Is A Pound of Fat Truly 3,500 Calories? Does It Weigh More Than Muscle? Here's the Truth.
People on a weight loss journey spend a lot of time talking about calories and fat. In an attempt to simplify the mathematics of weight loss, phrases are thrown around to try and help people make sense of the process. Things like “a pound of fat is 3,500 calories” or “muscle weighs more than fat” are supposed to help us understand it better. But are these statements true? Or are they just myths promoting faulty science?
To answer that question, we first have to establish what body fat is. Believe it or not, body fat is not pure fat. It’s actually composed of fat cells that also contain fluids and proteins[i]. Our bodies have two types of fat: essential fat and storage fat.
Essential fat is needed for your body to function normally, and resides primarily around organs and (for women) in the breasts, hips, and thighs[ii].
Storage fat, on the other hand, is the unhealthy kind that accumulates under your skin. When we eat too many calories, our bodies store the excess energy as fat for later use.
Now that we have a better understanding of what body fat is, let’s get to finding out the truth about a pound of fat:
Claim: 1 pound of fat is 3,500 calories.
This claim began in 1958 when Max Wishnofsky first made his conclusion[iii]. Since then, it’s become a popularly repeated truth. The calculation was made with these assumptions:
- One pound = 454 grams
- Pure fat = 8.7-9.5 calories per gram
- Body fat is 87% pure fat
- 1 pound of body fat = 3,436 – 3,752 calories
According to these assumptions, yes, a pound of body fat has around 3,500 calories-worth of unused energy. However, there are differences reported in the percentage of body fat that is pure fat. Wishnofsky was working with 87%, while some researchers say the true percentage is 72%[iv], which reduces the range of calories per pound of fat to 2,844 – 3,105.
Claim: To lose 1 pound a week, you have to cut your calories by 500 a day or 3,500 a week.
This myth about the “500 calorie deficit” is potentially the most harmful. While the logic behind it makes sense (simply divide 3,500 by seven, and lower your calorie intake by that much every day), the application isn’t so straightforward in our bodies. For overweight and obese people, this simple approach works in the short term. Eventually, however, your body wisens up and begins working more efficiently to do the same amount of work using fewer calories.
The real danger is in the risk of losing muscle instead of fat. When we try to lose weight aggressively, our bodies get scared of starvation and will choose to sacrifice muscle over fat[v]. It’s a survival mechanism we can’t consciously override. To combat this and lose weight the healthy way, your best strategy is to make sure you’re eating enough protein while also working out consistently.
Claim: Muscle weighs more than fat.
The truth is, a pound is a pound so no, a pound of muscle does not weight more than a pound of fat. The fact this statement is trying to convey is that muscle is more dense than fat – by about 18%[vi]. A side-by-side image of what 5 pounds of fat looks like vs. 5 pounds of muscle is a visual hard to forget because of how much more volume the fat takes up.
What this means for weight loss
So what do these surprising truths have to do with your weight loss journey specifically? Bottom line, it means not focusing so much on calories. While it might be simpler if all our weight loss problems could be solved by a simple equation of calories, our bodies are far more complex than that. Here are a few ways you can apply these facts practically:
- Quit counting calories. Keeping track of how many calories you eat can be useful in teaching you more about portion sizes and the “cost” of certain indulgent foods, but counting calories alone isn’t a great way to try and lose weight. The pounds might come off in the short-term, but reducing your caloric intake to 1,200 a day isn’t a sustainable way to live your entire life.
- Eat more protein. Instead of counting calories, work on getting more of your calories from eating healthy, lean protein. This is one of the ways you can prevent your body from breaking down muscle instead of fat.
- Work out regularly. Specifically, incorporating strength training into your exercise routine will further protect your body from losing muscle mass and will encourage your body to burn its excess fat stores.