3,500 Cal Per Pound Is More Like 4,500 Cal


Note: see comment #1

One of the most persistent notions about equating caloric deficit to weight loss is the 3500 Cal “rule”.

I have previously posted about why this is nonsense and not exactly helpful when it comes to thinking about clinical weight loss or weight (you’re dealing with physiology NOT physics!).

Now, Nicholas Gwerder, a student from the University of Sacramento, in his Master Thesis, has apparently reviewed the literature on this and concludes that if anything, one pound of weight loss comes closer to 4,500 calories.

Gwerder reaches this conclusion by analysing data from 28 studies in which he compares the theoretical weight loss to the actual weight (and fat) lost in these studies.

Although, I do not have access to Gwerder’s Master Thesis, here is what he says in the summary:

“The energy equivalent of body weight loss varied considerably, dependent upon the constituent portions of fat, water, protein, carbohydrate and mineral lost. Adipose tissue also varied with type and was dependent upon the composition of lipid, water, and protein. The most valid theoretical equivalent for a pound of fat was calculated at 4,423.90 kilocalories based on in vivo extraction of human intracellular lipid samples.”

Thus, as Gwerder points out, the 3,500 per pound notion tossed around (including by a number of guidelines and associations)

“…severely underestimates the caloric values needed to achieve desired fat mass loss. This use of the proper caloric value for fat mass loss has the potential to improve exercise and nutrient recommendations for achieving healthy body fat values.”

Thus, if this number holds true, a daily 500 Cal deficit maintained over 10 weeks will not give you a 10 pound weight loss, but rather only about 7.5 lbs.

All the same, in practice over time this never really works out, not just because of the individual variability (Gwerder notes about 20% variation in this relationship) but because as you reduce your caloric intake, your individual metabolic requirements will very quickly shift to living off fewer calories, which means that pretty soon into your diet, the initial 500 Cal deficit is no longer a deficit (thank your physiology). This is the feared weight-loss plateau – the frustration of every dieter.

So, whether 3,500 or 4,500 Cal per pound, the relationship between calorie restriction and weight loss is not linear and thus extrapolating the amount of expected weight loss based on this deficit seldom works out in practice.

Indeed, I know from my patients that this “rule” is a matter of endless frustration and seldom helpful.

Managing weight is not simply about energy in and energy out.

Edmonton, AB