Understanding maintenance calories and how many Claires to eat in a day with figure competitor posing at a show.

Understanding Maintenance Calories

The Maintenance Phase

Confused about maintenance calories? Or about how many calories to eat in a day? We’re bringing in our friend and nutrition coach @tiananicholetallant, who’s dabbled in everything from Olympic Weightlifting to Figure Competition.

Maintenance calories is the phase we get the MOST questions about, hands down. It’s also the part of the process that many of us truly don’t understand the importance of. We often have the narrative that we are only “making progress” when we are losing body fat. If we’re not losing body fat, we immediately think we’re standing still, or worse – going backward.

Ultimately, understanding maintenance calories is the most important piece of the puzzle. If you really want to live your life in a body that is a different shape/size than you are currently, understanding how to maintain that body weight is a necessary skill to learn.

Throughout this post, we’re going to assume that the body weight/body composition you want to maintain is realistic. For women, that generally means above 15-18% body fat, while men can get away with lower. And as a caveat, remember there are always outliers.

How To Find Your Maintenance Calories

  1. Pick a starting point (based on the TDEE calculator and/or previous data).
  2. Track body weight for 2-3 weeks.
  3. Assess whether the trend is going up, down, or staying relatively flat. If it’s going up, bring calories down slightly. If it’s going down, bring calories up slightly. If it’s flat – you nailed it!
  4. When making adjustments based on trends, a 10% increase or decrease is usually reasonable. Once you make that adjustment, wait another 2-3 weeks and reassess.

Pro-Tip: Consider removing the absolute high and absolute low points from any given 2-week time frame when assessing data. Sometimes those high and low weigh-ins can skew the data in a way that isn’t helpful.

Understanding The Scale

Let’s say you eat exactly the same meals at exactly the same times. You go to bed and wake up at exactly the same time and you drink exactly the same amount of water daily, at the same times. Now let’s also assume you get the exact same amount of movement each day and you weigh yourself at the exact same time every day.

When more variables remain the same, you will have fewer scale fluctuations. Having fewer scale fluctuations is not the goal. Instead, we want to understand the root cause behind them.

Scale fluctuations are a part of living life.

Meal composition, meal timing, training quality, and quantity, fluid intake, salt intake, sleep quality and quantity, etc., all vary for most of us day to day. All of these things also impact daily weigh-ins.

This is why we look at trends over time because we’re trying to ignore the noise of the day-to-day things that change with any singular weigh-in. This allows us to see what’s actually going on with the trend.

This concept must be understood in regard to “maintenance.” In other words, one high or one low weigh-in does not mean you are not at maintenance. Our maintenance calories are truly more of a range than a specific number. Because on any given day, your actual daily energy expenditure might be a bit higher or a bit lower. Again, this is why we look at the trend over time.

Lifestyle Habits

Once we figure out what our maintenance calories are, it is equally as important to understand what lifestyle habits we need in place.

What do most of our meals need to look like? Do we know what our daily activity needs to look like? What situations are likely to arise where we struggle to maintain our habits? How do we navigate those?

Most people are not going to weigh/measure their food all the time, so we need some tools for maintaining body weight without meticulously tracking every single thing.

Check out this post for info on what to eat before and after your workouts.

FAQs

Q: Is there a big difference in mood, gym performance, and sex drive in maintenance vs fat loss?

A: It truly depends on how extreme or invasive your fat loss phase is. Any time we are approaching essential levels of body fat, we expect to see some biofeedback changes including low energy, decreased sex drive, poor sleep, high food focus, appetite dysregulation, and a decrease in gym performance.

In order to recover from the adverse effects of fat loss, we need to regain both the fat mass and lean tissue that we lost during our dieting adventure. Once we get back to our “comfy home base weight,” our metabolic health and hunger/satiety hormones begin to regulate again.

If you’re completing a fat loss phase in order to get down to a body fat level that you are comfortable sustaining for a long period of time, we shouldn’t have these types of biofeedback… if it’s truly a body composition you can maintain.

Q: Why have I gained weight consistently and I’m not even close to maintenance yet?

A: This usually happens when someone starts tracking their food and it’s significantly lower than the TDEE calculator is telling them it “should” be. When they start then increasing their food to that value, they expect that their body weight won’t change at all during that adventure.

Assuming we are tracking foods correctly (most people have been shown to have ~20% error in tracking), some possibilities here include…

  • Our metabolism is not adapting as quickly as we are increasing calories, so we might gain weight for a bit until our metabolism catches up, then find that our weight stabilizes
  • We are gaining weight on the scale due to an increase in food residue, muscle glycogen, water retention, etc.
  • The magic TDEE calculator is not correct and our maintenance might be lower due to low levels of activity, low levels of lean body mass, etc.

The thing with maintenance is that it is ultimately a mathematically determined state. That is, if our energy intake matches our energy expenditure, we are at maintenance.

Most of the confusion that comes with maintenance and maintenance calories is from people attempting to maintain body weight or body composition that is outside of their body’s preferred settling range. Most of us will find that we can maintain a range of body weight with relatively good biofeedback. That means there is a point on the high end and low end where we might start to not feel as awesome.

Pushing up above the high end might be worth it if we have big aspirations of gaining significant muscle. Similarly, pushing below the low end might be worth it if we want to live with lower body fat for a bit.

Again, it’s always a “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul” scenario. Any time we spend outside the ranges of our body’s comfort zone, we will have to also spend time recovering. Biofeedback during this recovery period also contributes to some of the confusion many folks have about maintenance phases.

Where To Go From Here

At Paragon, we LOVE talking about nutrition and the importance of being well-fed and well-recovered. AKA, knowing your maintenance needs and eating enough to support your activity. Remember, the best workouts in the world can’t work their magic if nutrition isn’t also in alignment.

Want to learn more about how to use maintenance, mass gain, and fat loss phases to build a body you love? Check out more from Coach Tiana here!

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