When somebody loses weight, where does the fat go?

Considering the soaring overweight and obesity rates and strong interest in this topic, there is surprising ignorance and confusion about the metabolic process of weight loss among the general public and health professionals alike. We encountered widespread misconceptions about how humans lose weight among general practitioners, dietitians, and personal trainers. Most people believed that fat is converted to energy or heat, which violates the law of conservation of mass. We suspect this misconception is caused by the “energy in/energy out” mantra and the focus on energy production in university biochemistry courses. Other misconceptions were that the metabolites of fat are excreted in the faeces or converted to muscle. We present a novel calculation to show how we “lose weight.”


So the correct answer is out of the lungs.

Lifting the veil on weight loss

At rest, an average 70 kg person consuming a mixed diet (respiratory quotient 0.8) exhales about 200 ml of CO2 in 12 breaths per minute. Each of those breaths therefore excretes 33 mg of CO2, of which 8.9 mg is carbon. In a day spent asleep, at rest, and performing light activities that double the resting metabolic rate, each for 8 hours, this person exhales 0.74 kg of CO2 so that 203 g of carbon are lost from the body. For comparison, 500 g of sucrose (C12H22O11) provides 8400 kJ (2000 kcal) and contains 210 g of carbon. Replacing one hour of rest with exercise that raises the metabolic rate to seven times that of resting by, for example, jogging, removes an additional 39 g of carbon from the body, raising the total by about 20% to 240 g. For comparison, a single 100 g muffin represents about 20% of an average person’s total daily energy requirement. Physical activity as a weight loss strategy is, therefore, easily foiled by relatively small quantities of excess food.

Our calculations show that the lungs are the primary excretory organ for fat. Losing weight requires unlocking the carbon stored in fat cells, thus reinforcing that often heard refrain of “eat less, move more.” We recommend these concepts be included in secondary school science curriculums and university biochemistry courses to correct widespread misconceptions about weight loss.

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 16 December 2014)

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