What is Meant by “Maintenance Calories”?
One of the most important concepts you need to understand, whether you want to lose fat, or build muscle, is the concept of maintenance calories.
Your maintenance calories and how many calories you actually take in on an average day, is going to be what determines 80 – 90% of your results.
Quick Recap: What are Calories?
First, we need a quick recap of what a calorie is.
Thinking of calories as just “something that’s in food” is not really accurate. A calorie is just a unit to measure energy.
Metres measure length or distance, pounds measure mass, calories measure energy.
Our bodies require energy to function. You get energy from food, and some drinks.
We all expend energy every day, through movement, bodily functions and simply by existing. We must take in energy (through food) to meet our energy needs.
So what are “maintenance calories”?
Maintenance calories, or your “total daily energy expenditure” (TDEE). Is simply the amount of energy you expend in a day.
Therefore, if you consume foods containing energy equal to what you expend, you are eating at maintenance. Over the long term, this will result in your weight staying stable.
Most people don’t eat exactly at maintenance every day. That would be remarkable, especially as we can’t measure our maintenance calories THAT accurately. But over the weeks and months, if someone’s weight isn’t really changing then their intake of energy is averaging out to around their ma
Here’s why maintenance calories are so important:
If you want to lose fat, you are ONLY going to achieve this by having an average daily intake that is LOWER than your maintenance calories.
The easiest way to do this is just to eat less food, or change the foods you’re eating for lower calorie alternatives, until what you eat on an average day is lower than your maintenance.
When you are doing this, you are in a calorie deficit.
The bigger that deficit, the faster you will lose weight.
You can also get into a calorie deficit by increasing your daily energy expenditure. You can do this by walking more, doing more intense workouts, doing more cardio and generally being more active throughout your day (e.g. doing work around the house instead of sitting and watching TV).
Maintenance Calories are important for Gaining Weight or Muscle Too
Weight gain ONLY happens when (on average) you consume MORE than your maintenance calories.
When you are doing this, you are in a calorie surplus.
The bigger the surplus, the faster you will gain weight.
If you combine a calorie surplus with strength training, sufficient protein and progressive overload (lifting more over time), you get muscle gain. Unfortunately, the size of the surplus does not lead to faster muscle gain. Once you go beyond a small surplus (about 10%) you just get additional fat storage.
So how big should my calorie deficit or surplus be?
First, what you should know, is that it requires roughly 3,500 calories to either gain or lose a pound of bodyfat.
Have a 500 calorie deficit for 7 days? You’ll lose a pound of bodyfat (500 x 7 =3500).
Have a 350 calorie deficit for 10 days? You’ll still lose a pound of bodyfat.
This is so important, because when you start seeing weight loss/gain in these terms, you’ll stop stressing about the fact you had a 400 calorie slice of cake. You can be flexible. Eat 100 calories less for 4 days and you’ve made it back. Or just forget about it. 400 calories is nothing if it’s a one-off.
But don’t go thinking you can just go with a really big calorie deficit and lose fat faster. It’s really not advisable. For most people, a calorie deficit of 20-25% below your maintenance is the maximum you should go for.
Any bigger than that and you run into all sorts of problems – the first one being simple hunger.
You may also feel weak, faint or dizzy. You risk losing muscle mass as your body looks to find amino acids from somewhere (muscle is a store of protein). Your hormones can get all out of balance – your body thinks you’re in a famine so stress hormones like cortisol are elevated and you’ll become incredibly food focused (high cravings). You may also see a decline in important sex hormones like testosterone and women can lose their periods.
Stick with a deficit of about 20-25% and you’ll be fine.
When you’re wanting to gain muscle with a calorie surplus, more than 15% is not needed. You can’t make muscle grow any faster by eating more.
Read more about how big your calorie surplus should be to gain muscle.
So how to figure out my maintenance calories?
A good (but very rough) start point is taking your bodyweight in pounds, multiplied by 14.
A less crude method is to use an online calculator, like this one.
Remember, any number obtained by any method is an estimation.
Your maintenance calories move around all the time, and it’s largely based on your daily movement and exercise.
Any figure you start with is a best guess. You need to do your best at tracking your daily calorie intake, and find the level that results in no scale weight change over a period of weeks.
Or if you want to skip straight to fat loss or gaining muscle, you need to find the intake (based on making adjustments to the estimated maintenance you got) that results in weight loss or gain at the desired rate.
If you have an activity tracker, it may tell you how many calories you are burning throughout the day. Bear in mind, that this is based on what you’ve told it your weight is, and how active you are. It will probably be using your weight to figure out how many calories someone of that weight would burn if they were doing your amount of activity. However, it can’t really tell what type of activity you’re doing. They also often tend to think you’re being active when you’re actually not (My wife’s fitbit thought she was running every time she was rocking our baby to sleep!)
How to Find a More Accurate Maintenance Calories
As mentioned, maintenance calorie calculators and formulas are always going to be slightly inaccurate.
That’s because your movement will differ every day, your exact daily activity habits, your amount of muscle mass, which macronutrients you consume more/less of, and genetic factors will all make a difference.
Two people of the same age, weighing the same at the same height who both put a vague “lightly active” for their activity, will get the same results for their maintenance calories. In reality it could be considerably different. One could be a chef who is on their feet all day, the other an office worker who spends all day sitting down. Both might do 2 workouts per week, but one lifts weights for just a few sets while the other does half an hour of cardio, followed by high intensity interval training.
To get a more accurate idea of your maintenance, you need to accurately track your intake of energy, and accurately track your bodyweight over a long enough period of time to see what the trend is.
Common Mistakes that Result in Poor Calorie Tracking
If you are trying to track as accurately as possible, you need to:
- Weigh foods with digital scales
- Weigh foods before cooking (or whatever the nutritional information states)
- Avoid eating foods for which you have no nutritional information
- Track liquids and spreads (with digital scales)
- Not use other people’s saved meals on tracking apps (such as myfitnesspal)
- E.G. If you have chilli con carne, track it as each ingredient – 250g beef, 400g chopped tomatoes, etc. Don’t just search the database for “chilli” and use whatever comes up. It won’t be the same!
- Track every single thing you eat or drink that has calories!
Assessing the Impact of What You’re Eating
To get your accurate maintenance calories you need to first ensure you’re tracking your calorie intake as accurately as possible for a sustained period of time and keeping it consistent for a number of weeks (so we have enough data to see what is happening to your weight, without worrying about daily fluctuations which should average out). You need to eat the same amount of calories each day so that you can figure out what impact that has on your weight.
You also need to ensure that the “calories out” side of the equation is consistent. There’s no point in having a consistent calorie intake if you don’t have a consistent calorie expenditure. If you work out 4 times one week, and not at all the next week, your test design is changing and you can’t infer anything from the results.
You also need to weigh yourself regularly and accurately.
I recommend weighing yourself daily, so there’s as many data points as possible. Then you can take the average of each week’s worth of data and compare these averages. If you’re eating at maintenance, there shouldn’t be any weight change.
You have to ensure the data is accurate though.
Your body weight will naturally fluctuate throughout the course of the day as you eat, drink, go to the toilet, work out, etc. It can also be affected by things like carb and sodium intake – so it’s best to try to eat the same foods, not just the same amount of calories.
The most accurate way to take your bodyweight is as follows:
- First thing in the morning.
- After using the toilet.
- Before drinking or eating anything.
- With no clothes.
- On digital scales.
Input every weigh-in into an excel spreadsheet and take the average of each week.
Compare each week’s average to see whether you’re at maintenance or not!