How many calories should i eat to lose weight and gain muscle? This is one of the most common questions asked by people who are looking to get ripped. To achieve your targeted body weight, you need to consume the right number of calories. There are some myths about losing weight that you should avoid. This can help you determine the total number of calories you should eat daily.
To get results, you should base your caloric intake on what your current build is. This is because the body requires a certain number of calories to maintain current mass and hit certain goals.
How Many Calories Should I Consume to Build Muscle & Burn Fat?
The number of calories you consume to build muscle and burn fat is different for each person.
Image Credit: Claudia Totir/Moment/GettyImages
People who embark on a diet and fitness plan usually aim to lose weight as well as get more toned, but can you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? Here’s what you need to know about whether or not it’s possible and how many calories you need to build muscle and lose fat.
Fat Doesn’t Convert to Muscle
People are sometimes under the misconception that fat can be converted into muscle; however, Columbia University explains that fat and muscle are in fact two different types of tissues and that one cannot be converted into the other.
When you eat more calories than your body requires, the extra energy is stored in your body as fat, increasing the size of your existing fat cells, according to Columbia University. When you burn fat, your body uses the energy stored in your fat cells to fuel your activity. This causes your fat cells to shrink in size.
Columbia University notes that your body also has a fixed number of muscle cells, so when you’re gaining muscle, or bulking up, your existing muscle cells are actually increasing in size. Similarly, when you lose muscle mass it is due to a shrinkage in the size of your muscle cells, according to a January 2013 study published in the journal Disease Models & Mechanisms.
It is therefore important to understand that when you gain or lose muscle or fat, what is actually happening is that your muscle and fat cells are growing or shrinking; at no point do your fat cells convert to muscle cells, since that is physically impossible.
Can You Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?
Columbia University explains that losing fat and gaining muscle involve two different types of metabolic processes: catabolism and anabolism. Losing fat is a catabolic process whereas gaining muscle is an anabolic process. Losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time can be tricky because one requires fewer calories while the other requires more calories. Here’s how it works.
Anabolism is a biochemical process where your body synthesizes smaller molecules into more complex ones. Building muscle is an anabolic process since it results in larger, more complex muscle cells. Anabolic processes also result in the capture of energy within your body. Since calories provide energy, anabolic processes like gaining muscle require a consistent calorie intake, notes Columbia University.
While anabolism is one type of metabolic process, catabolism is the other. Catabolism is the process by which your body breaks down larger molecules into smaller ones, releasing energy in the bargain. The catabolic reactions that result in weight loss cause you to lose a combination of fat, water and protein, according to Columbia University. People who go on a diet therefore often lose muscle mass and water weight in addition to fat.
Per the Mayo Clinic, you need to create a calorie deficit, where you burn more calories per day than you consume, in order to lose weight. This is typically achieved by consuming fewer calories and increasing physical activity to burn more calories per day.
However, if you go on a diet and restrict your calorie intake, your body doesn’t burn only fat for energy; it also burns carbohydrates and protein. This can inhibit muscle gain, because your body needs the protein for muscle growth and repair; if the protein is burned for energy, then there may not be enough for your muscles, states Columbia University.
So, can you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? Columbia University says it depends. If you’re new to exercise and your body has fat stores it can rely on for energy, then a consistent exercise routine that involves both cardio (catabolic exercise) and resistance training (anabolic exercise) should help you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
Things are different if on the other hand your physique is lean and you already have muscle mass. In that case, if you’re trying to build more muscle, you would have to increase your protein intake so that you don’t lose lean body mass in the process, says Columbia University.
How Many Calories to Build Muscle and Lose Fat
As you can see, how many calories to build muscle and lose fat isn’t a question with a straightforward answer, because there’s some balancing involved. You need to ensure that you’re getting enough calories, and protein specifically, to help you build muscle, but not so many calories that your body is storing the excess as fat.
So how do you go about calculating how many calories to gain muscle and burn fat? The best thing to do would be to visit a dietitian or nutritionist, since they will be able to help you with a personalized meal plan to help you meet your goals while taking into account your daily routine, likes and dislikes, medical issues and food allergies, if any.
Periodic visits to the dietitian or nutritionist will enable them to track your progress and adjust your meal plan if required, to ensure that you are losing fat and gaining muscle.
In the meantime, here’s how you can estimate how many calories to gain muscle and burn fat. The starting point is the number of calories your body requires per day just to survive and perform all its metabolic processes. The American Council of Exercise (ACE) refers to this as the resting metabolic rate.
The ACE lists several factors that can affect your resting metabolic rate, including your age, gender, height, weight, body-fat percentage, body temperature, diet, physical activity level and genetic factors like how fast or slow your metabolism is. For instance, men tend to have more muscle mass and a lower body-fat percentage than women, so their resting metabolic rate tends to be higher.
According to the ACE, one way to calculate your resting metabolic rate in terms of calories required per day is with the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation. The equation has two different versions, one for men and one for women.
This is how you apply the equation for men:
9.99 x weight (kilograms) + 6.25 x height (centimeters) – 4.92 x age (years) + 5
This is how you apply the equation for women:
9.99 x weight (kilograms) + 6.25 x height (centimeters) – 4.92 x age (years) – 161
Once you have calculated your resting metabolic rate, you need to multiply it by a certain number to account for your physical activity, says the ACE. This number varies depending on how active your lifestyle is.
- Sedentary lifestyle (if you have a desk job and get little or no exercise per day): Multiply your resting metabolic rate by 1.2
- Lightly active lifestyle (if you play a sport or get light exercise one to three times a week): Multiply your resting metabolic rate by 1.375
- Moderately active lifestyle (if you play a sport or get moderate exercise three to five times a week): Multiply your resting metabolic rate by 1.55
- Very active lifestyle (if you play a sport or get vigorous exercise six or seven times a week): Multiply your resting metabolic rate by 1.725
- Extremely active lifestyle (if you play a sport or get vigorous exercise every day and are either in physical training or have a physically demanding job): Multiply your resting metabolic rate by 1.9
This equation can help you estimate how many calories you need per day, and you can adjust it as you see changes in your weight, or if you increase or decrease the amount of exercise you get. You can use a calorie tracker like MyPlate to estimate how many calories you currently consume per day, and then you can start regulating your calorie intake accordingly.
If you currently consume more calories than you require, cutting down your intake by 500 to 1,000 calories per day should help you lose 1 to 2 pounds per week, says the Mayo Clinic. Adding in resistance training to stimulate your muscle cells, eating enough protein and getting adequate sleep should help you build muscle simultaneously, notes Columbia University.
Calories In vs Calories Out
The reason why your calorie intake is the most important part of your diet comes down to a very simple and scientifically proven concept best summed up as “calories in vs calories out.”
Here’s how it works…
- Calories In
This refers to all of the calories you “take in” each day via the foods you eat and the drinks you drink. For the most part, everything you consume (except stuff like water and other zero calorie drinks) contains some number of calories. (No, there are no “negative calories foods.”)
- Calories Out
This refers to all of the calories you burn each day. This includes calories burned during traditional forms of exercise (weight training, cardio, etc.) as well as normal daily movement (standing, sitting, walking to your car, brushing your teeth, etc.), spontaneous daily movement (fidgeting, adjusting your posture, etc.) and all of the “behind the scenes” activity taking place to keep you alive and functioning (pumping blood, digesting food, breathing, etc.).
With this in mind, there are 3 possible scenarios that can take place…
Scenario #1: Caloric Surplus
When you consume more calories than you burn (i.e. “calories in” is greater than “calories out”), you have what’s known as a caloric surplus.
This means there are leftover calories that never got used for anything, and they now have to go… somewhere. They can’t just disappear into thin air. Rather, your body will be forced to store them somewhere in itself for potential later use.
As it turns out, there are 2 storage options available within your body: fat cells and muscle tissue.
This is why a caloric surplus will always cause you to gain something. Either body fat, muscle mass, or a combination of both.
Now, in some very specific cases when a person is properly training/eating for the purpose of gaining muscle (more about that later), the ideal outcome is for most of those surplus calories to be stored in the form of muscle. However, in all other cases – meaning the vast majority of the time – a caloric surplus is going to result in fat being gained.
This is, after all, the one and only way that fat is EVER gained. So, if you or any other human on the planet has ever gained a single pound of fat, this is always what caused it. You consumed more calories than you burned (aka a surplus) and the excess was stored in the form of body fat.
Now for the opposite scenario…
Scenario #2: Caloric Deficit
When your body burns more calories than you consume (i.e. “calories out” is greater than “calories in”), you have what’s known as a caloric deficit.
This means that you didn’t consume enough calories to support the energy needs of your body. Rather, your body needed some number of calories to burn in order to do all of the stuff we mentioned earlier, and you consumed some degree less than this.
When this happens, your body is forced to find some alternative fuel source to burn for energy instead. After all, new energy cannot just be created out of thin air. It has to come from somewhere.
As it turns out, there are 2 fuel sources available within your body where leftover energy has been stored in preparation for this very scenario: fat cells and muscle tissue.
This is why a caloric deficit will always cause you to lose something. Either body fat, muscle mass, or a combination of both.
As you can already guess, in the vast majority of cases, a caloric deficit will primarily result in fat being lost. Yes, even when people screw up various aspects of their diet and workout and therefore end up losing muscle along with fat (something you want to minimize as much as possible), fat will almost always continue to make up the majority of what’s being lost.
This is, after all, the one and only way that fat is EVER lost. So, if you or any other human on the planet has ever lost a single pound of fat, this is always what caused it. You consumed fewer calories than your body needed to burn (aka a deficit), which lead to stored body fat being burned for energy instead.
Now for the final scenario…
Scenario #3: Maintenance
When you consume the same number of calories that you burn (i.e. “calories in” is equal to “calories out”), you’re at what’s known as a maintenance.
Since there is no surplus that needs to be stored anywhere, and no deficit that warrants burning off a backup fuel source, what happens is that you don’t lose or gain anything. Rather, you simply maintain your current state.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking…
“I don’t want to maintain my current state bro, I want to improve it! Let’s skip this section and get to the good stuff.”
I hear ya. But here’s the thing. This “maintenance” scenario is the one that’s going to help you figure out exactly how many calories you should eat a day to lose weight or gain muscle.
- Because being “below maintenance” will constitute being in a caloric deficit… which is needed for weight loss to happen.
- And being “above maintenance” will constitute being in a caloric surplus… which is needed for muscle to be gained (in most cases, at least).
SHOULD I COUNT CALORIES?
There are plenty of people who can maintain a healthy body composition without ever counting calories, but for many others, it is incredibly valuable.
Wondering if it’s right for you? Registered dietician Susan Hewlings, Ph.D., explains how to know in the video, “All You Really Need to Know about Calories and Food Labels.”
Advantages of calorie-focused nutrition:
- Allows you to compare different meals and foods
- Gives you an objective measurement of portions
- Help show how small indulgences—like a daily soda—can add up over time
Disadvantages of calorie-focused nutrition:
- Doesn’t take food quality into account
- It can be tempting to cut too many calories, too fast
- Food labels aren’t necessarily accurate
It’s one measurement of many, but one that definitely matters! To learn more about all the fundamental ideas of nutrition and how to match your eating to your goals, dive into Bodybuilding.com’s Foundations of Fitness Nutrition course.
Can You Burn Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?
Trying to lose weight yet gain chiseled abs and muscles? Even though you’ve been watching what you eat, hitting the gym and lifting weights, the numbers on the scale are decreasing but that muscular physique you were going for just doesn’t seem to be happening.
Losing weight can be great, but what’s the deal? Is it possible to lose fat and weight and gain muscle at the same time?
“Essentially yes, people are capable of doing both, but it’s not a very easy thing to do,” said Briana Silvestri, a physician assistant with Banner – University Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute in Phoenix, AZ.
For the Average Joe, when it comes to weight loss and muscle gain, it will take a lot of discipline, which can be difficult—even painful (think self-discipline kind of pain)—but it is possible to have the best of both worlds. Silvestri explained the science behind accomplishing this feat and tips for getting that body you always dreamed of.
Fat Loss vs. Muscle Gain
First two important concepts to understand: how you lose weight differs from how you gain muscle—these goals often conflict with one another.
In order to lose fat or weight, your body needs to be in a caloric deficit, meaning you are taking in less calories per day making it more difficult for your body to maintain its current weight.
What is difficult here is that in order to then gain muscle, your body needs to be at a caloric surplus. This surplus provides the energy your body requires to repair itself and then build muscle mass.
“Some people may think it’s impossible just based on pure science alone,” Silvestri said. “Because if you find yourself in a situation where you are constantly at a caloric deficit, your body then may start to break down other parts of itself for energy requirements. This can unfortunately put you in a situation where your body starts breaking down muscle instead of fat for energy.”