My name is Emily Jokisch and I am a registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning coach. I’m here to answer your nutrition-related questions.
How do you adjust your diet/exercise routine to help burn fat rather than just lose weight?
I believe your question might be referring to gaining muscle while losing fat. There’s a lot of varying science behind it, but the idea is that if you want to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume. However, when restricting calories, your body has to pull energy by “exciting” energy stores in your body – fat, glucose, and even muscle (protein). Although this allows your body to function properly, you will not only lose fat, but unfortunately some muscle as well.
Science does show that you can gain muscle while losing fat, but you have to focus on two main things: protein intake and weight lifting. Keep in mind that the number on the scale may not change much if you gain muscle while losing fat. Muscle is denser than fat, so in some cases the scale may even go up. The focus here is on decreasing body fat percentage.
To start, you need to figure out where you are now. If you already consume a lot of calories, you may need to cut back. If you do decide to cut calories don’t cut too much at once or you’ll be left with limited energy for exercise and with slowed metabolism. Skimping on protein in particular can leave next to nothing for your muscles to feed on after your workout. You don’t have to count calories; consider just eating mindfully and choosing filling, nutritious foods.
A recent study of 20 young men divided the subjects into two groups, with one group following a higher-protein diet than the other.* Both groups performed resistance and high-intensity interval training six days per week. By the end of four weeks, not only did the higher-protein group lose more body fat than the lower-protein group, but they also managed to gain muscle, despite eating fewer calories than their bodies needed.
However, this study focused on a small group of young men, and it may not work for you. It’s always a good idea to talk to a doctor and/or a dietitian before starting any exercise and diet regimen. However, here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Track your current food habits and activity; it’s always good to find a starting point.Decrease a SMALL number of calories if needed. Increase the percentage of calories coming from protein, and decrease the percentage from carbohydrates.
- Protein recommendations vary by age, sex, size, and activity level, but should be somewhere between 1.2 and 2.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. This would equal out to roughly 20-35 grams of protein per meal.
- Focus on lean protein sources, and try adding in vegetarian sources of protein.
- Get a new way of thinking about exercise. Focus on more resistance training exercises and less on cardio.
- Resistance training doesn’t need to be heavy weights; try body weight exercises as well.
- Make sure your workouts are a balance of cardio (both low and high intensity), resistance training, and stretching.
- During your workouts, focus on a heart rate (HR) that is between 60 to 85 percent of your max heart rate, especially during strength training sessions. (HR max = 220 minus your age in years)
- Alternate between multi-joint exercises, such as squats, and single-joint exercises, like bicep curls. Get your heart rate up during the multi-joint exercise, and then catch your breath during the single-joint set. This method combines cardio with resistance training.
- Give muscles time to heal. Resistance training causes damage to muscle fibers and you will need at least one recovery day per week.
- Focus on protein for recovery. Have about 20 to 25 grams of protein about 30 minutes to 2 hours after a workout.
There is no perfect diet or workout plan for everyone! So figure out what is good for you and stick with it! Start with something, even if it’s small. Ten minutes of resistance training is ALWAYS better than none. And remember that results do not happen overnight. Start with a small goal every couple weeks, learn to make it a habit, and you will create a healthier you!