The idea of ‘losing weight’ seems to be the holy grail of fitness.

It’s something everyone wants to do: these days, every time we go to the magazine aisle in the supermarket, we’re ambushed by magazine covers filled with women with slender,
toned physiques and men with chiseled, lean muscles.

These cover models must be brilliant at ‘losing weight’, we think. To get that lean, that slim, surely they have to be professionals at shedding kilograms on a weekly basis, at making the number on the
scale drop and drop, day after day.

Realistically, however, these supposedly ‘ideal’ bodies are not produced through simply losing weight. They’re produced by losing fat and maintaining muscle.

Muscle is what gives our bodies the shapely look we desire, and fat covers it up – often against our wishes. It sounds fundamental, but there’s still a common misconception that having muscle is a ‘guy thing’ and as soon as you put on a bit of muscle you’ll look like an alien bodybuilder, but it’s not true at all.

Fundamentally, the idea of losing fat is purely mathematical.

We need energy to carry out daily tasks, whether that consists of the conscious things we do, like going for a run, walking around the house, or simply moving our fingers to type on a computer keyboard, to miniscule functions of the body like producing white blood cells or repairing damaged tissue.

Energy, of course, does not simply come out of nowhere, and the majority of the energy we use comes from food. All food contains a certain amount of calories, a unit of energy, some foods more than others: of course, a pizza contains more calories than a chicken caesar salad. But when your body does not have enough energy, or calories, from food to carry out its daily tasks, it doesn’t simply shut down, but it obtains the energy it needs from energy stores within the body: these energy stores are fat tissue and muscle tissue.

Let’s imagine a scenario in which a person burns 2000 calories a day – a relatively realistic – perhaps a little low – estimate for a healthy woman. If this person consumed 1700 calories in the day, they’d be in a calorie deficit of 300 calories: the body would dig into and break down the fat and muscle tissue in order to obtain this 300 calories, and therefore a tiny amount of fat and muscle tissue would be lost. If they continued to eat 1700 calories a day over a series of weeks, each daily tiny amount of weight lost would eventually lead to a noticeable amount of weight being lost.

Conversely, if this person consumed 2300 calories in a day, they’d be in a calorie surplus of 300 calories: the body can’t simply destroy this energy, so if it’s not being burnt throughout the day, it will be stored as fat or muscle tissue, so over a long period of time weight would be gained.

However, the real question to ask when we are trying to lose weight is how can we maximise fat loss, and minimise loss of muscle?

Of course to lose fat at all, we have to be in a calorie deficit, and there are a couple of ways to make this happen.

One method to ensure this is to count calories for a short period of time, but many people find it boring and difficult and sometimes it can become an obsession. Therefore the most effective, effortless way to stay in a
calorie deficit is to make simple swaps with food.

Craving pizza? Instead of ordering from Domino’s, buy a frozen pizza from the supermarket, and perhaps leave a few slices for another day, or, even better, make your own pizza using a base, tomato
sauce, and mozzarella. Takeaway really is often a very high calorie option because it’s cooked in a lot of oil.

Craving chocolate? Eat half a bar instead of a whole one.

Wine? Limit yourself to a glass rather than drinking the bottle in one night.

Another key piece of advice is to absolutely stop taking an ‘all-or-nothing’ attitude.

I mean two things by this. Firstly, I’m referring to the half-a-bar of chocolate idea. Or 3 Jaffa Cakes instead of 10. Or 1 slice of the leftover pizza instead of all of them. Just because you touched a Jaffa Cake, doesn’t mean that your nutrition is suddenly ruined: simply eat in moderation instead of without control. Secondly, if you have a bad day, that doesn’t mean you need to give up! Everyone has days in which they might eat more than they wanted to, and again this doesn’t mean that your nutrition is ruined. Simply pick yourself up, realise it’s okay, and continue with the healthy diet as you were before. It’s not all over because of one bad day.

Another misconception is that by saying a ‘healthy diet’, I don’t mean everything you eat has to be a bland salad with a chicken breast slapped in the middle of it. I hate salad. So spice it up a bit! It’s surprising how easy it is to create actual good food which isn’t huge on calories: I love pizza, and anyone can realistically make a decent sized pizza which is under 600 calories. But ordering from Domino’s will often give you
something where 1000 calories is the absolute least you’ll be eating. It’s also possible to eat out on a diet, contrary to popular belief. If I’m trying to shed weight and I’m going to a burger place, instead of ordering a burger, fries, a milkshake, and a dessert, I’ll simply order just the burger and a glass of water, and it’ll cut the amount of calories in the meal in half. Staying flexible is key to staying sane!

Once you’re in a calorie deficit, the next goal is to make sure you’re losing fat and not muscle.

The key to this is making sure you’re consuming enough protein. Your body needs proteins – often in the form of enzymes, proteins which speed up chemical reactions – for virtually every reaction taking place inside it. If it’s not getting enough protein from food, it’ll happily dig into muscle tissue in order to obtain it. Protein has a bad reputation for being the ‘bodybuilder molecule’, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth: it’s a fundamental part of everything the body does. Protein-rich foods include meats, particularly white meats, like chicken or turkey, or fish, among others.

Protein can also be easily supplemented: protein shakes are easy to make and quick to drink and can often provide over 30g of protein in one drink. Again, they have an undeserved reputation for being something that only bodybuilders drink, but in truth they really can be useful for normal, everyday nutrition. In terms of numbers, a good figure for maintenance of muscle is around 1g of protein per kilogram of body weight – of course if a person is trying to gain muscle, this number should rise quite a lot, potentially to around 1.8g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.

And that’s it! The article might seem long, but behind the science and biology that I’ve tried to convey there’s a key message. In order to lose fat while maintain muscle:

● Firstly, we must be in a calorie deficit, ideally of around 300-500 calories per day. I’ve included a link to a calorie counter here.

Calorie Counter

It’s also extremely important to realise that a person should not be regularly consuming any less than 1200 calories in a day – it’s dangerous and can negatively affect the body’s natural mechanisms.

● Secondly, we need to be consuming enough protein so that our muscle is preserved, and fat is burned.

Thank you for reading!

William Law June 2020

losing fat and building muscle