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The 3500 cal = 1 lb calorie myth (New Journal of M

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Posts: 1,061
3/21/13 9:58 A

@Sassybrun, I heard that! I've always hated the "only eat when you're hungry" crap. To me, it's more like, "stop eating when you run out of food!" They do not address the fact that processed food has some addictive chemicals in them that makes you want to eat until you're ready to pop, and then 10 minutes later you're ready for an all you can eat buffet.

SparkPoints: (71,899)
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Posts: 2,482
3/21/13 7:54 A

It's just an estimate and only really applies to short term weight loss.

If you've been dieting/exercising for a long while, your body's mission is to achieve homostasis. That's why many of us experience plateaus or slower weight loss despite creating a calorie deficit that would suggest otherwise. Ask nearly everyone on a calorie deficit who has been on one for 4-6+ months if they're still losing at their projected deficit and I can almost guarentee you'll get a resounding "NO!" Despite doing all the same things that helped them lose the weight in the beginning.

A few things happen.
a) Your BMR (basal metabolic rate) adapts to a low cal deficit. This is why you can be overweight even though you eat very little. While some thin people can eat a lot and stay thin. (despite equal activity level). Your metabolism slows when you starve it and speeds up when you feed it... to a point of course. If you eat very little, you'll metabolism will usually slow down a lot more quickly had you only created a small deficit from TDEE. Obviously, if you continually eat above your maintenance, you'll gain. But I've seen it time and time again where person A eats 1200 cals a day and doesn't lose any weight and person B eats 2000 cals and also maintains their weight (assuming all other factors are the same; activity level, gender, height, weight etc.)

b) Your body also adjusts to the exercise you do and your activity level. This is why Spark and many other weight loss programs/advisors recommend increasing the duration, intensity or type of exercise you do to break through a plateau.

More evidence this is true is why the last 10-5 lbs is the hardest to get off. Yes, some of it is because you can't safely create the same calorie deficit as you did when you were heavier. Your body doesn't burn as many calories at rest/exercise. But those in their last stretch of weight loss (me, included) will find that they lose at a much slower rate than their deficit suggests. This is because we've been "dieting" for too long and our bodies are trying to reach homostasis.

It's not surprising that the rigid Health organizations fail to adapt their views despite overwhelming evidence that the 3500 cals in vs. out theory applies to all people at all points in their weight loss. I personally tend to get a lot of my information from body building sources, the people that make a profession out losing weight, gaining muscle etc. and know what works and what doesn't from personal experience and actual results as opposed to the overweight lab coats.

So what do you do when you're not losing weight despite the deficit you're creating?

a) Calorie cycle- Have medium, low and high calorie days. Eat at or close to TDEE on your high days, in the middle/high range of your Spark range on medium days and at the bottom of your Spark range on low days. This has busted me through many plateaus/slow weight loss. I first noticed it was strange over Christmas where I ate a ton of food (didn't track and pigged out) and gained weight of course. But the 2 weeks that followed and I was back on track, I lost the gained weight quickly the first week and then a ton of weight in the 2 weeks that followed. Then I discovered calorie cycling and lost even more weight. Keep in mind that your body will adjust to calorie cycling after awhile too. But it does give weight loss a jump start for a couple weeks.

b) If you've been eating at a calorie deficit for a really long time. You may find your best bet is to return to maintenance for a couple weeks. This should raise your metabolic rate back up and when you return to your deficit, you'll start losing at a normal rate again. Or if you're not ready to take that leap of faith quite yet, you can just introduce more high calorie days to your calorie cycling plan. I'm currently experimenting with this.

c) If you do have the extra time and you're not maxed out on your cardio, you can of course increase duration, intensity or change the type of exercise you perform. But usually when you're at this point and have been dieting for a long time, you're already maxed on your cardio and activity level. So that's when I find manipulating your calories is the most effective.

d) As a last and apparently extremely effective resort (nearly all body builders use this method when trying to get ultra lean) there is carb cycling. Which can compliment calorie cycling. There are many different carb cycling plans and I personally don't believe in using anything extreme especially for the average person just trying to lose weight. An easy one to follow would be Tom Venuto's 3-1 plan. 3 days where calories are at -20% TDEE (low days) and low carbs (around 30% of daily intake with increased protein, fat around 25%) and then 1 refeed day, high cals (at maintenance) and high carbs (50%), fat (20%), protein (30%). I plan on starting my own new carb/cal cycling plan this Friday.

Sorry for the long post, interesting topic and one I have personal experience with. I wouldn't say Calories in vs. Calories out (3500 cals) is a "myth". It just generally applies to newbies to weight loss (short term weight loss). The longer you are on a calorie deficit the less it applies.

Edited by: JENNILACEY at: 3/21/2013 (07:55)

SparkPoints: (1,810)
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Posts: 42
3/20/13 11:53 P

I, too, get so impatient with the "just stop eating if you're not hungry" advice people. I notice these are usually people who have never fought w/their weight and, therefore, had to actually lose any. More calories out than calories in causes weight loss--we know it, and thanks to all the support we get in places like this, we can make that happen!

Posts: 191
3/20/13 10:32 P

On hunger - I'm hungry for something else. There's some need for sugar, carbs. It calms my anxiety. So, if I were to stop eating when hungry...I'd be a lot fatter.

Posts: 10,983
3/20/13 9:52 P

Each day a new "myth"

Posts: 1,379
3/20/13 9:50 P

I hate "cut 100 calories a day" information. First of all, most of the "swaps" or foods they want you to give up I pretty much already have. Second of all, this just doesn't work for the average overweigh person. I know people that could cut 100 calories a day and guess what? 100 calories minus the 2500-3000 calories they eat on most days means they are still gaining weight! You can't just cut 100 calories, you have to look at the big picture. It's good to cut were you can, but I think these messages are not very helpful.

I'm also sick of the "ask yourself if you're really hungry" tactic. Of course I'm not, I'm eating cookies! Yeesh, you think I'm going to stop just because I'm not hungry, lol! It's much harder than that and it's very hurtful when people say just eat when you're hungry. Demeaning.

done with my soapbox. :P

Posts: 191
3/20/13 8:45 P

They're not saying that caloric control doesn't work. What they're saying is, the caloric deficit to lose a pound is not equal to 3500 calories. If that was true, then as per their example, someone spending an extra 100 calories a day would be expected to lose 50 lbs in 5 years (100 calories/day x 365 days/year x 5 years)/3500 calories/pound= 52 lbs. The reality is, the weight loss over that time, given the daily caloric expenditure, is more likely to be in the 10 lb range. It's good information to have, to manage expectations.

I believe most of us try to lose much faster than that, they were just trying to make a point with the example.

Maybe some lose 1lb by wasting only 3000 cal while it takes someone else 4500 cals. The point is we vary, that's what metabolism is. No matter what, you spend calories you will lose, just not at the often quoted rate of 3500 calories for one pound.

There are more myths they revealed, as well as some beliefs that hold true. The Wall Street journal summary of the scientific article is much easier to understand (at least it is for me).

Posts: 2,658
3/20/13 1:03 A

this strikes me like the study that said taking a calcium supplement won't prevent fractures. i tried to read the abstract as it was printed, the article, but it rapid stopped making sense. i don't expect my calcium supplement to totally prevent broken bones. i expect it to make my bones stronger so they hold me up better. if i fall down, the only way supplements are going to prevent fracturing is if i fall in a pit of them. not likely, but so is the idea taking extra calcium is bad for you, unless you do it to excess. calorie balance is something we understand, but the educated professionals don't believe we do.

Posts: 1,489
3/20/13 12:30 A

I think overall, the research does give people a chance to realistically think about the other factors that play a role in weight loss/gain. It's important to not become discouraged when you don't see the scale jump like on the Biggest Loser. Also making sure that you adjust your calorie intake and output as you lose so that you don't see a plateau is important. I'm beginning to get the mindset that as long as the scale doesn't go up (besides natural weight fluctuations) and I don't gain inches or dress sizes, I will be content with where I am at. Progress towards the goal is icing on the cake.

SparkPoints: (5,299)
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Posts: 66
3/19/13 11:47 P

I found this topic interesting. I myself feel that it really IS the combination of exercise and keeping your daily calorie intake lower that is the key to weight loss. Say you ONLY exercised and kept your eating habits the same. You burn 500 calories with exercise, but that 500 calories you burned can be wiped out in 5 minutes say you go and have 2 cheeseburgers after you exercise. On the reverse side, say you ONLY eat lower calories, that isn't going to work well either. To eat low enough calories that you consistently lose weight will leave you likely feeling hungry all the time and will likely have your metabolism going into starvation mode because your metabolism will feel like you aren't consuming enough calories to support your body.

Posts: 191
3/19/13 8:57 P

You're correct vulca. There's more to t than that, but that's certainly part of the story.

Here's a link to the official article:

A link to a commentary about the article in the Wall Street journal:

Posts: 18
3/19/13 8:49 P

Since I don't have the link for the article, I didn't read it. However, the reason nearly everyone who eats only 100 calories less won't lose 50 lbs in 5 years is because their maintains level calories becomes 100 less per day before they lose that amount. You won't lose indefinitely by cutting 100 cals/day. For example, my current weight is 159. My current estimated daily caloric needs are about 1850 cals to maintain this weight. If I eat 100 less calories per day, I will stop losing weight when my weight hits 144 because I only need to eat 1750 cals a day to maintain that new weight. Using 1 lb =3,500 calories, in order to lose 15 lbs, I would need to eat about 52,500 calories less in total over a given time period. If that occurred by eating 100 less per day, I would quit losing in about 17 months. That is why people don't lose 50lbs in 5 years by only cutting 100/day. Depending on height, weight, sex, age, etc., the amount of time needed to reach your new "maintance" weight will vary. I saw a documentary once that used flawed math to claim a person could become obese by just eating one extra apple a day for a number of years. If that was true, EVERYONE would become morbidly obese as they aged. The makers of the documentary fail to take into account that as you gain weight, your daily calorie needs also increase. If I added 100 calories per day, I would stop gaining at about 175lbs. At that point, I would be at my new maintenance weight and those "extra" 100 calories would not be stored as additional fat because they would no longer be extra calories.

Posts: 191
3/19/13 7:23 P

The article in the journal was not aimed at the public, but at health professionals and researchers. There was no negative messaging intended. The study aimed at confirming or denying weight loss mantras that exist "out there" without any validation.

The New England Journal of Medicine, the journal that published the study, is one of the (if not the leading) medical journals in the world. What that tells me about the conclusion is, the researchers that carried out the study are very good, and that the study was carried out under sound scientific principles (this is not a thigh machine late night infomercial clinical study).

I used to make spreadsheets trying to predict my weight loss according to the 3500 calorie formula. I always missed the goals, and wondered hat I did wrong. Now I know nothing. This information is useful to me. Knowledge is power.

Posts: 1,061
3/19/13 3:06 P

I totally agree. I could talk about other myths, too, but right now my mind escapes me.

Posts: 2,240
3/19/13 1:51 P

Exactly, Turtlesdove - I don't think it is very common that we make only one tiny change in isolation. Not many people would set out to lose 50 pounds with the plan that "I will walk for 100 calories worth of activity each day for five years whlie making ZERO other lifestyle changes."

And the thing is, they don't even MENTION the flip-side of their "small bit of activity doesn't work" argument. I mean... the issue is the body tends towards homeostasis. The body will adapt to and accomodate small changes, by adjusting appetite and metabolism. So a small 100-calorie dose of daily exercise won't necessarily be reflected in a 100-calories-worth-of-weight-lost-each-day
. Just like, if you eat one Oreo Cookie per day, every day, for 5 years, AND THAT IS THE ONLY CHANGE YOU MAKE, you won't GAIN 50 pounds in 5 years either. (But you WILL gain).

Posts: 1,061
3/19/13 1:32 P

I've never understood that way of thinking. I've read things like, "if you trade water for soda, you'll save 150 calories" Well, yeah, that is right, but that's only if you still watch your calories. It's not gonna matter much if you eat a reese's right after that.

Posts: 2,240
3/19/13 1:30 P

I have a few issues with some of the information presented in this report.

I mean, ok, first they say it is a MYTH that "doing a little something every day will add up to pounds lost over the years." And then they prove how this assumption is a MYTH because "over five years a person will lose only 10 pounds."

ERRRMMMM they just proved that "doing a little something every day DOES add up to pounds lost."

What they demonstrated, is, that the calories-in-calories-out precise mathematical formula is affected by many factors and thus burning an extra 100 calories a day by adding a new, small, exercise routine will not equal exactly a one pound loss every 35 days - BUT DID WE *REALLY* THINK THAT IT *DID* WORK LIKE THAT?

My gosh, they couldn't have presented their "Facts" in a more depressing, futility-promoting way, could they!!! Instead of saying "yes, we have proven that adding a small amount of daily exercise DOES add up to better health AND pounds lost, over the long term - just not as much as people expect it to!" They say "nope, small amounts of exercise are a waste; you won't lose 50# in 5 years doing this, might as well go straight to gastric bypass, folks."

I have a problem with this messaging. Bigtime.

Don't even get me started on their Shocking Myth that Sex Doesn't Burn 300 Calories! Once again, did we REALLY think that it did? And even if we did, is this little misconception REALLY one of the top seven reasons behind the obesity epidemic? Honestly - it's just another way of saying "we tend to overestimate calories-burned through activity" (which we ALREADY KNOW!) but in a much more titillating fashion. SHEESH.

SparkPoints: (46,737)
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Posts: 1,215
3/19/13 1:09 P


Posts: 191
3/19/13 12:45 P

"The first myth the group attacks, one promoted by government agencies, diet books and the web, is that doing a little something every day will add up to pounds lost over the years. It doesn’t take into account laws of physics and biology, the researchers argue.
It's the idea that if someone burns even 100 extra calories a day, he or she will lose a pound every 35 days. This is what the researchers call the 3,500 calorie myth – that burning 3,500 calories burns off a pound for everyone, every time. Over five years that person should lose 50 pounds, but studies have shown the true weight loss over five years is 10 pounds."

I was unhappy to read that but ultimately it explains many things. I'll post a NIH calculator that supposedly has more accurate math.

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