What's Going On with Stubborn Fat? Part 3

Over the last two week's we have been going over a lot of really interesting and eye-opening physiology.  All of this has been building the case that losing fat, especially stubborn fat, is not just a simple numbers game where you choose a deficit and just watch predicted weight come off in predicted areas week after week.  Even if we are steadily losing fat, where we lose it from is greatly affected by multiple factors like hormones, blood flow and variances in daily energy expenditure, which are different for each person.

One major note here is that if you are in a calorie deficit, you will be losing weight.  There are the factors mentioned above that influence the speed and location of weight loss but if more energy is being expended than taken in, weight loss will occur. Pay attention here because I said weight loss, not simply fat loss.  That is because weight can come from not just fat tissue but muscle tissue, glycogen storage and water retention.  

These other areas that can experience weight loss is a key reason many people struggle with seeing predicted progress and we're about to tackle that whole mess below!

A pound of fat?

Most of us have heard or read that a pound of fat contains 3500 calories.  This comes from the fact that a pound of fat is about 450 grams.  That pound is about 87.5% stored triglyceride with the remaining 12.5% being water. 

In this case, 87.5% of 450 is 394. Each gram of fat contains 9 calories.  So 394 multiplied by 9 is 3,543 calories which is pretty spot on with the rule that a pound of fat indeed contains 3,500 calories.

This leads many people to assume that eating a 500 calorie deficit for 7 days will result in a loss of a pound since 500 x 7 is 3,500.  It should also be fairly easy to predict since fat contains very little water so a deficit of 3500 calories from pure body fat should always result in one pound lost.

Still with me?

A pound of....other things

Here's where there's room to set up unrealistic expectations.  There are other components and tissue on your body that can and will be affected by a calorie deficit. 


Glycogen, as we've discussed previously is stored carbohydrate within the muscle.  Once it is stored in the muscle it cannot leave and can only be used to fuel muscular contractions.  A gram of glycogen stored within the muscle actually brings along  3-4 grams of water with it when stored.


A pound of glycogen only contains about 1800 calories.  This is because a pound is 450 or so grams and each gram of glycogen contains 4 calories.  So if you lost a full pound from burning through muscular glycogen you have only burned through 1800 calories, not 3500.  Keep in mind that there is water weight associated with that glycogen so burning through a pound of it can result in 3-4 pounds of water weight loss coming along for the ride.

Real world weight loss example

For example, lets say you created a calorie deficit from eating a low-carbohydrate diet and cut 500 calories per day from your diet to create a 3500 calorie deficit for the week.  If we imagine that about half came from fat tissue and half came from glycogen (which it often will at first on a low-carb diet), what would the weight lost look like?

3500 calories divided by two equals 1750

Weight Loss SourceCalories ExpendedCalories per GramTotal GramsWeight Lost
Body Fat17509194.43 lbs
Glycogen17504437.97 lbs
Water from glycogen 003-43.39 lbs

Total Weight Lost

4.79 lbs

This above table represents a slightly extreme but very common phenomenon with dieters, especially those beginning a diet.  Creating a 500 calories deficit daily for a 3500 calorie total for the week will absolutely result in weight lost but at initial stages, especially with low-carb diets, many of those expended calories come from stored carbohydrate.  Since the calories per gram differ between fat and carbs, the total weight lost for each is not the same.  When you factor in the water also lost from burning stored carbohydrate you have a much bigger "scale loss" when the reality is that not quite a half pound of fat was burned.

Looking at this you might think it violates the energy equation but it does not.  We have multiple factors influencing where the energy comes from, how many calories per gram they each contain and associated water loss.  

Once the first few weeks of low-carb dieting are over, the body has burned through a good deal of glycogen and will rely more on stored body fat for energy which does create a more steady loss in weight.  The caveat here is that many people are not prepared for the drastic slow down in SCALE weight change so they assume the diet is not working and give up or change tactics. The entire time of dieting someone may be in the same calorie deficit but the scale weight changes weekly can change based on the above factors.

A pound of muscle

While it takes a lot of extra energy to create a pound of muscle, the energy stored within a pound of muscle is only about 600 to 700 calories.  

If we grasp the above concepts that simply being in a calorie deficit does not mean pure fat is being lost, then we can assume that the quality and consistency of our diet is going to help determine where that weight comes from.  In low quality diets where the calorie deficit is extreme or there is nowhere neat enough dietary protein eaten, you do run the risk of losing muscle.  Think back to our discussion on the professor who ate nothing but Twinkies and lost weight.  With a very low-protein diet he probably did not preserve muscle mass very well and likely a good deal of his weight lost came from muscle.

When you consider how few calories a pound of muscle contains, it should not be a shock that we want to do everything in our power to maintain or even build new muscle when on a diet.  Low protein and not strength training puts us at a risk of utilizing our own muscle tissue for energy.

Purely hypothetically, if you burned through 3500 calories of muscle (keeping in mind muscle has about 600-700 calories per pound), you would lose  5 to 5.8 lbs.

Suddenly, drastic changes in bodyweight over very short periods don't sound so good, do they?  If someone is losing 5 or more pounds per week and not paying attention to protein intake they are surely burning body fat but also likely burning through glycogen and possibly some muscle.  The scale weight changes will be huge but some of those pounds are not coming from fat which skews the whole process.

Planning for change

Obviously we know that no diet burns 100% pure fat.  There are simply too many facotrs to expect a purely linear and predicted loss from fat; our job in creating a healthy fat loss plan that does tackle stubborn body fat largely comes down to being very consistent and tracking our progress so we can make informed choices.  Here are my top tips below:

Energy Deficit

Create an energy deficit based off of a percentage of your current maintenance calories.  Simply choosing a 500 calorie daily deficit might be just fine for someone eating 3,000 calories per day but too large for a smaller person currently eating 1700 calories per day.  Choosing a 10-20% deficit is much smarter and achievable.  I recommend that window and often put people right at the 15% mark to start.

Protein Intake

With how much energy and effort it takes to build muscle, protecting against muscle loss should be our number one priority.  It just isn't worth losing muscle mass and it isn't that hard to maintain it.  0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound is perfect for most people.  Since protein synthesis is about 15% lower when in a calorie deficit, I personally recommend at least 1 gram per pound just to be safe and if it helps adherence, a client can go above that too. 

Macro Consistency

Flexible dieting and If It Fits Your Macros are popular and easy ways to track and adhere to a diet  However I would caution against having wild swings up and down from your carbohydrate and fat intakes.  If you are high carb/low fat one day and then low carb/high fat the next it is hard to get your body into a rhythym. Consistent inputs create more consistent ouptputs so if you like a certain ratio of carbs to fat, stay as close to that as possible. As explained above, if you are constantly changing carbohydrate intake it will affect glycogen stores which, as we know, affects water retention and can create some head scratching moments on the scale.  More consistency in macronutrients eaten will help with more consistent scale weight changes.

Diet Adherence

Since it isn't hard to affect water weight stores, it isn't hard to affect scale weight.  This is why being adherent and consistent in your diet will help with those areas deemed most stubborn.  Going on and off a diet will cause large shifts in glycogen and water content which might show up promisingly on the scale but it doesn't mean all that weight lost is from fat.  I think this directly affects a client's expectations for results.  People who never go past a month on a diet only experience the beginning phases where large amounts of scale weight are lost from glycogen and water and expect this to be their results all the time.  Inevitable when this is not the case they jump ship.

If only these back and forth clients would stick through the beginning phases because much more consistency and predictability comes from long-term adherence.  Seeing smaller week to week changes probably means the scale weight changes are more likely from body fat which is actually what we want!

When you factor in that high blood flow areas will probably see the greatest changes first, you'll always lose fat from your easiest burning areas first and the most "stubborn" areas last.  But it doesn't mean that stubborn fat won't be burned it just means the diet has not been adhered to long enough to see those areas finally tapped into.

Play the long game.

Aerobic Health and Parasympathetic State

These two areas can have a secondary type impact on stubborn fat loss.  As discussed in Part 1, the fight or flight catecholamines do help free up and mobilize fat tissue to be transported and burned.  But high and chronic stress can cause issues for fat loss. Since stubborn fat containes more alpha receptors for catecholamines (which resist fat mobilization) chronic stress actually reinforces stubborn body fat.  When you also factor in that chronic stress and under-recovery inhibits protein synthesis (muscle building) impairs immune cell function and leaves you feeling burned out - it's not hard to see how that can backfire.

Sleeping well, managing stress and having time to rest and relax is vital for your health and how well you can mobilize stubborn fat.

In addition, working on aerobic health can reinforce this.  If you wake up with a high resting heart rate (perhaps 60s and above) you are in a high sympathetic state.  Aerobic work can bring that back down and create a more parasympathetic state.  This helps with stress resiliency and your ability to come back down and chill out after high stress situations. Work on a few 30-60 minute steady state aerobic sessions per week if your heart rate upon waking is high and keep it in until you get into the 50s or below.  Zone 2 is a good starting point for intensity, around 130-150 beats per minute.

Aerobic work also increases local and systemic blood flow which can help wth fat mobilization in stubborn areas.  Lower level aerobic work will also burn a large amount of body fat for fuel as well as liver glycogen which will further burn through more body fat to re-fill.  All good stuff.

When it comes to stubborn body fat, we have multiple things working against us.  But we also have many things we can do to improve our situation and move the needle in the right direction.  Like so many issues with fat loss, this comes down to a properly constructed diet, stress management, sleep and being very consistent for a long period of time.  Shockingly, these are the areas people struggle with the most.  You may need to tinker with your diet as the months pass, lower calories a bit or eating few carbohydrates but those adjustments should only be made if you have indeed been consistent for weeks and months already.

Everyone has their areas they struggle with whether it's leaning out, gaining muscle, improving aerobic health or sleeping well.  And in many of those areas the thing that is holding the person back is the thing they are not addressing.  So many clients have told me their struggles with stubborn fat but they sleep 4-5 hours a night and eat a different amount of calories every day.  When confronted with these areas needing improvement most of us get defensive.  We end up defending the thing that is hurting us the most in terms of progress.  Make sure you are above all honest with yourself in how well you are adhering and how long you have been putting in accurate work; diet adherence is the biggest predictor of success and all of the above strategies don't mean very much if you simply won't stick to a plan.  Stubborn fat might be influenced by how stubborn you are in addressing areas needing improvement. I can say this because I know it applies to me as well!

This whole three part series used physiology to explain that there isn't a secret, a magic trick, a supplement or some wizardry that you need to lean out.  It's largely most of the basics done long-term. Of course there are more complicated aspects I outlined that you can address but most of our diet bias comes from doing what we do or don't like.  Success on a particular plan largely comes down to preference which will absolutely influence your adherence.  Just make sure you realize there is no magic!