10 Surprising Things That Can Cause You to Lose Muscle

Updated: May 20, 2021

Don't let those squats in the gym go to waste—learn from the experts the habits and foods that can cause your muscle to wither.


Missing muscle?

If you’re hitting those strength training machines and loading up on protein, but can’t see results, it might be your behavior outside the gym that’s undermining your efforts and even causing you to store fat. Luckily, we have solutions: Here, experts share a quick guide to muscle loss, to make your search a bit easier.

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You need fish

Who cares if you’re that person at work opening the can of albacore tuna. You have to eat oily fish, like salmon or halibut, or you’ll miss out on heart-healthy and muscle-building omega 3 fatty acids, according to Jennifer Novak, MS, CSCS, a kinesiologist and National Strength and Conditioning Association strength and conditioning specialist.

Novak explains: “Omega 3 fatty acids can help improve insulin sensitivity in the muscle cells and therefore improve the muscles’ ability to utilize the protein you eat. And, by improving insulin sensitivity, the omega-3s can also help the body’s ability to reduce muscle protein breakdown,” she says, findings that come from a 2014 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, she says.

And, if you don’t like fish, you can try other sources of omega 3 fatty acids.

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You need a place in the sun

The best source of vitamin D is sun exposure, and if you’re not getting any or taking D supplements, you could start to lose muscle. “Vitamin D has long been promoted for its role in calcium absorption for the support of bone health,” says Novak, “but it also has a role in building muscle mass.” What’s more, your D absorption weakens with age, says Novak, and you need to be extra vigilant about meeting the dietary requirements as you get older.

Try and get some sun on your face and arms for a few minutes as often as possible, and speak to a doctor about having your vitamin D levels tested—you might need a supplement. Checking your levels could help resolve the confusion, as it’s pretty common to be deficient in vitamin D.


Skipping meals

If you look at the clock at 6 p.m. and realize you haven’t eaten since breakfast, you could be starving your muscles in addition to yourself. According to Samuel Simpson, MSEd, NSCA-CPT, slashing calories could actually backfire, preventing you from reaching your health goals.

“It has become a trend in the training world to practice certain habits like calorie slashing, but it’s not smart since your body needs calories to maintain and grow muscle,” he says. Instead, the habit can slow your metabolism and cause you to lose muscle and hold on to fat, he explains. You’re better off eating well-rounded meals to keep your metabolism high and your muscles fueled.

Be sure to incorporate these five daily habits that combat muscle loss into your routine.

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Eliminating carbs

Cutting back on processed and refined carbs can help with your health and your waistline, but don’t lose the healthy, complex carbs as well. “Carbs are typically cut out of diets, but they’re totally crucial for muscle recovery after a workout. Carbs are broken down and stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen, which when we begin to exercise, is then readily available to fuel your body after being converted into glucose,” Simpson explains.

And, without the carbs, we can’t store that glycogen, and muscle breakdown will occur, he explains.

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Letting pain keep you from pumping

If you suffer from chronic pain, exercise and strength conditioning is one of the natural ways to ease your pain. You may want to speak with a specialist to find appropriate low-impact exercises. “Avoiding exercise because of chronic pain can put you at risk losing muscle mass. And, exercise will help you maintain muscle while easing your joint pain,” says Benjamin Domb, MD, nationally recognized orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine.

And, if you’re looking to medication to ease any tension, such as ibuprofen, be careful: A recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, explains that over-the-counter pain killers might hinder muscle regeneration and cause weakness.


Drying out

Just like the rest of you, your muscles desperately need hydration. “Muscles contain a lot of water, and dehydration can prevent muscles from properly contracting, thereby reducing muscle tone,” says Washington, DC nutritionist Katie Sampayo.

Think of a grape versus a raisin, she says. “Grapes are hydrated, plump and juicy. Raisins are dehydrated and shriveled up like old skin. Now imagine this happening to your muscles. Drink more water, and you’ll have plumper, more defined muscles,” she explains.

Aim to drink about nine cups per day, based on current advice from the Institute of Medicine. But listen to your body, because you might need more: If you spend long hours working out or are especially active throughout the day, you’ll need more.

To be on the safe side, make sure you know the signs of dehydration.


Passing up on protein

Grabbing a handful of chips might taste good, but they’re likely lacking in muscle-building protein. Try some nuts or seeds instead—they satisfy that same savory snack craving and provide fuel for your muscles.

And, it’s a good idea to spread your protein intake throughout the day, says Sampayo, where you’re aiming to get five to six meals/snacks a day, she advises. Here are some ways to sneak more protein into your diet.

Plus, protein is especially important if you’ve just finished a workout. “After exercising, consuming 10 to 20 grams of lean protein within 30 minutes is essential for replenishing your muscles,” she says. “This is what actually makes you stronger after lifting weights. It’s more about the aftercare.”

Of course, protein alone can’t do the job: “Eat plenty of fruits and veggies when eating primary protein sources like meats and dairy. Fruits and vegetables supply potassium and magnesium that protect your muscles from different acids found in these protein sources that can cause long-term muscle damage,” she explains.

If you’re vegan or vegetarian, don’t fear, as there are tons of vegan protein sources to choose from.


Skimping on sleep

Here’s more reason to get some zzz’s: Not only is sleep enjoyable, but it’s also the prime time for muscle regeneration and growth.

“During sleep, growth hormone is produced and protein synthesis occurs,” explains Sampayo. “The main benefits of getting adequate sleep are increasing energy and restoring and repairing muscles, as well as other fibers and cells.” Without enough shut-eye, you might feel weak, sluggish, and less energized, which will impact the quality of your workouts and cause you to lose muscle.

Aim for seven to eight hours nightly, she says. And, if you need help falling asleep, there are certain foods that can make you sleepy and help you get the rest your muscles need.

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Too many “Wine Wednesdays”

It’s hard to say no to that glass of wine sometimes, but if you’re drinking too much, you might be losing some valuable muscle. Alcohol dehydrates your body, and that can strip away muscle, says Sampayo. As you get older, and speeding up at menopause, this correlation between alcohol and muscle loss is even stronger.

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If you’ve been injured or inactive for a few days or weeks at a time, you could be at risk of losing lean muscle mass. “Research shows three days of bed rest for older adutls can cause up to 10 percent of total leg muscle loss. And for many, nausea after surgery can prevent them from eating for up to three to four days, which can lead to muscle breakdown,” says Suzette Pereira, PhD, a nutrition scientist at Abbott.

Here’s a fix. “To support your recovery, eat more high-quality proteins and complex carbohydrates before and after surgery. Even as you rest after surgery, your body is burning up calories to help you recover,” she says. And don’t stay still for longer than you need to. “Getting up and moving as soon as possible following a surgery or hospitalization can help you preserve lean muscle, stay strong, and make a faster transition back into your regular routine,” she recommends. (Here are some tips for a faster recovery after surgery.)