Can you build muscle with a high protein but a low calorie diet?

Because of the nature of this question, I’m assuming you want to stay lean (or become leaner) whilst adding on muscle mass. Yes, you can build muscle when you focus on your high grade protein sources, whilst eating a lower calorie diet. Although, your results will depend on 3 key aspects:-

  1. The quality of your workouts
  2. The quality of your nutrition
  3. The timing of your nutrition

The question should in fact then be, how much muscle does one lose when eating a low calorie diet?

When on a low calorie diet, and not performing any weight training, a person can stand to lose well up to 70% body fat and 30% muscle mass during the calorie restricted duration. This figure is case for those who are overweight, but for leaner folks, the luck is not in their court unfortunately. You are in fact, more than likely to sacrifice up to 50–70% muscle mass whilst on a calorie restricted diet.

This phenomenon is due to our brains miraculous capacity for survival, by recognising how much body fat we are carrying, allowing it to regulate what tissues should be used as a fuel source to keep our bodies functioning optimally.

The greater the amount of fat you have to lose, the more your brain will not see it as a threat to your survival, whereas leaner individuals already have a lower body fat which immediately triggers the response of holding onto fat as a means of preservation.

One large mistake is that a lot of people assume a 1200 to 1000 calorie a day is what we need to consume for fat loss. It makes sense logically to think that more of a calorie deficit should equal more fat loss. What results from this is large amounts of muscle mass lost, as well as metabolic slowdown. This leads to something everyone tries to prevent – reduced metabolic rate in which you burn fewer and fewer calories per day. This increases your chances of increasing stores of body fat.

How you can prevent loss of muscle on a low calorie diet

Thankfully there are a few ways in which you can lose body fat, but still build and retail muscle mass. The trick is to find a happy medium between fat loss and muscle gain, with the following 4 tactics:-

4 ways to burn body fat and increase muscle mass

  1. Exercise patience by losing body fat slowly.
    If you really want to preserve your hard earned muscle mass, then you must allow some time for this to happen. Moderate amounts of weight loss don’t shock the body as much. If you keep up with your strength training and execute each session properly (as well as increase and maintain your protein intake) the weight-loss will come. For some people it takes a few weeks, but for others months. If you are already lean, it may take a lot longer than someone who is obese. Stay with the course, and keep going, it will happen.
  2. Lift weights – pivot between hypertrophy and strength protocols.
    Strength training and even sprinting is your best friend when dieting, due to the overloading of the muscles, which triggers protein synthesis pathway, preserving muscle. Over time, it also builds strength and stamina – which is very advantageous long term, leading towards becoming even more active.

    One thing to note is that those on low calorie diets, often suffer from lethargy, making them even less active, thereby decreasing the number of calories burnt during the course of any given day.

  3. Maintain higher levels of protein in each meal
    Because your body is on a constant cycle of muscle loss and gain, when you replenish amino acid building blocks by eating protein, you stimulate protein synthesis, protecting the muscles you have. There will always be a pivot between loss and gain, but when you add 1.6g/kg, your ability to maintain and gain muscle is a lot more advantageous. To keep it low calorie, opt for protein sources like eggs, white fish, turkey and chicken. You can even go for wild meat which is very high in protein, but low in calories. Sometimes a bit of experimentation is needed to discover your bodies happy medium. Add more protein if you are losing muscle mass.
  4. Use HIIT as your only cardio alternative – minimally
    Interval training is a great way to tap into those stubborn fat reserves, whilst still maintaining muscle mass. The only catch is that HIIT should not be performed for longer than 20–30 minutes. If you do try to push your luck, you will only burn yourself out and begin to use muscle as an energy source. Don’t tempt yourself with it. Instead, try walking outdoors or on a treadmill, as a low impact, slow fat burning alternative when dieting.

When it comes to building muscle and losing body fat at the same time, patience and perseverance is needed. Usually it’s a lot easier and faster to do one at a time, but like you, I prefer to kill two birds with one stone if I can. It can and it will happen when you pay close attention to the signals your body gives you. Change and pivot as needed, and always allow for Dexa scans if you can -for concrete figures regarding your progress.

I do hope this helps you, and good luck on your journey.

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