Y.You’ve probably heard the “rules” of losing weight that losing one pound takes 3,500 calories.
The idea is that you can lose one pound by creating a 3,500-calorie deficit – either by burning 3,500 calories or by consuming 3,500 fewer calories.
But it’s not that easy.
How many calories it takes to lose one pound varies from person to person and it can vary from week to week.
Here’s what you need to know about calories – and how much you need to reach your goals.
How many calories does it take to lose one pound?
The “3,500 calories to lose one pound” rule is interesting because it sounds simple – if you want to lose one pound per week, just aim for a 500-calorie-daily deficit.
But weight loss is more dynamic than that.
“Weight loss is more than a mathematical equation,” said Sonia Angeloun, MS, RDN, and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“For most people, 500 calories is a moderate reduction and realistic to maintain. However, this does not normally translate into one pound of weight loss per week, “he explained.
In fact, the 3,500-calorie rule can significantly overestimate the amount of weight loss expected, as it is not responsible for important factors such as weight loss as well as your weight loss.
“As the pounds go down, your metabolic rate goes down because you have less,” said Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD
Another problem with the 3,500-calorie rule: If you go for weight loss as a simple “calorie in, calorie out” equation, you may be tempted to severely limit your calorie intake to create a large deficit.
However, this can be reversed by slowing down your metabolism, says Angelon: “Then you won’t need as many calories, so weight loss will be slower.”
Dietary limitations can also lead to muscle mass loss, which further hinders your efforts to lose weight.
Instead of trying to figure out how many calories it takes to lose a pound, focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet.
What are calories?
Short answer: Calories are the amount of energy that a food or drink provides.
One calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
But the calories we see on nutrition labels actually refer to kilocalories – the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius.
Historically, researchers have used a tool called the bomb calorimeter to determine how many calories a food contains.
Now, scientists and manufacturers generally rely on the Atwater system, which calculates the calorie intake of a meal based on the caloric value of its macronutrients:
- Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram (grams of carbohydrates can be subtracted from the total number of grams in the form of soluble fiber)
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Alcohol, aka “fourth macro” = 7 calories per gram
How many calories should you eat each day?
There is no single calorie that is right for everyone to eat, but there are formulas that can help you find the right range for you.
How many calories you need each day depends on various factors such as whether you want to maintain, lose or gain weight, as well as your gender, age, height, current weight, activity level and metabolic health.
On average, adult males need about 3,500 calories per day whereas adult females need about 2,200 calories per day.
First things first: It is important to understand why we need calories.
We use energy (aka calories) from food to survive and breathe, to grow and repair cells, to circulate blood, to adjust hormone levels, and for many other processes that hum even when we park on the sofa.
These functions create our basal metabolic rate (BMR), also called “resting metabolism”.
This is the minimum number of calories you should eat each day; Diving below this number can ruin your weight loss efforts.
Of course, physical activity – we’re talking about mundane activities like folding laundry or running harder – burns extra energy.
And genes, hormones and intestinal bacteria can also play a role in how your body uses calories, Angelon says.
So how many calories do you need per day?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this – it all depends on your age, your size, how much muscle you have, your activity level and your weight target.
(Based on these factors you can estimate your daily calorie goals using the National Institutes of Health’s Body Weight Planner.)
It doesn’t matter what you eat
A calorie is a calorie, isn’t it? Not really good. Although you may not want to consume more calories than you need, research shows that weight loss is not just about the amount of calories you eat and burn, but also about where those calories come from.
Let’s put it this way: Your body will react differently to the same calorie allocation of 400 calories worth of roasted chicken and steamed vegetables versus soda and donuts.
“It’s important that we choose quality foods instead of empty calories,” said Giancoli. Otherwise, important nutrients are easy to miss.
High quality foods – such as whole grains, nuts, lean protein, fruits and vegetables – can help you lose weight sustainably over time.
There are plenty of nutritious foods that are naturally low in calories, such as fruits and vegetables.
Also, there are smart ways to make healthy swaps for your favorite high-calorie foods. “Calories should be based on eating a variety of healthy, minimally processed foods,” says Angelon.
The advantage of calorie counting
For many people, calorie counting can be a great starting point – it provides a structured form, and tracking calories can help you get a handle on what you eat, how much you eat and when you take it.
One of the major benefits of calorie counting is that it can help you eat healthier and make more conscious food choices.
When you use an app to track your daily meals, you may be surprised to learn how many calories are included in the foods and drinks you regularly consume.
When you become more aware of how many calories are in different foods, you will make smarter decisions when eating out or at someone else’s house.
For example, if you’re ordering a Grand Red Eye at Starbucks (containing two shots of espresso, whole milk and brown sugar), this drink alone adds 250 calories.
Not so great if you try to watch your weight or try to stay within a certain calorie limit every day.
On the other hand, knowing exactly what is in your diet will allow you to keep track of how much protein, carbohydrates, fats and fiber, as well as their amounts of vitamins and minerals.
This can ensure that your diet includes all the nutrients needed for good health.
But calorie counting takes a lot of effort and time, and it’s not for everyone, says Giancoli.
And the biggest problem with calorie counting, Angelon says, is that we focus more on numbers – not how full we are or what foods make us feel good.
The last row? The 3,500-calorie myth is just that – a myth.
Can a combination of less eating and more exercise help you lose weight? Of course, but there is no perfect mathematical equation for weight loss.
For healthy, sustainable weight loss, focus on eliminating waste, add healthy foods, and stick to your favorite fitness routine.
Calorie counting error
Calorie counting is not a sustainable method for weight loss or management. When you lose weight, you can’t tell if you’re losing fat or muscle.
This is bad because losing muscle slows down your metabolism and reduces the amount of calories your body needs each day.
Calorie counting does not take into account whether you are getting adequate nutrition from the food you eat and how you are feeling mentally and physically.
A good way to lose weight is to eat moderate amounts of healthy food, exercise regularly and drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep yourself hydrated.