Eat More But Lose Fat and Gain Muscle
A diet that allows you to build muscle while losing appreciable amounts of fat, and it actually involves eating a surplus of calories. Take a look.
Bodybuilding’s holy grail, its equivalent to the quest for nuclear fusion, has always been the diet that allows you to put on muscle while cutting fat.
Oh, some of the keto people will tell you they have that covered with their diet, but aside from being low-carb, keto is also frequently a low-protein diet because too much protein, in the absence of adequate levels of carbs, pulls you out of ketosis. But never mind that. The more important point is that eating too little protein courtesy of a keto diet isn’t going to lead to additional muscle – you know, trying to build a house without enough bricks and all that.
Keto kind of sucks for other reasons. It leads to lower IGF-1 levels, less mTOR activation, and more cortisol production, none of which are good for transitioning from wearing a large sweater to an extra-large sweater. Besides, hypertrophy training is a lot more effective when muscles can use glucose for fuel; by definition, glucose is largely absent from a true keto diet. Keto is also unhealthy in the long run because it eliminates so many sources of polyphenols and carotenoids from the diet.
So, forget keto, I say.
Allow me to introduce a new strategy, my attempt at bodybuilding nuclear fusion. Maybe I’ll go down in history as just another fool, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Here it is:
I think I’ve got a diet that allows you to build appreciable amounts of muscle while losing appreciable amounts of fat, and it actually involves eating a surplus of calories. Good names for it might include the reverse logic diet, the Bizarro diet, the Reverse Logic Diet, or maybe even the It’s Witchcraft, I Tell You Diet. I chose the name Contrary Diet, though, because I think it best explains its nature.
A Little Taste
I’ll give you a few clues as to how it works before I get into the circuitry. The Contrary Diet requires you to act a little like you’re on a conventional diet, but only so much as fat and carbohydrate are involved.
- Restricting daily fat intake to roughly 45 to 60 grams, mostly of the omega-3 variety.
- Restricting daily carbohydrate intake to around 100 grams, most of them complex.
Sounds like a traditional low-calorie diet, right? But there are a couple of twists. For one, you really won’t have to pay much attention to those fat and carb guidelines above because you’ll roughly hit them anyhow (more on that later). Secondly, this diet requires you to eat several times the RDA of protein, so much so that you’ll likely end up eating a mild caloric surplus every day, only you’ll lose fat and gain muscle.
Oh, and you’ll never be hungry.
Of course, the Contrary Diet won’t get you shredded quickly like Chris Shugart’s Velocity Diet. If you’ve got a significant amount of fat to lose or are in a hurry, go that route. Fat loss will be much slower and less dramatic with the Contrary Diet. However, it’s quite likely the Contrary Diet will allow you to gain some muscle mass while slowly losing some body fat.
I’ve tried it. It works. Granted, a n-of-1 study (a “trial” with only one participant) might not be sufficiently convincing, but I think I’ve got the receipts.
It’s Hard to Turn Protein into Body Fat
Biochemically, turning dietary fat into body fat is easy, and turning dietary carbohydrate into body fat isn’t that much more difficult.
Turning protein into body fat, however, is an entirely different type of challenge. It takes several biochemical and hormonal steps, and it’s monitored closely by the liver, which metes out amino acids according to the body’s metabolic needs (tissue breakdown, tissue synthesis, catabolism, anabolism, etc.).
As such, you can believe, with a high degree of certainty, that protein, despite what “common sense” might suggest, has a protective effect against fat gain in times of caloric surplus, particularly when combined with weight lifting. Not only that, but eating large amounts of protein itself will not result in you getting porky.
There are at least a couple of solid studies that hint at this theory. In 2012, George Bray and his colleagues randomized subjects to partake in one of three diets: low protein (5%), normal protein (15%), or high protein (25%). Randomized subjects were then “force-fed” 140% of their maintenance calories – about an extra 1,000 calories for 8 weeks straight.
As far as grams of protein per group, that worked out to be around 47 grams for the low protein group; about 140 grams for the normal protein group; and around 230 grams for the high group.
Carbohydrate intake was kept at about 41-42% between the groups, while dietary fat ranged from 33% in the high protein group to 44% and 52% in the normal and low protein groups, respectively.
After doing their dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) magic, the scientists found that while all subjects gained a little fat (the high protein group gained a little less than the other two groups), the high protein group gained about 3 kilograms (approximately 6.6 pounds) of lean mass.
I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, all three groups gained the same amount of fat. Where’s this alleged protective effect of protein?”
At ease. Remember that the participants in the study weren’t resistance trained. Forget that; they didn’t so much as do water Zumba during the study. Regardless, that extra 6.6 pounds of lean mass fell on them like manna from heaven. At the very least, that throws a high-protein pie in the face of all those dietitians who still insist that a calorie is a calorie.
But what would happen if someone took it one step further? What would happen if someone conducted a similar study, but this time with resistance-trained athletes and even higher protein intake?
5.5 Times the Amount of Protein, But This Time Using Lifters
Dr. Joey Antonio, a contributor to T Nation, set out to determine the effects of a very high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained men and women.
The study design was simple: Thirty healthy weightlifting men and women were randomly assigned to a control (CON) group or a high protein (HP) group. The CON group was instructed to maintain their same training and dietary habits over an 8-week period. The HP group was also instructed to maintain their same training and dietary habits (i.e., maintain the same carb and fat intake), albeit with the added instruction to take in 4.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (about 5.5 times the RDA).
To put that in numbers you can mentally digest, that means a 200-pound lifter would have been taking in just shy of 400 grams of protein per day. Further, the HP group, on average, was ingesting around 800 calories per day more than the CON group. These additional calories were all from protein: an average of 307 +/-69 grams of it, compared to an average protein intake of 138 +/- 42 grams in the CON group.
Here’s the clincher: After 8 weeks, despite eating about 800 extra calories per day – all of it from protein – the HP group experienced no changes in body weight, fat mass, or fat-free mass.
You probably have mixed feelings about those results. On one hand, you’re probably elated that all those extra calories from protein didn’t result in any additional tubbiness. However, you’re probably disappointed that it didn’t lead to any additional muscle mass.
Not Hitting It in the Gym Hard Enough?
In the first study described above (Bray, et al.), the untrained subjects gained 6.6 pounds of lean mass just by increasing protein intake to about 230 grams per day. No exercise was involved, so this suggests that they weren’t getting enough protein to begin with, which casts dark aspersions on the U.S. recommended daily amount of protein (0.8 grams per kilogram, which would be about 63 grams for a 175-pound person).
That brings us to Antonio’s study: Why did the HP group, despite ingesting about 5.5 times the RDA for protein, fail to gain any lean mass, let alone fat mass? Antonio offered the following guess:
“The lack of body composition changes in our group may be attributed to the fact that it’s very difficult for trained subjects to gain lean body mass and body weight in general without significant changes in their training program.”
So, it appears that the HP group simply wasn’t hitting it hard enough. Nowhere in the text does Antonio offer whether the resistance-trained athletes were just average gym goers in maintenance mode or mass-crazy gym rats, but you have to figure it’s the former, given what Antonio speculated later in the text:
“It would be interesting to ascertain if a high protein diet concurrent with a heavy-resistance bodybuilding training regimen would affect body composition (i.e., increase lean body mass and lower fat mass).”
Putting the Study Results into Action
So, I took Antonio’s musings and put them into action. I increased my protein intake several fold – to between 3.4 and 4.4 grams of protein per kilogram per day (I allowed myself some leeway because it’s damn hard to take in so much protein). That worked out to be roughly between 320 and 418 grams of protein a day.
Clearly, this couldn’t be done – at least without a great degree of difficulty – by using whole-food sources exclusively. That would have entailed upsetting the fat and carb applecart because most whole food sources don’t travel alone, macronutrient-wise. Besides, whole food is filling. No, taking in this much protein entails the liberal use of a protein powder. I used Metabolic Drive®.
My breakfasts consisted of a ginormous protein shake, as did my lunches. Dinners were “normal,” or as normal as it can be for a modern-day health-conscious lifter, usually consisting of fibrous vegetables and fatty fish with a smattering of low GI carbs (e.g., quinoa, black beans).
I also had to eat hefty protein shakes in between and after those meals. Because of this, I inadvertently met the loose carbohydrate and fat restrictions I’d imposed on myself (less than 100 grams of carbs and less than 60 grams of fat or so).
As far as training, I adopted Christian Thibaudeau’s Built for Battle program as most of it seemed to marry well with the goals of my diet.
I “only” did this eating/training program for 8 weeks, but I was hugely motivated: I was going on vacation where clothes are an afterthought, and I refused to go with my abs in absentia.
My scale weight didn’t change much at all, but I clearly lost an appreciable amount of body fat, suggesting that what I lost had been replaced by some lean tissue, which was exactly the goal.
Some Down-Home Theorizin’
How this program works is certainly open for debate. On one hand, some studies show that muscle protein tops out at a certain point, but very few studies have supplied participants with as much as 3 grams or 4 grams of protein per kilogram, so it’s possible that the equation changes when we ingest that much.
But maybe it’s not about increased muscle protein synthesis. Clearly, protein is protective against fat gain. It’s also metabolically expensive in that it takes roughly 25% of the calories in the protein you ingested to process it. Compare that to the meager 12-15% of the calories in carbohydrates needed to process that macronutrient.
Further, proteins raise basal metabolic rate by 20 to 30 percent, compared to carbohydrates’ 5 to 10 percent (fat raises it between 0 and 5 percent), and that adds up over the days.
Add to that how protein raises the resting metabolic rate more than the other macronutrients. Mikkelsen et al. (2014) found that subjects consuming a diet containing just 29% protein had a resting metabolic rate that was 891 kJ/d (kilojoules per day, otherwise known as calories) higher than subjects consuming a diet containing the same number of calories, but with only 11% of energy coming from protein.
Lastly, protein is the most filling of the macronutrients; it kind of works like a natural version of semaglutide in that you won’t have an appetite for any foods counterproductive to your goals.
Any or all of the preceding protein facts might help explain why eating so much of it leads to fat loss. However, as should be evident by now, I don’t know exactly how or why the Contrary Diet works. By conventional wisdom, eating a surplus of calories shouldn’t result in loss of body fat, but the resistance-trained body doesn’t always conform to the notions of conventionally trained dietitians.
Besides, the research by Bray and Antonio offers tantalizing evidence that, when viewed with just a little bit of optimism, seems supportive of my conclusions. Kinda’.
But let’s forget about the mechanisms for now and look at real-world issues, namely cost. Admittedly, the Contrary Diet involves eating a lot of protein and, more precisely, a lot of protein powder. At first, using that much protein powder might seem pricey, but if you look at it in comparative terms, it’s still probably cheaper than eating a comparative amount of whole food, e.g., multiple sides of beef and a flock of chickens.
If you decide to enroll in this experiment, I wouldn’t do it for longer than 8 weeks; it’s just too limited, nutrition-wise. Granted, you could help things a bunch by enhancing your shakes with Superfood, but 8 weeks is still long enough for this experiment.
Mettler S et al. Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Feb;42(2):326-37. PubMed.
Bray GA et al. Effect of protein overfeeding on energy expenditure measured in a metabolic chamber. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;101(3):496-505. PubMed 20
Antonio J et al. The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014 May 12;11:19. PubMed 19.
Leaf A et al. The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review. Int J Exerc Sci. 2017;10(8):1275-1296. PMC 10.
Pesta, A, et al. A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: mechanisms and possible caveats, Nutr Metab, 2014; 11:53.