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5 ways to support weight loss and maintain muscle mass

May 15, 2024
11 minute read

Many people initially start a new workout routine with the goal of losing weight. While this can be an understandable aspiration, it may come at the expense of losing muscle mass in the process if it’s not approached with effective, science-based, balanced strategies…

Why is this a problem? For some people, it might seem like no big deal to lose some muscle. But muscle is actually metabolically active tissue, meaning the more of it you have, the more energy or calories you burn during a day - even when you’re completely vegging out on the couch watching Netflix. When you lose “weight” (instead of losing fat), if you’re also losing muscle mass then you risk impacting your metabolism. This means you have to continue decreasing your energy intake and exercising more and more over time to maintain the same results. Which, obviously, no one wants to do!

So instead of aiming to lose weight, you want to work on losing fat while sustaining (or even growing!) your lean muscle mass. This will allow you to maintain your progress, without having to get too extreme and restrictive in the process. It also means you can stay strong, fit and healthy as you achieve your body composition goals.

Here are five effective, simple tips to help you lose fat while maintaining your muscle mass at the same time.

Prioritise resistance training.

Resistance, or strength, training is extremely important if you’re looking to lose fat and maintain your muscle mass. Essentially any exercise involving some kind of resistance (you guessed it!) - bodyweight, barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, the works - helps to increase your strength and metabolic rate both during and after your workout. It does so by creating little micro tears in your muscles as you push them to fatigue or exhaustion, which your body then has to repair using energy to do so. This process is also what helps to strengthen your muscles and maintain your lean muscle mass. As you maintain or increase your amount of muscle mass, you also effectively boost your basal metabolic rate which, as mentioned already, lets you burn more energy even when you’re at rest. Having a faster metabolic rate means you can eat more without gaining fat (the ultimate goal!), or you may find it easier to shed any excess fat you’re holding onto, so it’s definitely worth considering when you’re programming your workouts for the week ahead!

Strength training also requires significant energy during each session - in fact, you can use more energy during a resistance session compared to many other types of steady-state, moderate exercise such as jogging. This means you’re burning more energy both throughout your workout, and long afterwards as your body continues to repair the muscle tissue you’ve broken down, helping you shed fat without losing muscle mass.

Regular resistance training also acts to prevent muscle loss, even when you’re consuming less energy than you’re burning (also known as a calorie or energy deficit). When you’re in a deficit, sometimes your body resorts to breaking down muscle tissue to provide it with the energy it’s used to getting, yet is no longer receiving. However, if you’re regularly participating in strength training, your body is more likely to preserve and protect your precious muscle tissue. This means, even when you’re working to lose fat, you won’t be compromising your lean muscle mass as you do so. Instead you can expect to see your body composition improve, as you gradually increase your lean muscle mass and decrease the amount of body fat you’re carrying. So even if you don’t see the number on the scales shift dramatically, don’t be disheartened - muscle weighs more than fat, so rest assured your body composition will improve with consistent strength training.

Another benefit of resistance training is its ability to increase your insulin sensitivity. This means your body becomes more responsive to insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating your blood sugar levels. As a result, your body is able to use glucose (or sugar) from your food much more efficiently for energy, instead of storing it as fat in your body’s cells. Naturally, this can make fat loss much simpler and quicker!

While regular strength training is crucial for supporting fat loss and maintaining lean muscle, it’s also important to combine it with dietary strategies and consistent rest and recovery between sessions to ensure optimal results. Don’t push your body with daily intense resistance training - it’s during the repair process that your body consolidates your progress and becomes stronger. It’s important to allow adequate rest between your workouts to give your muscles the opportunity to undergo this recovery and strengthening process.

Eat plenty of protein.

One of the most effective dietary strategies you can use to help you lose fat is to prioritise protein in your diet. Protein effectively helps you lose excess fat and maintain your muscle mass.

Protein provides the building blocks for your body’s lean muscle. When you eat a protein-rich food, your body breaks this down into amino acids, which are used in the repair and strengthening process to strengthen the muscle fibres you’re breaking down during your resistance training and other exercise. If you’re eating in a calorie deficit, as we discussed, your body may begin breaking down your muscle fibres as a way of making up for the amount of energy it’s used to receiving. Naturally, this is not something you want to happen - it risks compromising your strength, your metabolic rate, and your general health too. So when you’re eating in a deficit, it’s more important than ever to ensure you’re getting enough protein to prevent this. If you’re consuming plenty of protein, your body will work to preserve your lean muscle mass.

Protein also plays an important role in muscle synthesis - which refers to the process of building new muscle tissue or repairing those micro tears you create during your workouts. If you’re eating plenty of protein following a workout, this can support improved muscle synthesis, and help you build more lean muscle mass gradually over time. Once again, this is really beneficial for your metabolic rate and can lead to greater fat loss.

Another way in which protein supports your weight loss goals is that it helps you feel fuller for longer, compared to any other macronutrient. Protein has been shown to be more satiating (or filling) than both carbs and fats, so when you eat a protein-rich meal you can expect to feel fuller for longer, reducing feelings of hunger and cravings and decreasing your likelihood of overeating. This is really beneficial when you’re trying to maintain an energy deficit or reduce your consumption of energy-dense foods to support your fat loss goals. Even better, protein actually requires more energy from your body to break down, digest and absorb than carbs and fats, meaning if protein accounts for a greater proportion of your diet, you’re likely to burn more energy during digestion. This helps you use more overall energy each day, again facilitating fat loss.

Ideally, you want to ensure you’re including a source of lean protein with each main meal and snack throughout your day. Good sources of protein include poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, tofu, tempeh and lean meats. The amount of protein you need will depend on your age, body composition, and how much activity you’re doing daily, but on average most adults need between 0.75-1.1 grams per kilogram of bodyweight each day. 

Avoid trying to cram all your protein needs into one or two meals, as your body has a maximum level at which it can absorb and use protein effectively at once. By spreading your intake throughout the entire day, you give yourself the best chance at making the most of the protein you’re fuelling your body with.

Make sure you’re eating enough.

While this may seem counterintuitive if you’re wanting to lose weight, eating enough to nourish and fuel your body is actually essential to support any fat loss goal. Here’s why.

If you’re eating in an extreme energy deficit, meaning you’re consuming far less energy than you’re burning each day, your body can turn to breaking down muscle tissue to provide the energy it’s not receiving from food. As we’ve talked about a few times already, this compromises your metabolic rate and actually makes it more difficult to lose body fat. 

At the same time, if you’re not giving your body enough energy, it begins to slow down your metabolic rate further, to conserve energy for the processes it considers most crucial - things like maintaining your heart rate, and breathing. In prioritising these processes, it essentially “switches off” or pauses other processes - such as the production of reproductive hormones, stress hormones and appetite-regulating hormones. If your hormone levels are disrupted, you may experience greater hunger levels and increased fat storage as your body attempts to counteract the starvation you’re essentially inflicting on it. Basically, your body believes it’s in starvation mode, so it slows everything down and tries to store fat in the event of an emergency - all in an attempt to keep you alive.

If you’re not eating enough, you’ll also notice your energy levels during your workouts (and beyond) plummet. You’ll experience weakness, fatigue, exhaustion and poor performance, making exercise more challenging to stick to consistently, and less worthwhile when you are able to force yourself to the gym. Eating enough supports better performance and enhanced results from your workouts and daily activities. 

Your body is smart, and it’s programmed to maintain balance, so don’t fight your biology by depriving it of the nutrients and energy it needs to function optimally. Rather than helping you shed fat quickly, this actually has the opposite effect and makes weight loss slower and more difficult.

While an energy deficit does help to shed excess fat, it’s important you achieve this in a slow, healthy and sustainable way. This looks like making sure you’re eating enough to support your energy levels and body functions, prioritising protein, and honouring your body’s fullness and hunger levels. The most sustainable weight loss is done slowly and steadily.

Don’t overdo the cardio.

Similar to the last strategy, cutting back on cardio may sound like the opposite of what you should be doing if you’re trying to lose fat. However, while cardiovascular training can support fat loss when done in moderation, too much cardio can actually hinder your fat loss efforts.

Excessive cardio can contribute to the breaking down of your lean muscle mass for energy - especially if your body’s energy and glucose stores are already depleted - which once again lowers your metabolic rate. Cardio also stimulates your appetite, increasing your chances of overeating or reaching for energy-dense foods high in sugars or fats. If you’re unable to regulate your hunger levels or dietary choices, you may end up consuming more energy than you’re actually burning in your cardio workouts.

Too much cardio can also lead to heightened production of your stress hormone, cortisol, as cardio effectively acts as a big stress on your body. If your cortisol levels are elevated over the long-term, this tells your body to increase its fat storage, especially around your middle. In a similar way to ensuring you’re eating enough, if you’re overdoing the cardio your body no longer trusts you’ll give it the energy and care it needs. So it looks to store fat in case of an emergency (the emergency being the scenario where it’s not being fed enough to keep up with the energy demands you’re placing on it with your excessive cardio sessions!).

Excessive cardio can also result in metabolic changes, where your body begins to adapt to the high cardio load it’s used to enduring, and starts to slow down your metabolic rate to conserve energy as a result. Basically, it becomes more efficient at doing the same cardio it’s been put through over and over. You’ll notice your results plateau - especially if you’re only focusing on cardio in your workouts, without any strength training added into the mix. This naturally makes your fat loss efforts much more difficult to achieve.

Instead of going all out on the cardio and compromising your fat loss goals, aim to incorporate a balanced exercise routine including plenty of resistance training, some cardio, and adequate recovery between sessions.

Cook more at home.

This is a slightly less “fun” strategy to support fat loss, yet a highly effective one. When you eat out all the time, you lose all concept and control over what you’re actually eating. Whereas, when you cook your own meals at home more often, you can determine the ingredients you’re consuming, ensure you’re providing your body with the nutrients it needs to function at its best, and even control the portion sizes and ingredient quantities you’re putting into your body.

When you cook at home, you can prioritise your consumption of whole foods, and reduce your intake of processed and refined foods commonly added to fast food or restaurant and cafe meals - things like refined breads, sugary beverages, fried foods. When you eat out, you’re at the mercy of the restaurant you’re buying from when it comes to the quality and quantity of ingredients they’re adding to your food - meaning things like oils, flavourings, dressings etc can quickly add up if you’re buying your meals regularly. This can compromise your energy deficit and fat loss goals. Plus, eating more whole foods helps you feel more full and satisfied from your meals, reducing your chances of overeating and also providing your body with the nutrition it needs for optimal workout performance and function.

Cooking nourishing, nutrient-dense meals for yourself means you can make food that is fresh, lower in energy and less healthy ingredients, and keeps you feeling satisfied and energised for longer. You have greater control over the portion sizes you’re consuming, and can opt for healthier cooking methods like grilling, steaming or baking - rather than methods like frying often used in restaurants.

When you cook your own meals, you tend to place more importance and value on the healthfulness of what you’re eating, and make more effort to fuel your body with nourishing whole foods. This not only helps you lose fat in the short term, but it also equips you with the habits required to maintain your weight loss long-term, as you’ll be more capable of preparing delicious, healthy meals that support your body’s health and composition long into the future. By no means does this mean you can’t eat out at all - it’s one of life’s great joys! Just try to do so in moderation, and make an effort to cook more where possible when it’s not affecting your social life or enjoyment to do so. For example, instead of scrolling Uber Eats when you’re feeling lazy and can’t be bothered to cook, try prepping some ingredients or meals at the start of the week to reach for in these moments, and save the eating out for a meal with your friends or loved ones which you can really savour and enjoy.

This isn’t an extensive list of ways to support your fat loss goals - things like prioritising enough quality sleep, reducing your alcohol intake, and eating more slowly and mindfully can also help you achieve your body goals. But the key takeaway is to avoid rushing to your “ideal weight”, as this can often have the opposite effect and hinder your hard work and fat loss efforts. Make sure you’re eating enough, caring for your body, and allowing it the rest and recovery it needs to function optimally. At the end of the day, if you’re trying to shed fat too quickly, you’re actually fighting against your own body - and it will fight back! Instead, slow and sustainable fat loss implementing these simple and effective strategies is the most powerful way to shed excess fat, and keep it off over time.

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About The Author: April Allyson Barcebal
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