Maintenance calories for your work outs with Laurie Christine King - she sits flexing.

Are You Eating Enough? Estimating Maintenance Calories

Wondering what your maintenance calories are? Look, we’re not in the 1990s anymore. Although some of us probably wish we could go back to these days for many reasons, nutrition and diet trends should not be one of them.

It’s no coincidence that many nutrition coaches recommend that people working out regularly (whether that’s heavy lifting, running, etc) probably need a minimum of 1,700 to 2,000+ calories per day (if not substantially more). In fact, according to the 2020 guidelines from Health.gov, the minimum calories for adult women range from 1,600 to 2,400 per day while adult men range from 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day. Again, that’s a minimum!

It’s time to break free from the brainwashing and stop believing that you can only eat 1,200 calories a day to lose weight. The fitness and wellness industry has taught us that 1,200 to 1,500 calories are the gold standard of caloric intake, that we can lose weight with quick fixes, and that we need to lose weight and be small to be loved. The fact is, none of that is actually true. Think about it. How many times have you tried these tactics? How many times have you maintained the results?


Time For A Harsh Reality Check

1,200 to 1,500 calories per day probably isn’t enough food, especially if we’re active and consistently working out. In fact, eating this little in a day can actually be counterproductive to our efforts in the gym.

When our bodies are trying to survive on such a small amount of calories, our metabolism will begin to downregulate. Our bodies will start to conserve those few calories for only the most important functions. This is also known as metabolic adaptation. Basically, your body is learning how to function off this super low intake and eventually regulates to this baseline.

When this happens, it can be really easy for us to gain weight when we eat anything over that typical daily intake. Why? Our body suddenly doesn’t know what to do with the extra food. When we do try to eat more food, our body is just going to store it as fat because it’s adapted so well to restriction.

In this case, if we want to lose fat or manipulate body composition, we’re going to have a super hard time unless we start literally starving ourselves. Rather than spiraling to rock bottom, we’re going to need to fix our metabolism before we can hit those goals. That means we’re going to need to focus on slowly increasing average food intake to restore our metabolic processes. Not only will this help us feel better physically, but our mental game will be so much stronger and our bodies will actually start showing the hard work we’ve been putting in at the gym.


So, How Much Should I Actually Be Eating In A Day?

The first step is understanding where our current caloric intake stands. We want to start by recording our daily intake for a few days until we get a solid baseline of our average calories per day. We want to get some good data here so being precise with this food journal is key. Think about it. If we underestimate or overestimate entries in our food log, our first try at calculating your caloric needs is going to be way off. That means potential massive weight gain or weight loss right off the bat. It’s best to just be honest with what and how much we’re eating.

After a few days of tracking, we’re going to take our average calories and determine our baseline. Additionally, we want to determine our average protein, carb, and fat intake (macros, baby). The easiest way to track all of this data is using an app like My Fitness Pal or Chronometer. Again, tracking food is meant to help us have data that we can test. We love to have all the data rather than trying to guess our intake and misunderstanding why we aren’t losing weight or gaining muscle. The more we know, the more we can manage. The goal is to understand what we’re currently doing so we can identify areas for improvement.

Once we have a solid average of calories and macros, we can determine our maintenance calories.


Maintenance Calories

Maintenance calories are the total calories required on a daily basis to maintain body weight, with no gains or losses to muscle or fat tissue.

There are a million factors that go into determining our caloric maintenance, making this number rather fluid. Honestly, it’s going to take a lot of trial and error to determine these numbers. We’re likely to find a range of calories to serve as our maintenance rather than one specific number. This is because tracking calories and macros is not a perfect science. Sorry to disappoint you (:

When we’re eating at our maintenance level, we should feel strong and well-fed. We should quickly recover from training sessions and we shouldn’t be sore from our workouts on a regular basis. We’ll likely have high energy and our sleep is delightful. Our sex drive is high, our hormone levels are optimal, and we have a consistent menstrual cycle without a ton of PMS symptoms. We should feel like you’re crushing life.

All of that sounds pretty good, right?


So, How Do We Find This Magical Range of Caloric Glory?

We have two ways to do this: first, we like this Precision Nutrition Calculator. The other option is to use the TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) calculation. Both are great to find an estimate for our daily intake needs. We do recommend using these as starting points and experimenting with our bodies to find that sweet spot of caloric intake. To get a more accurate calculation, we can always get a DEXA Scan or a Bod Pod, but not everyone has time for these fancy options.

Pro Tips: when using these calculators, choose overall health options for your goals as you are determining maintenance calories, not caloric intake for fat loss or muscle gain. Overall, the PN calculator tends to be better for individuals that are leaner, with lower body fat. The TDEE calculator can be a better option for someone with higher body fat levels. Additionally, each calculator requires you to input your daily activity, which can be a little misleading and confusing.

As a general rule, we like to use the following estimates for activity levels:

30 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week: light
30 minutes of exercise 4-5 times a week: light or moderate
60 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week: light or moderate
60 minutes of exercise 4-5 times a week: moderate or heavy
… and so on

Once we have inputted our parameters, the calculators will determine our estimated daily caloric needs. You can also try both calculators and use an average between both as your estimate. However we choose to calculate our calories, this number is simply just our starting point as an estimate for our maintenance calories.


Trial & Error

Based on the estimate from the calculators, we can now start testing to see how this intake works for us on a daily basis. We recommend giving our bodies 2 to 3 weeks to see how we feel eating this amount of food every day. Biofeedback is important here! Think gym performance, recovery, sleep, energy, mood, etc. If we’re still not feeling 100% on most of these parameters, that probably means we haven’t quite hit our true maintenance calories yet.

If our calculated maintenance calories are significantly higher than our average daily intake, it’s going to take our body some time to adjust to the higher food intake. For example, going from eating 1,200 calories one day to 2,000 calories the next is going to be pretty tough on a regular basis. This will likely result in some weight gain, especially if our body has been chronically restricting calories. Ultimately this weight gain is good, but we might not like gaining a bunch of weight over the course of a few short weeks. In a case like this, it’s best to increase our calories in small increments over long periods of time instead of overnight.

For example, if we need to add 800 calories to our daily intake based on the maintenance estimate, we might do this by adding 50-100 calories and sitting there for 2 weeks. After our body adapts to that new higher intake, we can add another 100 calories and wait another 2 weeks, and so on. This is called reverse dieting (a topic for another post, but this is the basic idea) and will ultimately help us boost our metabolic function without crushing us with calories right away.


The Takeaway

Trial and error are absolutely necessary for this process as every person is unique in their caloric needs. It’s also important to be patient.

But look, we get it. Reaching and eating at maintenance calories takes time. After being told that weight loss should be a quick fix for our entire life, it’s going to be difficult to get out of that mindset. If we can invest in ourselves and take the necessary time to improve our body’s function and metabolic processes, we will ultimately be able to reach our goals faster and more easily in the long run. If you want to reach those goals, you have to buckle in because it’s not going to happen overnight. The good news though? It will be worth it.

Being small isn’t always better. This is your sign to feed yourself if you love to workout and be active (:

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