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Weight Loss While Maintaining Muscle

Have you struggled with weight loss? Have you been successful in losing weight, only to gain it back again? Do you have questions about maintaining muscle during weight loss?

In this blog, our Registered Dietitian Nutritionist gives tips to help you maintain your muscle and prevent injury as you decrease your calorie intake to promote weight loss.

Weight Loss Starts With Calories In vs. Calories Out

One of the “simplest” strategies in pursuing weight loss is to focus on the balance of “calories in vs. calories out.” Calories measure energy and we need to take them in regularly to live. The “calories in vs. calories out” model is based on the idea that to maintain a stable weight, the number of calories you eat needs to match the number of calories you use up.

Balance scale level with nutritious food and weights and a sneaker

Picture a balance scale with calories consumed (calories in) on one side and calories burned (calories out) on the other side. When calories consumed vs. calories burned are equal, you are maintaining your weight.

Balance of Behaviors that Can Lead to Weight Gain

Balance scale tipped down with nutritious food and up with weights and a sneaker

If you increase calories consumed without increasing calories burned, that extra energy coming in gets stored away for future use. This leads to weight gain. Examples of consuming more calories that lead to weight gain include:

  • Drinking high-calorie beverages
  • Adding sauces, sugar, and fat to foods
  • Eating processed, calorie-dense foods

Similarly, if you decrease calories burned without changing calories consumed, you will gain weight. Burning fewer calories by being less active means more energy left over for storage, leading to weight gain. Examples of burning fewer calories that lead to weight gain include:

  • Increasing screen time
  • Spending more time being inactive (e.g. sitting at a desk or on a couch)
  • Crash dieting

Balance of Behaviors that Can Help to Lose Weight

Balance scale tipped up with nutritious food and down with weights and a sneaker

Likewise, if you decrease calories consumed without changing calories burned, you will lose weight. Examples of decreasing calories consumed to lose weight include:

  • Eating fewer concentrated sweets
  • Eating smaller portions
  • Snacking less often

The same can be said about altering calories burned. If you increase calories burned without changing calories consumed, you will lose weight. Examples of burning more calories to lose weight include:

  • Exercising more
  • Incorporating activity into everyday (e.g. take the stairs instead of elevator)
  • Increasing exercise intensity

It is important to note that the calories consumed vs. calories burned balance is not simple for many people. How well your body absorbs, stores, and uses energy from calories can vary greatly from person to person. If you’re struggling to understand why you’re not losing weight despite changing your balance of calories consumed vs. calories burned, please contact Sauk Prairie Healthcare's Nutrition Counseling.

The Importance of Adjusting Calories Consumed to Promote Weight Loss

In our modern world, calories consumed has become more important than calories burned if we are pursuing weight loss. For many, calories are too accessible and too concentrated in the foods we eat to allow weight loss to occur if we only focus on increasing exercise. You may have heard phrases like “you can’t outrun your diet.” This phrase is commonly used among healthcare providers because it takes a significant amount of daily exercise to burn off unwanted weight (more exercise than most of us are willing or able to put in). It is hard to find the time to get that extra amount of physical activity if it isn’t already a part of your daily routine.

When you decrease your calories consumed by eating less, consuming fewer high-calorie foods, avoiding snacking, or adjusting your intake in other ways, you are creating the opportunity to either slow weight gain or lose weight. For some, this can be the only change that is needed to lose weight and reach a weight loss goal. For others, additional changes need to be considered. Some people see a noticeable impact when they decrease their intake by 500 to 1,000 calories a day. But for others, the impact is less obvious and immediate. But for almost everyone, losing weight means decreasing daily calories consumed.

Weight Loss While Maintaining Muscle: Going Beyond the Simple Balance of Calories Consumed vs. Calories Burned

Calories consumed vs. calories burned is important to losing weight, but remember the number on the scale is not the only thing to consider. By eating a balanced diet and increasing physical activity, you can improve your mental health, increase energy, decrease pain and inflammation, and sleep better. The list of benefits goes on and on. We encourage a balanced eating approach when you decrease your overall caloric intake. This means eating a variety of different kinds of food, including proteins, vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and heart healthy fats. The variety of nutrients you receive by eating different kinds of foods helps to support all of the body’s functions. Of particular importance to your overall health and vitality, is muscle maintenance. Muscle maintenance can be tricky during periods of weight loss.

Why is muscle maintenance tricky during weight loss?

Weight loss, as you know, doesn’t necessarily mean you are just losing fat. Other types of weight can be lost as well, including muscle weight. Losing muscle is of particular concern when you lose weight fast as a result of crash dieting. Muscle isn't necessarily the weight you are trying to lose, and losing muscle can make it harder to maintain your weight loss long term.

A quick example of how muscle mass impacts caloric balance is shown by age-related muscle loss. We lose muscle mass naturally as we age, which means we also burn fewer calories per day as we age. If you maintain the same calorie intake from ages 18 to 98, you are likely to gain weight because you need more calories at age 18 than you do at age 98.

Illnesses, stressors, sleep patterns, and even changes in your environment can impact the way your body stores and burns calories. This makes it even more important to focus on your health beyond just the number on the scale as you try to pursue weight loss. One important aspect that helps to support long-term health and mobility is to lose weight while maintaining muscle.

Additionally, we have all heard the phrase “muscle weighs more than fat.” Exercising, in particular resistance training, is incredibly important to maintaining strength, metabolism, and overall health. But, increased exercise and muscle building can mask the loss of body fat when you step on the scale. You lost fat, but you gained muscle. That can be incredibly frustrating early on in your weight loss journey. As you change the body to be made up of more muscle, you can expect that you will burn more calories in the long-term. Try to be patient and remember that building better health takes time.

Tips for Maintaining Muscle During Weight Loss

An important goal throughout weight loss is to maintain and adequately feed your muscle. Maintaining your muscle, in particular, will help to manage your metabolism and improve your strength. As you try to lose weight, keep the following tips in mind to help maintain your muscle and prevent injury as you decrease your calories consumed:

Research indicates people who lose weight at a rate of one to two pounds a week are more likely to maintain that weight loss longer term. A key reason for this is that weight loss at this rate is generally the result of habits that are developed and maintained over time. It involves incorporating behaviors that promote overall health and wellness. The change in the number on the scale becomes secondary to overall health.

The Benefits of Exercise Beyond Weight Loss

Exercise helps to improve cardiovascular function, decrease stress, increase flexibility, improve balance, and grow muscle mass. Additionally, research tells us exercise is incredibly important for weight management by helping to maintain our muscle and increase the energy we use daily (also called “metabolism”).

Weight Loss Support at Sauk Prairie Healthcare

If you have questions about losing weight, please contact our Nutrition Counseling team. Our Registered Dietitian Nutritionists can help.