01/31/2012 05:44 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

Muscling Your Way Into Weight Loss

The mantra chanted by most weight loss experts is, "Eat less, exercise more." Eating less is not hard to understand, although one person's "eat less" may be someone else's binge. If you and the cushion on your couch move about the same amount each day, exercising more is also not hard to understand. But what if you do some physical activity, say taking out the trash cans, scraping ice off your car windows, going up and down the stairs of your home and occasionally walking for a few minutes on your treadmill or around your neighborhood? What does "exercise more" mean? How does one translate this advice into something that will enhance weight loss?

There's an app for that... Yes, the scientific way of determining this has already entered the electronic age. It is possible to buy cell phone-size devices that contain formulas that translate your current body weight and physical activity together with your projected weight goal, into a daily program of calorie intake and physical activity. If you follow through with the programs on these devices, your daily physical activity, calorie utilization and weight loss will show up on your computer with either encouragement, congratulations or a mild scolding to resume the program. Humans are still around to offer advice on exercise, as well as hundreds of articles that outline weekly exercise programs to increase your physical activity over time.

However, the emphasis on moving more, and the many options for doing so, often overlooks one aspect of exercise that has a significant impact on weight loss -- that is, the effect of increased muscle size on weight loss and weight maintenance. It seems that men are likely to recognize this and incorporate so-called bodybuilding on the way to their optimal weight. Bulking up is a positive goal, one that is often accomplished with the encouragement of a workout buddy or a trainer. As someone from the other gender who watches men watching themselves in the mirrors at my gym, I am not sure whether their goal is weight loss or a buff body. But I have to admit that many are willing to come to the gym many times a week and endure painful routines (at least from their grunts, it sounds painful) to achieve bulging shoulders, chest, back and arm muscles. Although many may not realize it, their expanded muscle mass may also be speeding up their weight loss.

Women, of course, do not usually see a rounded deltoid muscle or chest muscle definition as their goals unless they are competing for Ms. Muscle Fitness of 2012. "Don't even mention muscle strengthening exercises," a dieting friend told me. "Muscles on top on my fat arms and thighs will bulk them up into sausages." Somehow my concern that she will look like a limp noodle if she doesn't maintain her muscles went over like, well, a limp noodle.

I suspect that the parade of fashion models making their way through the magazines we women read convinced my friend that toothpick-like arms and thighs smaller than a normal wrist are ideals toward which she should strive. Unfortunately, like so many dieters, my friend was told that aerobic activity was the only type of exercise necessary for weight loss, and reassured that she could wait until she was much thinner before including exercises that strengthened her muscles. Was this good advice for a dieter? I don't think so.

Increasing muscle size has benefits that go beyond being able to lift up your carry-on bag and placing it in the overhead compartment of an airplane. The link between muscle mass and bone health, which includes increased balance and protection from falls, as well as being able to carry out the normal activities of daily life, are well established. Increased muscle mass, however, has a particular utility for the dieter. Muscle consumes much more energy than any other organ in the body, and muscles need calories to work, rebuild and enlarge. Most of the calories you eat are used up by your muscles.

Everyone loses some muscle while dieting because a thinner body requires less muscle to carry it around than a heavier one. One reason it is so hard to maintain weight loss when the diet is over is that smaller muscles means eating fewer calories than before you started the diet -- and this is hard to do.

Building muscles requires increasing calorie, protein and carbohydrate intake. Magazines and websites devoted to building bigger muscles offer food plans that would make a dieter weep with joy. You must eat many times a day, sometimes up to six substantial meals and snacks. Both protein and carbohydrate must be eaten. The protein supplies specific amino acids that are the foundation of muscle fibers, and the carbohydrate supplies energy to the muscles so they are not broken down for energy (a common physiological occurrence).

Building muscle means that you, the dieter or ex-dieter, can maintain your new lower weight without fearing that an extra peapod or crust of bread is going to throw you back into weight gain mode.

But before you start tossing those barbells around, find a professional trainer or experienced bodybuilding friend or family member to show you what to do. Check out the Internet for sensible eating and muscle-strengthening programs. Don't fall prey to the screaming ads for muscle building powders and drinks. Lean protein, low or fat-free dairy products, lentils, beans, soy and eggs are all excellent sources of muscle-building protein. However, while healthy carbohydrates must be eaten, fat-filled, sugary carbohydrates are not part of this muscle-building process.

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, click here.

For more on weight loss, click here.