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How to Cut Body Fat Without Losing Muscle

By Jill Corleone, RDN, LD ; Updated July 18, 2017

When you go on a diet to lose weight, you want to lose fat. Unfortunately, some of those lost pounds may also be muscle. While you can't completely prevent your body from breaking down muscle for energy when you restrict your intake, you may be able to minimize the loss by making changes to how you lose. Talk to your doctor or dietitian to help you design a diet and exercise plan that fits your specific needs for optimal weight loss.

Cut the Fat by Eating Enough

You might be anxious to lose weight, but if retaining muscle is your goal, don't fall victim to a fad diet that promises quick results. Losing weight at a fast rate, greater than 2 pounds a week, results in loss of muscle and water weight. In turn, your weight loss doesn't come primarily from fat. A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that athletes were able to retain more muscle mass by losing weight at a rate of 1 pound a week rather than 2 pounds a week. To lose 1 pound of fat in seven days, you need to burn 500 more calories than you eat daily by slightly reducing your food intake, working out more or both. For example, you could reduce your caloric intake by 250 calories and work out to burn 250 extra calories a day.

Balanced Diet to Keep Muscle

Getting the right balance of nutrients is also important to maintain muscle while you lose the fat. A 2010 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that athletes were able to maintain lean body mass on a lower-calorie diet by getting a higher percentage of their calories from protein. Aim for 0.8 gram per pound of body weight to support the strength-training program you need to retain muscle.

Getting enough carbs is also essential for retaining muscle and cutting fat. Carbs are your body's main source of energy, and you need to eat enough so you don't use protein or your muscle for energy. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says you should get about 50 percent of your calories from healthy carbs such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy. For health and balance, 20 to 35 percent of your calories should come from protein.

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Get Physical

Exercise is an important component of any weight-loss plan, especially when your goal is to cut fat without losing muscle. You can prevent loss of muscle mass with 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walk, daily, according to a 2013 report published in Clinical Nutrition. Build muscle, and limit muscle loss, by lifting weights, using resistance bands or engaging in body-resistance exercises to work out all of the big muscle groups, legs, back, shoulders, arms, abs and chest, at least twice a week.

Benefits of Muscle When Cutting Fat

Finding ways to retain muscle is beneficial to your overall weight-loss plan. Muscle is a major contributor to your metabolic rate, which is a measurement of the number of calories your body burns in a day, so holding onto lean muscle mass helps you burn more calories, 24 hours a day. Taking steps to add muscle to your frame while you lose the fat may help increase your metabolic rate to further enhance fat loss, and it may offset the need to decrease your caloric intake as you lose the weight.

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