Most of the diet tips you hear for weightlifters have to do with building muscle. Makes sense: strength training is the number one way to build muscle, and paired with a balanced macronutrient diet with plenty of protein and healthy carbs, it'll have you on your way to a stronger body in no time. But if your primary goal is to lose weight — not necessarily to build muscle — it can be a little harder to find the diet you need. We're here to help, along with registered dietitian (and nationally ranked CrossFitter!) Michele Fumagalli of Northwestern Medicine and Fit Plate Nutrition.
First of all, Michele confirmed that weightlifting can help you lose weight, but it's mostly going to be fat. No complaints here, but if you're only tracking on the scale, you might not see big shifts. "If you're starting to weightlift, the ultimate goal is to decrease body fat mass and increase your lean body mass," Michele told POPSUGAR. That means that you might be able to see and feel differences in your body, with bigger muscles and less fat on top, but your actual weight may not change very much.
With that in mind, weightlifting is a very effective way to shed fat. Muscle itself doesn't "burn fat," as the popular saying goes, but muscle gain and fat loss are certainly connected; the more muscle mass you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate will be, meaning that you keep burning calories even when you're not actively exercising.
Of course, the food you eat has a major role as well. To maximize your fat loss through weightlifting, Michele shared five key diet tips.
- Eat enough calories. Underfueling will cause your muscles to break down instead of grow, "and that's the complete opposite of what we want when we're weightlifting," Michele said. "If you're not feeding your body enough, it almost sees it as a famine. It's going to hold on to your fat reserves instead of burning them." An easy way to figure out how much you need, Michele said, is just to listen to your body.
- Aid recovery with fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids. Inflammation naturally occurs after a hard strength-training workout; it's related to the process of breaking down your muscles to help them grow bigger and stronger, which ultimately helps you burn fat. While this kind of inflammation is a "good" thing, Michele said, you can still help to bring it down and help your muscles recover faster by eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and omega-3 fatty acids like flax meal, chia seed, walnuts, sardines, and fatty fish like salmon.
- Balance your protein throughout the day. Protein is crucial for post-workout recovery, but it's also an important portion of every other meal throughout your day. "You want to have some protein at pretty much every meal and snack," Michele said. It promotes muscle growth and helps to keep you full, both big helps for losing weight.
- Stay hydrated. "Muscles need more water," Michele told POPSUGAR. Being dehydrated only weakens your muscles, which makes it harder to get through workouts and recover from them. Reminder: stronger, growing muscles help you burn more calories and lose more weight, so drink that water, at least a half-gallon a day.
- Swap some — but not all — starchy carbs with vegetables. Good news: "You don't need to completely eliminate starchy carbs," Michele said. (Starchy carbs are the kind you find in breads, pastas, potatoes, and cereal.) However, if you're really looking to up your fat-burning, you'll see faster results if you do substitute some of those carbs for vegetables. Michele recommended having at least one meal where about a fourth of your plate is a healthy starchy carb like quinoa, whole wheat pasta, or sweet potatoes, and limiting them in the other two meals in your day.
What Should I Eat to Lose Weight While Weightlifting?
Now that you've got the facts, it's time to figure out what you'll actually be eating. Michele recommended planning out your meals around your protein source — simply because those usually take the longest to cook — and filling in vegetables and some starchy carbs around it. Pop a chicken breast in the oven, for example, while you sauté some spinach and boil quinoa. Here are a few of Michele's healthy meal recommendations for weight loss:
- Spring greens with cottage cheese, blueberries, quinoa, almond slices, and balsamic vinegar. "Feel free to add leftover chicken, or use edamame to keep it plant-based," Michele said.
- An open-faced sandwich with turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mustard, plus sides of mandarin orange, half a cucumber, and Greek yogurt.
- Greek yogurt
- Two hard-boiled eggs
- Cucumber-red pepper slices
- A small apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter
- Baked chicken or ground turkey with lots of veggies (choose your favorites), whole wheat pasta, and tomato sauce
That's what you should eat — what about what you shouldn't? Michele said you don't have to omit any food completely to lose weight, but you should try to limit both alcohol and highly processed foods. Alcohol hinders recovery, Michele said, and "it's just empty calories." As for ultraprocessed foods, "they're just not nourishing. They might be delicious but they're really not providing you very much besides calories." A recent study confirmed that people on an ultraprocessed diet gained an average of two pounds per week over two weeks.
Eating cleanly and strategically works hand in hand with a strength training routine to help you maximize fat burn and muscle gain, which can equal major weight loss. For more meal ideas to promote weight loss, check out our two-week clean eating plan and pair it with this weeklong muscle-building workout schedule for maximized fat burn.