Primarily, weight loss and weight gain come down to a simple equation of calories in vs. calories out. It’s an energy balance.
But we often forget about the role of maintenance calories. Many of us fall into the trap of thinking if we are not restricting calories, or actively dieting we will automatically gain weight.
When, in fact, returning to maintenance can be exactly what the body needs.
Simply put, maintenance calories are the number of daily calories required to maintain your current body weight and body composition for a given level of physical activity. If you ate this number of calories for a prolonged period and didn’t intensify your training or change the level of your daily activities, you would maintain your current body weight and composition.
Maintenance calories act as a baseline.
They are always going to be our starting point when it comes to setting up a diet,
monitoring our progress, and retaining our progress after any dieting period.
Maintenance calories or TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) are made up of four variables:
- BMR – Basal Metabolic Rate
The energy expended by the body when at complete rest. This is the largest component of daily energy expenditure, equating to 70% of the calories we use in a day, and is determined by the amount of muscle and fat mass we possess. An individual with more muscle or fat will have a higher BMR.
- TEF – Thermic effect of food
The energy expended after eating, in order to digest and process food. TEF equates to about 10-15% of calories burned in a day.
Research has shown 6-7% increase in energy expenditure with carbohydrate meals, 3% increase with fats, and 25-40% increase with protein-based meals. This is why including a protein source with every meal means we will also be expending more calories to process that meal.
- TEA – Thermic effect of activity
This is the energy expended during exercise, and varies from 10-20% in sedentary individuals.
- NEAT – Non-exercise activity thermogenesis
The energy expended from daily activities that are not exercise, such as walking, fidgeting, and just maintaining body posture. NEAT is responsible for around 15% of our total daily energy expenditure.
There are numerous online calculators to work out TDEE, based on current weight, daily activities, weekly training hours etc.
But we need to remember that these are estimates. We are all individuals who have specific maintenance ranges based on our history, and how we have taught our metabolisms to adapt to our calorie intake and activity levels.
That means, we should always spend time tracking our body weight alongside these maintenance numbers.
Once we understand our maintenance calories, once we have our baseline,
we can decide whether to increase or decrease calories in order to hit our body composition goals,
whether that’s fat loss or muscle gain.
Our activity levels will increase for either goal, while our calorie intake will do the opposite, since primarily weight loss requires a deficit, while building muscle requires a surplus.
The difficulty comes when we enter a new diet and change lots of things at the same time, maybe we choose to go low carb, while doing fasted morning cardio, or start taking lots of new supplements. It soon becomes overwhelming to figure out which new method is having a positive or negative effect on our weight.
We need to have patience when it comes to monitoring progress.
When we make a change, such as lowering our daily calories by 300 kcals, we need to take the time and track the progress we are making. Men should spend at least two weeks monitoring a change, while women might need to wait longer depending on how their menstrual cycle affects their bodies, perhaps up to 4 weeks.
But why are Maintenance Calories so important?
Once we have achieved progress with a diet, maybe we have dropped the amount of weight we wanted, or got into that dress, or gained new muscle, we don’t need to remain in a deficit or surplus. That’s when we need to return to maintenance in order to maintain those gains.
This is where so may people go wrong – they are happy with what they have achieved but then return to old habits of eating. They start smashing back the beers or pizza they previously cut out, and soon bloat out to their previous weight and beyond.
What we need to do is recalculate our new maintenance calories to maintain our new body composition.
The benefits of Maintenance calories:
- Increased energy levels and cognitive function
Being in a calorie deficit for long periods can result in decreased energy levels, brain fog and fatigue. So returning to maintenance can give our bodies the rest they need to return to normal function.
- Increased performance, and muscle gains
When we have more energy we will perform better, meaning hitting workouts with more intensity and as a result seeing better progress.
- Metabolic restoration and hormonal function
The stress of dieting effects both our metabolic rate and our hormones, so we need to take the time to allow our metabolic rates to increase again, rather than only dropping calories lower and lower in an attempt to achieve more weight loss.
- Establishing body fat set point
We naturally have a set point of body fat that our bodies like to maintain, and will strive to return to. A constant state of yo-yo dieting, where weight loss is followed by rebound and weight gain, means we are continually increasing that set-point. Whereas by using maintenance calories, we are better able to create more stable, and hopefully, lower set points.
What we should remember about Maintenance Calories:
We always need to remember that our metabolisms change and adapt, as our weight changes so will the number of calorie we expend to maintain that weight.
When we reach a plateau or weight loss stalls it can often mean our bodies have adapted to the changes in calories we have made. That’s the time to take a diet break, and recalculate maintenance calories. So we can make adjustment and continue to make progress.
In order to make significant progress we need to make significant change.
But that change doesn’t happen over night, it takes weeks, or years. That’s why maintenance calories are an integral part of creating cycles of progress, followed by cycles of maintenance, followed by cycles of progress.
If you want to learn more about organising diet breaks or using maintenance calories, then email us. Or check out one of our nutrition packages, to see how we can help support you reach your body composition goals.