You can eat a lot more and maintain most, if not all of your leanness, after dieting.
But people screw this up. They either diet blindly without ever thinking how they were going to maintain it, diet too hard for too long and then can’t maintain it, or they mess up a calculation trying to maintain it.
When people ask the above question then, what they really mean is, “How do I find the maximum I can eat each day after dieting while still looking shredded?”
The following is my guide to doing this using observation and incremental adjustments rather than calculations. We’ll cover: 1. when you should consider maintenance rather than attempting a slow-bulk, 2. why you can eat more after dieting, 3. the practicalities of finding maintenance, 4. what affects the maximum level of leanness you can reasonably maintain.
When Maintenance is a Better Idea Than Slow-Bulking
- You’re happy/satisfied with your physique at the current time.
- You’re a model/actor/physique or weight-class competitor that has a job/competition coming up and have a need to stay exceptionally lean.
- You’re coming up to a stressful period in life or work. – Stress will undercut your efforts, mainly through hampering recovery from workouts.
- You want to take a break for a while.
Why We Can Eat More but Keep Our Shreds After Dieting
There are three principal reasons for this:
1. We gain back the calorie deficit.
To lose fat you needed to be in a deficit. As you no longer need that deficit, you can add those calories back in.
2. Our metabolisms speed back up to normal levels.
Maintenance calorie intake after you have just dieted is going to be lower than your maintenance calorie intake under non-deficit caloric conditions. This is because your body made hormonal changes while you were dieting to reduce the energy that you’d require to function – a survival mechanism known as metabolic adaptation. This is normal, not something to worry about, but best to be aware of. As you increase your calorie intake after dieting you get this back.
3. Non-exercise activity increases.
With more energy coming in, you’ll feel more energetic, and your propensity to do activity increases back to normal levels.
Think about when you last dieted. You felt lethargic and you were more likely to take the elevator rather than the stairs; to decline a game of pickup basketball with your friends rather than accept, right? This change is known as NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) and it includes any activity outside of exercise, including subconscious movement (postural support and control).
The same happens but in the opposite direction when we bulk. Fidgeting and activity increase, so our calorie needs increase. This is the body fighting to maintain the status quo and keep you from getting fat. This NEAT effect works like a pendulum with gravity always tugging to try and get us back into the center. Meaning, if we diet and lose weight, or eat more food and gain weight, our body typically will adapt to some degree to maintain our “normal weight”.
The effect is stronger for some people than others, and this inter-individual NEAT difference is the biggest spanner in the works when it comes to dietary calculations. You won’t know how much your NEAT variance will be, you have to try it, track your progress and then adjust as necessary.
Finally, for completeness, I’ll mention the slight increase in metabolic rate due to the increased food intake and costs of digestion (TEF).
DCM – diet condition maintenance, NCM – normal condition maintenance.
In both diet condition maintenance and normal condition maintenance you will maintain your weight, but how you perform, feel and function will be vastly different between the two. We want to find the latter, it’ll feel like you just got worked over by those Mercedes AMG engineers – bigger engine, wider stickier tires, naughty exhaust note, and a bi-turbo.
How to Find Maintenance After Dieting
This method for finding maintenance calorie intake hinges on proper tracking. Make sure you are doing it properly. My detailed guide on how I get clients to track is here.
Here’s how I help clients find their maintenance calorie intake after dieting:
- Make a calculation to add back in the calorie deficit based on your average weekly weight loss.
- Track weight change for 3 weeks.
- Increase calorie intake again to take into account the incalculable factors (NEAT, TEF and the metabolism bump from the hormonal return to norm).
- Continue and then dial back when fat gain occurs.
Step 1: Add back in the calorie deficit based on average weekly weight loss.
It takes an approximate 500 calorie deficit per day to lose 1 lb of fat. (1100 kcal for 1 kg.)
So, if for example, you’ve been losing on average 1 lb per week (take the average over the last four weeks), you need to add back in 500 calories daily to make up for that deficit first.
Daily calorie increase = “weekly weight loss in lbs” * 500 kcal
The next thing you need to do is decide how to make this calorie increase, from what macronutrients.
As protein needs are a little lower when at caloric maintenance (or surplus), you could reduce your protein intake, but for ease I just suggest you keep protein intake the same. Make the calorie increase by increasing fat and carb intake and do this based on your personal preference, but don’t skew it heavily in one direction or the other.
Example: You’ve been losing 1 lb on average per week so you need to make a 500 kcal daily calorie increase. Here are two options:
+100 g carbs, + 10 g fats (490 kcal)
+80 g carbs, +20 g fats (500 kcal)
This is how I often make increases for clients. The first one for the training days (higher carbs, fewer fats) the latter for rest days (lower carbs, more fats). To be clear, this isn’t how you have to do it, and the pros and cons of macro cycling like this are discussed in The Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet.
Step 2: Track your weight for three weeks
This first adjustment will likely be below maintenance calorie intake, but you won’t be able to tell how far below maintenance you are unless you wait and see how your weight changes over the next few weeks after the change. You’ll gain weight in the first week due to the water/glycogen gains from an increase in carb intake, and then you’ll see a slight reduction in weight in weeks two and three.
Example: Let’s say that “week 0” is the end of your diet and you make the increase in step 1 at the start of week 0. Here’s how your data may look for the next three weeks:
Week 0, 175 lbs
Week 1, 180 lbs
Week 2, 179.6 lbs
Week 3, 179.0 lbs
Step 3: Increase calorie intake again
You can see that your weight increased from 175 lbs to 180lbs in the first week, and then drops by 0.4 lbs in week two and 0.6 lbs in week three. Ignoring the first week of data, you can see that you are still dropping approximately 0.5 lbs per week on average. Therefore you need to increase calorie intake by 250 kcal per day still. Here are two examples of macro changes to do that:
+50 g carbs, + 5 g fats (245 kcal)
+40 g carbs, +10 g fats (250 kcal)
Step 4: Continue steps 2 and 3 and then dial back when weight gain starts to occur
You’ll still be slightly under maintenance calorie intake at this point, because there will still be minor TEF, NEAT and hormonal changes yet to happen, but all you have to do to find maintenance caloric intake is repeat steps 2 and 3 until you start to gain weight, then dial back your calorie intake slightly.
Now, as this is a little long-winded, a shortcut I often use is to add 20% more calories to the increase to step three, as this is a better approximation of maintenance and will get you there quicker and continual readjustments. So, in the example in step 3 I would have increased calorie intake by 300 kcal, not 250 kcal.
Done. A little effort post dieting and you can be eating a lot more while maintaining your leanness and looking fuller as well. There is a little guesswork involved in this method and is more involved than a calculation, but it works better.
Here’s an example of the impact on your physique that the increase in glycogen storage and water will bring. We saw this with Adrian (in this post). Summary points below.
Long-Term Maintenance Without Counting
If you wish to take a complete break from counting for a while, most people will be able to – the discipline from counting before seems to have a positive carry effect on any non-counting maintenance period, and the gym is simply an ingrained habit anyway. Just adjust on the fly by eating a little less or more, by feeling, based on scale weight changes each week.
For anyone that has had a history of struggles with weight gain, regain or obesity, I’d suggest a good 3-6 month period of watching your intake post diet while you ease yourself into this though while your body adjusts to your new settling point (optional theory here).
What is the maximum level of leanness that I can reasonably expect to maintain?
There is a genetic, environment and willpower component to this.
Nobody is able to walk around at a ‘stage-shredded’ body-fat levels (4-6%) all the time. Fearing survival (impending war or famine) the body fights this by ramping up hunger. Though it will vary from individual to individual, I would say somewhere between 7-12% is maintainable for the average individual. (For reference here, I’d consider Adrian to be around 9% in that picture on the left, Scott to be around 8%. This is probably stricter criteria than you’re used to but it doesn’t matter as long as the point is made.)
Yes, there are exceptions to this rule – excellent genetics, sport, or otherwise (drugs), but I’m talking about the regular folk with regular lives.
Of the factors that we can control, what does ‘maintainable leanness’ depend on?
In a sentence – the balance of happiness between the satisfaction you derive from your low body-fat percentage, with the drawback of having to control your urges in restaurants, bars, and social occasions.
You may think that being lean is going to make you happy. It might. But it’s more likely just going to be a sense of satisfaction of having scratched that itch of being shredded lean rather than happiness that you feel.
Many people tie up their self-esteem in their physical appearance. If this is you, I understand, I have been there. At some point, probably through circumstance rather than design, you’ll realize that whether you walk around at 7% or 9%, 8% or 12%, there isn’t a damn bit of difference in how people treat you, and you will uncouple this association. You’ll be a bit looser in accepting restaurant invites, you’ll drink a few extra beers without worrying, and the enjoyment you’ll derive from that will outweigh any sense of unhappiness about that 2-4% extra body fat percentage you carry. – Which is only fat by our own, somewhat warped standards anyway.
Furthermore, by having gotten shredded lean the once and without suffering, you know you can do it again at any time. That’s a very powerful thing.
After dieting, you can find maintenance calorie intake by following the simple steps shown above. This will bring you very close to maintenance within a 3 week period and you’ll be able to minimize fat gain. You can fine tune from there making small adjustments upwards or downwards to maintain your weight.
If you decide to take an extended break from stricter diet control, you’ll learn to be able to do this by feeling after some time and won’t need to count. You’ll find your own natural comfortable level of maintenance range, which in the summer is likely to be leaner, but the two won’t be that far apart. Moreover, a little fat gain won’t bother you nearly as much cause you’ll know how to get there quickly again.
Maintenance Caloric Intake FAQ
Won’t such a quick return to maintenance cause unnecessary fat gain?
It doesn’t seem so, no.
I used to suggest to people roughly double that time to come round to maintenance, believing they would remain leaner, however after guiding a lot of clients like this now it doesn’t seem to make any difference. On the contrary, it seems to work better this way as the faster turn around is easier to adhere to.
How do I make calorie/macro changes to move into a bulk after maintenance?
You’ll do this based on your weight gain target, which will be based on your muscle gain expectation, which will depend on a few things such as height, training experience and thus realistic growth potential. This is all covered in my guide, How to Adjust Your Diet to Successfully Bulk.
But, I heard somewhere that I should ‘reverse diet’ by adding 50-100 kcal per week… is this incorrect?
Yes. See my article, The Reverse Dieting Myth.
Where can I learn more about adjustments for cutting, maintenance and bulking?
Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always.
Images by Nat Al-Tahhan.