You have probably heard the notion that 3,500 calories equals one pound of fat. According to this theory, if you cut 500 calories per day, you’ll lose one pound per week. At the end of the year, you will have lost 52 pounds.
Sounds great, right?
This certainly makes sense on the surface, and based on the prevalence of this rule, it seems it must be true. I mean, according to Today’s Dietitian, the 3,500 calorie rule is cited in more than 35,000 educational weight-loss sites (and counting), so there must be some credibility to it.
Why is this believed to be the case?
For that answer, we need to go all the way back to 1958, where researcher Max Wishnofsky made the calculation that a pound of fat stores about 3,500 calories. It made sense, so it stuck, and it was never really questioned too much after that, even after over 60 years.
I’m not here to poo-poo on this rule.
As a general starting point, it’s just fine.
In the short term, adhering to this 3,500 calorie rule can absolutely work.
But we’ve learned a ton about nutrition over the past 60 years, and it’s easy to see the serious pitfalls to this so-called rule, especially over the long-term.
This rule leads a person to believe that weight loss is as simple as 500 calories and done. If you normally eat 2,000 calories per day, you can eat 1,500 calories and lose 52 pounds after a year. I think we can all agree that it is not that easy.
For starters, this rule does not take into account the many factors that affect your caloric needs: gender, muscle mass, activity level, and so many more. More importantly, it doesn’t account for changes in your energy balance over time.
If you were to follow this rule, you would expect to lose 52 pounds in a year. When that number inevitably stalls and you don’t hit that number, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. This is because weight loss is not linear. In other words…
you’re not going to lose weight at a consistent rate over time.
When you first begin, the 500 calories might work great. Maybe you lose a pound per week for one month straight. After that month, you start losing one pound every 2 weeks. In the third month, you’re not losing any weight at all.
You see, our bodies don’t want to be in a caloric deficit.
By definition, being in a deficit means that we are consuming less calories than our bodies need. Our bodies want to maintain our weight to not become underweight, so they’re going to try to be as efficient as possible at all times.
Your body, and your metabolism, will adjust to your 500 calorie deficit at a point. Let’s say that your maintenance calorie level is 2,500 calories.
You decide to eat 2,200 calories, and you’re making great progress. But after 3 weeks of no progress at all, it becomes clear that your body has adapted to the 2,200 calories, and now that is your maintenance level. When this happens, you drop your calories a bit more to put yourself back into a deficit.
In this example, you’d drop your calories to 2,000-2,100 calories to begin to see results again.
Your body (and your metabolism) will continue to do this to a certain point. There becomes a point when your metabolism simply cannot slow anymore.
The majority of your calories burned in a day are from your body carrying out basic life functions, so there is always going to be a fair amount of calories you need to consume to just continue functioning at a high level.
This number is different for everybody, and there are not hard-set rules for when this point is. But if you were to drop your calories too low, that’s when you’ll begin feeling terrible (if you do think your calories might be too low, please contact a professional).
All that being said, it certainly doesn’t mean that you need to drop 500 calories constantly to see results.
I’m a big fan of visualizing, so let’s imagine you are sitting on a bike at the top of a very large, steep hill. It’s a straight path down with no obstacles, but there is a brick wall right at the bottom, so you know you can’t approach it at full speed.
If you decide to go down the hill at full speed and then slam on the brakes, it’s going to be a disaster. You’re going to lose control of your bike and/or seriously injure yourself.
But if you start down the hill with your hand gently on the brake, gradually decreasing your speed as you move down the hill, you’ll safely reach the bottom.
This is how to properly approach adjusting your calories: slowly and gradually.
Once you know your maintenance calories, I prefer to start with a 200 calorie drop, but you can adjust that initial drop to be more (up to 400-500 calories at most) if preferred. I like keeping it as small a deficit as possible to help ease into the diet, because we don’t want this whole process to completely suck. When you cut your calories too much, it can be a really tough mental struggle, making the diet difficult to adhere to.
If you were previously eating 2,500 calories at maintenance, that means now eating 2,300 calories.
I like to stick with this for one month before considering making adjustments. Since we won’t see the same results week after week, a month gives us a bigger sample size (and a more accurate one) to see the results. If you’re seeing results, then you can stay put and not make any adjustments. Like mama always said: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
After a month, you can drop your calories by another 100-200 calories if your weight loss begins to stall. Again, I like to take it super slowly, so I stay on the lower end, but upwards of 200 calories per month can work great depending on where you’re at.
Continue at this level for another month, and then repeat if needed. If you’re making incredible progress throughout the month, there is no need to make any adjustments. You will only need to make an adjustment if your weight stalls or slows for a couple weeks.
Remember, our weight can fluctuate by 5+ pounds day to day, so it’s important to look at the long-term trend. Your weight may not be as low from one week to the next, but if it’s trending downward over the course of the month, you’re doing great! If you find your calories already pretty low and you don’t want to drop them further at any point, you can also focus on adding a little bit more exercise instead!
This is a slower approach than many like to accept, but in my experience, a slow approach leads to sustainable results.
Once you know how many calories to drop, you may be wondering how you should adjust your macronutrients. I’ve got you covered! Use my macro calculator to get your macro recommendations, and adjust ’em based on your new calories.