Can Protein Help Preserve Muscle Mass While Losing Weight?

Losing weight is a bit of a tricky process, for several reasons. First of all, it's hard. But, the real challenge is making sure that you lose the right kind of weight.

When you start cutting – and burning – lots of calories, there's a very real concern that some of your muscle could also be turned on while all that fat is being used up.

So, how do you stop that? Can protein powder help to preserve muscle mass while you're losing weight?

What Happens When You Cut Calories

To really understand how to preserve muscle mass, we first need to be very clear on what puts all that lean tissue at risk. As mentioned at the outset, cutting calories in an effort to lose weight makes your body start looking for energy from other sources.

After all, you're purposely restricting the amount of energy that you're taking in while simultaneously increasing how much you're using.

Of course, you'll start to burn more fat at this point. But your body is generally pretty hesitant to give up its precious fat stores.

So, it will also start converting amino acids – which should be contributing to muscle and tissue growth - into glucose for fuel. Those amino acids might come from your blood stream.

Or, more worryingly, they might be taken directly from your muscle tissue.

How Protein Helps Preserve Muscle Mass

 

But, what does any of this matter? Because knowing why muscle is at risk helps to explain how to protect it.

If your body is looking for amino acids, simply providing it with more than you would normally need will ensure that there is enough to support both muscle health and energy production.

Let's look at what the research says.

The Research on Protein and Muscle on a Diet

One 2012 study in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism, had 130 overweight adults follow one of two diets for a year. Both diets were extremely low calorie.

Scoops of protein powders next to a blender bottle

One, however, was low protein and the other was high. At the end of the study, both groups lost roughly the same amount of total weight.

The high protein group, though, lost significantly more fat than their low protein counterparts. This, by extension, means that the high protein diet managed to preserve lean mass while the subjects lost body fat.

Another study by the University of Birmingham (UK) School of Exercise Sciences, recruited 20 athletes between the ages of 18 and 40.

Before the study, they were consuming around 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. 

 All the athletes went on a diet and started eating 40% less calories than they were burning each day.

Group 1 - They ate their regular combination of protein, fat, and carbs, just 40% less. So, their protein intake fell proportionately as well.

Group 2 - They substituted protein for carbs and fat and ate about 2.3 grams of protein per Kg of body weight. So, they still ate 40% les calories, but increased their protein, and compensated by further decreasing carbs and fat.

Results - The high protein group (group 2) hardly lost any muscle mass, and only lost fat. Group 1 (lower protein group) lost both fat and muscle.

How Much Protein Do YOU Need?

But how much protein powder do you need to take get this effect?

The study noted above used 2.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (around 1.04 grams of protein per pound), but they're also athletes and bodybuilders. 

Depending on your regular activity level, your requirements might vary a bit. 

The best thing to do is to increase your protein intake gradually to make sure that you digest it well, and see if you're losing any muscle after a week or so.

If you notice any dips in muscle mass, gradually increase it to around 1 gram of protein for each pound (lb.) of body weight.

Check out our protein calculator if you want to know your baseline of protein requirements based on goals, lifestyle, etc.

Also, for ideas on how to increase your protein intake, be sure to visit our recipes page for high-protein smoothie bowls, breakfast ideas, desserts, energy balls, and a lot more.