This is one of the most important things you need to know.
Whether you want to lose fat, or build muscle, you need to understand this.
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.
One calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat 1 gram of water by 1˚C.
One kilocalorie (1 kcal) is the amount of energy it takes to heat 1 kilogram (1,000 grams) by 1˚C.
We use the word calories to refer to the energy in food, when technically we mean kilocalories. For example, a banana may have 100 kilocalories, but we say it has 100 calories. To stay consistent with all other information you’re likely to come across, when I say a calorie, I mean a kilocalorie.
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 a stable weight.
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 the energy in the foods they’re consuming is averaging out to be close to their maintenance.
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 lowes than your maintenance.
When you are doing this, we say you are in a calorie deficit.
The bigger that deficit, the faster you will lose weight.
Maintenance Calories are important for Gaining Weight or Muscle Too
Have you been putting on weight?
It might have happened over Christmas (more likely over the whole of December), or it might have happened over the last 3 years. Either way, if it has happened, then it’s ONLY because you (on average) have been consuming 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?
That’s not a question that can be answered with a broad statement.
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.
Have a 350 calorie surplus for 10 days? You’ll gain 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.
So how to figure out my maintenance calories?
A good 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.
Make sure you don’t go too drastic – with either a surplus or deficit.
A 20% calorie deficit works well for losing fat and maintaining muscle (if you’re resistance training and eating adequate protein.)
25% is doable too. 30% is pretty difficult in the long term and you’ll start sacrificing muscle, losing strength and running into other issues like poor recovery, poor sleep, lower immune system, hormonal issues, low testosterone, etc.
When in a surplus, more than 15% is not needed. You can’t make muscle grow any faster by eating more.