How Many Calories in a Pound?

Diet and Weight Loss

OK, I get it: You’re trying to lose weight. But in more concrete terms how many calories are you trying to jettison from that bod of yours?

Here’s an interesting story to help put it into perspective: In 1958, according to an article on, a doctor named Max Wishnofsky, M.D., published a paper that more or less set the standard regarding how much caloric weight a person needs to lose. Max concluded that “when the body is in a steady caloric state (meaning it isn’t fasting or starving) extra calories will be stored as fat, and it would take 3,500 extra calories to create a pound of fat.” So in effect, you would need to lose 3500 calories to lose a pound of weight.  This has evolved into what is known as the “Wishnofsky Rule” and has been accepted for decades. 

Adjusted for Inflation (of Your Stomach) 

Why no one took a closer look at this weight-loss equation is beyond me, but someone finally figured out the body adjusts to weight loss. So the more weight you lose the more difficult it is to burn calories. This explains why initially we lose several pounds when we embark on a diet but then the going gets tough. Corby Martin, Ph.D., director of the Ingestive Behavior Laboratory at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., says that “Weight loss slows down over time (so it makes sense that) people who expect to drop a pound for every 3,500 calories they cut will soon become frustrated when the scale doesn’t cooperate.” 

Protein vs. Fat

The good news is that researchers have been working hard to update Wishnofsky’s formula. Current research has shown that higher-protein diets tend to increase the number of calories a person burns which means that in a sense, a protein calorie is not equivalent to a carbohydrate or a fat calorie. Following that train of thought, eating more protein will burn more calories. Thing is, your body can only assimilate so much protein before you start doing yourself more harm than good. 

According to WebMD, “protein helps you burn more calories during the day and helps preserve muscle.” Thus, when you start to lose weight, you risk losing muscle in addition to fat. And if you continue to lose muscle while on a diet it slows down your metabolism, which makes losing weight that much more difficult. It’s a vicious cycle.  

Here’s another interesting tidbit to consider: While it’s important to exercise while dieting (exercise burns calories) you can actually lose more weight by not eating as much. In fact, you risk eating back your calories due to exercise because exercising builds up your appetite. Aaak! 

For its part, the National Weight Control Registry (which tracks people who’ve successfully lost 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or longer) reports that “94 percent of members have increased their physical activity in some way (which supplements dieting).” 

Who would have thought that losing weight was so darn complicated? Exercise and eat less. But pay attention to what you eat. And accept the fact that the second 10 pounds will be a bit more difficult than the first.

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Charcuterie at SHED by Sarah Stierch is licensed under CC BY 4.0


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