A solid weight-loss plan supports the loss of fat, not muscle. After all, muscle mass is incredibly important for our overall health and body composition. Still, many of us end up sacrificing precious muscle on our quest to shed pounds. This guide highlights the tell-tale signs your weight loss is coming from the wrong place.
Why Muscle Matters
“Muscle is functional,” says Guillem Lomas, M.D., sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health. “It helps us lift things, go up stairs, swim, run, the whole nine yards. And when you have more of it, you can lift heavier objects, run faster, and jump higher.”
Plus, unlike fat, muscle is metabolically active, meaning it burns calories. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your basal metabolic rate and the more calories you burn doing everything from sitting on the couch watching Netflix to walking down the street.
Not to mention, muscle helps us stay healthy and strong as we age. “The older we get, the less efficiently we use protein,” says Brian Sterling-Vete, Ph.D., author of The Isometric Bible. “So by maintaining as high a level of muscle mass as possible, you’ll be better prepared for any rough rides ahead.” Plus, having stronger muscles also decreases your risk for developing osteoporosis.
Is Your Weight Loss Coming From Muscle?
Now that you know just how important muscle is, you probably don’t want it to account for any poundage you lose, right?
Look out for the following signs that you’re shedding muscle instead of fat.
1. You’re Losing Weight At A Rapid Rate
Though many of us see changes in the scale quickly after majorly shifting our diet and/or workouts, the rate at which we lose weight tends to slow over time. However, if you continue to see a drastic decline week over week, look out.
“Unless you’re super-dehydrated, a large, rapid decrease in pounds after the first couple weeks of weight loss indicates that you are losing muscle mass,” says Lomas. Most experts agree that the average person can lose just about one pound of fat per week sustainably. If your calorie-cutting and exercise efforts are too extreme, your body may break down muscle tissue to fuel other organs and body functions.
2. You Can Barely Make It Up The Stairs
If extra workouts and fewer calories force your body to use muscle for fuel, everyday activities like taking the stairs or walking to the supermarket may suddenly feel difficult. In short: You’ll feel like a sloth.
You’re especially likely to lose muscle and feel all-around exhausted if in addition to slashing calories and working out more, you also aren’t eating enough protein or getting enough sleep.
These factors are crucial for muscle and recovery health, and can allow for muscle loss—and feelings of fatigue—if not in balance.
3. You Feel Foggy
Not only does a struggle to scrounge up energy leave your body generally wiped out, but it also affects your brain power. After all, your brain requires roughly 20 percent of your daily recommended caloric intake to function.
If your body is in enough of a caloric deficit that it has to break down muscle tissue for energy, your brain feels the effects, too. “Your body is incredibly efficient, and it’s going to want to preserve the most important thing when there’s a caloric deficit—which is the brain,” says Lomas.
When your brain relies on scrap fuel from your muscles, its metabolic rate slows down and you may experience brain fog (think trouble focusing and processing information), Lomas explains.
4. Your Gains Are Suffering
We all have days that we just don’t quite nail our workouts—but if your fitness seems to be taking steps backwards, it may be because you don’t have as much muscle to power you as you used to.
When you work out, you create small tears in your muscle tissue. In order to grow stronger and lift more, those tissues have to repair themselves. If they don’t have the opportunity to recover, though, your progress eventually takes a hit. “If you’re going to the gym and notice you can’t lift as much weight as usual, it could be more than just an off day,” says Lomas. Plateaued—or even lost progress—in the gym could indicate that you’re losing muscle mass.
Check in on your one-rep max for big lifts like squats or pay close attention to how you feel in the final sets and reps of your usual exercises. Can’t meet your usual benchmarks or feel gassed halfway through your sets? Consider it a red flag.
5. You Dread The Gym
Whether your performance is suffering or not, look out for whether your general exhaustion has lead you to loathe the idea of working out. If you feel completely unmotivated for more than a couple of days, consider it your body’s cry for help (in the form of more nutrients and time to support healthy muscle recovery and growth).
“If you feel less energetic, you’re less likely to associate going to the gym with a positive experience,” says Lomas. “And then, chances are that you won’t go back.” Not what you want if you’re trying to shape up.