In the last five months I’ve had two surgeries – a preventative double mastectomy and an implant exchange surgery. You can compare my coming back to a fitter body to your own fat-loss or muscle-building journey. How do you – and I – go about such a thing?
For an extended time I couldn’t do any heavy strength training and my activity naturally decreased. Plus, there was some carrot cake that happened. Therefore, after a self-assessment (Part 1), I learned I’d gained 1-2% body fat and lost several inches of muscle (I’m not entirely sure how much because I hadn’t measured in awhile). I started to train (Part 2) and watch my diet, which is Part 3 of this series.
#1 Decision Point: Lose Fat or Build Muscle?
After three weeks of faithful food tracking and diet observation, I figured out that my average intake was around 2,000 calories per day. This told me that I was indeed eating at maintenance if I was training (and I was).
I cannot even begin to emphasize enough the importance of food tracking when you’re trying to change your body composition (i.e., more muscle/less fat). The absolute first thing you need to know is how much do I eat?
Once you figure this out through careful tracking, the most important question is: What’s more important to me right now – losing fat or building muscle?
If you’re facing this question, it may come down to how you feel about your body – are you happy how you look in clothes? Can you wear the clothes you like? Do you feel sexy for your partner?
If you can handle some fat on your body (natural, I assure you), then focus on eating for muscle. If you are distracted, unhappy, or embarrassed by your body fat, eat for fat loss first. (How you train will also be impacted by this decision.)
In my case, while I’m not currently at the body fat I prefer (which would be closer to 22%), it’s not making me terribly unhappy. I can wear the clothes I want, and ridding myself of water (more on that below) has helped. So the happy medium for me is to eat at my maintenance intake for now while I ramp up with training. When I’m back to heavier lifting, I’ll lose fat naturally due to more muscle mass and activity and can decide what to do about extra fat.
If you find that your average calorie intake is too high or too low according to your tracking estimate, it’s time to slowly adjust your calories. Don’t go slashing 500 calories per day right out of the gate – that’s doomed to fail (and can cause muscle loss, a slowed metabolism, and hormonal imbalances). Just decrease or increase by 100 calories a day and monitor your body fat, making adjustments if you don’t see any changes.
#2 Bust Up The Bloat
Reducing water retention and bloating helps your psyche and puts your body image in a more realistic perspective. And when you have fat to lose, losing water via cleaning up your diet is a good thing.
During my period of observation, I started making changes to reduce water retention to better see where I stood. My habits had become a bit lax, and thus I was bloated all the damn time. I felt and looked fatter than I actually was. So I did the following and saw quick results:
- Increased veggies for more fiber and nutrients
- Decreased meals out and refined carbs for less sodium, additives, sugar, and fat
This may not sound like much, but in combination with more activity and lifting weights, I was able to cut water subtantially. Then I realized that I wasn’t that unhappy with an extra 1-2% body fat and should eat for quality training sessions right now.
#3 Know Thy Diet Content
Quantity of food is king, but do you get enough of each macro- and micronutrient? When you start tracking your food, take advantage of the nutrient data, too.
You’ll want to get enough protein, as it fuels muscle growth and helps you stay full longer. (And you know that muscle burns more calories than fat, right? I attribute at least some of my fat gain to muscle loss.) You’ll also want to monitor carbs and fat.
Around the time I was tracking my food, I also learned that my cholesterol increased (genetically high). So that comes into play with my diet changes (less saturated fat and more fiber are good goals for anyone, actually). And as a woman, you’ll also want to get enough calcium, iron, and potassium!
Remember that eating clean in the right amounts combined with exercise will raise your metabolism, and a healthy metabolism is the money that will eventually let you eat at maintenance all the time.
Once you’ve taken these steps, it’s time to grind out daily consistency with clean eating and training. If you’re not losing weight, stop and assess: Are you tracking accurately? Are you sticking to your targets? Are you active enough?
If not, grind, grind… (smile).
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.
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