When you’re working to lose weight, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers on the scale.
But it’s an unreliable marker of progress that only reflects total weight, not its composition (ie the ratio of fat mass to lean mass).
When overstressed, preoccupation with pounds can burn too many calories and, ultimately, lead to muscle wasting.
Thanks to the fad diets and get-fit-quick schemes that fill social media feeds these days, many of us lose both fat. And Muscle is when we lose weight – but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Consider the following signs that you’re losing muscle as a warning that it’s time to reevaluate your weight-loss strategy in favor of a muscle-friendly, more sustainable one.
1. Your Gym Performance Plateaus (or Worse)
Does your workout routine seem harder than usual? Are you consistently unable to lift as much weight as you normally would in several workouts?
Everyone has off days, but if you’re consistently underperforming, it could be because you’re losing muscle mass, says Marley Oldham Carnes, MS, RD, CSCS, CF-L1.
“If you want to lose weight while maintaining muscle, start keeping a training log so you can make sure you’re not losing strength,” she says.
2. You’re losing more than a couple pounds per week
Oldham Carnes says the average person can sustainably lose between one and two pounds per week.
If you lose more than that, you’re losing muscle and water weight in addition to fat.
Also worth noting: If you’re using any diet program or product that promises to lose weight faster than this healthy range, abandon ship, warns Oldham Carnes.
3. You feel sluggish all day
When you lose muscle mass, your workouts are more damaging. “You may also lack overall energy and feel tired, lethargic and less motivated,” says Oldham Carnes.
Often, crash dieting, excessive cardio, stress, and insufficient protein intake that contribute to muscle loss also cause (or exacerbate) mood and energy problems.
How to make sure you’re losing muscle mass
That said, an accurate way to identify if you’re losing muscle is to measure your body composition.
Oldham Carnes says some of the most accurate ways to measure your muscle vs. fat include some pretty fancy techniques (like X-ray scans called DEXA or underwater weighing).
However, your local gym, university or doctor’s office may have a body composition scale that can give you a general idea of your progress.
How to keep muscle while losing fat
“To lose weight and maintain muscle mass, we must employ an appropriate exercise plan that includes strength training, consume a balanced diet with adequate protein, and avoid too high of a calorie deficit (calories burned versus calories consumed), ” explained Oldham Carnes.
1. Eat enough protein
Eating too little protein — or too few calories overall — can force your body to break down muscle tissue. (Not to mention messing with your energy, mood and overall health.)
That’s why personal trainer Lisa Reed, MS, CSCS, USAW, recommends eating 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal — and to include small snacks.
“That way, you’re less hungry and less likely to overeat, have more stable blood sugar and energy, and provide your muscles with the nutrients they need to grow,” she says.
Daily recommended protein intake varies, but most people should aim to consume around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
These grams necessarily increase with increased activity, so regular exercisers should eat more.
2. Power train
To build muscle, you need to challenge your muscles, so make sure strength training is a part of your workout program. (The American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least two to three sessions per week.)
3. Log meals and workouts
Finally, to make sure you’re consuming enough calories, track your diet and activity to keep your calorie deficit at 500 calories or less, suggests Oldham Carnes.
That way, you’ll create enough deficits to see results without pushing into muscle-wasting territory.