It’s the holy grail of most athletes at every level: How to gain muscle mass while losing body fat. More and more, I’m seeing athletes who are a healthy weight, but have higher levels of body fat than you would expect from their level of training. So this month I’ll be looking at what you should eat to encourage fat loss, without sacrificing muscle mass or performance. Starting with something we’re hearing a lot about lately: Protein.
For all the hype about effects of fats and carbohydrates on fat loss and athletic performance, the first thing to get right is the amount of protein in your diet. Protein is necessary to grow and repair body tissues, including muscle. And when you exercise, you damage your muscles and other tissues. If you are not eating enough protein, your body will be unable to turn all that training you’re doing into increased strength and stamina. What’s more, simply eating 20g of protein causes an increase in muscle protein synthesis (muscle building). If you spread your protein throughout the day, you can stimulate muscle building after every meal and snack. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest. This is why the muscle building combination of more protein and exercise can really accelerate fat loss.
When you go on a calorie restricted diet, your body breaks down both stored fat and muscle to make up the energy deficit. The more restrictive the diet and the faster the weight loss, the more likely it is that the weight is coming from muscle and water as well as fat (this is why I keep emphasizing that the goal is fat loss, not weight loss!). However, research has shown that consuming a high protein diet can counteract this. Protein is also the most satiating of all the macronutrients – it makes you feel full, which makes it easier to eat less. It can also reduce cravings for sweets treats. Strangely enough, sometimes when people crave sweets, especially after a workout, what their body actually needs is more protein.
The current guidelines are for 0.6g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day for a sedentary person. However, if you are an athlete looking to drop body fat, you need at least 1.5g per kilo per day, and up to 2.4g per kilo if you are cutting calories. For example, if you weigh of 70kg (11 stone), that’s 105 to 168g of protein per day. This may sound like a lot but is quite doable if you include protein with every meal and snack. For example, you could have eggs with breakfast, a tuna sandwich and a glass of milk for lunch, yoghurt and nuts as a snack, and chicken and veg for dinner.
If it’s a lean, toned physique you’re after, plan your meals around protein!