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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 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:

  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 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.


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.


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?

Either the nutrition articles page or consider my full book on the subject called The Last Shred.

*******

Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always.

– Andy.

Images by Nat Al-Tahhan.

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Ali
Ali

So sorry for asking too many questions. But i just have 2 questions. Would you say that it’s okay to calculate my maintenance in a 2 week period rather than 3? And should i use your method of maintenance almost all the time after each cut?

Ali
Ali

How often should i calculate my maintenance calories since it’s a changing target. Would U say after each fat loss phase i do a 2-3 week maintenance just to find where my calories are at is a good general rule?

Ali
Ali

If I finished my 6-week aggressive mini cut however I didn’t reach my body fat goal. So should I take a mini-bulk or a maintenance phase to restore the hormonal function and BMR and etc.. and for how long should I be mini bulking or in a maintenance phase be for before going back to aggressive cutting?

Kristy Wong
Kristy Wong

Hey Andy!

From articles I’ve read before this, it was suggested I do reverse dieting, slowly adding about 50 ish calories daily every week until I reach maintenance or even beyond without the body fat gain. However, now you’re suggesting a 500 calorie increase immediately and I’m a bit taken aback and scared for the weight gain.

I’m scared your method won’t work out for me and I won’t lose the supposed water weight on the second and third weeks and simply lose all my progress with such a quick and high caloric increase as compared to reverse dieting.

Kristy Wong
Kristy Wong

Thank you for taking the time to give out even more information!

One (hopefully) last question, I want to be clear of all the factors that come with the recovery back to maintenance. And one of these factors is exercise. I’m just a normal teen girl who doesn’t really have access to the gym and just does cardio and no-equipment-required exercises at home whenever I can (and I try to—and pretty successfully—stay consistent). While I’m increasing calories back to maintenance, will I be fine sticking with this simple exercise regimen or should I up intensity or such?

Kristy Wong
Kristy Wong

Awesome, thank you again! You’ve been a great help.

Michael Cruz
Michael Cruz

I was following my deficit calories at 2500 calories and was maintaining, I guess I’ll lower them to cut the fat and then slowly go up calories 🙂

Samuel
Samuel

Hi Andy,

I’m approaching the end of a 16 week cut and it’s gone well, 1lb loss per week. Coming off the cut, can I just go ahead and add in 500 kcal? I started with a maintenance of 2700, and so my deficit has gone from 2200-1800.

Again thank you for your help, super appreciated!

Flo
Flo

Hey Andy,

Amazing website, thanks for the great content and the quality of the articles and the numerous advices you give to people in the comments, your work really means something to people like us, thanks again.

I’ve just finished my second cutting cycle but I don’t really know if and how I should adjust my calories.

[Deleted for brevity]

1) Do you think my maintenance changed?

2) During my next cut (in two weeks) should I go back to the same deficit (500 cal) or increase the deficit even further?

3) Do you think I should increase/decrease le length of the cutting/maintenance phase?

Thanks in advance

Flo

Marcey
Marcey

Hi Andy,
I’ve been on a program for the last 10 weeks (of my own doing). I am very happy with the results I have obtained. I’ve lost about 20-25 pounds and have more energy and feel so much better than I did 3 months ago! My question is: while I know that it is important to add calories back in, I am finding it difficult to eat more than what I am currently eating. I enjoy my diet and plan to add some calories in but will still be in a deficit. Is this safe?

Sam
Sam

Not a question, just wanted to say thank you for what an incredible resource your site has been! I’ve been going to the gym and played with all kinds of ‘diets’ since I was 18. I’m 31 now, cut alcohol out in the new year and counting macros has given me so much control, I am 9 weeks into a cut and I can see my goal in sight. This will be the best shape I’ve been in, I am happy and enjoy all the same foods within reason and moderation 😀 Thank you!

Nicholas Wells
Nicholas Wells

Hey Andy,
I’m coming off my diet in a week or so and then i have 3 weeks left before my holiday. I’m still planning to lose fat, but i want to eat the foods i want to when I’m on my holiday since i’ve never been there before. The current deficit i’m in is around 800 calories from my new maintainence. How do you recommend i ramp up my caloriesas quickly as possible with minimal fat gain and muscle glycogen gain. I am expecting fat gain, since I haven’t left much time. Thanks in advance.

Nicholas Wells
Nicholas Wells

So do you recommend I just increase my calories to my maintenance for the three weeks? Instead of increasing progressively increase all at once for three weeks.
Thanks for the advice.

Nicholas Wells
Nicholas Wells

Sorry For asking all these questions. Just got one more. Do you find the new maintenance calories through some calculator online or do you advise a way on how to do it above, post diet? Sorry for all the questions you’ve been very helpful.

Adam
Adam

Hi Andy

Great stuff here – really appreciate your website and articles!

You mention going back up to maintenance calories after a diet, but I saw in one of your examples (Chandler) that the key to his results were a very slow reverse diet post cut.

Just wondering why you don’t include any information about reverse dieting?

I am coming off of a my cut 24%bf to 11% bf — about to transition to a slow bulk and looking to minimize fat gain and wondering if it’s best to just go back up to maintenance like you mention in the article, or add back the calories slower to get back up to maintenance with a reverse diet. Thank you!

Adam
Adam

Thank you Andy for the quick response!

Kim
Kim

Hey Andy,

First thanks for your website. It is has so much information and is written so well that I can now read and start to get a proper understanding of how all my nutrition and training goes together. I am hoping you can give me some advice…

On average the last 7 weeks I have been losing 971gram per week.

I’m thinking ahead for my maintenance plan now though – so based on the information I have now I would need to make a 1070kcal daily calorie increase. Seems like a lot and is pretty intimidating, so hoping you can give me some advice.

[Note: I shortened this to the key points for the sake of other readers. – Andy]

Kim
Kim

Thanks Andy for the quick response. I’ve now read your downloadable book – its great thanks again 🙂

Nicole
Nicole

this was a great read! thanks for sharing 🙂

Carlos Vanegas
Carlos Vanegas

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?

Mei Nu
Mei Nu

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?

Bobbi
Bobbi

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?

Darren
Darren

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?

Darren
Darren

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?

Darren
Darren

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.

Darren
Darren

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?

Darren
Darren

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!!

John
John

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!

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Physique Training Goal Setting - Part 2 | RippedBody

[…] 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 […]

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