On Weight Loss and Metabolism

You may have heard that one pound of fat holds about 3,500 calories and that, to lose that pound of fat, you need to eat 3,500 calories less than you burn over some period of time. This formula is truly the cornerstone of weight management and has been for decades.

Unfortunately, things are a bit messier in the real world than this simple equation would lead you to think.

First, when you restrict calories to a level well below your metabolic needs, your body will attempt to adapt its metabolism to the newly reduced intake. That is, you will feel sluggish, move less, and a number of metabolic activities will go into a lower gear; reducing your caloric needs by as much as 30%. Severe caloric restriction is thus not only very difficult to endure, it also is likely to produce less weight loss than you hope.

The second factor affecting the nature of weight loss is that the content of your diet may affect what kind of tissue is lost. If you eat too little protein, for example, and you will tend to shed lean body weight: always a really bad idea. But lean body weight also yields fewer calories per pound: only about 600 calories. So lean body is used up more quickly than fat – but such losses come at very high risk to your overall health. In the end, your actual weight loss is not likely to be exactly 1 pound for each 3,500 calories that you eliminate from your diet. Only if you approach weight loss by moderately reducing calories, staying active, and eating a balanced diet with enough protein will you come close to the predicted pound of weight loss per 3,500 calories.

The research of Dr. Kevin D. Hall at the National Institutes of Health has revealed a number of other interesting facts about how caloric restriction interacts with metabolism. Dr. Hall has found that not only does the content of your diet affect the type of tissue lost, but that your starting body composition and level of calorie restriction do as well. For example, if you have significant bodyfat stores, your body will tend to give up the fat before working on lean tissue. As you lose weight and come closer to your ideal weight, the amount of lean body tissue given up will start to rise. This is one reason why it is progressively harder to lose bodyfat as you get closer to your ideal weight: your body will begin using lean sources more than it did when you had more fat to spare. The take-away here is that if you have a lot of bodyfat to lose, you can be a bit more aggressive with your calorie restriction. However, as you get closer to your ideal weight, it makes no sense to maintain a state of semi-starvation. Not only will this begin to damage lean tissue, it is also likely to induce psychological effects such as depression and hypochondriasis.

The next thing to consider is that as you lose weight, your body’s metabolic needs will go down. Even though the vast majority of fat on your body isn’t very metabolically active, you burn fewer calories when you lighter simply because you need less energy to move. Thus, you’ll want to re-scale your diet periodically as you make progress with weight loss.

Speaking of Metabolic Rate

The Motivation Alliance now permits you to estimate your daily caloric burn rate and to see how it stacks up against your dietary intake. ¬†Better yet, we’ve gone beyond the simple equations that you’ll find in most programs to provide a much closer estimate of your actual metabolic rate. The page will also capture important information about your diet – if you have been logging it – including total calories, macronutrient balance and the appropriate modifications to meet your weight loss or gain goals. To try out the new page, simply visit the “Metabolic and Caloric Balance” page using the button by the same name in the “Junk Food Averse” area.

19 thoughts on “On Weight Loss and Metabolism”

    1. Kathy,

      While weight management is almost always appropriate, there are situations where other issues must be addressed first. If we inspire you to make dietary changes and become more active, that is good! But, given your existing health challenges, we ask that you please run your plans by your physician. Think of it as recruiting a team of people to help you realize the vibrant health that is within your grasp with an appropriate strategy.

  1. Regarding Metabolic and Caloric Balance: Although I am consuming a healthy diet of fruits/veggies/dairy/whole grains, I need to reduce portion sizes, make sure enough protein is absorbed/day and rev up my activity.

    1. Cathy – you have a great start if your diet features a lot of nutrient-dense foods as you say. You are also right to make sure that the other components (e.g. being active) are in place as well. It all works together to promote good health.

  2. Interesting, altogether! I lost 170lbs the “old-fashioned” way (diet, exercise, sweat, blood and tears!) and the closer I get to where I want to be with my weight and overall health, the harder it becomes. I’ve been stuck in alimbo for TWO years and it is really discouraging. Especially when the Motivation Alliance website tells I’m still overweight.

    I think, typically speaking, I eat pretty clean and I run and speed-walk a lot. My bloodwork shows normal thyroid activity. What else can I do to help my body understand how awesome losing another 10 or so pounds would be – any tips?

    P.S// I love the Motivation Alliance – thanks for your help!

    1. Holly – 170 lbs is epic! Do you realize how amazing and rare that is? I completely get wanting a bit more and feeling like you are in limbo but please take a moment to reflect on just how wonderful it is to come as far as you have! Okay, once the moment is over, let me give you some perspective (this is really long but I am truly inspired by that amazing 170 lb loss so I really want to help).

      When you say that “the Motivation Alliance website tells me I’m still overweight” I imagine that you are referring to the BMI calculator. Is that right? If so, one thing to keep in mind is that while BMI is very popular, it is not very precise. For example, it tells me that I am “overweight” too because I lift a lot. That is, BMI doesn’t know the difference between healthy muscle and unhealthy bodyfat. Given your previous weight, you probably have a good amount of healthy muscle (*always* a good thing) due to adaptations to your previous weight. So – as someone who really knows these numbers, I can tell you that you shouldn’t worry too much if BMI is a bit over the “ideal” value (e.g. 25).

      If your fitness centers offer fitness testing services, I’d encourage you to get your bodyfat assessed. It is a much more accurate and useful window into your state of health.

      Now, let’s just say that you still want to lose that last ten pounds. Well, with only ten pounds to lose and a strong speed-walking habit, you are likely to be both healthy and pretty fit. This is the weight that “works” with this pattern even if, consciously, you wish it were lower. So, here is the mental change that you have to make: you have to understand that you are looking to move beyond “healthy and fit” and into “athletic”. While young people and those with just the right genes may be able to look athletic without actually working for it, people like you and I have to make it happen. And trust me, once you get the habit, you will love being part of this world.

      Okay, now, before we go there you must keep in mind that “athletic” is more difficult than “healthy and fit” and comes with some cautions. If you have metabolic or heart disease, orthopedic problems, or any other reason to believe that more intense exercise may be dangerous, you really must discuss your plans with a physician. This isn’t optional: pushing into that next zone is going to be hard and you want to know you are ready.

      Okay, so the next step is to become more athletic, right? What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean walking ever-longer distances (unless you want to compete in speed-walking competitions). Generally what it means is that you’ll want to add progressively more difficult strength and agility work to your routine. Walking is fine but, in my experience (and the literature backs me up on this one), just adding miles to your long, slow cardio work is counter-productive: you have already adapted to that exercise so more of the same has diminishing returns. Indeed, too much cardio work just causes stress that may, in turn, actually block your progress.

      The best way to add progressive strength and agility work to your program is to find a personal trainer who can guide you to a safe but challenging program. The great thing about mixing your workouts like this is that your body will adapt to it by “reshaping” to meet the demands of this new type of work: you’ll grow stronger while also leaner and more graceful, more confident and with more bounce in your step. And, honestly, you may find that this reshaping doesn’t result in much weight loss but does result in the “look” that you are after (which, again, is best tracked by bodyfat testing or simply looking in the mirror).

      If you aren’t up for a personal trainer but are looking for a good source for workout ideas, my favorite site is called “Breaking Muscle”. Don’t let the site intimidate you: be ready to start slow and work up to your goals over time. Even a tiny little bit of progress every day, compounded over a year, adds up to an awesome amount of change.

      Oh, and one last thing! Please don’t worry about “bulking up” when you take this route. It is so hard to actually bulk up that there is an entire industry serving young, testosterone-laden men trying (and often failing) to get large, defined muscles. It just doesn’t work that way with women (and even many men) unless they really, really pursue that goal very specifically over a long period of time. Instead, think of getting stronger as the most obvious way to add grace and bounce to your every movement.

      Good luck!

  3. I have belly fat. That’s my target area. I know if I eat healthy, I can see a reduction. I am a 12hr rotating shift worker, and I notice on my night shifts, I get out of routine. Hard to stay on a eating schedule in the middle of the night.

  4. You are what you eat is simple to remember. Fresh, healthy foods are what our bodies need and crave.

  5. I eat healthy, but I crave sweets. I have cut out the sweets and I stay active. I can’t seem to loose the weight that I would like to loose.

  6. I have been trying so hard to loss the weight around my tummy and nothing comes of the tummy. I’ve been eating vegetables and some fruit have to watch the fruit intake, because I’m a diabetic. I go for walks and do Zumba every evening eat protein I stay away from sweets and carbs I will a slice of bread every now and then. Do you have any other ideas that might help.
    I can’t do sit ups, because of my back I also have frozen shoulder so I can’t do much with the left until I get that fix in Sept. HELP! Thank You Josie Villagomez

    1. Losing weight comes from a two pronged approach: monitoring your caloric intake as well as using exercise to burn more calories than you consume. You might want to seek out a nutritionist if you feel your diet needs help and/or consult a personal trainer if you need exercise options that work for your limitations. Whatever you choose to do, keep smiling, be mindful of what your body is telling you, and good luck with the shoulder!

  7. I crave sweet tea and I am diabetic, I stop drinking soda but cannot seem to loose any weight. I walk 30 min a day and drink 84 ounces of water a day. Can someone please help me get my stomach smaller. thanks

    1. Hi Gwendolyn, sugar intake is an issue when you are trying to lose weight and manage diabetes. Feel free to check out our recent post on sugar consumption (Season of the Sugar Rush: Your Body on A Binge). Diet and exercise are important for losing weight. If you are having trouble getting a handle on your diet or managing your diabetes, we would suggest you consult with a nutritionist and consider getting clearance (if you haven’t already) from your doctor to start an exercise program involving both cardio (continuing your walks but maybe adding some intensity) and strength training.

  8. I struggle with my diet constantly. I never really ate breakfast, and for lunch it was always fast food going in between jobs, and then a huge dinner. Im getting better at it now since I’ve been working at Campbell’s. The cafe and HFC is really a huge help. I try to eat celery, carrots and yogurt for breakfast and then something filling and healthy for lunch. Since I started doing this I find myself more hungry during the day then I normally was. But when it gets to dinner time I’m not eating as much as I was which is great lol.

  9. Re Speaking of “metabolic rate” The food log (I’m new to the MV Alliance website, so I’m still working the bugs out of my learning curve) I’m bit frustrated with the food log, some of my foods that I enter list no nutrients! I.e 5 oz steak tips w/garden salad 0 protein/0 calories etc) So as you can imagine I can’t get an accurate ‘intake to deficit’ number

    Now I do have the My Fitness Pal app. (Very detailed etc.) it was ‘Synced’ with MVA, but suddenly it (the linking) stopped. Is anyone else have this issue?

    My Fit bit surge works great w/MVA.

  10. Running certainly burns the calories and drops the weight. Injuries often limit its longterm use. Good article

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