If you want to lose weight and reduce body fat, you need to use more calories than you consume, creating what's called a calorie deficit. This is often accomplished by either reducing the calories you take in, increasing the calories you burn, or both. To lose a pound, you need to burn off the equivalent number of calories found in that pound.
The common advice has long been that you need to burn 3,500 more calories than you eat to drop one pound. To do this in one week, then, you need to create a calorie deficit of 500 calories each day. However, research has demonstrated that losing weight is more complex than this basic calorie deficit formula suggests.
How Many Calories Are in a Pound?
Traditionally, many weight loss plans have been built around the 3,500 calorie concept. The concept is based on the assumption that a pound of fat is equivalent to roughly 3500 calories.
The idea behind the 3,500-calorie deficit first began in 1958, when a physician named Max Wishnofsky published a paper suggesting that creating a calorie deficit in this amount would equal a pound of weight loss. The idea has been cited in other studies, as well as in thousands of popular weight loss articles.
By now, studies have challenged this basic formula. Researchers have demonstrated that creating a calorie deficit causes more than just simple fat loss. Muscle is also lost as calories are burned.
Because muscle burns more calories than fat, muscle loss can ultimately have an impact on your overall metabolism.
One important thing to realize is that body fat isnt just fat. Body fat is a mixture of fat, fluids, and fat-free solids. So the actual caloric content of a pound of fat really depends upon the composition of that fat, which can vary.
How Many Calories to Cut to Lose Weight?
According to the 3,500 calorie hypothesis, creating a 500-calorie-per-day deficit should lead to a loss of one pound per week. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that this rule significantly overstates how much weight a person will actually lose.
In the short term, you may be able to lose weight at a pound-a-week rate. But as your body composition and metabolism change, the rate of weight loss may slow as well.
The basic 3,500-calorie deficit calculation does not account for how your metabolism changes when you are trying to lose weight. You may need even more of a calorie deficit to see weight loss as your efforts progress.
Because you are losing muscle mass as you are losing body fat, your metabolism can begin to decrease, thus lowering the rate at which you burn calories.
This is why as you lose weight and exercise more, you find yourself hitting plateaus where weight loss tapers off. There are also metabolic, behavioral, neuroendocrine, and unconscious mechanisms at play that can encourage your body to maintain a certain level of fatness. Researchers say this this concept, called adaptive thermogenesis, creates the ideal situation for weight regain.
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How to Achieve a Calorie Deficit
While the 3,500-calorie rule may not be entirely accurate, it is true that weight loss requires burning more calories than you consume. There are a few things that you can do to achieve this calorie deficit.
Reduce Your Calorie Intake
Reducing the number of calories you take in during the day can be an important part of any weight loss plan. However, it is important to provide your body with the fuel it needs to run effectively.
Cutting too many calories can slow your metabolism and makes it even more difficult to lose weight. Highly calorie-restrictive diets can also lead to additional muscle loss, which can further hinder your weight loss efforts.
Eat a well-balanced diet, even when you are cutting calories. Eliminating empty calories from junk food and focusing on nutritionally dense calories can help.
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Increase Your Calorie Burn
Exercise is an important part of weight loss, but it's not a magic bullet. A safe, healthy weight loss rate is about one to two pounds per week. If your weight loss is faster than that, you may be losing too much muscle mass in addition to fat.
The amount of calories you burn depends upon a variety of factors, including:
To burn 500 calories in a day by running, for example, you would need to run about five miles, since the average runner burns about 100 calories per mile. If you are heavier or work harder during your workout, you will likely burn more. If you are lighter or work less intensely, you will probably burn less.
Combine Calorie Reduction With Exercise
If you don't have the time or energy to burn 500 calories a day through exercise, you could use a combination of calorie reduction and exercise. For example, if you burned approximately 300 calories every day through exercise, you would also need to reduce your recommended calorie intake by 200 calories each day.
Of course, it's important to figure out how many calories you need each day, because everyone's needs are different. This weight loss calculator will give you a estimate of how many calories you should consume to achieve a goal weight.
Why Muscle Matters
To boost your calorie burn, add strength training and speedwork to your workout routine. One of the many benefits of strength training is that building more muscle mass will increase your calorie burn, both when you're working out and when you're resting. If you do your strength training immediately after a hard running workout, you'll be able to use your follow-up rest day as a true recovery day.
Upping your protein intake and engaging in regular weight lifting can help you lose more weight, reduce muscle loss, and even gain more muscle. Because muscle requires more calories than fat, increasing your muscle mass will also help boost your metabolism.
You don't need to do lots of heavy lifting to get the benefits of strength training. Try doing some simple exercises such as core exercises or lower body moves a couple times a week.
High-intensity workouts can also help you jumpstart your weight loss efforts by increasing your calorie burn. If you're not ready for such strenuous workouts, focus on short intervals of higher intensity exercise during your workout. For example, you might cycle between spending 30 seconds working at your maximum effort and then slow it down for a couple of minutes a few times during your workout.
A Word From Verywell
While the old 3,500-calorie deficit rule isnt completely accurate, this does not mean that it is worthless. Cutting or burning 500 calories per day might not lead to exactly a pound of weight loss per week, but it is still a good starting point for weight loss.
Remember not to get too focused on the number on the scale. Try to pay attention to how you're feeling overall. Use measurements other than weight, such as inches lost or how your clothes fit, to mark your progress. You may be adding healthy lean muscle even as you lose fat.
Frequently Asked Questions