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Can You Lose Weight Without Losing Muscle?

Written by
Yumna Farooq
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Heather Davis
MS, RDN, LDN
a man doing tricep dips

A common misconception when starting a weight loss journey is that by losing weight, you’ll have to wave goodbye to the muscle you may have already built.

But when it comes to healthy, sustainable weight loss, building muscle can actually play a key role. This may seem counterintuitive, but by building muscle, you can improve your body composition and even boost your metabolic rate.

So, how can you maintain or build muscle while burning fat? Keep reading to learn:

  • How you can prevent muscle loss during weight loss
  • What NOT to do when it comes to gaining lean muscle mass while losing body fat
  • What types of workouts and eating patterns might help you achieve your weight loss goal and support healthy muscle tone

What is Body Composition?

a chart displaying body composition

Body composition is the total of the various tissues and components that make up your body. There are four main components:

  • Protein (which makes up muscle)
  • Water
  • Fat (also classified as a tissue)
  • Minerals

Of these four, water makes up most of your body composition (no surprise there!). This is then followed by fat, protein, and minerals. 

Though it plays a role in healthy body composition, excessive body fat is associated with increased mortality and morbidity. Where weight loss is concerned, fat tissue is what you will want to reduce in order to lose weight.

The muscle-to-fat ratio is often brought up in the context of body composition, as it can affect metabolic health and overall well-being. You may have already heard that it may be more beneficial to have higher amounts of muscle tissue to boost your metabolic rate.

This is because lower levels of lean muscle mass are linked to multiple negative metabolic health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease. Lower levels of lean muscle mass may also reduce your metabolic rate, which can make weight management more difficult. 

Measuring Body Composition

If you want to get a better idea of your unique body composition, there are a variety of different ways to measure this. Body composition tests can range from simple waist-to-hip ratio methods to more invasive testing.

The most common types include:

ways to measure body composition

Body Recomposition

Talking about weight loss from the perspective of altering body fat and lean muscle percentages is a way of talking about body recomposition. This involves reducing the amount of visceral fat you have while increasing your muscle mass, or changing your ratio of fat mass to lean mass.

However, since a caloric deficit can lead to weight loss and a caloric surplus is typically needed to build muscle, shedding body fat and gaining muscle at the same time might sound impossible.

But changing your body composition without losing all your muscle mass can be done with the right approach. For example, “bulking and cutting” is an approach used by bodybuilders in order to build muscle over time. 

This can involve first eating a surplus of calories to put on more weight (muscle and fat) and then shifting to a more extreme calorie deficit to lose the excess fat. 

The Scale Won’t Tell You Everything

One of the big differences between weight loss and body recomposition is that in the latter, you’re not as focused on weight loss as you are on fat loss. Muscle is more dense than fat. You might be losing fat mass while gaining muscle mass and seeing no change on the scale, even though your clothes may fit very differently and you may notice you look and feel different.

This means that measuring weight alone with a scale may not be sufficient to gauge your progress. Improving lean muscle mass may help increase your metabolic rate and help your body become more efficient at burning calories over time.

Rather than tracking weight on a scale, you may want to track progress by taking body circumference measurements and measuring body fat through methods such as skinfold calipers. 

Best Body Recomposition Tips

a girl drinking a matcha latte in the park

Body recomposition involves a strategy that addresses changes to diet and lifestyle (including fitness routines), and customized modifications often best guided by qualified sports nutrition and sports medicine professionals.

In order for your strategy to be successful, it needs to take into account the following factors:

  • Your medical and health history
  • Where you are in your fitness journey and fitness level
  • Your overall metabolic health goals 

So, can you lose fat without losing muscle? To help you on your body recomposition journey, we rounded up the most effective, research-backed tips to support your journey.

Not only that, Nutrisense’s board-certified sports nutrition expert, Kasey Brixius, MS, RDN, CSSD, IFNCP will share her “Dos” and “Don’ts” of body recomposition.

Let’s hear what Kasey and the science have to say! 

The Dos

Do Set Realistic Expectations

a girl at the gym looking in the mirror

In order for your weight loss to be sustainable, you have to pace yourself. There are no quick-fixes and short-cuts here. 

Following an unsustainable low-calorie diet or practicing more extreme forms of intermittent fasting for a few months may allow you to see short-term results, but these might not always last. While it can be frustrating, losing weight is more of a long-game.

Remember that your body is unique and will go at its own pace. If you’re incorporating the suggestions of a personal trainer, following a set workout routine or exercise program consistently, and tuning into how your body is feeling, you’ll see those results…and they will pay off. 

Do Meet Your Protein Needs

This is critical! Consuming enough protein is crucial for supporting your lean body mass and building additional muscle.

Experts say an optimal intake of protein is getting between 1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight daily. This translates to about 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.

It’s also important to make sure you’re getting all nine essential amino acids, especially if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. You may want to work with a dietitian to help you find the right amount within a given range based on your medical history and other needs. 

When it comes to a high-protein diet for muscle growth, here’s what Kasey has to say:

You’ll want to aim to keep your protein intake high to help maintain muscle. Make sure you’re also choosing whole food sources of protein when possible.
Protein powders and supplements are convenient when in a hurry or immediately post-workout when your body needs that quick digesting fuel. For sustained energy and balanced glucose levels throughout the day, whole food protein sources are the way to go!” - Kasey Brixius, MS, RDN, CSSD, IFNCP

Do Try Calorie-Cycling

a hummus snack plate with veggies

Calorie cycling involves cycling through times of caloric deficit and excess to support fat loss and muscle gain, respectively. In this cycle, you’ll eat more calories on your high-intensity workout or resistance training days and fewer calories on days you do cardio workouts.

This may help to prevent stagnation of your progress, as switching up your total calorie intake is thought to “keep your body guessing.” However, there is limited research on the benefits of this strategy at the moment. 

This strategy may be beneficial for some people, but you’ll want to work with a dietitian as it may require a more personalized approach.

Your dietitian can help you figure out maintenance calorie needs and the healthiest ways to eat more calories.

Do Time Your Meals Right 

This is important for muscle protein synthesis, which relies on many factors, including the timing and amount of protein consumed throughout the day. A recent meta-analysis compared the same overall protein and calorie intake and found that consuming four to six smaller protein-rich meals could lead to significantly improved muscle protein synthesis compared to consuming two or three larger meals.

As a result, it may be beneficial to experiment with different meal spacing patterns of protein intake throughout the day. 

Some research indicates that the body may have an optimal zone of protein absorption for muscle protein synthesis (around 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram per meal) in one sitting. However, these findings still require further research to confirm.

Spacing out your protein intake with an earlier eating window may also be helpful for improving other markers of metabolic health. This may also impact your risk for conditions like diabetes, insulin sensitivity, and glucose regulation

Do Include Resistance Training   

Some cardio may be beneficial, but regular strength training will be crucial. This is because resistance training, and especially weight training with moderate to heavy weights, may be the most effective way to build muscle.

When following a training program, you will also want to complete different types of exercises, making sure to target each muscle group. Movements such as squats, lunges, rows, curls, and chest presses are a great place to start if you’re a beginner.

Kasey emphasizes the importance of resistance and weight training:

a quote from nutrisense dietitian kasey brixius

The Don’ts

Don’t Under-Fuel Your Workouts 

An optimal protein intake, carbohydrate, and overall calorie intake are all important to build muscle and support a healthy metabolic rate as you lose fat. Undereating may undercut or slow these efforts, so be sure to follow the macronutrient goals laid out by your dietitian. 

Don’t Drop Too Low In Protein

a girl drinking a glass of milk

Again, you’ll want to make sure that you meet your nutrient needs! Especially protein. Aiming for no less than 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is a great start. This can amount to about 25-40 grams of protein per meal for most people.

Don’t Skimp On Sleep

Sleep is an important part of the muscle building process and is crucial for the body recomposition journey. In fact, sleep restriction or poor sleep can lead to negative effects on muscle growth.

Research has shown that an optimal sleep duration can help to maximize your muscle building efforts, increase recovery, and reduce the risk of injury.

Don’t Over-Rely On Supplements 

Relying on supplements excessively at the expense of improving your overall diet quality first and foremost will probably not yield the results you’re aiming for. 

While certain supplements like creatine may show benefits in supporting lean muscle mass growth, they’re no substitute for a balanced healthy diet overall.

Consult with a qualified healthcare provider or dietitian if you want to explore the supplements that may or may not be best for you and your goals.

Don’t Give Up

a man stretching before a run

Remember, it’s a process so consistency and dedication are key! Kasey echoes this sentiment:

 “Building muscle and losing body fat at the same time can be done, but it is difficult! When considering what is asked of the body during these periods, one requires extra fuel and the other needs an energy deficit.
To help you accomplish your goals, consider working with a dietitian to help periodize your nutrition like an athlete would periodize their training. Consider cycling through blocks of focusing your intentions on muscle building, then switch over to fat loss goals. 
With body recomposition, slow and steady wins the race.” - Kasey Brixius, MS, RDN, CSSD, IFNCP
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