Losing weight can be great. But not if that poundage comes from muscle loss.
Why? Because when you consume fewer calories than you burn every day -- a prerequisite for losing weight -- you tell your body to put your muscle health on the back burner. "Lower calorie diets decrease the intracellular signaling necessary for your body to synthesize new muscle proteins," explains Atlanta-based board-certified sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist Marie Spano. She also notes that, when dieting, muscle tissue may be less sensitive to the protein you eat. As a result, muscle is less likely to use any amino acids (from protein) floating through your bloodstream to strengthen your muscles.
Unfortunately, muscles cells naturally shed proteins every day, ready for your body to replace them with new healthy ones. So when the new ones don't show up, you lose muscle -- sometimes drastically.
Since muscle is the single greatest determiner of your metabolic rate -- how many calories you burn each and every day -- this muscle loss largely explains why so many people struggle to keep weight off once they lose it. Their metabolism drops. For instance, that's why research found that people who had lost weight on The Biggest Loser had to eat as many as 800 fewer calories a day to maintain their weight loss compared to people of similar weights. Their metabolisms had slowed that much.
On the flip side, though, building muscle while you lose weight does the exact opposite -- stoking your metabolism and making it easier to hit your fat-loss goals and maintain them. Plus, muscle increases your strength, reduces the risk of injury and can improve your overall health.
So, how can you build muscle while still losing fat -- when biology is working completely against you? By following these six expert-approved strategies.
1. Eat More Protein at Every Meal
In one 2016 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, of men following a program that consisted of both diet and exercise, men who followed a low-calorie diet that was high in protein for four weeks lost 10.56 pounds of fat while gaining 2.64 pounds of lean muscle. Those who followed a diet with the same amount of calories, but less protein, only lost 7.7 pounds of fat and gained less than a quarter pound of muscle.
To gain muscle while losing fat, a review published in Sports Medicine recommends consuming between 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of your bodyweight (1.09 to 1.41 grams of protein per pound of your bodyweight). "In addition, this protein intake should be spaced out evenly throughout the day," Spano says. As a general rule, aim to include at least 25 to 30 grams of protein in every meal -- and even slightly more if you are vegetarian or vegan.
2. Lose Weight Slowly
While it can be tempting to try to lose as much weight as quickly as possibly, drastic drops in weight tend to be the result of losing not just fat, but also muscle, says registered dietitian Jim White, spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia. For instance, in one Obesity study, when people followed an extremely low-calorie diet, 18 percent of their weight lost was from muscle. When people stuck to a more moderate approach, that percentage dropped to 7.7.
Your goal? Lose no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week, according to White. While every person will need to cut calories and/or increase their activity levels slightly differently to lose weight at this rate, reducing caloric intake by 500 calories per day is a good place to start.
3. Strength Train at Least Three Times Per Week
"A lot of people who try to lose weight ramp up their cardiovascular activity. This can be beneficial but not if it replaces weight training," White says. Case in point: In one 2015 Harvard School of Public Health study of 10,500 adults, those who performed strength training gained less abdominal fat (while building more muscle) over a period of 12 years compared to those who spent the same amount of time dedicated to cardio.
"We need to include at least two days of weight training a week to maintain existing muscle mass and three or more times a week to build muscle," White says. Focus on fitting in these workouts first and then you can start to think about adding the right cardio workouts to your routine.
4. Keep Your Cardio Workouts Short and Sweet
When it comes to getting the most fat loss and muscle gain out of your cardiovascular workouts, it's best to focus on high-intensity interval exercises such as repeated sprints on the treadmill, elliptical or bike. These workouts will burn fat while building muscle, whereas low- to moderate-intensity steady-state cardio burns both muscle and fat, White says.
5. Give Your Muscles a Break
"Most people think more is better. When it comes to building muscle this is not necessarily true," White says. "Muscles need rest to grow." How much time? Although the exact time will differ slightly from person to person and workout to workout (which is why you need to listen to your body!), one Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise meta-analysis determined that for optimal strength development, it's best to rest a given muscle group for one to two days before working it again through strength training. So, if you perform an intense lower-body strength routine on Monday, wait until at least Wednesday to target your lower body again. You can always perform upper-body lifts on Tuesday. Then, every week, schedule at least one to two days of full rest from structured exercise.
5. Be Patient
This might be the hardest tip of all, but it's important to keep in mind, especially as you progress through your "burn fat and build muscle" plan. That's because, while you may notice yourself making great gains to start with, they will naturally slow over time. "It becomes progressively more difficult to increase muscle while losing fat as you become more trained and get leaner," says certified strength and conditioning specialist Brad Schoenfeld, a board member for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
It's just how the human body works: The more excess fat we have to lose, the easier it is to lose 5 pounds of fat. The more muscle we need to gain, the easier it is to gain 5 pounds of muscle. As you get closer to your goal, expect to see more subtle changes in your fat and muscle levels, and don't get discouraged.
K. Aleisha Fetters, MS, CSCS, is a freelance Health + Wellness reporter at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, find her on Facebook or the Web, or email her at email@example.com.