“Burning fat” is the term we use to describe the body’s ability to use stored fat for energy. Most of us gain fat slowly over time until one day we look in the mirror and don’t recognize ourselves. How did that happen?

There are a few reasons but mostly it’s because as we age our metabolisms slow, we become less active, and we over eat. To counteract this, in theory, we simply need to increase our activity and decrease how much we eat. But, as you’ve probably discovered, it’s not quite that easy.

Our bodies don’t want to give up fat and they don’t want to build too much muscle. We’re biologically wired for survival so our bodies hold on to fat – the richest and most easily stored calorie source – while minimizing or even decreasing muscle mass – which is difficult for our bodies to build and maintain. In other words, we have to give our bodies a very good reason to lose fat and gain muscle. Here is how you can do it:

1. Start Following a Beginner’s Muscle Building Program. If you haven’t been following an intelligently designed muscle building program for at least the last 6 months and have experienced significant muscle gains already, then you’re probably a “beginner”. It’s much easier for people who haven’t gained a lot muscle already to gain it in the early stages of starting a muscle building program. Because of the quick muscle gains beginners experience, fat loss often also occurs because of a metabolic boost as well as a calorie deficit created by increased activity. This is not to say that more advanced weight lifters can’t burn fat and lose muscle simultaneously, it’s just not as easy or efficient. Most often advanced lifters get better results by cycling through muscle gain (bulking) and fat loss (cutting) phases.

2. Clean Up Your Diet. Eating a balance of protein, carbs, and fat is important but the quality of those macro nutrients is far more important. Get your protein from lean meats like grilled or baked (not fried) chicken, turkey, fish, and even lean ground beef. Eat nutrient dense whole carbs like fruit, vegetables, potatoes, and whole grains as opposed to sugary, processed, empty calorie carbs. Finally, for fats, focus on cooking with olive oil or coconut oil and eating nuts and avocados. In most cases getting enough fat isn’t a problem for people.

Lean Protein Examples
Grilled or Baked Chicken Breast
Grilled or Baked Chicken Tenderloin
Baked Turkey (like a Butterball)
Deli Sliced Turkey
Grilled, Baked, or Pan Seared Salmon
Lean Ground Beef (90/10)
Grilled or Pan Seared Sirloin Steak
Egg Whites

Nutrient Dense Carb Examples
Sweet Potatoes
Quinoa
Whole Rolled Oats
Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Spinach, etc.
Apples, Bananas, Blueberries, etc.
White Potatoes (in moderation)
Whole Grain Breads (in moderation)

“Good” Fat Examples
Olive Oil
Coconut Oil
Almonds, Walnuts, Pistachios, etc.
Avocados
Whole Milk
Feta, Provolone, Parmesan Cheese 
Trace Fats from Meats
Whole Eggs

3. Determine Your Maintenance Calories. Maintenance calories or TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) are the number of calories you need to eat to stay at your current weight assuming your current activity level stays the same. Finding your maintenance calories is a bit of a process as you can only accurately find them through keeping track of your calories, daily activities and if your weight is going up or down. The good news is you don’t have to be exact here.

There are some great online calculators to get you started (tdeecalculator.net). You need to find your maintenance calories based on your “Sedentary / No Exercise” activity level. What you’re trying to find is a baseline of calories needed to stay at your current weight assuming no exercise. This is key to determining the proper nutrition for building muscle and losing fat simultaneously.

If you use an online calculator to find your sedentary maintenance calories you may be surprised to find that the results require you to eat more than you’re currently eating. This is often the case if you have a slow metabolism. If that’s your situation you may find yourself gaining a little weight at first as you try to eat up to your suggested maintenance calories but in most cases that will stabilize, especially if you’ve accurately followed the “Clean Up Your Diet” step above. If you’re eating clean for a few weeks and you continue to gain weight while eating at your calculated maintenance, simply reduce your calories by 200-300 per day each week until you stop gaining.

4. Plan Your Meals by the Macros. Meal planning is normally where people fail with any diet and exercise program. There are plenty of “done for you” plans out there but in most cases those plan fall way outside your normal shopping and cooking routine. You’re better off taking some time and planning meals based on the amount of protein, carbs, and fat you’re aiming to eat each day. It’s easiest to see how this is done by an example so let’s assume you’ve calculated your sedentary maintenance calories as 2,000. You just have to back into that number by calculating the number of calories you need from each macronutrient – 4 calories for protein and carbs and 9 calories for fat.

Start with protein. Many suggest eating 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight but that’s really too high. Aiming for .7g to .8g per pound of bodyweight is enough. So if you weigh 180 pounds, you’d eat 126g-144g of protein. Again, you don’t have to be this specific. For most people simply eating between 125-175g of protein a day is good enough to build muscle but for our example we’ll use 150. That would be 600 calories from protein (150 x 4).

Next calculate your fat. Getting 25-35% of your calories from fat is a good starting point so we’ll start with 30%. That means for a 2,000 calorie diet you’d need 600 calories to come from fat (2,000 x .30 = 600). You’d need to eat about 67g of fat a day to get 600 calories from fat (600 / 9 = 67). Last, just fill in the rest of your calories with carbs.

2,000 calories – 600 from protein – 600 from fat = 800 calories needed from carbs. You’d need 200g of carbs per day to get 800 calories (800 / 4 = 200). Here’s a summary:

2,000 calories total
-150g protein (600 cal)
-200g carbs (800 cal)
-67g fat (603 cal)

Once you have those numbers, then you’ll need to find the right clean whole food sources to reach those numbers. It does take a little work but the MyFitness Pal app by Under Armor makes it very easy. Do be careful when using this app because as many of the nutritional values are entered by users, much of the macro information is wrong. You’re better off creating your own foods based on food labels and searching online at sites like acaloriecounter.com. IF you’d rather just get some “done for you” meals there are no better than Sean Nal’s from his Body Transformation Blueprint. He has made these available for free online and you can download them here.

5. Create a Calorie Deficit through Weight and Cardio Training. If you’re eating enough clean whole food calories each day to reach your sedentary maintenance calories then any additional activity you perform will create a calorie deficit. Creating a calorie deficit is how we lose weight. That deficit can be created by eating less calories than your maintenance or it can be done through increased activity or both. Often people try to “go on a diet” by decreasing their calorie intake below their maintenance level and starting a workout program at the same time. Understand, you will lose weight if you do this but you’ll likely lose muscle and strength too. The way to build muscle and lose fat at the same time is to eat at your sedentary maintenance calorie level and then create a calorie deficit through increased activity, i.e. weight training and cardio. For example, while eating at your sedentary maintenance level you might jog a mile in the morning and then weight train with moderate intensity in the evening for 45 minutes. You could expect to create a calorie deficit of 300-400 calories. At that rate you should lose at least a pound of fat per week while maintaining or even building muscle (assuming your macros are on point).

When bodybuilders go on a cutting cycle by creating a calorie deficit, they are planning to lose some muscle and strength along the way. They are banking on the fact that during the bulking cycle when they ate a calorie surplus they built so much muscle and strength that they could afford to lose a little while still staying competitive. This bulking and cutting cycle is great when your body fat is low and you have decent muscle mass but if you’re out of shape and ready to start getting seriously fit by burning fat and building muscle at the same time following the steps above will get you there!