Countering Anti-Energy Balance, CI=CO Arguments ~ Part I The 3500 Cal = 1 Pound Fat

Calories In - Calories Out = Change in Energy Stored

I continue to be amazed by the number of people who argue against this basic physical law.  This series will discuss the various versions by which folks seek to argue against this.  

This installment will consider the argument that 1 pound of fat = 3500 calories is incorrect.
= 3500 Cals??

Many will point to the fact that someone can overeat, say, 5000 cals/day for a period of time and not gain the exact amount of weight predicted.  Going the other way, folks can eat a 500 cal/day deficit for a period of time and not lose a full pound in a week or even lose more than a pound in that week.  These observations are often put forth as "proof" that a pound of fat doesn't equal 3500 calories and/or that CICO (calories in calories out) theory is fatally flawed.

There are any number of explanations, however, why these observations don't disprove CICO.    Before I list them, let me state a few things here.  For starters, I don't know of anyone "in the business" who would claim that 1 pound = 3500 cal is an exact value.  It's not, and it is intended to be a guideline to estimate expected losses or gains.  Secondly, not all body fat is the same fatty acid.  The actual caloric content of a lipid depends on the chain length and saturation.  The 9 cal/g factor for fats is an average approximation.  But that said, it would hold that if we expend 3500 cals more than we take in, and for the sake of simplicity presume we're completely glycogen depleted so that all of the deficit is made up for by burning stored lipid, you will lose approximately 1 pound of stored lipid.  And if this is the other way around and consume 3500 excess calories in a glycogen replete state so that all of the surplus is stored as lipid, we'll gain approximately 1 pound of stored lipid.  But already one can see how this likely won't translate to the bathroom scale.  Because:
  • We never lose or gain JUST fat.  Lean body mass changes as well.  LBM contains significantly fewer calories per pound (can't find a number on that).
  • We will expend some calories to absorb and metabolize calories.  So 3500 calories in doesn't equal 3500 calories available to do work or be stored.  I don't think anyone disputes this, thermogenesis and all that stuff.   But that is accounted for in the CO side of the equation.
  • If our caloric excess is primarily carbohydrate, energy must be expended to convert that to fat.  Again, this is accounted for on the CO side of the equation if one were to do an energy balance (IOW 3500 cal excess is not 3500 if we expend, say, 500 of those calories to convert carb to fat).  This was shown in this study, where carbohydrate overfeeding led to storage of only 75-85% of energy consumed vs. 90-95% for fat overfeeding.
  • Are we talking a pound of "fat" or a pound of lipid?  As I've been discussing here and here fat tissue is 14% water and only 75% lipid (the rest is the cells, connective tissue, etc.).  We expand and shrink fat cells, but we never get rid of them (well, unless we get liposuction and such).  But presuming the water correlates with lipid (that is a bit of a leap of faith), we lose or gain about 1.2 lbs "fat" for every 1 lb of lipid.  Another way to look at this is that a pound of fat actually contains only 2625 calories.  This doesn't violate energy balance in any way.
  • Similarly, lean mass is almost 80% water, so if we presume LBM is mostly fluxing carb + protein, the energy content of 1 pound of LBM "solids" could be estimated to be 1556 cal, these are associated with 4 pounds of water, so a pound of lean tissue contains just over 300 cals (roughly 1/10th that of fat tissue).  
  • So to summarize the two prior bullet points, tissue weight gains and losses are disproportionate for whether energy is stored in lean vs. adipose tissues, and water weight gains and losses are both considerable (14% for fat, 79% for lean).  Put together, it's no wonder the bathroom scale doesn't reflect the 3500 cal per pound figure.
  • Lastly, we all know that CI and CO are not independent terms.  Our bodies can and do rev up metabolism a bit to counter overfeeding, and they do dial it down to conserve energy when in deficit, especially prolonged deficit.  
Bottom line:  A pound of lipid is approximately equal to 3500 calories.  A pound on the bathroom scale is not a pound of lipid.  A 3500 calorie deficit over the long run will deplete about one pound of lipid stores, and a 3500 calorie surplus in energy in v. energy out, will add about one pound to your lipid stores.


James Krieger said…
I recently wrote an article on this issue as well (although only subscribers can access it)
Muata said…
LOL! James, I was about to leave the same comment;)

What I really laugh at is when people say CICO doesn't work because they didn't lose as much weight as predicted! Wait a minute, so you did actually lose weight, right?

It seems that we as a species will selectively choose when we will accept nothing less than 100% repeatable accuracy every time when that's not how science or mother nature works!

Is Meteorology bunk because it's going to be over 80s in southern CA today when according to almanac it should be in the low 60s this time of the year? Go figure ....
Unknown said…
Hi Carbsane,

I really like the following quote from Chow:

"the commonly used rule of “3500 Calories is a pound” is a poor approximation at best. This rule only gives the initial rate of change of body weight if you are perturbed from a steady state and assumes that your body weight won’t change to compensate. A more accurate rule that can be obtained from the model is that “10 Calories a day is a pound”, which means that reducing your diet by 10 Calories a day (Calorie = kilocalorie) will lead to a new steady state that is one pound lower. However, the time constant for reaching steady state is about a year so it can take a long time to reach steady state."

I really like your blog.

CarbSane said…
Thanks Curtis & Welcome to the Asylum!

I was a bit confused on that quote b/c it didn't come from the paper. So here's a link, folks, to Carson Chow's comments from which Curtis quoted:

One of the calorie strategies that I think is more "maintenance friendly" is to (try to) figure out your caloric needs at your goal weight and eat that amount. Eventually you'll reach and plateau out at that weight.
CarbSane said…
Ya know it's amusing Muata that we'll get the whole "the human body is soooo complex" spiel all the time, so we can't possibly make it so simple as caloric balance ... and yet it's so simple about carbs/insulin??? We energy balance folks GET that there are like a zillion factors that can impact the ultimate balance!
Muata said…
I like using the analogy of a car. The vast majority of folks driving cars across the globe could tell you very little about the vast processes and systems that are working together to make the little buggy go, but 99.9% of them know the basics: insert key, open door, insert key, start car, put it in gear, step on gas pedal, go forward; when the little gas tank light comes on, pull over, pump gas.

Why can't fat loss be the same way?

Everyone's goal should be to master the basics, and then let the "nerds" have at the research and "exact" explanations of why it works ;)

What's really funny is when you think about it, the whole goal of fat loss is to reach a sustainable plateau with a body composition YOU are happy with. That's the Holy Grail of fat loss, no?

Being able to not only say that you've lost X amount of pounds (regained it and lost it again), but that you've transformed your body to a point you are comfortable with AND you can maintain it with relative ease is when you grow long green ears, white hair, and speak in broken sentences;)

And, I'm still not there ...
Jeremiah said…
"We never lose or gain JUST fat. Lean body mass changes as well. LBM contains significantly fewer calories per pound (can't find a number on that)."

This is the part that makes CI=CO useless. With a 3500 calorie deficit, I could lose 1lb of lipids or I could lose roughly 10lb of LBM tissue. What controls which I lose?

I was under the impression that was determined by hormones (i.e. Taubes's 6th conclusion: teenagers grow not because they made a conscious decision to do so, but because hormones are driving both growth and hunger; likewise in adults). The best demonstration given of that was the zucker rats that would starve to death with fat stores intact. Now, I'm thoroughly confused. If not hormones, what's driving the distribution?
CarbSane said…
Welcome to the Asylum Jeremiah! The point of this post was that CI=CO or we gain or lose mass holds regardless of the type of mass we gain or lose. We always gain or lose some proportion of lean and adipose tissue and hormones and genetics do drive the distribution. However adipose tissue serves both as a buffer for dietary fats and our major long term storage of excess energy. So in the long run to lose a pound of stored lipid, the 3500 cal figure is a good estimate.
Anonymous said…
Obesity is linked to adenovirus ( "cold" virus) among other things. The Caloric "Bank Account" Hypothesis that Krieger clings to is NOT valid.

Calories are only one factor among dozens upoun dozens in the etiology of obesity. Sorry guys, these are the facts and real scientists admit it.

How about you , James Krieger, NIgel and Lyle McDonald all post pictures of yourselves no shirt and bikini top and then I will post a picture of my brother who understand COMPOSITION of your diet is essential for FAT loss, and does NOT follow the bank account model?

Let's see how you farcical BELIEFS are working for you........
Anonymous said…
Where is your Dr. Friedman post that you promised CarbSane?

I promised not to pick on James Krieger's lack of obesity knowledge if you commented and did a post. Our agreement.
Danny Jimmy said…
you'd lose. McDonald and Krieger are pretty jacked and lean, not sure about LLC but I think she's pretty fit. Your brother is lean because he doesn't eat more calories then he needs. That he doesn't consciously follow a model is irrelevant, many people are instinctively aware of when they're on caloric balance, whether they believe in counting calories or not.
CarbSane said…
Hey DJ, I'm not exactly lean, weight cycling has taken its toll and after a certain age bikinis are probably out of the question. Indeed one of my lingering issues is that low carbing has definitely shifted my excess weight TO my belly which is disconcerting. Now fit, that's another story. I'm doing stuff in my mid 40's that would put many 35 year old men to shame so I must be doing something right!

@Razwell: I don't recall you accepting my offer so didn't know we had any sort of contract ;) Been a bit busy with other stuff here if you haven't noticed so please don't start shit b/c you're bored or looking to stir up a fight.

One has to wonder though ... why not put YOUR belly up for inspection?
Anonymous said…
I'd "lose"? I don't think so , guy. Lyle and Krieger do NOT have impressive builds at all nor are they especially lean.

Colpo is the closest to that and my brother would SMOKE him in a bodybuiding competition.

Way more striated chest, far more muscular arms , veins on shoulders, and abs too . Made his professiocal card in just his 3rd show ever, and could compete in the Mr Pennslyvania. Top 3 competitors in natural bodybuilding. Plus he could deaqdliuft 420 for 5 sets fo 6 way back when he was 19 and at the END of a workout and at a bodyweight of only 180. Sorry, your heroes Colpo, Krieger, Hale and McDonald cannot compete with him. He is also a top notch wrestler.

He has an IFBB professional giving him advice ( diet COMPOSITION, good workouts) . THAT is why he is lean, PLUS genetics. His bodybuilding genetics are top notch and Eddie Moyenz ( Google him) was VERY impressed by him. Sorry it is all of YOU who would lose.

My brother eats well ( calories) and KNOWS COMPOSITION is important. Bad diet equals a bad build even if calories are low. Every TOP bodybuilder KNOWS this........

I am NOT trying to talk up my brother as we have had plenty of fights as kids. I am just stating the facts.

The caloric hypothesis as out out by the diet industry is dead WRONG. Practicing "energy balance" was NEVER right.

People are tired of the piss poor results they get following that USELESS nostrum about calories in and out.
Anonymous said…
FACT: The very knowledgeable IFFBB professional bodybuilder advising my brother on diet and posing never once mentioned calories - EVER.

She DID in fact ALWAYS MENTION NO SUGAR and LOWER carbs for cutting !

N O S U G A R !

Maybe YOU guys would get betetr results if you DITCHED Krieger, Lyle McDonald ,Colpo, Hale and listened to people who KNOW what they are doing
CarbSane said…
Razwell: What part of the fact that I lost weight doing VLC (<20g/day) most days for almost 3 years before adding in a few more (75-100g/day) more recently? I don't eat much sugar at all. The remaining fat on my body is unfortunately now located more in my belly vs. in my thighs where it used to go before low carbing.
Anonymous said…
Don't lose too much fat, CarbSane. My brother's bodybuilding is not healthful in my opinion. The whole 3% body fat is nonsense for health. We need some fat. Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon was farrr TOO LOW. Looks "pretty" but is not useful. Unfortunately I think that contributed to his bad health as well as overtraining and some drug use.

I just want to say that Lyle McDonald is a good person taking care fo those dogs . I sincerely wish him the best with his depression .

The obesity disagreements between Lyle and myself do not really matter. I hope he is feeling better .
CarbSane said…
I have to chuckle because I'm no where near the point of losing too much. My issue is that at my age with my weight cycling and perhaps 100 lb loss, I've got that old loose skin to deal with. Surprisingly, it does seem to be resolving itself a BIT. I do notice that when I lose a pound or two I start to appear a little more wrinkled so it's a balancing act. Still, I am very dense and apparently muscular (well I know I am but I think my remaining fat obscures this quite a bit) so I'm pretty happy at my size. Just having taken a biomechanics class I worry about the actual weight - that my joints don't know the difference in for impact forces, etc. - as I age.

I don't know Lyle, Colpo or Hale on any level in terms of ever conversing with them more than a few exchanges with Hale. James and I are recent acquaintances, we've exchanged some "professional" emails and commented on each other's blogs, so I guess I would consider us the internet equivalent of "work friends" as we don't have a personal type relationship. For these reasons, if you want to rant about me and my work, we'll see how civil/acceptable you can keep that. But continually referencing these guys will get your posts here deleted.
MM said…

I have the loose skin problem too, and I notice exactly the same thing you mention. I lose a pound (according to the scale) and my skin seems looser. I despair that it will never shrink back up again. However, I know that it did after my first two babies. So maybe there's hope, but I'm older now and maybe my skin's lost too much elasticity. Time keeps on ticking... :) Have you done any research into this area? I can't find much info that I would consider reliable.
CarbSane said…
No I haven't really because some areas seem "too far gone" for anything other than surgical correction. But for my neck I'm encouraged that some of the new skin products (I use a generic version of Olay Regenerist Microsculpting cream these days) do seem to actually do something! If I have regrets it's that I didn't figure this whole thing out back in my elastic days ;) Still, I've been about this size for 2.5 years now and things do seem better than they were 2.5 years ago ... I hold out hope!
Anonymous said…
Lyle mentioned his situation on the Internet, that's why I know and I wish him well. His readers know his situation.

Anyway as far as obesity I won't mention any of those guys, other than to say Jamie Hale is the rudest of the rude.
Danny Jimmy said…
it's a myth that "bad diets" makes a bad built and finally bodybuilders are coming to term with this unproven dogma.

If you go to the nutrition forum on you'll be made fun of for suggesting that "clean eating" makes a better body, because it's nothing but superstition.

There are on that forum bbers who build stunning bodies while eating pizza, cold cereal with ice-cream and meatballs.

"bad foods" (whatever that means) don't have any magical powers to make a bad build and make a body looks bad or asymettrical or unbalanced or weak just like "clean foods" don't have any magical powers to make the opposite.
Anonymous said…

I want to tell you something :

Science does NOT currently understand the chemical behavior of fat cell receptors. That is a massive understatement. Understanding this is at the very heart of what we need to know to cure obesity.

Did you know this ?........
Anonymous said…
I strongly suggest you look into the work of Dr. Jeffrey Friedman, on eof the foremost experts on obesity in the entire world.

The truth is that obesity is a hellishly complex , multifactorial disease, whose genetic component is the same as height Calories are only one factor among dozens, upon dozens, upon dozens in the etiology of obesity.

Obesity is full of VAST uncertainties and unknowns. The UNKNOWNS dwarf the knowns.

Obesity is something science has FAR from cracked. Obesity is FAR from solved.

real genuine scientists admit this, unlike these Internet gurus everyone follows who promote pseuduscience.

Please do yourself a favor and look into Urgelt of YouTube who points all of this out in the first 11 pages of comments on his obesity video.
Anonymous said…
Just because calories are ONE FACTOR in the etiology of obesity ( among dozens upon dozens upon dozens)does NOT mean we can "practise energfy balance" like these misinformed Internet gurus suggest.

What nonsense. Your body controls all of that afr more accurately than you can. We do NOT control the energy expended vs the energy taken in over 5 years to a decade- which is how our weight regulatory systems work - VERY LONG TERM.

NO ONE can do this. Add to the fact calorie values are off significantly on products.

Counting calories does NOT work for reversing obesity long term. We are NOT in control of "energy balance". Our bodies are in a constant state of flux.

Sorry. That is the reality.

Any war about this on the Internet is due to MONEY, NOT science.

All we can do is try not to overeat ( if our hormones work OK) which is a bad thing for health and screws our regulatory systems.

Dr. Friedman has REPUTABLE obesity information and is trying to learn more ( subect to correction as we discover more) .

None of these sites do. They are all certain.

Obesity research is FULL OF VAST uncertainty and unknowns.

It is PARAMOUNT to recognize this and publicly admit this. NO ONE's theories have been proven to work yet to cure obesity

NO ONE. You calorie people will not admit this fact.
Bret said…
How's the desperate trolling for some publicity working out for you there, Chris? Judging by the fact that only about two people have commented on any of the "articles" (and I use the term very loosely) at your site, and one of them was you, I'd guess your parents are about to cut off the allowance and shut it down. It also seems that people are doing to you what you advise we all do with Krieger, Hale, Aragon, McDonald, and Colpo - ignore him and he'll go away.

Although anyone taking even a cursory glance at the website and posts by "Razwell" would need to be told what an incoherent, babbling, and juvenile rant warrior he (she?) is, Anthony Colpo's site has a new article with some background and/or insight into the madness if you are so inclined.

At any rate, CarbSane, thanks for another interesting article that supports the fact that calories do matter. It's quite a challenge to tell people what they don't want to hear.
Sven Anders said…
Every weight study I've read confirms the fact that a caloric deficit is the reason a diet works. The method (lowcarb, highcarb, lowfat etc) is important for the overall success rate (measured in dropout rate), but *no* study has ever shown weight loss coupled with a steady caloric surplus in healthy human beings. That's quite frankly impossible.
CarbSane said…
Thanks Bret and Welcome! (It's getting so more common ID's are difficult to distinguish so if this is a repeat I apologize)