How to Find Maintenance Calorie Intake After Dieting

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

  1. You’re happy/satisfied with your physique at the current time.
  2. 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.
  3. You’re coming up to a stressful period in life or work. – Stress will undercut your efforts, mainly through hampering recovery from workouts.
  4. You want to take a break for a while.

Why We Can Eat More but Keep Our Shreds after Dieting

There are three principle 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.


Finding Maintenance Post Diet

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:

  1. Make a calculation to add back in the calorie deficit based on your average weekly weight loss.
  2. Track weight change for 3 weeks.
  3. Increase calorie intake again to take into account the incalculable factors (NEAT, TEF and the metabolism bump from the hormonal return to norm).
  4. Continue and then dial back when fat gain occurs.

Step 1: Add back in the calorie deficit based on average weekly weight loss.

Finding Maintenance Calorie Intake - Step 1It 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, 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

Finding Maintenance Calorie Intake - Step 2This 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

Finding Maintenance Calorie Intake - Step 3You 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

Finding Maintenance Calorie Intake - Step 4You’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.

Adrian's Bulk Progress - Rippedbody.com

Adrian, ~9lbs heavier post diet, after a 12-week slow-bulk. Looking at the obliques and abs, lifting progress, rates of theoretical muscle gain potential given his training experience, and the fact that there is little fat gain, I estimate that ~50-60% of this weight increase is muscle. The rest will be from glycogen/water increases. When water balance increases, most happens in the muscle/body but some under the skin. In Adrian’s case, the slight smoothing effect of the abs is due to either this, a little fat gain, or a combination of both. You can expect this slight smoothing effect when you come back up to maintenance. Thus, if your goal is to maintain your level of shreds, I’d suggest you get slightly leaner than your target first even if that is a little smaller in size than you’d like ideally.


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 bout 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.


Concluding Comments

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.


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 quicker 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.

Where can I learn more about adjustments for cutting, maintenance and bulking?

The adjustments tab in the menu will give you access to all the separate articles on the site. However, I’ve brought all the principles together in a free email course (The Diet Adjustments Mastery Course) which is shortened version of my full book on the subject called The Last Shred. Take your pick.

*******

Thanks for reading.

Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy. 

Images by the awesome Nat Al-Tahhan, of Natalt design.

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

I am the founder of RippedBody.com, this is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing online, via email, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one nutrition and training coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation.

142 Comments

  1. Nicole says:

    this was a great read! thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Most welcome, Nicole.

  2. Carlos Vanegas says:

    I have been on an aggressive cut for 5 weeks @ 1200 kcal/day, if I ignore the week 1 progress (assuming water loss) I come down to 2.2 lbs/week of average weight loss for the last 4 weeks. Following your math I would start by moving to 2,300 kcal/day.
    During the cut I was working out 5 days a week for 45-60 mins. 3 days of high intensity resistance training and 2 days of HIIT. I want to go back to regular 3 day weightlifting split for maintenance. How do I account for the decrease in workload when estimating the initial maintenance calories?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      • The HIIT is going to burn ~70-110 kcal per 10 minutes.
      • If you were performing 40 minutes on those two sessions, that’s only 560-880 kcal you were burning extra per week from it. This equates to a mere 80-125 kcal daily difference when split across your week.

      You could adjust for this, but I wouldn’t bother. The maintenance calculation is an estimation anyway and will need to be fine-tuned.

  3. Mei Nu says:

    This is awesome! I’m here to find out my diet break calories since I’m going to be travelling – thought it’d be perfect to do a diet break and try new foods too.
    Thing is, is I won’t have a scale. Just measuring tape.

    over 8 weeks I’ve lost 10lbs and have been eating an average of 1625cals (some weeks 1500, some 1800).
    Can you tell me if this is the correct way to figure out maintainance?

    10lbs/8wks = 1.25lbs/wk loss
    1.25 x 3500 = 4375cals
    4375cals / 7days = 625cal deficit
    1625 + 625 = 2250 cals

    Does this mean I maintain at 2250cals?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      The way you’ve calculated the math is correct, but I’d base the calculation on the last four weeks of weight loss only. In the first week you started dieting, you’ll have had some weight losses due to water losses and gut content changes and if you include that in your calculation it’ll be a little too high.

  4. Bobbi says:

    I found your article as I was searching for information on moving from cutting to maintenance macros. I know your site is geared toward men, so if you have a resource you feel will work better for a female, I would take any referrals. My delima is that I successfully accomplished my cutting goals (I followed cutting macros for 5 months) and I love the results I got, but since hitting my goal weight, I have had a hard time sticking to macros for any length of time so I can make an accurate increase of macros to maintenance. I’m not sure why I can’t stay as focused and dedicated now like I did for the past 5 months. Do you see this happen with your clients who move from cutting to maintaining, and if you do, how do you have them get past it?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Do you see this happen with your clients who move from cutting to maintaining, and if you do, how do you have them get past it?
      – No, not generally. The transition to maintenance and then bulk phases are as important as the cut phase and we have this in mind from the outset. Not having that in mind, or rushing things, is what gets people in trouble.

      In terms of action steps from here: Eat as you have been for the two weeks. Track your calorie intake. Track your weight. Adjust your caloric intake up or down by 50 kcal for every 0.1 lb you gain/lose. That’s approximate maintenance.

  5. Darren says:

    Andy,
    If someone loses 10 lbs and then adjusts their calories so that their weight “stays put”. Would this be another type of maintenance? Would there be any disadvantages to this approach?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      That is maintenance and that is the approach I am suggesting.

      1. Darren says:

        Andy,
        Sorry, I didn’t explain my question clearly.
        Example A: I go from 200lbs to 190lbs. Then I eat enough calories so I stay at 190.

        Example B: I go from 200lbs to 190 and then I start eating my estimated maintenance calories. Upon doing this my weight increases due to the factors that you mentioned in the article. I end up weighing 195-200lbs, but I am leaner than when I started.

        Are there any drawback to using approach A?

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          In example A, you wouldn’t stay at 190 because you’ll re-gain water and muscle glycogen. Thus, if 190 is your walk around weight target, you’ll need to go a little lower.

          1. Darren says:

            Andy,
            I was hoping there was a way to get to my goal weight without having to lose an additional 5-10lbs. I guess not.
            Thanks for explaining.

  6. Darren says:

    Can the type of diet effect how much weight will be gained when going back to maintenance? i.e. if you lose weight with a high carb diet are you likely to gain back less weight that if you diet with a low carb diet?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      If by weight you mean ‘fat mass’ then no, there will not be a difference assuming the calorie changes are equal. However, carbs bring with them 3-4g of water as they are stored as muscle glycogen. So, a diet that has a higher fluctuation in carb intake will have a higher overall weight change.

      1. Darren says:

        Thanks Andy! I can’t believe that you are still answering questions years after the article was written. That is dedication! I appreciate your help!!

  7. John says:

    Hi Andy,
    Great article, but I guess I’m not quite understanding how in week 3, in the example, the weight goes from 179.6 to 179.9, but the paragraph below says that there’s a 0.6 lbs loss. From week 2 to week 3 it looks like a 0.3 lbs weight gain. I’m sure I’m missing something. Can you clarify? Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      A typo, now fixed. Thank you.

  8. […] you are happy to simply be at a period of maintaining your physique, then see my guide to finding the maximum you can eat while maintaining your physique after dieting. If you are looking to improve and haven’t reached your likely genetic ceiling then this […]

  9. francesca says:

    hi, i’m 24 years old and i’m 5’8″ for 118 lbs. i suffered from an eating disorders a few years ago and i’ve reach this weight a few months ago after eating 1900/2000 calories a day. now i’m still eating that much and i’m maintaining my weight. i’m probably in a calorie deficit since i train 6 times a week and in my rest day i do some pilates. i’ve never had a cheat day and i’m eating pretty clean and healthy. lately (six months ago ) i noticed a change in my appearance (eye bag ) and i have a lot of weird symphtoms like light headed, weird sensations in my eye, nausea, dizziness and my doctor after several tests said that i’m probably suffering from adrenal fatigue. i’m start thinking that i probably need to eat more but i don’t want to gain weight and lose my definition, but if i’m maintaining in a calorie deficit, if i increase i’ll be gaining weight. p.s i still don’t have my period.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Francesca, this is a story I have heard often from young women, so know you’re not alone. Your body is screaming out for a rest. You need to make a choice between your physical health or your definition. If the former, bump up your calories and cut down your training volume for a while. A specific recommendation to try would be to halve your training volume and increase your caloric intake by 500 kcal per day for 4 weeks. Then see how you feel.

      From there, consider chasing a strength or performance goal for a while. Girlsgonestrong.com is a good site/community.

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