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Weight Loss
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How many calories REALLY equal a pound?

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I know that 3,500 calories equal a pound, but I am wondering if anyone actually counts their deficits and converts that into pounds. I am doing an experiment right now in my journal where I keep track of weight and deficit by week, and see how it trends over time... I was just wondering if anyone else has done that as well.

Edited Apr 14 2013 10:29 by coach_k
Reason: locked to prevent unnecessary zombie bumps
35 Replies (last)
the problem is: you don't only lose weight through fat, that is what I heard of. You also lose weight due to muscle loss sometimes. So if you had 3500 cals less than you should you might lose 3/4 pounds of fat and 1/4 pound of muscles. That is just a guess I don't have any numbers.

For the matter of fact no one can really know how much cals he burned and consumed, there will allways be uncertains...
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All I know is it works.  If I stick to what this site tells me I lose weight.  The only reason I don't is if I stray and eat too many calories and fat.
you also have to remember that some weight loss shown on the scale may be due to water weight being lost. Also weight gained may also be due to water weight. Just because you lose 3 lbs in a weeks time does not mean that you actually burned off 3lbs of fat. just like if you ate your calories like you were suposed to and you gain 3 lbs. Its probably water weight in this case.

The best advice I can give is log all of your activities for the day. I mean everything you do. Log everything you eat or drink. Then at the end of the week see if your weight loss matches your calorie deficit. It may or may not. if not, try to figure out why. Is it bloating? is it inaccurate logging? Or are you gaining muscle. or is it just natural fluctuations.

Overall, when I keep to my 500 cal deficit each day, I lose a 1lb a week. The only time I dont lose is when I stray. so for me the 3500cal rule = 1 lb

I think everyone is different.  For me, If I eat a deficit of 750 calories but am eating junk I do not lose.  If I eat a the same amount and its only 100% healthy foods then I lose about a lb a week. 

Not 3500=lb for me.

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It is generally accepted that a pound of fat equals 3500 calories, and as the prior post said every pound you lose is not all fat. You also lose muscle and other tissue, which is normal and okay (since you need less muscle etc at a lower weight).  I figured the calories in a pound of margarine I come up with 2560, but 4161 for shortening.  So your question is if you use up 3500 extra calories, does it translate into a pound less on the scale. It is an interesting and worthy question. 

Just a couple points for you to consider. Your deficit is a theory number based on the number you got from the tools of this site... it is an average number.  So your "deficit" is based on a theoretical starting number... how many calories you need at your current body weight. 

In reality your individual metabolism can be vary greatly from the average. Scientists know this, by calculating fat-free mass, putting people in metabolic chambers, the RMR could vary as much as 450 above or below the average... this is for the same-size  fat-free mass. Since about 75% of all the calories you burn are for RMR, right there you see how much that throws off your starting expenditure number. If, before you dieted, you had tracked calories for a few weeks while you maintained that weight, you would have a much better idea of your true starting number.

How many calories you burn from intentional exercise is also a theory number... either off an exercise machine (we all know those are unreliable) or off  some web calculator.  If you compare numbers from various sites, you'll see they don't all agree.  Plus you might do those activities with more or less intensity than the sites presume. Also other activity, such as vacuuming counts... so even if you could track and count all your intentional exercise... how many calories do you count for scrubbing out the toilet?  All these small activities could add up to more than what you do at the gym.  Further, on days I go to the gym, if I was wiped that day, when I get home I tend to sit a lot... I tend to be more active overall on days I don't work out.  So one thing I notice, my maintenance weight doesn't change if I work out 3 or 6 times a week... but that's me.

Also, scientists are not sure at what level the metabolism slows down when you diet... if it kicks at some threshold, or if always happens when you have a calorie deficit... so metabolism slow down could also throw this off.  It you are dieting at a reasonable number  then this variable should be slight. It appears to slow down as much as 15% only when you get down to eating under 800 calories per day.  (One study I read said it slows 7 to 12% for 500 calorie diets.)

As you lose weight, your body needs fewer calories to sustain that weight. Since most people need 11 to 16 calories a pound,  it follows that for every pound lost, you need, say, 12 fewer calories. So you would also have to recalculate your deficit week to week. 

I have a friend who carefully tracked her calories when she was 220, so she knew her real starting point... 3000 calories a day. She told me, not sure how true, that she was dieting on about 1800.  So in theory, she should have been losing about 2 pounds a week. She lost 18 pounds in the first 12 weeks, for about 1 1/2 pounds lost a week.  Perhaps her math was off... dunno.

I have also considered your question from a perspective of already reaching goal. Closer to goal, because the deficit was small, I  lost more like a half pound a week.  So dieting at 1200 , I should have been able to eat 1450 to maintain.  It's about right... my maintainance turned out to be about 1500.

So you see, the numbers regarding deficit are pretty fuzzy. So what numbers do you know with a reasonable degree of certainty? In my food diary, I record three things.

1) How many calories I ate. Now to a degree this is also based on averages, but you can figure them pretty tightly. All apples are not the exact same calories, but 100 is close enough for big apples.

2) How many hours I exercised that week

3) My daily weigh ins. I like to weigh myself daily, because that gives me a more accurate average for the week.  Of the three numbers, this number is the most real.

So the equation goes like this: If I eat x calories a day, and I exercise x hours a week, I usually see x pounds lost per week.

I like it that you are asking these sorts of questions. I too think about this stuff, but because I am curious about the process about weight loss.  In general, I like to keep accurate records... months later I have some new theory, so I like being able to go back to old records to see if my theory works.
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"For the matter of fact no one can really know how much cals he burned and consumed, there will allways be uncertains"

I agree with that. But I don't actually care how many calories equal a pound, as long as my pants are getting looser.
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Ying... great quote, who is that from?

As said in SO many fewer words than I did.  :-)


Yes, its true that the bottom line, being able to fit into old clothes, is the most important thing, and I realize that there are always uncertainties.  I was just wondering if anyone actually added up their deficit from week to week and compared it with pounds lost.  Thanks! 

Well, I am following the site and shooting for 7,000 calorie deficit and I am losing exactly 2 lbs a week.  Now day to day it doesn't look exactly like that as there are fluctuations with salty food, water, muscle and so on.  But my trend is 2 lbs per week.
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I did EXACTLY that and it is very much true.  Last year I lost 40 pounds by eating less, and I wrote down *everything* I ate with very good calorie-count accuracy.  (I actually still do it to this day, even though I'm in maintenance mode and no longer losing.)  And I can say that it really came down to simple math and science.  Every 3500 calorie deficit led to one pound of weight loss.  Now don't expect the timing of those two events to be exact.  Due to hydration levels and such, it takes time for things to level out.  But when all was said and done (on a monthly basis, let's say), it is spot on!  At the end of every single month, I would add up my total calorie deficits and compare my weight loss.  One year later, I still cannot believe it was that easy.  So many people out there are so dang helpless when it comes to weight loss.  They think they need a gym, personal chef, savior, etc.  But all they need is:
1) A notebook (portable paper like a steno pad--don't tie yourself to your computer)
2) A measuring cup (get one of those all-in-one Pyrex cups)
3) A scale (get a Typhoon on
4) A resource like for calorie information
5) A good estimate of your BMR and active MR ( lculator.html). 
6) The discipline to write down every single thing you eat and a good estimate of its calories.   Don't even bother making it hard by counting fat, protein, carbs, etc.  Just know how much you eat a day and how you can optimize that number (and what foods will help you do that so you get more bang for your buck--e.g. forget about ALL sugar drinks and eat a lot of beans). 

The system works!  Good luck!
I think about this as well, which is why I'm being a nerd and keeping a spreadsheet of my (estimated) caloric intake and (estimated) caloric expenditures.  So far, math-wise I should have lost 9.6 lbs.  In reality, I've lost 12 lbs.  I'm chalking up the difference to the errors in counting calories and water weight. 

I find it more enjoyable and tangible to tackle this weight loss thing as a math problem.  But, I'm a total nerd.
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Alright I know this may sound like a silly question but I am new to the calorie counting diet and I was just wondering what exactly is a calorie deficit and how do I calculate it?

I did this myself too and it never worked out. Most weeks I lost less than what I should have according to my calorie deficit... and I was weighing/measuring all food so I knew that the estimation of my calorie intake was fairly accurate.

Original Post by mem1994:

Alright I know this may sound like a silly question but I am new to the calorie counting diet and I was just wondering what exactly is a calorie deficit and how do I calculate it?

You take the total cals you burn each day, including all activities and exercise, then subtract the amount of calories you are eating and that gives you your deficit.  For example, I burn an average of about 2200 and shoot for an intake of 1600-1700.  This would give me a deficit of 500-600 cals. Most people try for around 500-750 cal deficit to lose 1.5-1 lb per week.  The closer you are to a healthy weight, the smaller your deficit should probably be.

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Thank you :)

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When you lose weight and part of it is muscle, it means that you're not exercising enough. A person who exercises the minimum 30 minutes a day that you're supposed to will not lose muscle weight, only fat and/or water weight. In fact, if you exercise enough, you may actually gain some muscle weight. That, in turn will cause you to burn fat more quickly because your muscles are what burns the fat to begin with.

Original Post by tyrdrop:

I know that 3,500 calories equal a pound, but I am wondering if anyone actually counts their deficits and converts that into pounds. I am doing an experiment right now in my journal where I keep track of weight and deficit by week, and see how it trends over time... I was just wondering if anyone else has done that as well.

I kept a spread sheet of calories in 2005 for 6 months and based on reasonable BMR values I came up with 2800 calorie deficit for each pound I lost.  I suggest anyone using a spreadsheet to ignore the first 2 (two) weeks of weight loss as the liver drains away stored energy under calorie restriction, releasing a lot of water aka water weight.

Since it is difficult to measure output effort (all the keeping warm, exercising, breathing, digesting, etc) and input fuel (all the calories in food and drink), a number that represents the result is also arbitrary.  The output effort (calories/pound/day) can be manipulated to make the deficit calories larger or smaller to make the calories per pound more than 3500 or less than 3500.

As long as you are losing weight, try to relax about it, or not.  Totally up to you.

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My nutritionist told me 3800 cals. = 1lb.
Original Post by bobbiexx:

My nutritionist told me 3800 cals. = 1lb.

I wrote a little story to show how arbitrary the number can be...

Imagine a simple Simulation Of A Person's Energy System (SOAPES).  This simulation ignores hormones, insulin, fat vs muscle, hydration levels, waste elimination, etc.

SOAPES weighs 100 lbs and burns 10 calories per pound per day.  SOAPES needs 1000 calories a day to survive and maintain 100 lbs.  If SOAPES gets more than 1000 calories, the extra calories are stored as energy, increasing SOAPES weight.  If SOAPES gets less than 1000 calories per day, SOAPES "eats itself" to make up for the missing calories and weighs less.

The scientists feed SOAPES 800 calories for 20 days, creating a 200 calorie/day deficit.  At the end of 20 days, SOAPES is down 4000 calories.  SOAPES is put on the scale and weighs 98 pounds.  2 pounds down, so each pound represents 2000 calories.  Oh wait, if SOAPES was losing weight, then the calories needed during the day would be lower, so an average weight for the 20 days would be 99 lbs (halfway between start and end weight), and at 800 calories/day that is only a 190 calorie/day deficit or 3800 calores down or 1900 calories/pound.

One scientist wanted the calories per pound to equal 3500, instead of 1900.  The scientist made the calorie deficit higher by increasing the calories/pound/day.  He tried 11 and came up with... 11 * 99 = 1089 cal/day - 800 = 289 deficit for 20 days is 5780. 

Not high enough, so he decides to work backwards.  A deficit of 7000 for 20 days is a 350 calories/day deficit.  800 consumed + 350 deficit is 1150 total.  1150/99 lbs is 11.62 cal/lb/day.

So by manipulating the burn rate, or cal/lb/day, the deficit can be adjusted to make the calories per pound number equal any particular value.

the end

So outside of walking around with a device that constantly measures how much oxygen you consume and convert to CO2, water consumed, excreted, food consumed, excreted, and your weight changes... the cal/lb number is a guesstimate.  The 3500 number comes from the calories contained in a pound of fat.

Good Luck!

If you are exercising too then you could be gaining muscle, which weighs more than fat. I weigh more now than I did ten years ago but the same clothes still fit.

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