Losing Fat & Keeping Muscle: The Ultimate Diet Guide
Been on a long bulk and decided it’s time to lose the strength belly?
Maybe you’ve been building muscle for long enough and it’s simply time to have a proper look at what you’ve achieved.
Perhaps you feel that you’re carrying a little too much fat and you want to lose it without going on a silly diet.
Maybe you play a sport competitively and you need to drop a weight class without putting your performance at risk, either by losing muscle mass or by not properly fuelling your workouts.
Whatever the reason, deciding to lose fat when you’re used to eating to build muscle can be incredibly hard.
Lots of people claim that it’s easy, but more often than not, these people have never tried to diet while still training 4 times per week and doing some intense cardio on top.
The first few weeks are usually fairly easy because you’re still motivated and probably enjoying not being so full all the time.
But a few weeks in, things get tough. You’re tired a lot of the time, and you’re getting down about losing some of your strength. This is where losing fat gets hard, and where a lot of people give up.
However, one thing that you need to understand is that losing fat while keeping muscle is hard, but not necessarily complicated.
Too many personal trainers and “internet experts” make losing fat a much more complex process than it really needs to be. It isn’t hard to imagine why they do this; if they were honest about how easy it can be to lose body fat, then they’d soon find themselves out of a job.
Read what a lot of people say online, and you’d think that you need to do 3 kettle bell circuits every day and eating nothing but goji berries to get the scale moving in the right direction.
Fortunately, for most people, shedding fat is amazingly straightforward.
Losing Fat But Keeping Muscle Mass
The human body is an incredibly complex piece of hardware, but getting bigger/smaller can be broken down into very simple formulas.
The rate at which you gain or lose weight is essentially a function of a very simple formula:
Calories taken in – Calories used
If the answer to this little sum comes out as a negative number, then you will lose weight. If it comes out positive, then you will gain weight.
Of course, where it becomes a little more complicated is when we begin to think about what kind of weight we want to lose.
Muscle vs. Fat
To build muscle, you need to be taking in more calories than you expend. I think people lately are far too fixated on protein as the main driver of hypertrophy. Obviously it plays its role, but far more important is total calorie consumption.
With the exception of new trainees and people using steroids, you can’t build muscle while eating a deficit.
It’s also true that you can’t maintain muscle while eating a caloric deficit. If you eat fewer calories than you burn for a number of days, then you’ll lose muscle mass as well as fat. This is practically unavoidable.
This is really of no concern to plenty of people who just want to be lighter overall. Most people don’t have a great deal of muscle mass beyond what their body naturally requires them to have, and losing a bit of muscle is probably a small price to pay to shed some unwanted and unhealthy belly fat.
But the majority of visitors to this site will be people who have already put on a fair amount of muscle, be it through competitive sports, amateur martial arts, bodybuilding, or powerlifting.
For people in this position, losing weight can be a bit trickier than just ditching a load of calories from their diet. They need to make sure that they minimise their loss of muscle mass so that their performance doesn’t take a hit.
Even so, dropping a weight class, peaking for a bodybuilding show, or just leaning out your physique does not require any kind of expert knowledge. It simply requires adherence to some really simple principles.
By tweaking your training and meal plan just slightly, and in the right way, you can significantly reduce the amount of time you need to spend dieting, and you can really achieve the results you’re looking for.
We’ll now go through the basic principles of maximising fat loss while minimising muscle loss.
Basic Principles Of Minisming Muscle Loss During A Cut
Find your maintenance level!
Do not just assume that you know what your maintenance caloric requirements are!
People are absolutely terrible at estimating, well, anything really. Ask any two people how many calories are in a meal, and you’ll get two wildly different answer.
Even if you think you know better, you’re still going to fall foul of the same human stupidity that we all have to live with. Our eyes play tricks on us all the time. We tend to guess lower when we want something to be lower, and we over-estimate risk when we’re concerned about things.
Letting stupid cognitive biases enter into your diet plan can be really damaging.
If you’re really interested in minimising muscle loss, then you can’t shoot too far under your caloric maintenance levels.
If you do, you’ll just be starving the body and both muscle and fat will drop off you like crazy.
So how do you go about finding out your maintenance levels?
Well, this site has so far proven to be very useful: http://www.iifym.com/iifym-calculator/
It obviously isn’t an exact number. It’s never going to be highly accurate when doing it over the internet. To get a precise number you’d need to go to a lab and get stuck into some serious science shit. But this gives you a fair estimate to work from.
I recommend going for a moderate cut, shooting for 200-300 calories under your maintenance level. Any more than that and you’ll drop weight quickly, but you’ll really start to notice muscle depletion. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll feel like crap.
A big mistake that people make during their first cut is eating like a slug.
Even if you’re looking to lose fat quite aggressively, there’s absolutely no reason to eat nothing but lettuce and kale for 2 weeks.
Nor is there any reason to cut out any one single macronutrient, regardless of how appealing those faddish, branded diets might seem.
No matter who you are or what your goals are, any “cutting” meal plan needs to incorporate everything the body needs to function properly: protein, carbs, and fats all have a place.
So fight the urge to be a martyr, soldiering through a tub of watercress, and instead opt for proper, balanced, nutritious meals.
Eat little but often
Carrying that last point forward, we want to eat healthy, nutritious meals, but we also want to keep total calories for the day down. That means eating slightly smaller portions, and holding back on the dressings and sugary sauces.
Struggle with the smaller portions?
A good way to avoid over-eating is to eat even smaller portions, but much more often. So instead of eating and then waiting for 4 hours until your next, fairly meagre meal, you’d eat every 2 hours or so.
This will stop you ever really getting too hungry during the day, which will in turn prevent you from losing all of your willpower and shovelling down a tray of enchiladas and a bag of tortilla chips before you can say guacamole.
Consume BCAAs throughout the day
Leucine has been identified as the trigger for protein synthesis. When your cells detect the presence of leucine, they start utilising whatever protein is around for maintenance, repair, and growth.
If you want to try and keep yourself in an anabolic state without consuming too many calories, then consuming leucine at regular intervals throughout the day might be the best possible solution.
Personally, I get a litre bottle, put some BCAAs and some juice in there, fill it up with water, and sip throughout the day. Spend some money on high quality BCAAs and take between meals in whatever way works best for you.
Be sure that you don’t buy BCAAS containing huge amounts of B vitamins (as some of them do), because drinking 2 servings throughout the day could give you some very mild but still unwanted side effects.
Do Carb Backloading!
For some absurd reason, carb timing has become quite a controversial issue in the fitness world today.
According to some, carbs are quite simply the devil. They cause inflammation, fat gain, and they make you lethargic.
According to others, they should be eaten in abundance – fat is the real demon to stay away from.
Of course, as with all extreme opinions, the truth here lies in the middle.
Carbs are an absolutely imperative part of your diet, particularly if you’re an athlete. Carbs are a superb fuel source, and let’s face it, they’re delicious as well.
Some diets, like the Keto diet, tell you to completely remove carbs from your diet.
The Keto diet is actually amazingly effective for losing body fat, but it is not at all sustainable for the long-term, and it is certainly not ideal for a weightlifter, a boxer, or anyone with a normal life for that matter.
Avoiding carbs altogether is not great if you need to be energetic, with full, glycogen filled muscles. Nor is it a good option for someone who is currently dieting, and who therefore needs to be getting full off relatively few, high quality calories.
So, to put it simply, avoiding carbs is not a good idea if you want to still be as muscular and as energetic as possible while cutting.
However, one thing that can help us lose fat while retaining a great deal of muscle mass is to reorganise when we eat the vast majority of our carbohydrates.
Consuming almost all of your daily carbohydrate intake after your training session is known as carb backloading.
This method takes full advantage of your insulin response to carbohydrate consumption.
During the day, if you eat carbs, your insulin levels will rise and you’ll probably store a lot of the carbs that you eat as fat.
After training, we actually want a huge insulin spike to occur, as the carbs you eat will be most probably be stored in the muscle as glycogen. Eaten in conjunction with protein, and the insulin spike will help shuttle the amino acids to the damaged muscles where they are most needed.
Since we want an insulin spike, the ideal type of carbs to take in post-training are fast-acting carbs – how great is that?!
Carb backloading is an incredibly popular way of leaning out while still being able to perform in the gym, on the field, or simply to stay energised and happy.
The Meal Plan
Below you’ll find some sample meal plans that will help you lean out without having to resort to extreme measures or depressing, miserable diets.
They are all obviously open to customisation, but they all adhere to the basic principles outlined above. Components can be easily swapped in or out depending on your preferences.
Vegan? Swap meat/cheese for seitan or tofu. Lactose intolerant? Stick to the fish and use hemp or pea protein shakes. Simple. Whatever your preferences, just stick roughly to the template and you’ll be heading in the right direction.
With all of these, I recommend sipping BCAAs throughout the day.
Here’s a sample meal plan for the bigger guys who need more total calories, and how can also get away with more carbs before training:
Scrambled eggs with cheese, orange juice
Protein shake, brazil nuts
Tuna, asparagus, lettuce, watercress, tomatoes, olives
Burritos (filling of your choice) with side of white rice, black beans and guacamole
Protein shake with milk, bananas and peanut butter
Here’s a sample for those who don’t have enormous frames to support, and who can really get strict with the carb backloading:
Scrambled eggs with cheese, orange juice
Tuna, asparagus, watercress, lettuce, tomatoes and olives
Chilli (of your choice) with white rice and veggies
Protein shake with milk, bananas and peanut butter
For the herbivores:
Scrambled egg with two slices of wholemeal toast (tofu scramble if vegan)
Halloumi cheese, watercress, tomatoes, lettuce, olives (seitan or black beans if vegan)
Lentil and chickpea dhal with white rice and naan bread
Protein shake with milk (almond if vegan), bananas and peanut butter
So when you see tuna salad, don’t envisage a huge mound of salad covered in olive oil, piled high with tuna steaks if that will not allow you to fall within your daily calorie limit.
Try to equally divide your calories across your meals, and that includes the shakes.
Do I Need Supplements?
If you want to lose body fat, become leaner and more muscular, or simply get healthier, then there is absolutely no reason why you can’t get there without supplements.
Of course, if you want to look like a top professional bodybuilder, then you do need to take an awful lot of “supplements” to get there (and a hell of a lot of hard work on top).
But for the vast majority of people, supplements aren’t a necessary part of the fat loss equation.
This is particularly true for those of you who have what we like to call “lives”.
Sticking to a meal plan can be difficult sometimes when you have kids, a full-time job, and a whole heap of other obligations to cope with. You may struggle to deal with the stresses and strains of your everyday life while eating a caloric deficit. If you do, then using fat burning supplements to help make things easier might be a good decision.
Check out our fat burner supplement guide, and see if using fat burners might be the right thing for you!