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

Key takeaways:

  • Fat mass is excess stored fat found in the adipose tissue while muscles are soft stretchy tissues made up of proteins and cells called muscle fibers.
  • Fat cannot be converted into muscles. Also, muscles cannot turn to fats because their tissue types are different.
  • Ways to lose fat include eating healthy, doing resistance training, cutting out refined foods, and limiting stress.

Body fat cannot be converted into muscles. Likewise, the body cannot turn muscles into fat. 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 who have gained more weight than they want constantly seek ways to lose body fat. It's easy to read every article and post online, even ones that say the body can turn extra fat into muscle. However, this is just 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 definitely achievable. 

Excess calories contribute to the accumulation of 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 do these two affect weight? Let’s see. 

Fats vs muscles

The major difference between fat and muscles lies 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 less 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, like muscles, serve different purposes. 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 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 diet (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 fiber by consuming fiber-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 really want to lose weight, you might not be able to stick to a crash diet. 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 the 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 to 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, and 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 muscle, 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 fat but muscles as well. This is because the body will start burning the proteins contained in the muscles to make up for the lack of dietary protein.

This is why you shouldn't starve your body of protein even if you're giving up foods with a lot of calories. 

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. You can try eating some superfoods for bodybuilding.

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 weightlifting, 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 for 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.