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Which Burns First, Fat or Muscle?

author image Meredith Crilly
Meredith C. has worked as a nutrition educator, chef and community health projects since 2011. She received a Bachelor of Science in nutrition from the University of Tennessee and is currently completing an MS/DI program in nutrition.
Which Burns First, Fat or Muscle?
Someone is hiking in the desert. Photo Credit: Design Pics/Design Pics/Getty Images

Whether you're training for an event, trying to increase your muscle mass or just want to get in better shape, your body relies on three main nutrients for fuel. Because your body can break down carbohydrates, muscle and fat for energy, understanding the order of nutrient breakdown can help you save or build muscle mass and increase fat loss.

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Primarily Carbohydrates

The first fuel that your body breaks down for energy is carbohydrates. After a meal, your body is in the "fed" state and preferentially breaks down carbohydrates since they are easily accessible and turned into energy. After your body has used up the carbohydrates from a meal or snack, your cells begin to break down glucose stored in your muscles and liver known as glycogen. Glycogen stores vary in each person, but are typically depleted within 24 hours, meaning your body has to begin breaking down other compounds for energy.

Fat Preferentially Metabolized

When glucose and glycogen are not available, your body preferentially breaks down fatty compounds known as triacylglycerols which are present in adipose or fat tissue. Because fat is a high-energy source with nine calories per gram, fat provides an efficient fuel source. Additionally, your body metabolically prefers to preserve lean body mass and, when possible, breaks down fat stores for fuel as much as possible. Only when your fat stores are extremely low or depleted does your body have to then break down protein.

Muscle Breakdown

When glucose and fat stores are depleted, your body will then turn to muscle to break down into individual amino acids for energy. Unlike carbohydrates and fat, your body does not store amino acids, which is why muscle breakdown is the only way to release amino acids for fuel. In typical conditions where you are eating on a regular basis, your body will not use muscle for energy. Typically, protein is used for fuel only in a starvation state. Because you need muscle tissue to survive and move, the natural tendency of metabolism is to spare muscle tissue and break down carbohydrates and fat first.

Other Considerations

While your body avoids breaking down muscle tissue, an inadequate diet prevents muscle gains. Although you may be working out and trying to gain muscle mass, if you are not following a diet adequate in protein and calories, your body will not build muscle cells and you may even notice muscle losses. If you are not eating adequate protein, the muscle damage that occurs during exercise cannot be fixed and muscle size or strength may decrease. Without adequate replenishment, you may think your body is breaking down muscle when instead, your cells lack the nutrients needed to repair and rebuild. If you are trying to gain muscle mass or increase your overall strength, consult with a dietitian and trainer to build a healthy, balanced diet that will help you reach your goals.

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