Sometimes when people lose weight, they lose muscle too. This is called weight-loss–induced muscle loss and can put you at risk of developing sarcopenia, a condition that is associated with low amounts of muscle and reduced muscle function.1
If you take action to preserve your lean muscle mass while dropping your excess pounds, this creates a different set of challenges. Namely, it can be harder to track your progress because the numbers on the scale won’t necessarily change, even if your body shape does.
Fat Loss vs. Muscle Gain
One study found that young women who followed a combined cardio and strength program for 12 weeks lost an average of 10% body fat while also increasing their muscle mass by almost 9%.
A smaller study of older women also found a decrease in body fat and an increase in physical strength after a 12-week swimming program.
How to Burn Fat Without Losing Muscle
Maybe you’re not necessarily looking to build muscle while losing weight, but you also don’t want to lose the muscle that you currently have. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to get rid of your fat while preserving your muscle mass.
Eat More Protein
One study of 39 adults found that eating a high-protein diet can help protect muscle when cutting calories in an attempt to lose weight.7 Although all participants lost weight by lowering their calorie intake, those who consumed more protein lost less of their lean muscle mass. A study of 20 obese patients found similar results.8
Healthy protein sources include lean meats, seafood, eggs, and dairy. If you follow a plant-based diet, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all non-animal foods that are also high in protein.
If you have a medical condition, consult with your doctor before starting a high-protein diet. This eating strategy can potentially impact kidney function,9 making this a consideration if you have a kidney-related disease.
Get the Right Nutrients
Research suggests that consuming certain nutrients may help preserve muscle mass while losing weight. For example, a study of 80 obese older adults noted that taking a supplement containing leucine and vitamin D (along with whey protein) helped protect their muscles when on a low-calorie diet.10
Again, it is important to talk with your doctor before beginning any supplemental regimen. They can also help you decide how much of each supplement to take given your health and medical conditions.
It’s fairly well-known that exercise helps you burn calories and build muscle. However, what is less discussed is that if you don’t make exercise a regular habit, you’re more likely to lose the muscle that you currently have.
How long do you have between exercise sessions before your muscle starts to decline? According to one study, even a five-day break is enough to start to see lean muscle mass reduce in size.11 So, aim to exercise regularly to burn calories and protect the muscle you have.