What are Maintenance Calories? What is the big deal with understanding your maintenance calories? You’ll see many articles on weight loss/gain or social media posts that say things like “500 calorie deficit from maintenance” or “start by eating 20-25% below your maintenance calories” but what does it all mean? I’ll preface this blog by saying that understanding your maintenance calories is absolute gold in the grand scheme of body composition and long term weight loss/gain.
Your maintenance calories refer to how many calories you need to consume daily in order to maintain your current body weight. This brings us back to the concept of energy balance from the first Beginning Nutrition blog (calories in vs. calories out). If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.
If the amount of calories you consume is RELATIVELY equal to the amount of calories you burn, your body weight will stay the same. I use the term “relatively” because chances are that you will never or rarely eat EXACTLY the same amount of calories that you burn in a day. If you are within a 50-100 calorie window (sometimes a little above, sometimes a little below), your weight will for the most part stay the same. I also say “relatively” because your body weight will rarely/never be EXACTLY the same. We’ll get to that in a little bit.
HOW DO I FIND MY MAINTENANCE CALORIES?
You can find many “Maintenance Calorie Calculators” online but they are NOT 100% accurate. They usually factor in a few different measurements (age, height, weight, etc.) and use an activity multiplier based on how active you are per week. The reason they are still not entirely accurate is because the calculators cannot take other individual differences into account like your genetics, metabolic speed, true body composition, etc.
A good place to start the search for your maintenance calories would be at 14-16 times your body weight in pounds (lbs.). Usually somewhere in there is a good place to start. So for example, if you weighed 150lbs…
150lbs x 14 = 2,100 cal.
150lbs x 16 = 2,400 cal.
…somewhere between 2,100 and 2,400 calories is usually where somebody weighing 150lbs should be. Again, THIS ISN’T ENTIRELY ACCURATE! Let me repeat. IT IS JUST A GOOD PLACE TO START. Some of you will like the more accurate way of determining maintenance and some of you will probably put it off until tomorrow or next week, or next month, or next year…
HOW DO I REALLY FIND MY MAINTENANCE CALORIES?
Like most of the concepts from The Strength Lifestyle, there are no shortcuts to pretty much anything. The process of finding your maintenance calories is somewhat time consuming and requires just a wee bit of effort (scary for the average American, I know).
The MOST ACCURATE way to determine your maintenance calories is to…
- Track your food intake ACCURATELY for approximately 3 weeks!!! Use an app like MyFitnessPal or others to track this. (links to MyFitnessPal and other food tracking apps in our “Beginning Nutrition” blog)
- Weigh yourself EVERY DAY for those 3 weeks!!! Weigh yourself at the same time each day and in the same manner. For example, if you started this whole maintenance calorie journey tomorrow morning and weighed yourself as soon as you woke up (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) and wore just your underwear (HIGHLY… just kidding. That’s up to you), then as long as you continue to weigh yourself, you should do it as soon as you wake up, and in just your underwear every single day.
- Take WEEKLY AVERAGES of both CALORIC INTAKE and BODY WEIGHT for those 3 weeks!!! The reason we say WEEKLY AVERAGES is because you CANNOT go off of just weighing yourself once or twice a week for those two weeks. Why? Your body weight fluctuates naturally and you can’t afford to have one wacky weigh-in ruin your experiment (or your day). You take the weekly averages so you can accurately see what your weight is doing week to week.
With all of this being said, if your weight drops from week to week, you can most likely conclude that you are eating below your maintenance calories. If your weight increases from week to week, you can most likely conclude that you are eating above your maintenance calories. When we say drops and increases, what we mean is that if your weekly averages look like this…
Week 1: 150.0
Week 2: 151.2
Week 3: 152.1
…you are gaining weight. If your weekly averages look like this…
Week 1: 150.0
Week 2: 150.4
Week 3: 149.9
…you can pretty much say that you’ve found your maintenance. Notice how in Example 2, your body weight isn’t EXACTLY identical, but you’re within a pretty tight range. As mentioned before, your body weight naturally fluctuates daily due to some of the following factors:
- Water retention (water weight)
- Sodium Intake
- Menstrual Cycle
- Bowel Movements
- Meal Timing
- Training Intensity / Training Time / Training Variables
With all of this being said, it is also important to note that you should NEVER FREAK OUT over a single weigh-in. Many people tend to jump ship or look to make drastic changes in their diet or exercise when they don’t see the number they want to see on the scale. Like anything else, this is a process and understanding that body weight fluctuations are inevitable is crucial to your long term success.
WILL MY MAINTENANCE CALORIES STAY THE SAME FOREVER?
Unfortunately, the answer to this one is no. Your maintenance caloric intake is constantly changing for a variety of reasons. This all comes back to ENERGY BALANCE. (…told you that energy balance was important!) Here are a few of those reasons.
- Long-Term Increase or Decrease in Body weight: If you lose weight, your maintenance calories will be lower at the end of your weight loss. If you gain weight, your maintenance calories will be higher. In other words, it will take a lesser amount of calories to maintain a lower body weight and a greater amount of calories to maintain a higher body weight.
- Increase or Decrease in Activity Levels: If you just started a new job where you are suddenly on your feet all the time, your maintenance calories will increase. On the flip-side, if you were working a very active job and just moved into a 9-5 desk job, chances are your maintenance calories will decrease. If you used to go to the gym 2x per week and now you go to the gym 4x per week, your maintenance calories will increase. If you recently decided to take up hiking, your maintenance calories will increase. If you then drop your hiking habit and take up competitive video gaming, your maintenance calories will decrease. If you just got a dog and started taking your good boy on walks a few times a week, your maintenance calories will increase. I’ll go out on a limb here and assume by now that you get the point. Life happens!
WHY IS THIS ALL IMPORTANT? / MOVING FORWARD
The reason why finding your caloric intake is important is because it is your baseline for anything you want to do with your body composition! What I mean by that is you’ve discovered the magic number in a sense to where you can successfully plan either a fat loss or weight gain phase.
Theoretically, could you just not track anything and starve yourself to lose weight or eat everything in sight to gain weight? Yes in theory, but it will come at a price. Just “starving yourself” can lead to drastic rates of weight loss to which your body will not be able to keep up. Not to mention the almost guaranteed risk of muscle loss along with disruption of other normal bodily functions. On the flip-side, eating everything in sight to gain weight will come at a price as well. This price is usually fat accumulation that gets out of hand rather quickly along with some health risks.
Understanding your maintenance will allow you to STRATEGICALLY CONTROL a sustainable rate of weight loss or weight gain. Let’s use weight loss for this example. If you discover that your maintenance calories are 2,500, you could diet (fat loss) on 2,000 calories (20% deficit) and measure where that will lead you (usually comes out to about 1lb lost per week). The bottom line is that you will have an extremely valuable tool in your back pocket at all times.
If life ever gets out of hand and you put on 10lbs, you will have an idea of what your personal formula is to lose X amount of pounds in X amount of weeks. As mentioned in an earlier blog, “could you just jump in your car and drive from New York to California with no directions? Absolutely. But it will be quicker and easier with a map.”
- Maintenance calories refer to how many calories you need to consume daily in order to maintain your current body weight.
- Start your search between 14 and 16 times your current body weight.
- To truly find your maintenance calories, accurately track your food intake and body weight for a few weeks.
- Take weekly averages of both caloric (food) intake and body weight to see if you lost weight, gained, weight, or maintained.
- Understand that body weight naturally fluctuates daily and DO NOT freak out over one scale reading.
- Maintenance calories are ever changing due to changes in your life.
- Maintenance calories provide you with a baseline to strategically plan phases of fat loss or weight gain.
As always, please share this article with any friends and family that may benefit from the information. You play just as important of a role in helping The Strength Lifestyle change peoples’ lives as we do!