If you are searching to find out how to find maintenance calorie intake, the chances are that you have just finished dieting.
Fortunately, we can eat a lot more and maintain most, if not all, of our leanness after a cutting phase. But most people screw up the transition to maintenance by relying on a new calorie calculation instead of making an adjustment based on their calorie intake and weight data. The problem is that maintenance calorie needs are not static; they shift due to the metabolic adaptations that happen when we diet or bulk.
If you haven’t been tracking your calorie intake, you will need to use my calorie and macro calculator to estimate your maintenance needs before coming back to this guide. But if you have been tracking your calorie intake and scale weight, this guide will show you not only how to estimate maintenance calorie needs but how to find the maximum that you can eat without gaining fat after both cutting and bulking.
📙 What follows is a sample chapter from my book, The Diet Adjustments Manual.
Why Transition To Maintenance
There are a number of reasons why you may want to find maintenance calorie intake:
- You’re satisfied with your physique at the current time and want to end your cut or bulk phase.
- A part-way step before transitioning to a cut or bulk phase.
- You’re a model, actor, physique, or weight-class competitor with a job or competition coming up, and you wish to maintain your weight or level of leanness.
- You want to take a break for a while, perhaps due to a stressful period, extended vacation, illness, or injury.
- You feel like total crap after restricting your calorie intake for so long and want to take a break until you’re feeling normal again and ready to continue your diet.
Why We Can Eat More After Dieting
There are three principal reasons for this (and one minor one):
- We gain back the calorie deficit. — As we no longer need the deficit, we can add these calories back in.
- Our metabolisms speed back up to normal levels. — The hormonal changes that happened when dieting to reduce the energy required to function are reversed. This is a survival mechanism known as metabolic adaptation.
- We’re less lethargic. — Non-exercise movement, such as fidgeting, our propensity to walk up the stairs, or other activities, returns to normal. The technical name for this is non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). This happens more for some people than others and can’t be known in advance.
- We burn more calories by eating more. — The thermic effect of food (TEF) increases. — More food means a higher cost of digestion. But this is minor, and I’m mentioning it only for completeness. The technical name is the thermic effect of food (TEF).
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 Calculate Maintenance Calorie Intake
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.
The calculation we can use to bring us to an estimation of momentary maintenance is relatively straightforward:
👉🏻 Adjustment to find temporary maintenance ≈ average weekly weight change in pounds x 500 (1100 per kg)
But this is not a complete solution. Maintenance, as mentioned, isn’t static. This is why I refer to it as ‘temporary’ maintenance. Your metabolism will adapt to any calorie change, leaving you short of your target once again.
This is like a fox jumping after a rabbit. 🦊 The fox can calculate the jump correctly, but by the time it lands, the rabbit has hopped away again. 🐰 It’s impossible to know the extent of these adaptations, but we know they’ll happen, so I suggest adjusting a little more than what we would otherwise calculate.
The heuristic I suggest we use is to add or subtract an additional number of calories equivalent to our weight in pounds. The calculation then becomes:
👉🏻 Adjustment to find maintenance ≈ average weekly weight change in pounds x 500 + weight in pounds
👉🏻 [Metric calculation: average weekly weight change in kilograms x 1100 + weight in kilograms x 2.2]
EXAMPLE ESTIMATION OF MAINTENANCE AFTER CUTTING
Using this calculation, if you’ve been eating 1700 kcal, losing 0.75 lbs per week, and weigh 150 lbs, add 525 kcal. Your estimated maintenance is 2225 kcal. (1700 + 0.75×500 + 150)
Make this calorie increase from anywhere between ½-⅔ carbs, with the rest from fats. You can achieve this by adding 75 g of carbs and 25 g of fats to your daily macros for the exact 525 calorie adjustment.
If you have been performing cardio for fat loss, this would be a good time to reduce your cardio.
Let’s say you had been performing four sessions per week and estimate, based on the calculations in the How To Make Mid-diet Adjustments When Cutting chapter, that they burn an average of 350 kcal per session. This is 1400 kcal per week, for an average of 200 kcal each day.
To continue the example, instead of adding in 525 calories each day and keeping the cardio, you could eliminate two sessions and increase calories by 425 each day, or eliminate all four sessions and increase calories by 325 each day.
EXAMPLE ESTIMATION OF MAINTENANCE AFTER BULKING
If you’ve been eating 3600 kcal, gaining 0.5 lbs per week, and weigh 200 lbs, subtract 450 kcal. Your estimated maintenance is 3150 kcal. (3600 – 0.5×500 – 200)
Make this decrease from anywhere between ⅔-¾ carbs, with the rest from fats. You can achieve this by subtracting 80 g of carbs and 15 g of fats from your daily macros for a 455 kcal total adjustment.
HOW TO FIND ‘MAXIMUM MAINTENANCE’
For those planning to move into to cut or bulk phase, estimating maintenance as we did in the previous section will suffice because in two weeks, you will change calories again anyway.
So, if you plan to transition to a cut or bulk phase, you can stop reading here and move onto the next relevant chapter.
However, if you are planning to stay around maintenance for a while, this may bring you short. Keep tracking the scale weight over the next few weeks and make adjustments as necessary.
EXAMPLE OF HOW TO FIND ‘MAXIMUM MAINTENANCE’ AFTER CUTTING
Let’s say that ‘week 0’ represents the end of your diet, you added 525 kcal to estimate maintenance, and your weight data looks as follows:
|Week 0||150 lbs|
|End of week 1 average||155 lbs|
|End of week 2 average||154.6 lbs|
|End of week 3 average||154.0 lbs|
You can see that your weight increased from 150 lbs to 155 lbs 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.
This suggests that you are still in a 250 kcal deficit. You could add that in, but it’s likely that your metabolic rate will see a small bump once again, so I recommend adding 20% to that.
Therefore increase calorie intake by ~300 kcal per day. Here are two examples of macro changes to do that:
+50 g carbs, +10 g fats (290 kcal)
+40 g carbs, +15 g fats (295 kcal)
Wait another three weeks and repeat this process as many times as necessary. Here’s how finding maximum maintenance after dieting might look:
Allow me to explain each time point:
- The initial calorie increase of 525 kcal after dieting. Your weight rises the first week after this but then continues to slowly fall in the weeks after because you are still short of maintenance.
- The second calorie increase, this time of 300 kcal. Your weight rises again but then starts to fall, albeit much more slowly. You are still short of maintenance.
- You add 150 kcal to bridge the gap to maintenance. Your weight rises in the first week and is then stationary.
- You add 150 kcal, curious to see if you can potentially bump calories a little further, but this causes you to slowly gain weight.
- You remove the previous 150 kcal addition, concluding the previous calorie amount was the maximum you could maintain your weight on. Your ‘maximum maintenance’ intake is 2675 calories per day. (1700 + 525 + 300 + 150)
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 it 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:
RELATIVE ENERGY DEFICIENCY
It is possible to be at calorie maintenance, maintaining a stable body mass, but still feel terrible. If maintaining a certain level of leanness or weight results in:
- the loss of menses or an irregular menstrual cycle;
- persistent food focus;
- more frequent illness;
- poorer mood state;
- an inability to increase performance;
- loss of libido; or
- metabolic or reproductive hormone panels outside of the reference ranges,
you are likely still in a state of ‘relative energy deficiency.’ This is where reproductive and metabolic function are still being down-regulated to maintain energy balance.
If symptoms persist for a while even after diligently finding maximum maintenance, you probably need to push your calorie intake even higher. Yes, this may mean you have to settle for a higher body weight and possibly body-fat percentage.
These symptoms can often occur in physique competitors or weight-class restricted strength athletes in the process of dieting or if they attempt to maintain too lean of a physique after dieting. (More on this in the next chapter.)
THE REVERSE DIETING MYTH
I heard somewhere that after I have finished dieting, I should ‘reverse diet’ by adding 50–100 kcal per week. Is this incorrect?
Some people might consider the method I have outlined in the previous pages to be ‘reverse dieting.’ I think this might be a fair description if considered in a vacuum, but unfortunately, ‘reverse dieting’ is a term now commonly used to describe a very slow increase of calories after dieting, typically 50-100 kcal per week.
As I addressed in The Reverse Dieting Myth, there is the belief that this minimizes fat regain and can help to build up the metabolism, making it possible to eventually eat even more than you otherwise would while still maintaining weight.
This is just wishful thinking. It’s a myth born from a misunderstanding of metabolic adaptation, sold to people who are terrified of weight regain after dieting because they confuse it for fat.
Yes, we want to minimize fat regain, and we want to find the maximum we can eat, but making slow increases like this just keeps us at a calorie deficit for far longer than necessary. This wastes time and makes things hard to sustain without any benefit.
In the example I gave above, where ‘maximum’ maintenance is found 950 kcal above the end-of-diet calorie intake, this would take 10-19 weeks with the reverse dieting method, which is just ridiculous.
So, if you come across the concept of reverse dieting online and it describes this method, I recommend you ignore it. Accept that you will gain weight after dieting, and don’t confuse this for fat regain.
EXAMPLE OF HOW TO FIND ‘MAXIMUM MAINTENANCE’ AFTER BULKING
When transitioning from a bulk to maintenance, the process is just the opposite.
Let’s say that ‘week 0’ represents the end of your bulk, you reduced 450 kcal to estimate maintenance, and your weight data looks as follows:
|Week 0||200 lbs|
|End of week 1 average||198.0 lbs|
|End of week 2 average||198.3 lbs|
|End of week 3 average||198.6 lbs|
You can see that your weight decreased from 200 lbs to 198 lbs in the first week, and then increases by 0.3 lbs in week two and 0.3 lbs in week three.
Ignoring the first week of data, you can see that you are still gaining approximately 0.3 lbs per week on average. This suggests that you are still in a 150 kcal surplus. You could add that in, but it’s likely your metabolic rate will see a small drop once again, so I recommend subtracting an additional 20% from that.
Therefore reduce calorie intake by ~180 kcal per day. Here are two options to do that:
-45 g carbs (180 kcal)
-35 g carbs, -5 g fats (185 kcal)
Wait another three weeks and repeat this process as many times as necessary. Here’s how finding maximum maintenance after bulking might look:
Allow me to explain each time point:
- The initial calorie decrease of 450 kcal after bulking. Your weight falls in the first week, then continues to rise in the weeks after because you are still above maintenance.
- The second calorie decrease, this time of 180 kcal. Your weight falls again but then starts to rise, albeit much more slowly. You are still above maintenance.
- You subtract a modest 150 kcal to see if this will bring you to maintenance. Your weight drops slightly in the first week and is then stationary for the following weeks.
- Your weight has been stable, so you don’t make any change. A further reduction is not necessary nor desirable. You’ve found your ‘maximum maintenance’ point at 2820 calories per day. (3600 – 450 – 180 – 150)
How To Achieve Long-Term Weight Maintenance Without Counting
If you wish to take a complete break from counting for a while, most people will be able to because the discipline from counting seems to have a positive carry effect on any non-counting maintenance period. 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 regain or obesity, I’d suggest a 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 are genetic, environmental, and willpower components to the level of leanness you can likely maintain after dieting.
Nobody is able to walk around at ‘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.
Yes, there are exceptions to this rule – excellent genetics, sport, or otherwise (drugs), but I’m talking about the regular folk with regular lives.
(Here’s a selection of client body-fat percentage pictures so you can estimate where you are currently at.)
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 give you a sense of satisfaction of having scratched that itch of being shredded lean.
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.
Furthermore, by having gotten shredded lean once without suffering, you know you can do it again at any time. That’s a powerful thing!
Thank you for reading. To learn more about adjustments for bulking, maintenance, cutting, and the transition phases between them, check out my book, The Diet Adjustments Manual.
Questions welcomed in the comments. 🙏🏻❤️
Maintenance Caloric Intake FAQ
There are three methods to find out how many calories you should eat for maintenance. The first is to use a calorie calculator, which will estimate maintenance calorie needs based on your sex, age, height, and weight.
The second method is to log the foods you currently eat each day in a nutritional calculator for a week and then take the average. However, this only works if your weight is stable and you don’t change your diet from what you normally eat (which often happens when people are told to count.)
The third, and most accurate method, is to track your weight over several weeks along with your calorie intake and then make a calculation. I explain how to do that in the How To Calculate Calorie Maintenance After Dieting section of this guide.
Your weight will fluctuate from day to day based on hydration levels and the foods you eat, but you won’t continue to lose weight on maintenance calories. Maintenance calories, by definition, means the calories needed to maintain your weight.
You can count calories by logging everything in a nutritional calculator or by my simplified calorie counting method.
If you eat 5000 calories in one day, the energy excess will be stored as body fat and glycogen (in the liver and muscles). Your weight may rise by several pounds, but you will probably gain one-third to half a pound of fat. The rest of the weight gain will be from the water required to store the glycogen and the gut content from the extra food intake. Your weight may take several days to return to normal.
It takes a 3500 calorie surplus to store a pound of fat. Given that the average person has a daily calorie need of 2000–2500 calories, you will have a 2500–3000 calorie excess. If we assume that half of the excess calories will be stored as glycogen, this leaves 1250–1500 calories, which is roughly one-third of a pound of fat storage.
If you eat 5000 calories over many days, your glycogen stores will fill, and almost all of the excess energy intake will be stored as fat. Building on the math in the previous example, you can expect to gain two-thirds of a pound of fat per day.
You’ll do this based on your weight gain target, which will be based on your muscle gain expectation. I’ve talked about realistic muscle growth potential in my guide, How To Bulk Up Without Getting Fat.
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, it doesn’t seem to make any difference. On the contrary, it seems to work better this way as the faster turnaround is easier to adhere to.
Yes. See my article: The Reverse Dieting Myth.