Sorry to burst the bubble: the idea that burning 3,500 calories will burn a pound of fat may be true on paper, but it’s not always true in reality. In the best of all possible worlds, when you cut 3,500 calories from your diet, you should lose a pound of bodyfat, but that’s not always the case. 

There’s a lot more to dropping bodyfat than just the numbers. In fact, if we were to stubbornly remain steadfast to the mathematical model for bodyfat management, then dieting for a bodybuilding contest would be little more than an exercise in pushing the buttons on a calculator. Bodybuilders would resort to running the numbers, always trying to cut 3,500 calories from their diets with little regard for other elements that play a bigger role in dropping fat.

Here are the factors that explain why it’s overly simplistic to try to diet according to the maxim that “3,500 calories equals a pound of fat” and the ways to go about really burning bodyfat.

FACTOR #1 | The body adapts to reduced-calorie intake.

Let’s say a bodybuilder reduces his daily caloric intake from 3,500 to 3,000 to cut up. That’s 3,500 fewer calories per week. During weeks one and two — and possibly weeks three and four — he may drop a pound of bodyfat a week for a total of four pounds in bodyfat reduction.

However, by the fifth or sixth week, he may no longer lose additional bodyfat. This is called plateauing. The problem is that the body adapts to reductions in calories by burning fewer of them. When you eat less, your body eventually starts to burn fewe calories. That puts a dent in the belief that cutting 3,500 calories from a diet will continue to result in the loss of a pound of bodyfat each week.


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FACTOR #2 | Some calories are more readily stored as bodyfat.

Among carbohydrates, protein and dietary fat, the last is the most fattening. The body actually burns calories when it digests all three of these macronutrients, but it requires fewer calories to digest dietary fat — about  two to three times less than carbs and about 10 times less than protein. So, dietary fat yields a greater net caloric intake available for bodyfat storage than carbohydrates or protein.

Using our example, the bodybuilder who eats 3,000 calories a day should lose more fat by following a very low-fat plan rather than one higher in fat — even if the calories are the same. This is just one example of how there is  more to bodyfat management than just total caloric intake.

FACTOR #3 | Protein protects muscle mass.

When you consume fewer calories, you always risk burning muscle tissue for fuel. It would be great to be able to cut calories and burn bodyfat exclusively, but that’s not how the body works. Therefore, you need to eat enough protein to protect your muscles from being burned as fuel.

Protein is protein sparing. When calories are reduced, protein helps protect your muscles and when you preserve your muscles, you prevent a decline in your metabolism. In general, a dieter who takes in  3,000 calories a day — or 3,500 less weekly than when he consumed 3,500 each day — will save more muscle, and therefore maintain a higher metabolism, by eating more protein. 

For best results, a trainer should eat at least one gram (g) of protein per pound of bodyweight daily, up to 1.5 g of protein per pound. In other words, a 200-pound bodybuilder on a 3,000-calorie-a-day diet can consume 300 g of protein, or 1,200 calories from protein, each day. This 40% ratio of protein is excellent for helping to protect a dieting bodybuilder’s muscle mass.


FACTOR #4 | Hormones shift during a diet.

One of the most critical — and overlooked — elements of dieting is how a reduction in calories affects the body’s hormone levels. One study showed that men who follow a higher protein diet had higher insulin-like growth factor (IGF) levels than those on a lower protein diet — even though total calorie consumption was the same for the two groups. IGF hugely affects metabolism, increasing muscle growth.

When you stimulate muscle growth — even when calories are lower than normal — the metabolic rate and fat-burning ability in the body increases. So, you could follow a lower protein plan — say 3,000 calories a day (again 3,500 fewer each week than eating 3,500 a day) — and miss out on beneficial IGF, which means less muscle and a smaller impact on metabolism. Keep your protein consumption high (1-11 ⁄2  g per pound of bodyweight each day), and you’ll improve your hormone levels for assisting bodyfat burning.

FACTOR #5 | The glycemic index of foods impacts bodyfat burning.

The May 2005 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition affirmed the longtime dietary habits of many bodybuilders: following a low-glycemic diet supports the loss of bodyfat even when calories aren’t reduced. The research showed that people on a low-fat diet lost less bodyfat than those who followed a plan that emphasized low-glycemic carbs — even though the low-fat group consumed fewer calories. Low-glycemic carbs include oatmeal, buckwheat noodles, buckwheat pancakes, red (new) potatoes, yams, cherries and oranges. They digest slowly, converting more slowly to glucose, the basic energy source of the body. Slower-digesting carbs help make the body less efficient at storing bodyfat than other sources of carbohydrates.

The primary reason for this is likely due to effects on insulin secretion. Insulin is a potentially fat-storing hormone that increases with carbohydrate consumption. As it turns out, the more refined the carb source — or the higher the glycemic rating — the greater the insulin secretion. Higher insulin levels, in turn, make the body extremely efficient at storing  bodyfat, while lower insulin levels allow bodyfat to be burned as fuel. If you reduce calories by 3,500 a week while still consuming high-glycemic carbs, you might fail to lose weight, you might lose less than a pound of bodyfat each week or you might reach plateaus quickly.

However, if you reduce your consumption by just 3,000 calories a week (a more moderate cut in calories), but rely mostly on low-glycemic carbs (in addition to a high protein intake), you are much more likely to extend the time that your body continues burning bodyfat.


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FACTOR #6 | Meal frequency is an important element in bodyfat burning.

A bodybuilder who eats 3,500 fewer calories a week will lose more fat by eating seven times a day rather than five. Every time you eat, your metabolism increases mildly; also, having multiple meals suppresses  cortisol, which, in turn, raises testosterone levels. When testosterone remains elevated — even in tiny amounts over a dieting period — the body becomes better at holding onto its muscle mass. The more mass you can retain, the higher your metabolic rate.

On the flip side, the same bodybuilder might eat four or five times a day and fail to consistently lose the expected pound of fat a week, which, of course, means the math does not add up.

FACTOR #7 | Time of day is important in losing fat.

FLEX typically recommends eating less food as the day progresses, particularly carbs, because insulin sensitivity decreases later in the day. Insulin sensitivity refers to the hormone’s ability to move nutrients into muscle. When insulin sensitivity decreases, more insulin must be released to get the job done. The problem is that insulin also increases fat storage. If you eat high-carb meals late in the day, when insulin sensitivity is low, you will get a much bigger insulin spike and greater fat storage. Later in the day, switch to fibrous carbs from veggies and focus on protein.


Bodyfat management at its most basic level is about calories in versus calories burned, but more factors than that must be considered when it comes to the specific needs of dieting bodybuilders. Calorie reduction is only step one. Next, you must increase protein and low-glycemic-carb consumption while reducing dietary fat intake. In addition, eat more frequent meals (especially earlier in the day) to create the hormonal environment that’s most effective at burning bodyfat while allowing you to maintain muscle mass. – FLEX