Short Communication

International Journal of Obesity (2008) 32, 573–576; doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803720; published online 11 September 2007

What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss?

K D Hall1

1Laboratory of Biological Modeling, National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, USA

Correspondence: Dr KD Hall, LBM, NIDDK/NIH, 12A South Drive, Room 4007, Bethesda, MD 20892-5621, USA. E-mail:

Received 10 April 2007; Revised 14 June 2007; Accepted 9 August 2007; Published online 11 September 2007.



One of the most pervasive weight loss rules is that a cumulative energy deficit of 3500kcal is required per pound of body weight loss, or equivalently 32.2MJkg−1. Under what conditions is it appropriate to use this rule of thumb and what are the factors that determine the cumulative energy deficit required per unit weight loss? Here, I examine this question using a modification of the classic Forbes equation that predicts the composition of weight loss as a function of the initial body fat and magnitude of weight loss. The resulting model predicts that a larger cumulative energy deficit is required per unit weight loss for people with greater initial body fat—a prediction supported by published weight loss data from obese and lean subjects. This may also explain why men can lose more weight than women for a given energy deficit since women typically have more body fat than men of similar body weight. Furthermore, additional weight loss is predicted to be associated with a lower average cumulative energy deficit since a greater proportion of the weight loss is predicted to result from loss of lean body mass, which has a relatively low energy density in comparison with body fat. The rule of thumb approximately matches the predicted energy density of lost weight in obese subjects with an initial body fat above 30kg but overestimates the cumulative energy deficit required per unit weight loss for people with lower initial body fat.


body composition, weight loss, mathematical model, energy density, diet



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