Can you convert body fat into muscle?

With different weight loss programs out there, people are often confused about what works and what doesn’t. One common question people ask is, “can body fat be turned into muscles?”

An overweight man showing some belly fat

Body fat cannot be converted into muscles. Likewise, the body cannot turn muscles into fats. This is because muscles and fats are two different tissue types. Just like oranges cannot be converted to mangoes, fats cannot be converted to muscles.

People who are overweight or those that have gained more weight than they want constantly seek ways to lose body fat. It is easy to consume every article and post online, including claims that the body can convert excess fat into muscle, but that is only a myth.

If you want to lose weight, you should think of ways to lose the excess fat and gain more muscles as separate processes instead. The good news is that this is very much achievable. 

Excess calories form the excess fat in your body. When you consume calories in the normal amount your body needs (daily caloric need), your body burns the calories as fuel for carrying out body functions.

But when excess calories are consumed, the body will be unable to burn all of them for fuel. The excess then gets stored as fat. The more calories you consume (without physical activity to burn them up), the more fat you store. 

But what really differentiates fats from muscles, and how does these two affect weight? Let’s see. 

Fats vs muscles

The major difference between fat and muscles lie in their density. This means one pound of fat will weigh the same as one pound of muscle. However, a pound of muscle will take up lesser space than a pound of fat. 

Fat is stored in fat cells that are found underneath the skin. On the other hand, muscles are made up of proteins. Muscles also use carbohydrates and fats as fuel.

People with greater muscle mass have higher metabolic rates because they burn more calories. Another difference between muscle and fat is that while muscles tend to burn more calories, fats tend to store them.

Fats also have different functions from muscles. Fats trap heat and insulate the body while muscles help with metabolism. This explains why people with more muscle mass burn more calories even when at rest.

BMI, muscle and fat

Your BMI is the measurement of your weight in relation to your height

You may think that muscle mass is related to body mass index (BMI), but it’s not. BMI is the measurement of your weight with respect to your height. Therefore the primary determinants of BMI are height and weight.

However, even though BMI does not measure fat directly, it is moderately linked with some direct measures of body fat. Also, BMI is strongly correlated with different metabolic and disease conditions, which are linked with body fatness.

What to do to lose fat

Losing fat, especially those around the belly, can be challenging, but it is achievable. You will need patience, determination, effort and consistency to lose body fat.

Many fat-burning products, supplements, and fad diets promise quick weight loss results. However, evidence has shown that the most effective ways to lose fat are by modifying your lifestyle, eating the right diets (cutting out high-calorie foods) and maintaining a great exercise routine. 

Things you can do to induce long-term fat loss include:

  • Cut out refined carbs such as white bread, pasta and pastries and eat whole carbs like whole wheat, barley, quinoa and oats instead
  • Avoid sweetened beverages like soda and opt for unsweetened beverages like water and green tea, and natural fruit drinks instead
  • Consume lots of fibre by consuming fibre-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds and nuts
  • Eat healthy fats (not all fats are unhealthy), such as olive oil, avocado, sesame oil and coconut oil
  • Consume protein-rich foods to promote fat burning, reduce your appetite and enhance muscle cell growth
  • Limit stress and stress has been linked to weight gain
  • Get enough sleep
  • Commence strength training routines
  • Engage in cardio exercises, e.g., running, walking and swimming, to increase fat burning and weight loss
  • Avoid or limit alcohol intake
  • Drink enough water
  • Talk to your doctor about trying intermittent fasting

If you are enthusiastic about losing weight, you may be unable to sustain crash diets. Unapproved supplements may also be harmful to your health. It is best to be patient and work with a sustainable long-term weight loss plan using the tips given above. 

What happens to your muscles if you stop exercising

There is a common misconception that your muscles will be turned into fat if you stop exercising. But, as already established in this article, your body muscles cannot be turned into fat! However, you stop losing some of your muscle mass when you stop exercising.

Have you noticed that when a person is bedridden for weeks or months, they start looking frail and smaller in size? They experience what is called muscle atrophy due to a reduction in muscle protein synthesis.

Muscle atrophy is caused by disuse of the muscles, which happens to someone who stops engaging in physical activities. The person’s muscle mass remains small or may start shrinking and wasting away because lack of physical activity reduces muscle protein synthesis.. 

Muscle atrophy occurs because physical inactivity increases protein degradation (remember, muscles are made of protein). If you don’t put your muscles into use, your body will eventually break them down to conserve energy.

How do you lose fat without losing muscle?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

For people who want to build their body, tone the abdominal area, have prominent biceps and six-pack abs, one common question is, “how do I lose fat without losing muscles?” 

To lose your body fat without losing muscles, you must eat the right diet. Some foods boost muscle cell growth, thereby increasing muscle mass. 

If you cut off high-calorie foods without eating enough protein, you may end up losing not just fats but muscles as well. This is because the body will start burning the proteins contained in the muscles to make up for unavailable dietary protein.

This is why you mustn’t deprive your body of dietary protein even while cutting off high-calorie containing foods. 

If you are trying to build your muscles, there are two things you can do: do resistance training consistently (e.g., weight lifting) and eat a sufficient amount of protein.

Weight lifting taxes the muscles, working them and stimulating their growth in the process. If you don’t give the muscles work to do, they get weak and may not increase in mass. However, resistance training like weight lifting, push-ups and squats support muscle growth.

Since the only way to build muscles is by constantly pushing the body to do intense work, cardio exercises may do little or nothing to enhance muscle growth. This is because while aerobic exercises can get the heart rate up, they may not tax the body enough to stimulate muscle growth.

If you have questions about weight loss, you can talk to a weight loss coach or a dietician. These are experts that can help you through your weight loss journey. You can also sign up for a gyming program so you can be accountable with your workout routines.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). About adult BMI
  2. English, Kirk L, and Douglas Paddon-Jones. (2010). Protecting muscle mass and function in older adults during bed rest.