a healthy weight trying to maintain or gain muscle.
Between 1.2-1.5g/kg protein is optimal for those overweight and trying to lose weight.
3. Protein distribution
Studies show that distributing protein throughout the day (rather than having just one big meal containing protein) improves body composition and is optimal for muscle maintenance and gains. One of the key essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein), Leucine, is responsible for stimulating mechanistic target of rapamycin complex-1 (mTORC1) which signals muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Consider this like an on switch to signalling muscle repair, recovery and growth. Each time you consume approx. 20-40g protein (of a quality protein source) you are likely to consume around 2-4g leucine, which is the amount required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Aim for 3-5 meals/snacks per day with 20-40g total protein (depending on your preferences, lifestyle and total calorie intake).
Macronutrients are often a focus for muscle gain, but we also require micronutrients for optimal functioning (for both muscle gain and fat loss). Micronutrients such as magnesium and zinc are required for hundreds of enzymatic reactions in the body. Others such as calcium is required for muscle contraction, whilst healthy Vitamin D levels are important for preserving muscle, and zinc is required to help stimulate muscle synthesis. Intensive training also increases our body’s demand for some nutrients including magnesium, Vitamin D and zinc. When it comes to muscle gain or fat loss (and health in general), rather than focusing on specific micronutrients aim for a variety of wholefoods each week to cover ALL micronutrients. I’d recommend seeking professional guidance for additional supplementation to ensure it’s safe and effective for you (and you’re not wasting $$ on unnecessary supplements!).
Nutrition for Fat Loss
The key factors for losing body fat include:
1. Maintaining a calorie deficit
If the number one nutritional factor for muscle gain is a calorie surplus, you can guess that the number one key factor in losing body fat is a calorie deficit - i.e. expending more energy than you consume so that your body utilises stored glycogen and fat to produce energy. A calorie deficit can be achieved by either:
increasing energy expenditure via exercise or non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which is common daily activities, such as fidgeting, walking, and standing; or,
decreasing energy intake (i.e. food consumption).
Success in fat loss occurs when you are consistently in a calorie deficit, in a way that is sustainable for you. Typically I eat the same types of food and meals when I am “bulking” or “cutting” but my portion sizes differ. Start with a small reduction of somewhere between 100-400 calories a day and monitor changes (accurately via a Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis, DEXA scan or skin folds) and adjust when necessary.
The biggest mistakes I see people make when attempting to lose fat are;
reducing food intake too much - this may work for a couple of weeks but typically results in slowing down of metabolic rate and/or loss of muscle mass, halting progress (see point 3)
restricting food groups (i.e. cutting all carbs) - you can lose fat eating all macronutrients and food groups, you just need to be in a calorie deficit. Find what works for you.
suddenly trying to completely “overhaul” their diet - make one or two changes at a time and create sustainable habits
using supplements marketed to burn fat - unfortunately there is no magic pill. Nutritional supplements can however help to support the body’s processes when diet is inadequate. I’d recommend working with a Nutritionist for a supplement program that is tailored to your individual needs.
2. Macronutrient distribution
When attempting to lose body fat you want to minimise muscle loss to improve your body composition (fat:muscle ratio). Daily protein intake should remain the same, if not slightly higher than what your individual requirements for muscle gain or maintenance are (as discussed above) to preserve lean muscle. Carbohydrate and fat intake can vary depending on your personal preferences, type of training, gender, body composition and how your body responds to these macros. For example, some people find a low carb high fat approach to fat loss works best for them as it curbs their appetite, whereas others find they are not efficient fat metabolisers so higher fat approaches don’t work effectively.
3. Minimising metabolic adaptation
Metabolic adaptation is what occurs when our body has been under a period of calorie restriction to promote fat loss. Our body is made to survive, thus it lowers our energy metabolism processes to conserve energy! This is where you may typically see a halt in fat loss progress for a number of weeks.
We can’t avoid metabolic adaptation, but we can minimise it and avoid risking our metabolic health using nutrition strategies for a safe and effective fat loss plan. Things like yo-yo dieting or using drastic and highly restrictive measures for fat loss typically result in faster metabolic adaptation as well as weight regain.
Please feel free to send me an email to enquire further about fat loss plans.
Other factors for both muscle gain & fat loss
Although I am focusing on nutrition in the article I’m really big on holistic treatment. Yes nutrition plays a major role in body composition, performance and recovery, however a number of factors are also critical for muscle gain and fat loss. These include:
Training program - you training needs to be programmed to provide a stimulus to force muscles to grow. Progressive overload is what you need to focus on - i.e. progressively adding load by either increased weight or volume or both.
Quality sleep - vital for recovery and energy to train.
Hydration - even small amounts of dehydration can decrease cardiovascular performance, cause cognitive decline and reduce overall performance.
Immune support - intensive training puts extra stress on your immune system. Supporting immune health via the gut and other nutrients may help avoid you getting run down or sick.
Patience! - it takes time to build muscle and change your body composition so be prepared to be in it for the long haul not just an 8 week challenge.
Preservation of lean muscle - muscle is highly metabolic and also improves body composition. Your training program again should focus on progressive overload or at least maintaining strength to preserve muscle and avoid excess muscle breakdown.
Consistency - chopping and changing from one diet to another significantly halts progress and limits success of losing fat.
Hormonal roadblocks - if you really are struggling to change your body composition it may be worth seeking advice from a healthcare professional to ensure there are no gut, hormone, thyroid or liver issues which may be stalling your progress.
The take home message
If you want to improve your performance, energy and body composition focus on consuming adequate protein, balanced macronutrients, a predominantly wholefoods diet to ensure you are getting adequate micronutrients and fibre, and most importantly take a holistic view of your lifestyle to support optimal health.
For any questions on meal plans or health coaching please feel free to email me via the contact page.