Finding your daily maintenance calories includes too many variables from person to person for any formula to accurately be able to determine. One simple method is simply to multiple your bodyweight by 12 if you’re not very active, 14 if you’re moderately active, and 16 if you’re extremely active. From there, determine your actual maintenance calories by monitoring your calorie intake and seeing if your weight generally goes up or down.
Energy input (what we eat and drink) and energy output (all that we do) are measured with calories.
Even if your metabolism is slow and your hormones are jacked up, if you consistently consume less calories (energy input) than you expend (energy output), you will absolutely, undeniably, lose weight. Your metabolism, body type, hormone levels, age, and a number of other factors will impact the speed at which you lose that weight and your overall health while losing it but rest assured there is no “trick” to losing weight. It all comes down to these simple formulas:
Weight Loss: Your energy output (activity) must exceed your energy input (eating)
Weight Gain: Your energy input (eating) must exceed your energy output (activity)
Another way to think about it is this:
Calorie Surplus = Weight Gain
Calorie Deficit = Weight Loss
Your body is always active, even when you’re sitting totally still. You need calories for every organ in your body to function. Likewise, you need calories to get out of bed and go to work, to sit in traffic, to walk across the parking lot, etc. Your energy requirements per day (including all your daily activities) to maintain your current weight are often called your “maintenance calories” or your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). These are the calories you need to maintain your current level of activity and stay at the same weight.
If you’ve stayed at your current weight for several months that likely means your energy input / output have been in fairly close balance during that time. In other words your level of activity is probably matching up closely with the number of calories you eat. It’s very important that you know your approximate maintenance calories at a particular activity level per day so you have a starting point for calculating a calorie surplus or calorie deficit.
Calorie Calculation through Experimentation
Though no one can tell you the exact number of calories you should eat or how much activity you should do to gain or lose weight, a good starting point to find your maintenance calories (assuming some light exercise) is to multiply your bodyweight (in pounds) by 12.
This means if you weigh 200 pounds, your maintenance calories for a normal working man’s daily routine sitting around an office should be around 2,400. You’ll need to use some common sense and be honest about your activity level, your age, and your metabolism and adjust this number accordingly. But mostly, you just need to experiment. No formula, no matter how complex, will give you the exact number of calories you need to eat for maintenance, weight loss, or weight gain.
Assuming you’re working towards cleaning up your diet, multiply your weight by 12 and start eating very close to those same calories every day for 2-4 weeks. Do this without increasing your activity level too much and see if you gain or lose weight. It’s that simple.
Let me reiterate, when finding your maintenance calories, do your calculations and experimentation based on little additional activity. Estimating this “low activity” maintenance calorie number will allow you to adjust both your diet and activity level to achieve your fat loss or muscle gain goal later on. For some specifics on how to clean up your diet take a look at my article Increase Your Activity and Clean Up Your Diet.
If after eating a consistent number of nutrient dense calories for 2 weeks you lose weight that means you’re eating less than your actual maintenance calories at your current activity level. If you gain weight that means you’re eating more than your maintenance calories. Continue adjusting your calories (up or down) by 200 calories a day until your weight stays fairly constant.
If you’ve never calculated your maintenance calories, it’s a great exercise because it forces you to pay attention to your nutrition and your activity level. Most people eat wildly different amounts of food from day to day – usually eating far less than they should about half the time and far more than they should the other half. Strangely, over time, this results in a calorie balance that keeps people at roughly the same weight. But as a person’s metabolism slows down and their activity levels decrease, they often continue eating the same amount. What used to be maintenance calories now causes weight gain because those other factors have changed.
Here’s a step-by-step guide of how to accurately find your maintenance calories using experimentation:
This is what I did when I first got serious about achieving my fitness goals.
1. Weigh yourself to find your starting weight.
My Weight: 200 lbs
2. Estimate your “low activity” maintenance calories – bodyweight x 12. Calories Needed to Stay at 200 lbs with Low Activity: 2,400 calories
3. Follow a meal plan that ensures you eat at your low activity maintenance calories for 2-4 weeks. (Refer to Sean Nal’s “Done for You” meal plans which is also include in his Body Transformation Blueprint)
I followed Sean Nal’s 2,500 calorie meal plan minus “2 tbsp strawberry jam” for breakfast to equal 2,400 calories.
4. Drink around half a gallon of water each day (in addition to whatever else you might drink – coffee, sodas, alcohol, etc.) I drank 16 ounces of water first thing in the morning and then again about every two hours (yes, you’ll pee a lot!)
5. Weigh yourself and record your weight each day during this 2-4 week phase. I weighed myself naked, as soon as I got out of bed, after using the bathroom but before drinking or eating anything. I looked for a weight loss or weight gain trend. My weight at the end of 4 Weeks was 201 lbs.
If your weight, on average, goes up or stays the same, you know you’re eating at or above your maintenance calories. Likewise if your weight goes down you know you’re eating below your maintenance calories.
My weight only went up by 1lb, so I knew I was eating right at maintenance. It’s normal for our weight to fluctuate by a couple of pounds over the course of a week anyway so I knew I was in the maintenance zone somewhere with 2,400 calories.
By knowing your maintenance calories you can determine how many calories you need to eat to gain or lose weight and how much to adjust your activity level.
By reducing calorie intake below your maintenance calories and increasing your daily activity level you will start losing weight. Of course the opposite is true if you want to gain. Simply start eating more than your maintenance calories.
I discovered that by eating 2,000 calories a day while weight training 3 to 4 times a week, I could lose weight easily without sacrificing much strength. Likewise I discovered that by eating 2,800 calories a day while weight training 3 to 4 times a week I could easily gain weight and strength without gaining too much fat.
It should take about 2 months of experimentation to find these numbers and you’ll need to continue making adjustments as you progress toward your goals. Be sure to adjust your numbers as you lose or gain weight. Your maintenance calories at 200lbs won’t be the same as your maintenance calories after you lose 20lbs. I made this mistake after losing down to 180lbs and I started eating 2,800 calories in order to “bulk up”. I gained 20 pounds back in less than 2 months and most of it wasn’t muscle!
The real benefit in finding your maintenance numbers is that by being meticulous about your diet you’ll learn how to plan meals and you’ll develop the habit of eating well. You’ll stop thinking about “dieting” and start thinking more about the nutritional strategies you need to implement to accomplish your fitness goals.
IMPORTANT: You may already be eating too few calories and your metabolism may be sluggish. In this case, losing weight is going to be extremely difficult. If you’ve been consistently eating less than what you think are your maintenance calories every day for a while and you haven’t lost any weight, your metabolism may have adjusted to lock you into your current weight. Another test is to check your body temperature. If your temperature is consistentIy less than 98 degrees this could be another indicator of a sluggish metabolism. If this is the case your metabolism just needs to be kicked into gear before you attempt to lose. This is fairly simple to do through “reverse dieting”.
Reverse dieting is for people who are just beginning to make a nutritional plan to lose weight and are seeing little to no progress with calorie restriction and increased activity or for people who have hit a plateau in their weight loss after losing 10+ pounds. I know this struggle all too well!
When I’m doing everything else right (eating at a calorie deficit, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, doing 3-4 weight training workouts a week, doing 1-2 high intensity cardio activities a week) and I’m still not losing weight, I’ll take a break from the calorie deficit and increase my calories by 200 calories a day for a couple of weeks. I never go more than about 300 calories above maintenance but usually within 2-3 weeks I can reduce the calories down again and I start to lose weight again. It’s crucial that you keep your activity level high during reverse dieting.
When you eat below maintenance you will lose both fat and muscle and decrease your overall weight and when you eat above maintenance you will gain both fat and muscle and increase your overall weight. When we’re eating at a calorie deficit, our goal will almost always be to lose fat but we want to minimize muscle loss. On the other hand, when we’re eating at a calorie surplus, our goal will almost always be to gain muscle but we want to also minimize fat gain.