To investigate the protein-sparing effect of α-lipoic acid (LA), experimental fish (initial body weight: 18·99 (sd 1·82) g) were fed on a 0, 600 or 1200 mg/kg α-LA diet for 56 d, and hepatocytes were treated with 20 μm compound C, the inhibitor of AMP kinase α (AMPKα), treated for 30 min before α-LA treatment for 24 h. LA significantly decreased lipid content of the whole body and other tissues (P<0·05), and it also promoted protein deposition in vivo (P<0·05). Further, dietary LA significantly decreased the TAG content of serum and increased the NEFA content of serum (P<0·05); however, there were no significant differences among all groups in the hepatopancreas and muscle (P>0·05). Consistent with results from the experiment in vitro, LA activated phosphorylation of AMPKα and notably increased the protein content of adipose TAG lipase in intraperitoneal fat, hepatopancreas and muscle in vivo (P<0·05). Meanwhile, LA significantly up-regulated the mRNA expression of genes involved in fatty acid β-oxidation in the same three areas, and LA also obviously down-regulated the mRNA expression of genes involved in amino acid catabolism in muscle (P<0·05). Besides, it was observed that LA significantly activated the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) pathway in muscle of experimental fish (P<0·05). LA could promote lipolysis and fatty acid β-oxidation via increasing energy supply from lipid catabolism, and then, it could economise on the protein from energy production to increase protein deposition in grass carp. Besides, LA might directly promote protein synthesis through activating the mTOR pathway.