Understanding How Your Body Burns Calories

A carrot wrapped by a measuring-tape

Photo by Anna Tarazevich

Are you trying to lose some weight so that you don’t run the risk of having a heart attack, or suffer from diabetes, hypertension or other diseases which are related to being overweight? If so, do you often hear that weight loss is about “calories in vs. calories out?” For those of us who are trying to lose weight, whether it’s for health reasons or to feel more confident, would know that there’s more to it. When we’re overweight, chances are it's fats we’re carrying around and need to lose, not the muscles that we need to perform daily activities.


How does the body burn calories?

Scientifically, a calorie is a unit of measurement for energy. We rely on our metabolism mainly to burn the calories consumed and physical activity to burn more calories. When we consume more calories than our body uses, ultimately they get stored away as fat hence the “calories in vs. calories out” reference. Our bodies stash away fat like a savings account for a rainy day, assuming it’s for our survival.

The body tends to use carbohydrates first as fuel for the brain, muscles and organs. After the carbohydrates are used, only then would stored fats be “burned” to produce energy through a process called beta-oxidation.


What are the factors behind fat loss?

There are quite a few things that affect how much and how fast you can burn fat. Let’s go through these:

Diet and nutrition

Studies have shown that low carbohydrate diets work for weight loss and this particular study compared a low carbohydrate diet to a low fat one. While it may seem counter-intuitive, those on the low carbohydrate diet had higher weight loss and higher improvement of lipid levels. Researchers believe that a low carbohydrate diet keeps insulin production stable and low, and in turn keeps blood glucose in check which helps the burning of fat for energy. Research shows many health benefits of a low carbohydrate diet, such as:

  • lower visceral fat i.e. around the stomach and liver
  • lower bad cholesterol, higher good cholesterol
  • balanced blood pressure
  • stable insulin and blood sugar levels
  • fewer hunger pangs

Man trying to lift a black and silver barbell. Strength training with a barbell.
Photo by Victor Freitas

Exercise and physical activity

We can’t talk about burning fat without exercise. For a better chance at burning fat and burning more calories, you will need to increase the exercise intensity, frequency or duration. As Einstein’s famous quote implies, you can’t be doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results.

Hormones and metabolism

We have appetite hormones in our body that send signals to our brain to tell us to eat when we’re hungry, or for pleasure or on any other impulse. And these hormones can change particularly after weight loss, making it difficult to maintain our body composition. We will need to fight those impulses very hard! Nutrition Research however shows that a ketogenic diet can help, however the same diet can potentially increase your cholesterol level if not carried out properly. Hence, Dr Lim Su Lin, Chief Dietitian at the National University Hospital created the Healthy Ketogenic Diet, which helps people to lose weight without increasing their cholesterol level. 

In Singapore, you can find ready-to-eat healthy keto meals delivered to your doorstep on HealthFull. These meals are designed based on the Healthy Ketogenic Diet concept created by Dr. Lim Su Lin.  The low carbohydrate and low saturated fat diet that induces ketosis in the body. Ketosis is a metabolic state in which the body burns fat stored instead of glucose for energy. 

If you have watched the popular weight-loss reality television show “The Biggest Loser” and wondered if they lived happily ever after, there was actually extensive research done on the contestants. The ones who managed to maintain their weight after the show had continued their diet and exercise routines like what they practiced during the competition. Extended practice of this new lifestyle ultimately altered their metabolic rates which helped them keep their weight off.

We discuss more on the challenges of losing weight and a promising solution to overcome the challenges. Learn more here.

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