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When you lose weight, where does it go?

This is really a question about how our bodies store and use the energy we need to function. 

October 20, 2022
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Jing Wei

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What happens when we lose weight? This is really a question about how our bodies store and use the energy we need to function. 

In general, we store backup energy in fat cells that are distributed around the body, some in the abdomen around the organs (visceral fat) and some under the skin (subcutaneous fat); lesser amounts of fat can also be deposited in muscle tissue. We also have smaller reserves of energy that are stored in the liver, muscles, and brain as glycogen. Glycogen is the stored form of glucose, the sugar that is the body’s main source of energy. 

We use energy all the time, whether we’re running, eating, or sleeping. The energy we use at rest—to pump blood, digest food, regulate temperature, repair cells, breathe, or think—is our baseline metabolism, the minimum energy required to maintain the body’s basic biological functions. So if we’re carrying extra weight, it’s because we’re taking in more energy than we’re using. (The much-cursed thickening around our bellies is a combination of accumulated deep visceral fat and more shallow subcutaneous fat.)

When we expend energy during intense bouts of exercise and other physical activity, the glycogen in our muscles is used first. The liver releases glycogen to help with muscle activity and to regulate blood glucose levels. After about 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise, the body begins to burn fat.

If we take in less energy than the body needs overall to maintain itself—as when dieting—then the body turns more often to fat reserves for energy. As your body metabolizes fat, fatty acid molecules are released into the bloodstream and travel to the heart, lungs, and muscles, which break them apart and use the energy stored in their chemical bonds. The pounds you shed are essentially the byproducts of that process. They are excreted in the form of water—when you sweat and pee—and carbon dioxide, when you exhale. In fact, the lungs are the primary excretory organ for fat.

The body uses energy to carry out the usual basic processes at rest—again, your baseline metabolism—and for the physical activity you do on top of that, which is considered your active metabolism. 

Increasing muscle mass can help you burn more calories, because muscles require more energy to build and maintain than fat does. This can boost your baseline metabolism, and it explains how weightlifting and other types of strength training can meaningfully change your body composition. Note that if you restrict your food intake too drastically, your metabolism will adjust and use fewer calories for basic functions; your body will also start to break down muscle for energy, which in turn will slow down metabolism. Try to find a shortcut to weight loss around the body’s exquisitely balanced chemistry, and you may well find that it backfires on you instead. 

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