Finding Maintenance Deficit and Surplus Calories
You’ve probably heard phrases like maintenance calories, calculating a deficit, and eating in a surplus.
At first glance, they seem perfectly reasonable and might even make sense.
The problem is, finding your caloric needs is easier said than done. Even if you follow the popular equations, you still have to consider other factors that play a role.
Let’s break it down.
The Foundation: Maintenance Calories
Before ever thinking about a calorie deficit or surplus, you need to understand your maintenance calories. In other words, you need to know how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current state. After that, you can make adjustments and start seeing the results you hope for.
Maintenance calories can vary wildly between individuals because the value consists of different components. Specifically:
- BMR (basal metabolic rate) - the number of calories your body burns at rest
- NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) - the calories you burn through all activity outside of dedicated exercise time
- EAT (exercise activity thermogenesis) - the calories you burn while working out
- TEF (thermic effect of food) - the calories your body expends to break down foods and absorb their nutrients
As you can imagine, three of the four major factors (apart from the mostly unchanged BMR) are subject to change, which means our daily maintenance calories can vary. For example, you might walk 15,000 steps one day and only 3,000 the next. This would mean you need different amounts of calories on both days.
Of course, to simplify things, we calculate our average maintenance calories and go from there. You might be over one day and under the next. But so long as your average is at maintenance, you’re okay.
Finding Your Maintenance, Deficit, And Surplus
The good news is that finding your maintenance is relatively simple but might take you some time. Begin with a simple TDEE calculator to gain an initial value, start eating that number of calories, and see how your body responds over around three weeks.
For example, if a TDEE calculator suggests your maintenance is 3,200 calories, eat that amount every day. Also, track your weight a few times per week to calculate the weekly average. If you don’t gain or lose weight over three weeks, you’re at maintenance. In contrast, if you gain or lose anything over 1 kilo, you’re either below or above baseline.
Once you have a good understanding of maintenance, you can add or remove calories from the value to put yourself in a surplus or deficit, respectively. Then, it becomes a matter of tracking your results and seeing how your body responds to the calorie intake.
It’s also important to remember that your metabolism is good at adapting. For example, if you diet for long enough, your metabolic rate will eventually downregulate, and the deficit will become your new maintenance. So, it’s vital to monitor visual and weight changes and adjust over time.
The bottom line?
Finding your caloric needs isn’t that difficult, but it takes some good tracking and adjusting. More than anything, you need to remember that your metabolism isn’t an inert entity. Instead, you need to recognise that your metabolic rate adjusts over time, and it’s your job to make the necessary changes to keep making progress in the right direction.
For fat loss, gradually reduce your calories when progress begins to stagnate. For muscle gain, gradually add calories to keep gaining weight. But do so based on data (tracking) and make minor adjustments along the way.