This article has been Fact-Checked by Kendall Kennedy MS, RD, RYT
You’ve heard that you need to burn calories to lose weight. How does it work, how many calories do you have to burn and how can you do it?
Weight loss can sound like a vague concept when you don’t exactly know how it works. Learning exactly how it works can help you get more results.
How does weight loss work
It’s helpful to understand how fat loss and fat gain work when you’re trying to lose weight.
The food you eat contains energy measured in calories. These calories come from macronutrients. These are fats, carbohydrates and protein. During the day your body uses energy to do all the things it does. Move, sleep, eat, sit,… all those actions require energy from your body.
When you absorb more energy from your food than you burn, your body stores the excess energy in the form of body fat. In earlier times this was helpful because food wasn’t always present. These days on the other, it’s easy to consume a lot of energy. But this storing process is still fully in place and it can cause a lot of excess body fat.
Sadly enough this extra body fat is harmful to your health. Being overweight increases your risk on diseases like diabetes, heart disease and many more.
Fortunately, it’s also possible to get rid of the accumulated body fat storage again. The way you do this is by absorbing less calories than you burn. Your body then turns to the body fat for energy. If you keep this up long enough your body goes back to its lean state.
Weight loss vs fat loss
One of the most popular names for trying to get rid of excess body fat is “losing weight”.
While you most likely will see the number on the scale go down, you need to keep in mind that the essence is burning body fat. The number on the scale can also go up and down due to other reasons. You can easily test this out for yourself.
Step on your body weight scale, note down the weight. Then step off it and drink 1 liter of water. If you step on the scale again you will see that your weight has increased by one kg. But you didn’t gain any fat.
Likewise you can for example gain muscle mass and lose weight at the same time. In this case the number on the weight scale would not go down but you would be making progress in everything that is important to you. Weight loss is not necessarily fat loss.
Exactly how many calories you need to burn for weight loss
With that being said, here is how many calories to burn for weight loss:
One pound of body fat is about 3500 calories.
One kilogram of body fat is about 8000 calories.
So how much weight you lose each day depends on how much energy you absorb and how much energy you burn.
If you absorb 2000 calories and burn 2500 calories in a day, you have a calorie deficit of 500 calories for that day. If you keep this up for 7 days you will burn about one pound of body fat in a week. In reality, you may also get some of this energy from muscle mass so chances are it is not pure fat loss.
How many calories should you eat to lose weight
The next question is then how many calories you should eat to lose weight.
The answer to that depends on how many calories you burn a day. If you don’t burn a lot you will have to absorb even less calories to lose weight.
How many calories do you burn a day
The exact amount is different from person to person and hard to calculate. There are however formulas that can help you get a general estimation of how much you can expect to burn a day.
One of the more commonly used formulas is the “Mifflin – St Jeor Formula”.
Here is how you can calculate how many calories you need per day to maintain weight:
Imperial: (4.536 × weight in pounds) + (15.88 × height in inches) − (5 × age) + 5
Metric: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
Imperial: (4.536 × weight in pounds) + (15.88 × height in inches) − (5 × age) − 161
Metric: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161
Again, keep in mind that this is an estimate. In reality, people have different metabolism speeds because of different factors like body composition, hormone levels, genetic factors,… To know for sure how many calories you burn each day is by implementing your estimations and seeing what the results are like.
What is a healthy weight loss rate?
Once you have your estimation on how many calories you burn each day you can decide how in much of a calorie deficit you want to be. The answer is not just “as much as possible”. Losing weight too fast can be bad for your health and long-term weight loss. Losing weight too slow can be counterproductive for your mental state.
In general, a 500 calorie deficit a day is considered to be healthy. At this rate, you will lose about 1 pound of body fat a week.
Keep in mind that you won’t see the scale go down exactly one pound every week even if you get your calorie intake exactly right. Some days it will be more, some days less because of things like fluid retention. The key is to look at general trends in your weight instead of individual measurements.
If you have a weight loss goal, you can calculate back and estimate how long it will take to reach it if everything goes right. This can help a lot with setting the right expectations.
Different ways to burn more calories
As mentioned, the amount of calories you burn each day is not something set in stone. There are things you can change, foods you can eat, workouts you can do that can help you speed up the weight loss process.
You can divide the possible calorie burning habits into two categories: short term calorie burning and long term calorie burning.
Short term calorie burning
The short term calorie burning things you can do can be great for temporarily burning more calories. The downside is that once you stop the workout, once the foods get digested, the extra calorie burning stops.
The first short term calorie burning method is doing cardio and HIIT workouts. The most popular example is an exercise like running. You can do most exercises in a slower way, which is cardio and higher intensity, HIIT. In general the more intense you work out the more calories you burn.
Here are some examples of calories burned with certain cardio and HIIT workouts done for 30 minutes by a 155 pound person (1):
- Water Aerobics: 149 calories
- Stretching (Hatha Yoga): 186 calories
- Dancing (Fast, ballet, twist): 223 calories
- Stair Step Machine (general): 223 calories
- Rowing, Stationary (moderate): 260 calories
- Bicycling, Stationary (moderate): 260 calories
- Running 5.2 mph: 335 calories
- Elliptical Trainer (general): 335 calories
- Bicycling 16-19 mph: 446 calories
The second short term calorie burning method is eating and drinking certain calorie-burning foods and drinks. Here are some examples:
These foods and drinks are no miracle pills but small bits can really add up if you implement them in your daily life.
Long term calorie burning
The long term calorie burning methods take a little longer to bear their fruits. Once you get them in order they can help you burn more calories for a relatively long amount of time.
The first method is building muscle. As you can see in the calorie burning formula, your weight is a big factor in how many calories you burn each day. By building muscle you add healthy body mass that helps you lose weight. Muscle also burns slightly more calories than the same weight in body fat.
The extra muscle will also help you get more out of your HIIT and cardio workouts.
The second method is regulating key hormones. Certain hormones have a big impact on how many calories you burn. They enable certain chemical processes that can increase the amount of energy used by your body.
Besides focusing on burning more calories to lose weight you can also focus on absorbing less calories into your body.
Upcoming weight loss plateaus
A big factor of how many calories you burn each day is how much you weigh. Even when you keep doing exactly the same things you will stop losing weight at some point, simply because you now weigh less. This is the cause for a lot of weight loss plateaus and it’s completely normal. The solution is to take another look at your daily habits for room for improvement.