How Do I Find Maintenance Calorie Intake After Dieting?

Andy MorganMaking Adjustments122 Comments

Finding Maintenance Calorie Intake - Top

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).

Finding Maintenance Calorie Intake - DiagramDCM – 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, less 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, 179.9 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

Finding Maintenance Calorie Intake - Long-term maintenanceIf 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'm an online nutritional and training coach living in Tokyo, Japan. After seeing one too many people get ripped off by supplement and training industry lies I decided to try and do something about it. The site you see here is the result of a lot of Starbucks-fuelled, two-fingered typing. It's had a lot of love poured into it, and I hope you find the guides to the diet and training methods I use on this site useful. When I'm not helping clients you'll likely find me crashing down a mountain on a snowboard, racing around Suzuka circuit, or staring at watches I can't afford. (Read more about me →)

122 Comments on “How Do I Find Maintenance Calorie Intake After Dieting?”

  1. Pingback: Podcast Episode #15 - Q&A with Rippedbody.com Coach, Andy Morgan

  2. 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. 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.

  3. Hello Andy ! I love all your posts i would say this is the best fitness related site on the internet nowadays pure science 0% BS
    Ok straight to my question, I’m 17 years old currently on a cutting Phase to start a lean bulking phase on 10% body fat and my question is this one, I’m weighing myself every day I train, post workout with the scale my gym has that is not digital it’s the old scales, never mind it is pretty accurate. I train 4 days per week so at the end of the week I have 4 measurements pretty similar of course with some fluctuation each other so I finish the week and take the average from those 4 measurements. Is that an accurate way of knowing my weight ? Why I can’t use a bath scale and weigh every day ? Because my parents don’t allow me, they say I’m already obsessed weighing my food. Please Andy help me so I can start my lean mass Phase knowing my mantenniance calories.

    Other thing, I’m losing approximately 0,7kg per week, my strength stays the same or increas in some lifts If this week I’m 0,7 lighter again I will add 200 calories so I stop losing too fast.

    That’s all !

    1. Because my parents don’t allow me, they say I’m already obsessed weighing my food.
      Nicolas, thank you for the question. I’m really happy to read that you have found the site useful, but honestly, I don’t feel comfortable giving the advice you want me to give.

      Your parents are probably right. Eat, train hard, grow, enjoy yourself. Leave this level of counting until your 20s or it could turn into an unhealthy obsession, and by the time you realize it you’ve missed out on your youth.

      Again, eat, train hard, grow, enjoy yourself. Girls don’t give a shit whether you are 8% or 13%. Work on developing your character, being an interesting dude, be confident in yourself, and they will come.

  4. Hi Andy,

    I’ve been cutting for a few months now and will probably continue doing so until about mid-April, then move into maintenance (first baby on the way so I anticipate quite a few restless nights). The nutrition part you outlined in the article makes sense but I’m curious on the training aspect of maintenance.

    When eating at maintenance, how should the weight training look? Is it best to keep it the same as when cutting or could there be an increase (or decrease) in volume/frequency/intensity? I’m pretty much looking to do the minimum amount possible to maintain what I have achieved until life settles back down enough to go back on a bulk. Just curious if you have any thoughts on this scenario.

    Thanks for the great site.

    1. Hi Brian, congratulations in advance on becoming a papa and thank you for the question.

      Broadly speaking, compared with maintenance when cutting you will be able to handle (i.e. recover from and adapt to) a little less volume and when bulking a little more. The sleep deprivation you’re about to suffer will also impact this. More theory on this here:

      Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress

      Hope that helps and good luck!

  5. “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….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.”

    So do you need to make your goal wieght 5lbs less than you actually want it to be to account for the wieght gain during that first matnience week? In the past when I’ve tried to lose weight, I would hit my goal and then when I added back my deficet calories a rapidly regained weight. I know part of this was due to bad habits but I was pretty certain for at least those first couple weeks I was eating responsibly. the rapid weight gain would often demoralize my focus and kill my motivation.

    1. Hi Jimmy, thank you for the question.

      The issue in the past was that you based success on the scale weight change, rather than appearance. This is because you thought the weight increases after dieting signaled fat regain, but actually, the weight swings were unavoidable and happened due to hydration status changes, muscle glycogen increases, and gut content increases.

      Now that you know this it should help free you from this mental hangup. However, this does leave a practical issue of what to target which you address in your question:

      “So do you need to make your goal weight 5lbs less than you actually want it to be to account for the weight gain during that first maintenance week?”
      – The swing in weight will be different for different people, but generally the bigger you are the harder carbs were cut, the larger the increase after the diet is done. I do not have any rules of thumb for this. My best advice is to shoot for a goal appearance rather than a weight target. Or, shoot for a target weight but accept that you will be a 5-10lbs heavier when back at maintenance.

  6. Hi! I have a question from the other side of the spectrum- due to a brutal year of illness and stomach problems, my calorie intake was severely decreased for the entirety of last year, along with an extremely low carb intake. Starting around December last year, I began eating more- including carbs. Although I eat clean and weight train 3x/week, this appears to have resulted in not only weight gain, which I figured would happen, but also fat gain.
    I have been looking into the concepts of metabolic damage and reverse dieting, so I am slowly learning that I should have ramped up my calories a little more gradually in order to encourage my metabolism to keep up. But what to do now? Once I’ve determined what my maintenance calories look like, what would be my best plan of attack to drop some of this extra fluff?

    1. Hi Brianna, thank you for the question.

      Ok, I think I understand your feelings. The last year sucked, hard. The only positive of it was that you lost some fat, but now you have regained it and lost that small positive outcome from that situation. You’re wondering whether you could have handled the post-illness recovery in the last two months any better, and what you can do to lose the fat gain. This correct?

      Well, firstly, you’re alive and now healthy. That is the positive. The weight re-gain after a long year of illness is natural, this is your body trying to restore a healthy weight. The fat re-gain shouldn’t be seen as a negative here, but a sign of health/recovery. I know what you have likely read, but the idea of metabolic damage is a myth. You have been doing the right thing, and increasing your calorie intake in slower increments would only have hampered your recovery.

      Once I’ve determined what my maintenance calories look like, what would be my best plan of attack to drop some of this extra fluff?
      – You’ve barely been back at a regular maintenance calorie intake (NCM in the graph above) for two months. I think you should stay around this weight for a few more months to let your body recover from the past year. You did describe it as “brutal,” after all. Ask your doctor whether they would be ok with you going back in a caloric deficit right now – probably not, right?

      Keep yourself at maintenance calorie intake (where you are not gaining or losing any weight) but focus on a performance goal. Being able to do your first full bodyweight chin-up, deadlifting 1.5* your bodyweight, etc. This will keep your mind off the fat loss, you will allow yourself time to recover, and your body composition will improve.

      Finally, it would be a good idea to get yourself into a good community of like-minded people during this time. Girls Gone Strong is excellent, tell Molly I sent you.

  7. Hey

    I found that article incredibly helpful, particularly as someone who has had a history of yo yo dieting. The bit I’m confused about, is how to incorporate previously restricted foods or eating out in restaurants into a maintenance diet. In the past I would allow myself either a night out with friends for a meal, or maybe one or two slices of cake a week, whilst maintaining an overall calorie deficit: sort of an 80/20 rule of being good 80% of the time and relaxed 20%. It worked for me and I’m now at my goal weight and in good shape, working out four times a week. Now I’m not sure how to incorporate that kind of extra-calorific consumption into a maintenance diet where I’m eating an increased amount of calories overall. That probably sounds dumb as it should be obvious, but I don’t want to increase my calories overall and suddenly find that I’ve gained weight if I also go out for a meal or have the occasional pastry.

    Paul

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for the question.

      If that worked to allow you to maintain weight, then you were at maintenance calorie intake. Don’t change things. It just means that the extra meals out that you allowed yourself were the difference between maintaining a calorie deficit, to being at maintenance.

  8. Andy,

    First off, thank you for all the great information. I’ve been on a cut for the past couple of months and while I am not shredded (currently around 14% BF, down from 19%) I am considering going on maintenance calories for a couple of months for strength gains and such (plus the wife thinks I’m getting to skinny). Will I see an increase in strength on maintenance calories? Is there still a chance to convert fat to muscle on maintenance calories (recomp)?

    Thanks in advance,

    Casey

    1. Hi Casey, thanks for the questions.

      Will I see an increase in strength on maintenance calories?
      – Yes. See this article, section, “How Calorie Deficits Negatively Affect Our Training Response, How Surpluses Positively Impact It”
      Is there still a chance to convert fat to muscle on maintenance calories (recomp)?
      – Fat cannot be converted to muscle, but fat can be lost at the same time as muscle is gained under certain circumstances, generally those with less training experience have a greater ability to do so.

  9. Hi, Andy. Thanks for the article. It is very informative. I have been on a very low calorie diet for about 6 months now and i have lost almost 60kg. I am 6kgs away from my goal weight and I am concerned about maintaining my weight. How can i prevent weight gain while increasing my daily intake of calories? Do i add 100 calories a day or more? I am very worried that i will gain weight and while the article is very informative, I am afraid that since i lost a lot of weight, that it will affect me more.

    1. Just as per the method above Rachel. There will be 2-3kg of weight gain for the reasons I noted above, but it won’t be fat. Increasing caloric intake by 100 kcal a week isn’t going to change this outcome positively, and it is a harder path to follow. As this just risks rebound eating, I suggest the method above. Excellent work thus far. An awesome way to start 2017.

      As a side note. You lost a LOT of weight very quickly. You’ll have some loose skin, but this will come tight over time. Whether it will come completely tight to the point where nobody can tell that you carried around an extra you in bodyweight at one point is something you will have to wait and see, but don’t be sold by anyone on the idea of surgery being the only solution. Companies prey on insecurities. Give your body time, it has an amazing capacity to handle change.

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