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A 3,500 Calorie Deficit to Lose a Pound of What, Exactly?: Cutting Back Calories Carefully to Lose Fat Instead of Muscle

eebee's picture

Roadskater posed the question briefly during one of our recent Silver Comet Trail skates: "What's that calorie-per-pound number again?". I believed I knew the subject well until I started to try to talk about it, whereby I realized the 3,500 number pertains only to fat loss. So I made a note to revisit an article I had read by Tom Venuto, on fitwatch.com. 

Venuto refers to a study by Dr. Kevin Hall (an 'investigator' at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD) published in the International Journal of Obesity sometime in 2008, researching the 'mechanisms regulating human body weight'.  

Anybody all too familiar with that last ten pounds weight loss plateau is probably not at all surprised to find out that a 3,500 calorie deficit doesn't necessarily reduce our bodies by a pound of fat!  

"The metabolizable energy in fat is different than the metabolizable energy in muscle tissue. A pound of muscle is not 3500 calories. A pound of muscle yields about 600 calories." 

Horrifying to think (but I’ve probably done this):  "...if you create a 3500 calorie weekly deficit and as a result of that deficit, lose 100% muscle, you would lose almost 6 pounds of body weight!"

If you've lost pounds of muscle as a result of overzealous dieting, no wonder the metabolism slows down! It sounds catchier to say "Your body thinks it's starving so it's hanging on to those last pounds", rather than "You lost all that muscle that was helping you eat through all those calories". 

Venuto sensibly suggests that bodybuilders preparing for competition might want to try a longer, slower approach to shedding what little fat they have left, rather than going with the old 3,500 deficit blanket approach. He recommends a 15 - 20% calorie deficit below the amount to maintain present weight. 

"you would want to be very cautious about using aggressive calorie deficits. You’d be better off keeping the deficit conservative and starting your diet/cutting phase earlier to allow for a slow, but safe rate of fat loss, with maximum retention of muscle tissue."

I'm sure this is no news for those involved in bodybuilding competitions, but some of us also might use this info, to avoid potentially dangerous situations during long-distance cardio events and training.

To the other extreme, Venuto adds that 50%+ below maintenance calories would result in semi starvation/starvation, and is potentially dangerous and unhealthy. 

No wonder I feel like I'm about to have a heart attack if I am on my fifth straight day of 12 mile skates and 1,600 calories! My body is probably happily consuming my heart muscles. A massive bag of marshmallows usually saves the day at that point, though. 

I like Venuto's guidelines here and the way he explains it. I don't count calories these days, but it's good to get a quantifiable idea of recommended intake levels based on pounds left to shed, to avoid also shedding muscle, grey matter, and hair into the bargain. That fat and muscle loss are two entirely different things is no news, but Venuto explains it all very well in the article. 


roadskater's picture

So How Do I Lose Fat Instead of Muscle?

I think right now it's easier to lose fat because I have plenty and harder to lose muscle since I don't have so much, but any tips on how to work it so one loses more of one than the other? Any ideas about calculating maintenance calories amounts? This might all be in that article, ha, but I haven't gotten there yet. Thanks for the link and info!

eebee's picture

Weight-Maintenance or -Loss Calculators

Fitwatch.com has some very useful calculators that are easy to get to once you've landed on their site. Go to the pale green 'calculators and tools' tab and notice the choices changing below. Then gingerly cursor to the calculator you want. Here is how they break down the activity levels:


SedentaryLittle or no exercise, desk job
Lightly activeLight exercise, sports 1-3 days per week
Moderately activeModerate exercise, sports 3-5 days per week
Very activeHard exercise, sports 6-7 days per week
Extremely active

Hard daily exercise or sports and physical job or twice daily training, i.e marathon, contest, etc.

I don't have any numbers to give you regarding why one would lose more fat than muscle at a higher BMI. And even after all I wrote above, proportionately I'm not sure if that's even true. If you starved and sat around all day you probably wouldn't look very fit after dropping 100 lb (assuming that's what you had to lose to get to your happy weight). A pound of fat takes up a whole lot more real estate than a pound of muscle, though, so it may simply appear that one is losing 'more fat', in the early stages. There is some mention that a higher intake of protein may prevent marathoners from losing too much muscle while attaining/maintaining a lean body through fewer calories, but some people can't tolerate that either. 

I wouldn't recommend getting hung up on calories, though, as a means for weight loss. I think devising a system for yourself that you can live with for the rest of your life is going to be more effective. It's good to get an idea of how close to the mark you are calorie-wise each day, to see what you can cut out, but counting calories can turn people loopy. It makes most sense to me to come up with a nutrition strategy you can live with and get to a point of maintaining your weight rather than gaining it, and then look at it to see what you can reduce or substitute for a healthier option, that you can live with, based on such calorie charts.

Of course it's not all in a vacuum, either. If you go to the 'target date' calculator you can get a vague idea of how long it'll take you to lose x pounds at a particular percentage calorie deficit, ranging from 15% less calories than your body needs to stay the same weight each day, to 30% less. Personally I'm incapable of following their 30% less recommendations for longer than three days at the 'moderately active' level. I wonder if anybody else can? Seems too low to me. 

I didn't specifically answer your questions. I'm practicing for my stint on Meet the Press. Here's my sweeping generalization:

In the midst of peak training season, don't reduce calorie intake by much (maybe 15%?), even if you think you're not in much danger of losing muscle from calorie deprivation.

RSNBiker's picture

Calorie Intake During Peak Training Season

Thanks for your post eebee. That number (15% reduction) is something I can use. In my brief phone conversation with the nutrition coach I'm meeting with on Friday, he said pretty quickly that he thought I needed to increase my calories to lose weight. Can't wait to find out. And thanks for the information. You're a great writer.

eebee's picture

Hey RSN Biker!

Good to see you here! Glad you found something helpful with all that. I look forward to hearing what your nutritionist has to say. 

roadskater's picture

Nice Article Collecting Useful Info and Links. Thanks.

I agree with RSNBiker that this is a great piece of work and writing. Thanks for the time, energy, thinking and effort to do it all. It is really interesting, this theory of the right amounts to cut to lose fat without overloss of muscle. That business of the off-season being the best time to lose weight haunts again. Just when I need my dark night comfort eating! Getting out to exercise, even in small packets, seems to help everything. I don't seem to want to go in to exercise. That's on my to do list...find an indoor sport I can afford to and wish to participate in with prepositions at the end of phrases so that I add extra words to avoid having prepositions at the end of sentences, ha! (....and in which I wish to participate, Biff.) Hmm. Still hearing that rice cooker ding. 

timv's picture


Your remark about getting out to exercise brought back something I've wondered about from time to time: whether we have an innate sense of place, some kind of deep unconscious psychological awareness that certain things should happen in certain places.

I recall hearing some expert on something a long time ago advising, if possible, not to do anything but sleep in a bedroom. And as a freelance worker and an adult graduate student, I've noticed that it can be hard to get started on work when I don't leave the room--or even the chair--where I've just been goofing off. I've used the quip, "I never have to go to work, but I also never leave work." Some days it's been helpful to just get out of the house, to wander around a bookstore or go anywhere else for whatever reason, to break out of a non-productive rut.

I can see how it can be good to have certain places for doing certain things, and ounter-productive to try to do something like exercising a place with the wrong associations. And establishing a new place for wintertime exercise could well help in starting a new approach to it. One thing I love about running is how simple it is. I can basically step out of the door and do it, but I still have to put on running shoes and change at least a couple of articles of clothing and get out of the house to do it.

Having observed my cat's curious choices and kitty-superstitions about places and what he should do where, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that this stuff was wired into the mammalian brain at a pretty low level.

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