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The Truth About Muscle Loss When Dieting

77 Comments | Diet

muscle loss

Muscles are like lizard tails – they can come back if you lose them.

People worry about the weirdest and most irrelevant things when dieting. When you’re dieting, your #1 goal is to lose weight (fat specifically), nothing more, nothing less. You should only be worried about how you’re going to create a calorie deficit for the day.

However minds begin to wonder, goals get distorted, and people begin coming up with these crazy “what if” scenarios.

“What if I eat less and my metabolism slows down?” – Nothing to worry about, covered that here.

“What if I lose weight but regain it all back?” – Then you’re not a very long-term minded person, are you?

“What if I go on a diet, become insanely sexy, and end up causing head-turning car collisions which in turn gets me arrested because of said sexiness and I get a life sentence in a maximum security prison?” – Completely legitimate concern, but that’s just a risk you have to be willing to take.

“What if I lose all my hard-earned muscle while dieting?” – Read the rest of the article.

Muscle loss while dieting is nothing to worry about

I completely understand people’s fear of losing muscle while dieting but the truth is that it’s nothing to worry about.

You see, muscle loss is transient. It’s not permanent. 

So even if you do somehow manage to lose 5 pounds of muscle while dieting, whether it’s due to an illness, extremely low protein intake or lack of resistance training…you’re guaranteed regain that loss once you begin eating normal and resume resistance training.

This is all thanks to muscle memory, which unlike muscle confusion, is a real thing.

Why the hell are you worried about muscle loss?

As long as you’re getting an adequate amount of protein…

As long as you’re consistently weight training while on your diet…

As long as you don’t go on any crazy crash diets….

You’re probably not going to lose any muscle mass. And even if you do manage to lose some… the amount will be minuscule.

Focus on losing body fat, because that’s the hard part. Worrying about muscle loss is just counter-productive.

Once you’re at your desired level of leanness, gaining back any lost muscle will be a relatively easy thing to do.

It’s the mindset of “Oh I should eat more food because I’ll lose muscle” that’s hurting your progress. The only thing eating more food will do is make you fat.

Saying that you should eat more while dieting is just a lame cop out for those who don’t have the discipline of consistently eating less.

Photo Credit – Nuno R.

Paul - July 20, 2017

Hi,

Over the past month and a half I have lost 13 lbs. I not weigh 118. I am 19, 5’6″, but still have belly fat I am really trying to get rid of. I have had back problems since a strain 2 months ago, and it is still healing so I cannot do weight training. I really want to cut some more weight while my back heals. I was thinking 3 more weeks of cutting. I have been eating 1300 cals per day, 100-115 G protein, am now increasing to 1400 and 120-130G. Since I haven’t been able to do weight training with the injury, should I abandon my weight loss goal? It’s really important to me that I cut some of this fat a little more. I was gonna keep going until my back heals enough to lift. Worried about losing too much muscle/not being able to heal the hurt back muscle while losing weight. Thoughts really appreciated.

Reply
    Keith - July 21, 2017

    You can still cut without lifting. But as you know, you’ll lose a bit of muscle. I actually think it’s fine tho, since you’ll lose fat as well, and once you start lifting again, you’ll quickly regain what you lost.

    Reply
      Paul - July 21, 2017

      Thanks so much for your response. I definitely see that I can lose weight in the gut. However, I am at BMI 19 (with 18.5 being technically underweight). The DRs always encourage you to not go below that even if you do think there is some weight that can be lost before bulking. Do you think it’s safe to lose another 2-3 lbs or so, going down to that 18.5 bmi number and then bulk up, or do you think the back will only heal with slight strengthening exercises if I maintain weight now and then bulk up when I can start lifting?

      Reply
        Keith - July 21, 2017

        I have no idea what you look like. BMI is semi decent IF you don’t have much muscle. But once you start building muscle, it’s a horrible form of measuring anything.

        2-3 pounds isn’t a big deal if you really want to lose it, but judging from your comments, you prob don’t need to stress over it.

        Reply
    kimmy - August 6, 2017

    Hi Paul, how’s your back problem? I hope it is healing well. Hope you can pm me at kimmyteri3@gmail.com. tks!

    Reply
Stephanie - June 7, 2017

I was wondering if you could help me. I am a 60 yr female. In Aug 2016 I went on a weight loss program which doesn’t want you to do any exercise because you really only eat approximately 1000 calories a day. Now that I have reached my goal (lost 50 lbs) it seems i have lost muscle. I know some of the meal replacements have almost the same amount of carbs as they do protein. Can you suggest something for me to boost my muscles? When I went for a followup weigh-in my Extracellular muscle had decreased over a months period and I had been asked if I was drinking enough water. Well my water intake is a minimum of 96 ounces a day and sometimes 128. I know it has nothing to do with the water I drink so if you can give me some suggestions that would be great!

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    Keith - June 7, 2017

    You gain muscle by lifting weights. So start lifting weights 🙂

    Reply
    Kimmy - August 6, 2017

    Hi Stephanie, what’s the programme you took? Could you pm me at kimmyteri3@gmail.com. Sorry, just to shy to ask more on the thread. Tks!

    Reply
Rahul - January 25, 2017

Dear Keith and everyone else reading this.

I need some clarification as to whether muscle memory set point is legitimate for someone who has lost weight through low calorie diets without lifting weights!!!

Here’s my story. 5 years ago back in 2012 I was 90kg at BMI 28 5″10.5 179 cm tall, male. I was addicted to junk food and coca cola back in college and uni. I gave up junk food and sugary drinks and stopped snacking and immediately dropped to 79kg naturally stayed there for 6 months before further going on a diet+exercise regime. I was overweight for 5 years of my life according to BMI before that I was always a healthy weight.

Anyway, I then went on a low calorie diet 1500 calories and cardio of 2 hours briskly walking and 20 minutes of running up the stairs in June 2013. I lost a lot of weight to about 62kg in 8 months in February 2014. During the process I simply added calories gradually all the way up to 2400 for maintenance every week but during that process I lost to 62kg without my intention. I wanted to remain at 64kg.

Anyway I maintained this 62kg weight successfully for 15 months without counting calories during my maintenance phase. Then I started doing 100-500 push ups a day and immediately I jumped to 64kg 2 months later, I believe this was muscle memory at that time. Because every month for 15 months when I weighed myself I was 62kg.

But now I haven’t weighed myself for over a year and in the past 2 years I went from 62kg to now 74kg.

Here are my stats according to skinfold measurements.. At the time of measurements. February 2015 I was 62kg Chest 4 mm Abdomen 9 mm Thigh 8 mm Body Fat % 5.78 Fat Weight 3.6 KILOGRAMS Lean Weight 58.4 KILOGRAMS.

Today as of January 25 2017… my weight is 74kg Chest 4 mm Abdomen 9 mm Thigh 7 mm Body Fat % 5.57 Fat Weight 4.1 KILOGRAMS Lean Weight 69.9 KILOGRAMS.

According to this measurement I gained 11.5 kg of lean mass while gaining only 0.5 kg of fat mass. The only difference here is that I can’t fit in my old 28 inch skinny jeans. But I can still comfortably fit into my 30 inch skinny jeans perfectly with little to no tightness and visually I look and feel pretty much the same now at 74 kg compared to what I was 62 kg 2 years ago. I also look much slimmer at 74 kg now than when I was at 68 kg when comparing some of my old photos back in 2013.

Now my important question is this… Is it possible that I have regained 11 and a half kilos of lean mass without lifting weights during the last 2 years? I am assuming this is some of the weight I’ve lost due to low calorie diet where I must have lost fat and muscle simultaneously? This is very strange because I look leaner now at 74 kg but I also look much slimmer compared to 64-68 kg.

Is it possible that I have regained the lost lean mass naturally without lifting weights?! My lifestyle and eating habits past 3 years has been pretty much the same, I only walk 2 hours a day as part of day to day fitness.

Kind regards,
Rahul

Reply
    Keith - January 25, 2017

    “Now my important question is this… Is it possible that I have regained 11 and a half kilos of lean mass without lifting weights during the last 2 years? ”

    Dude, honestly, I have no idea. 2 years is a long ass time. A lot can happen in 2 years and I don’t know what you did in that span of time. I don’t even remember what I ate for lunch yesterday.

    There had to be some change in your diet/workout that sparked the change. It doesn’t just happen for no reason.

    People don’t regain muscle if they’re in a deficit and especially if they’re not training.

    Unless 2 years ago you were 14 years old and now you’re 16.

    Then that’s probably called puberty.

    Reply
      Rahul - January 25, 2017

      Many thanks for your response, Keith.

      Well I am 27 years old soon in less than 2 months I’ll be 28. I was 62 kg as of February 2014 to May 2015.

      I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with my weight. It’s really strange, because I live with my parents and they are also shocked and can’t believe I am 74 kg as of today. They say that I look absolutely the same! All my photos on Facebook where I am at 68 kg in 2013 I look fatter visibly and a puffier face than now at 74 kg it feels like a 10 kg visual difference!

      I still fit in 30 inch trousers, Extra Small size T-Shirts and I also wear an Extra Small size jacket for the last 3 years with no problems.

      The only thing I have been doing is some abdominal crunches using a ball, but not regularly and some push-ups every once in a while. Plus everyday 2 hours of briskly walking for fitness and hobby reasons. But I have never ever gone to the gym or weight lifted in my life!

      Even if my fat caliper measurements are somewhat inaccurate.

      I still have no idea how I go from:

      62 KG—>Body Fat % 5.78 Fat Weight 3.6 KILOGRAMS Lean Weight 58.4 KILOGRAMS.
      74 KG—>Body Fat % 5.57 Fat Weight 4.1 KILOGRAMS Lean Weight 69.9 KILOGRAMS.

      It seems somewhat legitimate by my skin-fold measurements but at the same time unexplainable. I have experienced absolutely no hunger tendency, always eating to fullness.

      Because as you say in your article, muscle memory retention can only happen with weight lifting/resistance training. That’s why I am so confused right now how this is possible to happen without weight training. :/

      Maybe I need to diet down a few kilos to see if there are significant changes but I feel a little discouraged now.

      Thanks anyway,
      Rahul

      Reply
Dom - January 25, 2017

So I’ve read a few of your articles within the past week and I figured I’d make a comment and see what you’d say, if that’s alright of course. I’m 17 years old, 6 foot 3 inches, 249 pounds, and slightly active. For about a month I was running for an hour or so everyday until my previous knee problems resurfaced because I jumped into that routine way too early, definitely a learning experince there. As of now, my exercise is about 40 minutes every other day in PE class where I break a sweat, but I know I should increase that time. Other than that, it’s just plain walking in between buildings at my school. So, I’ve generally been a big kid since my younger years but I’ve started to realize that, for appearance reasons and health reasons, I should cut down my eating in general and eat healthier options. I never tracked my eating before but recently I have been, for about 2 weeks now. I’ve been eating anywhere between 1,700-2,000 calories a day and have seen some results as of it as stated. At my last doctors appointment in November, I stepped on the scale and was 271 pounds, a complete shocker to me and that’s when I realized I needed to cut back. With cutting down and eating a little healthier, I’m 249 but would like to see that number around 220-230 or so. In short, for my situation and from your experience, is about 1,700 give or take 200 or so enough? Not enough? Bad? Alright? How about protein intake? From tracking my food, I get about 80-90 grams a day of protein. Is that also not enough? Enough? Alright? Sorry for the long paragraph, but I thank you in advance if you choose to respond 🙂

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    Keith - January 25, 2017

    Protein is enough if you’re not weight lifting but I would recommend you to get a minimum of 2000 calories per day. 2000-2400 would be good.

    But beyond tracking calories, at your age, your main goal should be to simply make healthier food choices. Just common sense stuff, like cut back on the junk food and stop drinking your calories from juice/soda and eat more veggies.

    Reply
      Dom - January 26, 2017

      I really appreciate you taking your time to respond. I have been making healthier food choices such as more home prepared chicken breasts, lots of veggies, eggs, and I’ve definitely been staying away from fast food and soda. Thanks again man!

      Reply
Tony - January 22, 2017

I did a DEXA scan prior to my cut. After 3 months of cutting I lost 6lbs of muscles and 6 lbs of fats. I ate 1g of proteins a day, did my best to keep my strength when training, but still lost a ton of muscles. I worked my kcals slowly down to arrive at a deficit of 700 kcals per day. What do you think I did wrong?

Reply
    Keith - January 22, 2017

    How much do you weigh now? And what is your approximate goal weight? 700 calorie deficit is pretty big and could explain why you lost muscle.

    Reply
    Chris Mcconkey - May 10, 2017

    Just wanted to comment that dexa would include glucose stored in muscle cells as ffm unless I am mistaken . Hence when cutting losing 4-5 lbs of this stored energy (especialy if using a lower carb diet) this is not actual muscle tissue, but rather fluid stored within the tissue which can fluctuate. So a more reasonable guess would be 6lbs of fat loss , 4 lbs of glycogen and 1-2 lbs of muscle loss. So dont worry bro.

    Reply
Brandon - December 23, 2016

You need to stop giving people advice, almost everything I have read on here is complete BS. Out of curiosity what qualifications do you have?

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    Keith - December 23, 2016

    That’s interesting, why do you say it is BS? 🙂

    Reply
mike - October 10, 2016

I appreciate the honesty in your article. I’ve been on a strict 1800 calorie diet for 2 weeks now and I wavered a little today. I needed to read your article to get myself back on track, thanks.

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    Keith - October 10, 2016

    glad it helped.

    Reply
    ron - October 21, 2016

    when i did 1800 after a month i couldnt take it anymore and wound up going back to maintenance for like six months before i was ready to try again. I started at 187 with 24% BF and on 2100 calories a day for six weeks, 45mins cardio 3-4 times a week (sometimes HIIT sometimes not), weights 2 – 3 a week. If i feel the calories lacking hard (usually i can tell based on my running pace), then i take a rest day.

    now i’m 176 19% BF. according to some online calculators, i should weigh about 160 with 13% BF and i’m 8 weeks away from my goal.

    i feel like i could maintain this for a long time. I eat 2100 calories a day, and i can lose weight, train often, feel satisfied (never full) and even if i skip a meal (because i have a job and a life), i have enough glycogen to get through it..

    1800 just seems low and hard to maintain…

    Reply
Wik - August 31, 2016

You do lose muscle during the diet phase no question about it. That is very easily recognizable with a tape or even the amount of weight you can easily lift in the gym.

That said, here’s what I do quite successfully:
day 1: Detox day with full unrestricted workout
day 2: Detox day with full unrestricted workout
day 3: Introduction of protein (50g) with 90% workout
day 4: Introduction of protein (50g) with 80% workout (getting weaker by the day and losing muscle)
day 5: Full protein (100g) with 75% workout (sustenance phase)
day 6: Full protein with some fats 85% workout (muscle sustenance)
day 7: Full protein with some fats and vegetables 90% workout (muscle gain)
day 8: Full protein with normal fats and vegetables 100% workout (muscle gain)

By day 9, I have lost 10 lbs and gained muscle back with a very decent metabolism.
I have done similar versions of this cramped into three days and 5 days.

Reply
    Keith - August 31, 2016

    Detox days are BS.

    And “introducing protein” really makes no sense.

    Reply
      James - October 21, 2016

      If there’s no muscle loss when cutting, why is there a loss in strength? Why do people on steroids have a lower body fat percent than naturals when cutting the exact same amount of weight?

      Reply
        Keith - October 22, 2016

        A lot of it’s due to a decrease in relative strength (e.g. benching 225 is harder when you’re 165 vs when you’re 180 pounds).

        Steroids also make EVERYTHING easier when it comes to body composition.

        Reply
Daniel - August 3, 2016

I can even add that you don’t need THAT much protein to prevent muscle loss. Just go keto and/or intermittent fasting, and lose the damn fat. Furthermore, excessive protein intake can nerf your fat loss because of the insulin response.

Sometimes I would eat just 40 grams of protein in a whole day, and didn’t lose a single gram of muscle. Most days I would take around 60-80 grams of protein. ENOUGH.

THE REAL PROBLEM is that people overestimate their muscles. See, if you are 30% fat and have big arms, they are FULL OF FAT and once you get fit the arms will shrink in size, BUT WHO CARES, you will look a lot better without the fat surrounding every part of your body.

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    Keith - August 3, 2016

    That advice can be dangerous.

    If you are untrained and don’t actively do any weight lifting, 60-80 grams is enough.

    But if you’ve built a substantial amount of muscle over the years and wish to maintain the max amount while dieting, you can’t do 60-80 grams. You will absolutely lose muscle.

    Reply
Kristin - July 17, 2016

Thanks for the reality check! For 9 years I’ve tried to lose weight “sustainably”, by slightly reducing calories. What a laugh. If I do it as experts recommend, it will take 2-3 years.

I recently decided to diet unsustainably (restricted portions) and found your website. I am seeing results I never saw when I merely tried to cultivate healthy eating habits and occassional desserts. Now, I look forward to faster weight loss! Whoever said not to crash diet realy misled me and wasted my time for 9 years!

I decided to get the weight of then deal with sustainability! Thanks for the brutal honesty!

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Julie Watts - June 8, 2016

I’ve lost weight over time but I’ve lost muscle to I can’t eat I don’t feel good I have bonuses and sicknesses and I’m losing muscle and I work hard what can I do it’s not that I don’t try to eat it doesn’t taste good I’m five bites I’m done so how do I do that

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    Keith - June 8, 2016

    Not sure I understand the question…

    Reply
    Kristin - July 17, 2016

    For when I’m to sick to eat, I keep “bribe” foods around, because it only takes a few bites to pack in the calories… Like pudding, humus, meal replacement drinks, cottage chese, ice cream, chocolate, baby food, jarred (canned) sausages, ravioli or canned enchiladas, hummus, noodes (you can buy pre-cooked refrigerated noodles in health section), pie filling…

    Sound like a medical check up could help.

    Mouth washes with cetylpridium give an after taste that affects meals, too. You could switch to alcohol-based mouth wash.

    Can you try organic or buy better food? Do you know how to prepare food for flavor? Sear the outside gently in high heat for flavor then cook the insides of the food slowly.

    Here are some flavorful foods: Pork, bacon, Canadian bacon, sesame seeds, stir-fried bell pepper, sharp cheddar, kalamati olives, sour cream, sausage, dried sausages, canned sausage, dry powdered ranch dressing mixes, soy sauce, Dr. Bonner’s amino acids (soy), roasted tomatoes, butter, palm oil (it is a spread), prawns, shrimp, roasred eggplant, fried eggplant, cooked cabbage, brussels sprouts, asparagus, fruit, roasted seasoned seaweed (Asian) and nutritional yeast. In moderation, for most people these can be healthy foods!

    If you are not an alcoholic, take a small bit of wine as an appetizer. You may need appetizers. My appetite grows just from stir frying chopped onions and garlic to get started.

    An easy way to keep your weight up is to add olive oil to everything. If you don’t like the taste, buy “light flavor”. Peanut butter is also high calorie, filling, and very nutritious.

    Reply
Alex - November 24, 2015

I found this article to be pretty good general advice. I’m 41 and have been a slave to trying to build a lean, muscular physique since I was 17. That is a lot of experience with trial and error and I have found this article to be a good summation of the situation. Age is a MAJOR factor, however. After a diet my strength dwindles significantly so a couple of years, like always, I would eat more to re-coup that lost strength/muscle. I have really noticed in the past few years that still happens but now the fat comes back very easily because of the age. Last time I did my same old routine, increased my calories/food intake (it didn’t seem like I was overeating) and probably gained 30 fat pounds. And I was hardly stuffing myself either. I am ending another diet phase and my approach to bouncing back my strength will be eating only slightly more. Pounding the calories worked well when I was younger but getting 30 pounds off now takes 8 months, not 2 months like it did when I was young.

Reply
    Keith - November 24, 2015

    Yeah I agree age does make everything a bit harder but at the same time, it’s not the end all be all factor like so many people treat it.

    Reply
Ryan - September 22, 2015

Wow this website is bad I feel like I need to warn people about your advice. You went from you won’t lose muscle while dieting to, you’ll lose a little muscle, to yes you’ll lose muscle but you just have to work out again. All of your articles are like this, this guy is a fraud.

Reply
    Keith - September 22, 2015

    Fraud? How are all my articles like this?

    Reply
    Kajetan - September 29, 2015

    Have you even read more than 1 article on this site? Keith is very convincing and original and his advises helped me a lot.

    Reply
    A - October 30, 2015

    This is ALL sooooo wrong !!!! I have to say, I am studying in this field, and Ryan is right. Please stop giving people the wrong advice.

    Reply
      Keith - October 30, 2015

      If you want to say i’m wrong, please explain why I’m wrong.

      Reply

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