How Many Calories Do You Need to Burn to Lose One Pound?

If you want to lose weight and reduce body fat, you need to use more calories than you consume by creating what's called a calorie deficit. This is often accomplished by reducing the calories you take in and increasing the calories you burn. To lose a pound, you need to burn off the equivalent number of calories found in that pound.

The common advice has long been that you need to burn 3,500 more calories than you eat to drop one pound. To do this in one week, then, you need to create a calorie deficit of 500 calories each day.

While this has been the standard wisdom of weight loss, more recent research has demonstrated that losing weight is more complex than this basic calorie deficit formula suggests.

The 3,500 Calorie Concept

The idea behind the 3,500 calorie deficit first began in 1958 when a physician named Max Wishnofsky published a paper suggesting that creating a calorie deficit in this amount would equal a pound of weight loss. The idea has been cited in other studies, as well as in thousands of popular weight loss articles.

More recent studies have challenged this basic formula. Researchers have demonstrated that creating a calorie deficit causes more than just simple fat loss. Muscle is also lost as calories are burned.

One important thing to realize is that body fat isn’t just fat. Pure fat contains approximately 9 calories per gram, which would mean that a pound of pure fat would equal around 4,100 calories. Body fat, however, is a mixture of fat, fluids, and proteins, which is why it comes in at an estimated 3,500 calories per pound.

So the actual caloric content of a pound of fat really depends upon the composition of that fat, which can vary. Some studies have shown that a pound of fat can contain anywhere from just over 3,400 calories to as many as 3,750 calories.

Because body fat contains proteins, you’re also losing muscle mass as you trim down. Because muscle burns require more calories than fat, muscle loss can ultimately have an impact on your overall metabolism.

Calorie Deficits

According to the 3,500 calorie hypothesis, creating a 500 calorie a day deficit should lead to a weight loss of one pound of fat per week. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that this rule significantly overstates how much weight a person will actually lose.

In the short-term, your fat loss may be at a pound-a-week rate. As your body composition and metabolism change, however, the rate of weight loss slows.

In fact, research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) points out that the basic 3,500 deficit calculation does not account for how your metabolism changes when you are trying to lose weight. You may need even more of a calorie deficit to see weight loss as your efforts progress.​

Because you are losing muscle mass as you are losing body fat, your metabolism will begin to decrease, thus lowering the rate at which you burn calories.

This is why as you lose weight and exercise more, you find yourself hitting plateaus where weight loss tapers off. In some cases, your body may even enter a state where it holds on to fat stores, which makes it even more difficult to lose weight—even if you are creating a calorie deficit.

How to Achieve a Calorie Deficit

While the old 3,500 calorie deficit may not be entirely accurate, it is true that weight loss requires burning more calories than you consume. There are a few things that you can do to achieve this calorie deficit.

Reduce Your Calorie Intake

Reducing the number of calories you take in during the day can be an important part of any weight loss plan. However, it is important to provide your body with the fuel it needs to run effectively.

Cutting too many calories will cause your body to go into starvation mode, which in turn slows your metabolism and makes it even more difficult to lose weight. Highly calorie-restrictive diets can also lead to additional muscle loss, which can further hinder your weight loss efforts.

Eat a well-balanced diet, even when you are cutting calories. Eliminating empty calories from junk food and focusing on nutritionally-packed calories can help.

Exercise

Exercise is an important part of weight loss, but it's not a magic bullet. A safe, healthy weight loss rate is about one to two pounds per week. If your weight loss is faster than that, you may be losing too much muscle mass in addition to fat.

The amount of calories you burn depends upon a variety of factors, including:

  • Activity of choice
  • Level of effort (speed, intensity)
  • Time you spent exercising
  • Your weight
  • Your current metabolism

To burn 500 calories in a day by running, for example, you would need to run about five miles, since the average runner burns about 100 calories per mile. If you are heavier or work harder during your workout, you will likely burn more. If you are lighter or work less intensely, you will probably burn less.

Calorie Reduction Combined With Exercise

If you don't have the time or energy to burn the 500 calories a day through exercise, you could use a combination of calorie reduction and exercise. For example, if you burned approximately 300 calories every day through exercise, you would also need to reduce your recommended calorie intake by 200 calories each day. The combination of the calorie intake reduction and the calories burned would create your 500 calories/day deficit.

Of course, it's important to figure out how many calories you need each day since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2000-calorie diet is only a recommendation. You can use a weight loss calculator to see how many calories you need each day.

Pump Up the Burn

Try adding strength training and speedwork to your workout routine. One of the many benefits of strength training is that building more muscle mass will increase your calorie burn, both when you're working out and when you're resting. If you do your strength training immediately after a hard running workout, you'll be able to use your follow-up rest day as a true recovery day.

Upping your protein intake and engaging in regular weight lifting can help you lose more weight, reduce muscle loss, and even gain more muscle. Because muscle requires more calories than fat, increasing your muscle mass will also help boost your metabolism.

You don't need to do lots of heavy lifting to get the benefits of strength training. Try doing some simple exercises such as core exercises or lower body moves a couple times a week.

High-intensity workouts can also help you jumpstart your weight loss efforts by increasing your calorie burn. If you're not ready for such strenuous workouts, focus on short intervals of higher intensity exercise during your workout. For example, you might cycle between spending 30 seconds working at your maximum effort and then slow it down for a couple of minutes a few times during your workout.

A Word From Verywell

While the old 3,500 calorie deficit rule isn’t completely accurate, this does not mean that it is worthless. Cutting or burning 500 calories per day might not lead to exactly a pound of weight loss per week, but it is still a good starting off point for weight loss. Remember not to get too focused on the number on the scale. Try to pay attention to how you're feeling overall. Use measurements other than weight, such as inches lost or how your clothes fit, to mark your progress. You may be adding healthy lean muscle even as you lose fat.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hall KD, Sacks G, Chandramohan D, et al. Quantification of the effect of energy imbalance on bodyweight. Lancet. 2011;378(9793):826-37.

  2. Physical Activity for a Healthy Weight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


  3. Viana RB, Naves JPA, Coswig VS, et al. Is interval training the magic bullet for fat loss? A systematic review and meta-analysis comparing moderate-intensity continuous training with high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Br J Sports Med. 2019;53(10):655-664. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2018-099928

Additional Reading