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Ask the Diet Doctor: Eat to Look Lean

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Q: I’m at the weight I want to be, and now I want to show off my muscles. What should I be eating?

A: This is a great example of how achieving your “ideal” scale weight doesn’t necessarily equate to the look that you want. We often get very focused on having the scale display a particular number when we get on it but don’t realize that when we hit that number, our bodies may not look how we’d envisioned they would.

In her most recent book, Drop Two Sizes, 2012 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year Rachel Cosgrove notes that she consistently sees women drop two sizes with the scale only showing two to four pounds of weight loss. This is one of the reasons why it is very important to track your progress toward a weight loss/body composition goal via measures other than the scale such as pictures, girth measurements (waist, hips, etc), and body fat percentage.

Back to your question specifically: If you are at the body weight that you want but want to show off your muscles more, then you will need to lose a little more body fat while then adding on muscle. This will allow you to maintain your weight while giving you a leaner muscular look.

You can’t do this with diet alone. Resistance training is a key component, as if you want to show off your muscles, you are going to need to build them up a little. In addition, weight training provides a superior level of fat burning compared to traditional cardio training.

In her book, Cosgrove recommends that women in your situation do two or three full-body strength training workouts and one or two metabolic interval-style routines a week. The strength program should consist of compound movements performing all of the following movement patterns: squat, bend, push, pull, twist, lunge, and balance.

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From a dietary perspective, this is a perfect situation for carb cycling. Carb cycling, as the name suggests, involves cycling your carbs between high and low days throughout the week. This also leads to calorie cycling as well, so that on days you train with weights, you will eat more calories and carbohydrates. These become muscle-building days. On days that you do interval cardio or don’t train, you will eat fewer calories and carbs. These become fat-loss days, as your body will need to pull more from its energy stores since you won’t be providing its normal quota of fuel.

The simplest (and my favorite) way to cycle carbs is by doing so based on types of foods. On high-carb days, eat meals that contain oats, rice, whole-grain pasta, sweet potatoes, and quinoa, and make sure to include fruits and vegetables with each meal. Then on low-carb days, abstain from those types of carbs, opting for beans, fruits, and vegetables as your primary carbohydrate sources.

This makes it easy to modulate the carbohydrates and calories of your diet since carbohydrate-based foods like oats, rice, whole grain pasta, sweet potatoes, and quinoa are innately more carb- and calorie-dense than fruits or vegetables. For example, 1 cup brown rice contains 200 calories and 43 grams of carbs, while 1 cup raspberries has only 64 calories and 15g carbohydrates and 1 cup cooked spinach has 41 calories and 7g carbohydrates. The volume of the foods is the same—a cup—but the calorie and carbohydrate contents are very different.

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Regardless of the day, you should have protein (eggs, chicken, fish, tofu, etc) at every meal. Your weekly schedule might look like this:

Sunday: Off from training. Low carb/calorie day
Monday: Resistance training. High carb/calorie day
Tuesday: Interval cardio. Low carb/calorie day
Wednesday: Resistance training. High carb/calorie day
Thursday: Interval cardio. Low carb/calorie day
Friday: Resistance training. High carb/calorie day
Saturday: Interval cardio. Low carb/calorie day

Put Cosgrove’s exercise recommendations into play combined with my simple carb cycling approach, and you’ll be on your way to achieve the look you want.

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