My Diet and Workout Plan to Lose Body Fat and Build Muscle
A science-backed guide on how to plan your meals, workout sessions, and boost your health without giving up on your favourite foods
A science-backed guide on how to plan your meals, workout sessions, and boost your health without giving up on your favorite foods
In July 2020 when I decided to take fitness seriously, I toyed with the idea of adopting intermittent fasting. On one hand, I was terrified by the idea of not eating for long periods of time as I’m a complete foodie and fond of trying out new dishes.
On the other, I knew exercise was only a part of the solution. Complete fitness of the mind and body can only be achieved if you watch what you’re putting in your body. As exercise physiologist Katie Lawton, MEd puts it:
“To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume or eat fewer calories than your body uses each day. If you don’t have a caloric deficit, you will not lose weight.”
And so, after a month of being on the verge of a decision, I finally decided to take the plunge in July 2020. I was working out 30 minutes each day and there were visible changes in my body. But I had no control over my midnight snacking habits and my sleep cycle was thoroughly messed up. On most days, I went to bed at 5 AM and woke up at 12 PM or later. This didn’t feel right because after I’d showered and had some food, it was past afternoon and half the day was already over.
I’d read that intermittent fasting helps improve sleep patterns, but then I came across this study that suggests it can not only help you sleep deeper and better, but can also help your body adopt a consistent sleep schedule and reduce your nighttime awakenings. This was possibly the biggest factor that worked in the favour of me giving this lifestyle change a try.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
I spent the first few days doing a lot of research about the best methods. The biggest fear holding me back was the word “intermittent” in the name. I assumed it to mean that while following the plan, one is supposed to eat only on alternate days and fast on the rest. If you’re like me, you know how something like this can be particularly hard to visualize.
Only when I delved into the research, I found intermittent fasting isn’t necessarily about skipping meals on alternate days. Rather, intermittent fasting is an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. It doesn’t say anything about which foods to eat, but rather when you should eat them. Fasting has been a common practice throughout human evolution. Ancient hunter-gatherers didn’t have food available all year-round. Sometimes, they couldn’t find anything to eat. As a result, humans evolved to be able to function without food for extended periods of time.
Most people already fast every day, while they sleep. Intermittent fasting can be as simple as extending that fast a little longer and forcing your body into a caloric deficit.
Health benefits of intermittent fasting:
Aside from aiding in better sleep and being an effective way to lose weight without having to consciously restrict calories, intermittent fasting has been proved to have the following health benefits:
- It can reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol, blood triglycerides, blood sugar, and insulin resistance — all risk factors for heart disease.
- Animal studies suggest that intermittent fasting may prevent cancer.
- Intermittent fasting increases the brain hormone BDNF and may aid the growth of new nerve cells. It may also protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
- Animal experiments have indicated fasting can lead to a longer lifespan.
How it helped me:
I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting since late July 2020 and it has worked wonders for me. Since I adopted this eating habit, I’ve seen amazing results in my mind and body: I no longer crave midnight snacks and manage to go to bed by 1 AM and sleep better.
I’m also able to see muscles on my abdomen and thighs. They were present before too, and I could feel them if I pressed a finger to my skin. But they were hidden under a layer of fat. Adopting intermittent fasting has helped me lose that obstinate abdominal fat and made the results of my exercise sessions more visible. Well, I don’t have a visible 6-pack yet. But I’ve come a long way from how I used to look and I’d like to believe I’m on my way there.
The potential pitfalls:
There are several ways to go about it, and the huge number of resources online can confuse beginners as to how they should start. Going about it the wrong way can have some potential pitfalls, as this 2019 post by Harvard Medical School suggests. These include a strong biological push to overeat following fasting periods, leading to indulging in unhealthy diets on non-fasting periods. Though it’s still possible to lose weight due to the caloric deficits during other periods, you won’t get the protective benefits of good nutrition. In addition, skipping meals and severely limiting calories can be dangerous for people with certain conditions, such as diabetes. People who take medications for blood pressure or heart disease also may be more prone to electrolyte abnormalities from fasting. If you’re underweight or have a history of eating disorders, remember to consult your doctor before attempting something like this.
I’m a 28-year-old able-bodied cis woman. I understand what worked for me may not work for everyone. But this post includes some basics of using intermittent fasting to lose weight and adopt a healthier lifestyle that should show results for most people. I’ve added a detailed step-by-step process to slowly train your body to adapt to intermittent fasting while also working out for a few minutes each day so it becomes a habit and you don’t end up falling into binge-restrict cycles. I’m not a professional nutritionist or a qualified physical trainer, but this is what worked for me.
How to Incorporate Intermittent Fasting in Your Life
The concept behind this method is that by reducing your calorie intake, intermittent fasting causes weight loss as long as you don’t compensate by eating much more during the eating periods. This is easier to follow than any diet plan because you can potentially eat whatever you want, as long as you force your body to fast for a pre-determined period of time.
The 16/8 Method
Also known as the Leangains protocol, this is the simplest way to go about it. It includes a 16-hour fast followed by consuming all calories within an 8-hour window. For a beginner, it’s not easy to stay without eating anything for 16 hours. I tried and failed miserably in the first few days, always assailed by the onslaught of late-night hunger pangs.
Starting out: To avoid falling into the trap of breaking my fast, I started out with a 12/12 window, which meant I had dinner at 9 AM, a late-night snack at 11 PM, and then nothing else till I woke up and had breakfast at 11 AM. This was relatively easy and I could stick to it.
The 14/10 cycle: After about a week, when I didn’t struggle any longer and my body felt ready, I started forgoing the late-night snack. This meant not having anything except water after the 9 PM dinner until breakfast the next morning. This was a 14/10 window, which was easier to follow, once my body stopped craving for the midnight snack.
Slipping into the 16/8 cycle: After following this for about a month and slowly pushing my dinner earlier and earlier, I finally managed to eat my last meal of the day at 7 PM. This way, I was not only maintaining a 16/8 window, I also felt tired by about 1 AM, which helped me right my sleep cycle to a large extent.
I woke up at 9 AM, read a few pages, showered, went on a short walk to soak in the morning sunshine, did a 20-minute workout, and by 11 AM, I was nicely hungry to have my first meal of the day. What felt like such a struggle earlier had now become a habit rather than an obligation, and I started enjoying the process.
How you can go about it:
As long as you maintain a 16-hour long window of fasting, you can experiment and pick the time frame that best fits your schedule. Here’s a step-by-step approach to how you can go about it:
- Start this by completely giving up all midnight snacking habits.
- Then, you can start eating your first meal at 9 AM, and your last meal at 8 PM.
- Slowly, push your dinner earlier as much as possible.
- Alternately, you can skip breakfast, have dinner at 8 PM and your first meal of the day at 12 PM.
- In the meantime, you can have water or beverages like green tea or coffee if you feel hungry during the fasting period. Be sure not to add sugar. These can help control your appetite while keeping you hydrated.
Filling up on nutrient-rich foods can help round out your diet and allow you to reap the rewards of this regimen. Try balancing each meal with a good variety of healthy whole foods, such as:
- Fruits: Apples, bananas, berries, oranges, peaches, pears, etc.
- Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, leafy greens, tomatoes, etc.
- Whole grains: Quinoa, rice, oats, barley, buckwheat, etc.
- Healthy fats: Olive oil, avocados, and coconut oil
- Sources of protein: Meat, poultry, fish, legumes, eggs, nuts, seeds, etc.
Other methods of intermittent fasting:
While the 16/8 rule suited my rather introverted lifestyle perfectly, it can cause problems if you’re fond of socializing and your friends have food late at night. There are other ways to go about it, like the following:
- The one-meal-a-day diet plan where you can eat only one meal per day. You can’t eat or drink anything containing calories for the rest of the day.
- The 5:2 diet where you eat normally and don’t have to think about restricting calories for five days per week. Then, on the other two days, you reduce your calorie intake to a quarter of your daily needs. This is about 500 calories per day for women, and 600 for men.
- The alternate-day fasting method where you starve yourself by fasting one day and then you feast the next and then repeat that pattern. However, there’s some evidence that this form of intermittent fasting may not be as beneficial for women as it is for men.
- The warrior diet where you eat small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables during the day and one huge meal at night. Basically, you fast all day and feast at night within a four-hour eating window.
Whichever form of intermittent fasting you pick, the goal is to build up a calorie deficit by not eating anything in a sufficiently long enough window.
Gaining Muscle in a Calorie Deficit
Most of the research around intermittent fasting has been done to understand its impact on the body for weight loss. However, there have been a few studies that establish intermittent fasting to be more effective for maintaining muscle mass during weight loss compared to non-fasting diets. As this post by Healthline suggests, it is likely that intermittent fasting will not cause you to lose more muscle than other weight-loss diets.
There’s a common belief in the fitness industry is that it’s nearly impossible to lose body fat while simultaneously gaining muscle. YouTuber and fitness professional Jeff Nippard debunks this myth in his video Can you Build Muscle in a Calorie Definite/ Lose Fat in a Surplus? and explains that because fat and muscle tissues are separate systems, it’s possible to gain muscle during the caloric deficit if you:
- have less training experience,
- have a higher starting body fat percentage (I calculate mine using this quick online calculator that gives fairly accurate results)
- don’t crash diet, and
- eat a high-protein diet (1g/pound body weight).
My weight is about 54 Kg and my height is 161 cm. This requires me to have about 120 grams of protein each day which I managed by including eggs and milk in my breakfast, salads, and stir-fries in my lunch, chicken or fish for dinner. For my snacks, I chose to have mixed nuts and cheese.
Since I didn’t crash diet and maintained the required calorie count as per my height and weight, I was able to see consistent muscle gain over a period of four months.
How you can go about it:
- Maintain a protein-rich diet as per your body weight.
- Don’t eat fewer calories than what’s required of you as per your activity level, height, age, and body weight. If you want to calculate yours, you can use this quick calorie intake calculator here.
- When you plan your workout, make sure to progressively work your muscles harder than they are used to.
Working Out While Fasting
According to Chelsea Amengual, MS, manager of Fitness Programming & Nutrition at Virtual Health Partners, your stored carbohydrates — known as glycogen — are most likely depleted while fasting, so you’ll be burning more fat to fuel your workout. Then again, there’s always the risk that your body will start breaking down muscle to use protein for fuel, which might result in you being able to only maintain, not build, muscle. However, I followed a science-backed approach to structure my workout routine around my intermittent fasting schedule. You can follow it to build your routine that suits your goals and current lifestyle.
How you can go about it:
- The timing: According to registered dietician Christopher Shuff, CSOWM, if you perform well during exercise on an empty stomach, working out before the 8-hour fueling window is ideal for you. However, if you don’t like to exercise on an empty stomach and also want to capitalize on post-workout nutrition, working out during the 8-hour window is better suited for you.
- Type of workout: As this post by Medical News Today suggests, there are two types of exercise, aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic exercise, or ‘cardio,’ is exercise over a sustained period, such as running, walking, and cycling. Anaerobic exercise requires maximum effort over a short period, such as HIIT workouts, weight lifting or sprinting. If you follow the 16/8 fasting routine, you can perform either aerobic or anaerobic exercise. However, if you opt for alternate day fasting, it’s better to stick to less intense aerobic exercise on the fasting days.
- Type of food post-workout: Chelsea Amengual suggests following up any anaerobic workout with carbohydrates and about 20 grams of protein within 30 minutes after your workout. Thus, I make sure to include bread (carbs) and eggs, milk, and a dash of peanut butter (protein) in my first meal of the day.
Since I’m used to working out on an empty stomach, I do a quick 15–20 minute workout in the morning right before breaking my fast. There was a time when I used to perform shorter workouts twice a day, but since adopting the intermittent fasting routine wholeheartedly, I’ve stuck to only the morning workout session. I outlined in detail the anaerobic routine I regularly perform in a previous article. I’ve included it below for ease of reference:
Six-Pack Morning Abs Workout: This is my tried-and-tested variation of a 10-minute routine that includes 20 exercises to be performed for 30 seconds each with no rest in between. This was preceded by a 5-minute warm-up and a 5-minute cool-down, taking the total active time to 20 minutes.
- Butterfly crunch
- Cross-crunch with single-leg extensions: 30 seconds on each side.
- Butterfly tuck: Same as the butterfly crunch, except that when you crunch up, you tuck your elbows and knees close to each other and squeeze your core.
- Cross-crunch with single-leg extensions: 30 seconds on each side.
- Cross-body toe touch: 30 seconds on each side.
- V-sit bicycle crunches: 30 seconds on each side.
- In and out crunches.
- Side plank with hip abduction: 30 seconds on either side.
- Side plank: 30 seconds on both sides.
- Pike with cross plank: 30 seconds on both sides.
- Push-ups with torso rotation.
- Plank with toe touch.
- Plank walk.
This is a great quick workout and since the whole process takes only 20 minutes, you can fit it into your schedule by waking up earlier than your usual time. The exercises are fun to perform and none of them is repeated, which makes sure the routine doesn't get monotonous or you get too bored.
It’s possible to gain muscle while losing weight simultaneously, but that depends on your fitness goals and the kind of food you’re eating. Fasting for 16 hours each day and working out for just 20 minutes in the morning helped me strike a balance between these conflicting interests.
I shared a basic outline of my nutrition plan, but let me clarify that I’m not extremely strict. If my body craves more calories, I usually give in and have a chocolate bar or a bowl of instant noodles. I skip workout days more often than I’d like to admit. My sleep schedule has improved, but there are still days when it’s 3.30 AM and I’m lying wide awake in bed. But such days are few and far between, and as long as I’ve made a conscious decision to get a hold of my life and bring some semblance of discipline back, I know I’m on the right track.
As a beginner, slipping into intermittent fasting coupled with workouts can be hard, especially if you've never gone a day without exercising or skipping meals most of your life. Things can feel easier if you remind yourself that it’s only 20 minutes of your day spent exercising, and you only have to wait a few hours to have breakfast.
Understand that it's okay to slip up once a while as long as you’re strong enough to pull yourself back. Fitness is more a state of mind than exercise or meal plans, and if you’re clear in your head about your goals, a few misses along the way don’t matter in the long run.
Our bodies are capable of incredible feats if we give them the chance to. If you’d been looking for a sign from the universe to start taking your fitness seriously, maybe this article could be it.
I create content in many different forms related to self-improvement, body positivity, and feminism on several other platforms. Join my email list to make sure you don’t miss out on anything new.