Catabolism: Understanding and Preventing It

Catabolism is a process whereby the body breaks down tissue for energy. Sometimes, the body can use muscle tissue. Make sure your muscles stay healthy when you're on a weight-loss diet.
Catabolism: Understanding and Preventing It

Last update: 30 August, 2019

Among many biological processes that happen in your cells, two very important metabolic ones are catabolism and anabolism. They’re antagonistic processes and have an important effect on your body, especially on your muscles. Learn what muscular catabolism is and why you need to prevent it at all costs.

Catabolism and anabolism

Catabolism and anabolism are two important metabolic pathways that occur in your body on a microscopic level. Below, we’ll explain what they are and how they’re different.


Anabolism is the synthesis of new tissue and always requires energy. It’s also known as ‘biosynthesis.”

In muscles, anabolism refers to the creation of new muscle tissue or building upon preexisting muscle tissue. Anabolic processes always require a high amount of energy from the body. Consequently, diets catered towards building muscle have a caloric surplus.


Catabolism is the opposite of anabolism. In catabolism, the body destroys existing tissue to use as energy. An example of a catabolic pathway is burning fat. When your body burns fat, it’s breaking down the fat tissue to use as energy because your body is facing a calorie deficit.

But, some situations can lead to catabolism of muscular tissue, and consequently, loss of lean muscle mass.

Catabolism in muscles: what is it

Catabolism affects muscles when the body faces a high energy demand that requires it to destroy tissue to meet said needs. While the body normally draws its energy from glycogen or fat tissue, it’s not always the case. When the body requires high amounts of energy, it stops prioritizing the sources and breaks down tissues indiscriminately.

We need to mention that a mild form of catabolism happens in muscles as a natural result of energy deficit during the span of a weight-loss diet. Considering the natural loss, one of the most important priorities of your diet should be minimizing catabolism and maintaining as much muscle mass as possible.

You can maintain muscle mass by increasing the intensity while reducing the volume of your weight-lifting workouts. Additionally, increase your daily protein intake as well.

catabolism diet

When does catabolism affect your muscle tissue?

Let’s list certain situations where catabolism begins to break down your muscle tissue. By reading through them, you can remember to avoid these situations and maintain your muscle mass. This is especially crucial if you’re on a hypo-caloric diet.

  • Extreme weight-loss diets, especially hypo-protein or miracle diets such as the Dukan diet.
  • Long periods of inactivity with no muscle stimulation.
  • Conditions or sicknesses that lead to malnutrition such as Celiac disease or cystic fibrosis.
  • Lacking sufficient amounts of sleep.
  • High-stress situations.
  • Hormonal irregularity, which may or may not be associated with the above factors.

How can you prevent catabolism in your muscle tissue?

The most important line of defense is knowing which situations trigger catabolism and, of course, avoiding them as best you can. If you find yourself in a trigger situation, you can take certain measures to minimize the break down of your muscle tissue, as we explained in the case of weight-loss diets.

Readjusting energy deficits

Big energy deficits — 500 calories or more under the metabolic rate– provoke the biggest losses of muscle mass. But, readjusting the deficit can help you maintain your muscle mass though you will lose weight at a slower rate.

Turning up the intensity

Contrary to what most people think, high numbers of repetitions with light weights is actually harmful to your muscles because you’re removing the stimulus that heavier weights would otherwise give them.

Instead, you should reduce the volume of your workout and increase the intensity. Aim for four or five compound multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifting or bench pressing.

catabolism intensity

Increase protein intake

Lastly, increasing your daily protein intake will significantly reduce your total loss of muscle mass. If you want to define your muscles, you should take at least two grams of protein for every kilogram you weigh. For example, if a person weighs 70 kilograms, he or she should consume at least 140 grams of protein a day.

Our tips will help you reduce the effects of catabolism in your muscles. Remember to ask a professional before starting anything new, especially if you want to change your diet.

It might interest you...
What is the World Anti-Doping Agency?
Fit People
Read it in Fit People
What is the World Anti-Doping Agency?

The World Anti-Doping Agency regulates the substances allowed and not allowed for athletes. Do you know how this Agency works?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Dardevet D, Rémond D, Peyron M-A, Papet I, Savary-Auzeloux I, Mosoni L. Muscle wasting and resistance of muscle anabolism: the “anabolic threshold concept” for adapted nutritional strategies during sarcopenia. Scientific World Journal [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2019 Jul 10];2012:269531. Available from:
  • Lindsay DB. Relationships between amino acid catabolism and protein anabolism in the ruminant. Fed Proc [Internet]. 1982 Jul [cited 2019 Jul 10];41(9):2550–4. Available from:
  • McCarthy JJ, Esser KA. Anabolic and catabolic pathways regulating skeletal muscle mass. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care [Internet]. 2010 May [cited 2019 Jul 10];13(3):230–5. Available from:

The contents of this publication are written for informational purposes. At no time do they facilitate or replace the diagnoses, treatments, or recommendations of a professional. Consult your trusted specialist if you have any doubts and seek their approval before beginning any procedure.