Too many people suffer an unintended loss of muscle when they diet. Muscle’s importance goes beyond keeping you moving. Muscle feeds your immune system during sickness or injury, lowers blood sugar after a meal and can even send out powerful chemical messengers (myokines) that lower inflammation. Keeping your muscle while dieting is critical.

Here is a bad scenario that plays out too frequently. You have great intentions and begin dieting. You lose weight and your clothes fit better. People notice a smaller you and the compliments start to flow. So, what’s so bad? The lost weight included both fat and muscle. Without knowing it, you gave away the very thing that helps keep fat off.

Here’s the thing about muscle. After you eat, muscle takes in blood sugar and stores it as glycogen. Glycogen is just a bunch of blood sugar molecules (glucose) bound together. If a diet has left you with smaller muscles, the sugar you eat is less likely to be stored and more likely to turn into fat and cholesterol. This means when you stop dieting, it’s easy to gain the weight back because less muscle means easier fat building.

So, what can we do to protect muscle and lose fat?

Exercise. First, muscle tension associated with exercise is a powerful signal to keep muscle protein. Use it or lose it. Second, exercise burns carbohydrates for energy and trains the muscle to store more sugar. A bigger, empty muscle gives the sugar you eat a place to go and helps prevent it from turning into fat or cholesterol.

Eat breakfast and make sure it includes protein. Muscle is constantly breaking down and building up protein. When you wake up in the morning after an overnight fast, breakdown is higher than buildup and you are losing muscle. Eating protein increases protein building in muscle. One amino acid, leucine, is particularly important. It’s found in such foods as cheese, soybeans, beef, chicken, pork, nuts, seeds, seafood and beans. By simply introducing protein, muscle protein synthesis increases, resulting in positive net protein balance.

Enjoy food? Get dining and recipe ideas sent to your inbox

Never eat jellybeans and go to bed. A high sugar/no protein meal prior to bed is devastating to muscle. The sudden increase in blood sugar from the late night “sugar hit” is followed by a crash in blood sugar and amino acids. Low blood sugar and amino acids cause muscle to give up its amino acids to make sugar while you sleep, resulting in muscle loss.

Avoid lopsided consumption. Most adults in the United States get the majority of their protein (more than 60 percent) in one meal: dinner. Most people only need 15 to 25 grams of a good source of protein in a meal to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Spread out your protein intake and appreciate that you don’t need excessive protein.

These suggestions are not meant to replace your physician’s recommendations. You should always consult with a health care professional before starting any diet or exercise program.

Dr. Weinert is a 1996 graduate of Palmer College of Chiropractic. He earned his M.S. in exercise science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a Ph.D. in higher education at the University of Iowa. He is currently the college provost for Palmer College of Chiropractic, serving as the chief academic officer and overseeing Academic Affairs and Clinic Affairs at all three Palmer campuses.