Last updated on March 2nd, 2023 at 05:17 pm
You’re typically told that if you wish to lose weight or burn body fat that you need to eat at a calorie deficit.
However, is this actually true?
Or can you potentially eat maintenance calories and still drop that excess body fat?
You can lose body fat while eating maintenance calories, but this generally depends on your starting point. The aim is to gain lean muscle while losing body fat, so body recomposition. This is easier to achieve for new lifters, those who are extremely overweight, people who have had a break from exercise, and those who use anabolic steroids. However, many intermediate and advanced lifters probably haven’t ever trained or eaten at the optimum levels. So, a few adjustments to their workouts and macronutrients can see changes in body fat levels.
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You’re Aiming For Body Recomposition
You’re told that if we wish to lose body fat then you need to be at a calorie deficit.
Basically, you need to burn more calories than you’re eating.
So, this will generally mean that if you are eating the same number of calories as you are burning, i.e. maintenance calories, then you’ll stay at the same weight and not lose body fat.
This is typically why there are bulking and cutting cycles.
You eat more calories than you burn, you put on weight.
However, through resistance training you’ll increase strength and muscle mass, but you’re also likely to increase body fat.
You then go through a cutting phase, which is when you eat fewer calories than you burn.
The aim here is to maintain your lean muscle mass while also reducing your body fat.
In truth, this goes back to old bodybuilding folklore.
Most bodybuilders would eat a massive amount of calories in order to gain weight (muscle and fat).
And then dramatically cut their calories to lose all that excess body fat.
So, it is widely accepted that you can’t build muscle and burn fat at the same time.
Plus, neither is possible by eating maintenance calories.
However, this isn’t strictly true.
It’s Not the Same For Everyone
There are a number of people who are able to eat at maintenance calories while adding muscle and losing body fat.
- People who are new to resistance training can typically add a lot of muscle very fast, while also losing body fat.
- If someone is extremely overweight or obese, when they start exercising their body can dip into the additional fat stores for energy.
- Someone who has trained for many years, but taken a break, say due to injury, may see newbie muscle gains and fat loss once they start training again.
- Plus, anabolic steroids can allow someone to gain lean muscle mass extremely quickly. Once again, fat stores are tapped into for energy.
So, in each of these examples, someone can definitely eat maintenance calories and lose body fat.
In fact, they can also add lean muscle mass at the same time without changing their calorie intake.
In essence, they are going through body recomposition.
Their body will burn through fat stores, while also adding lean muscle, thus producing a more athletic physique.
Have You Been Trying to Lose Body Fat in the Wrong Way?
Now, there is another group who can lose body fat (and gain lean muscle), while eating maintenance calories.
And believe it or not, this group encompasses the vast majority of people.
This is what I would call lazy lifters and lazy dieters.
Basically, those of us who haven’t either trained or eaten, or done either, at optimum levels.
Can you honestly say that both your workouts and nutrition are absolutely on-point?
Many of us go to the gym and perform the same types of workouts day in and day out.
We don’t typically progress, in terms of load lifted, more reps, more sets, shorter rest periods, etc.
In effect, we’re coasting through our training without putting in maximal effort.
I will also say that too many of us concentrate on trying to achieve a ripped physique when we haven’t even trained anywhere near our full strength potential.
If you’re lifting weights then your initial training should always be focused on getting stronger at a few basic lifts.
Once you achieve this you can then start to look at other forms of training, e.g. losing body fat.
The exact same can be said for nutrition.
You may be eating maintenance calories, i.e. your weight hasn’t changed in years, but are you really eating in a way that can strip excess body fat.
The aim here would be to increase your protein intake to a level of between 1.2 to 1.6 grams per pound of body fat.
You should aim to eat 20% of your maintenance calories in healthy fats.
And then you complete the rest of your daily calories with carbs.
For most of us, if we can make these slight changes in training and nutrition we can achieve a far better physique.
Plus, this will also allow you to eat maintenance calories while losing body fat and gaining lean muscle.
Your Maintenance Calories Can Change
Something else to consider is that once you do start adding more lean muscle to your frame your maintenance calories will change.
Basically, you will need to eat more in order to maintain your current bodyweight.
Unfortunately, if you don’t then you may end up fuelling your workouts from muscle mass, as opposed to fat or carb stores.
And this is the last thing you want.
If you’re burning muscle for energy you will of course lose muscle mass, which in turn will mean a slower metabolic rate.
And a slower metabolic rate will also mean that you’ll find it harder to burn body fat.
This may seem slightly strange at first, but many people who are trying to lose body fat may not actually be eating enough.
Plus, this is once again about changing your macronutrients to fit in with your lifestyle, especially your levels of activity.
So, I suggest you use the following maintenance calorie calculator to ascertain your daily calorie requirements.
Then, as above, aim to eat at least 1.2 g of protein per pound of body weight (1g of protein equals 4 calories).
Stick to around 20% of total calories from fats (1g of fats equals 9 calories).
And then eat carbs for the remaining calories (1g of carbs equals 4 calories).
You Can Calorie-Cycle
Okay, admittedly this isn’t exactly sticking to maintenance calories, but you can try calorie-cycling.
Basically, you change your calorie intake ever so slightly based on that day’s physical activity.
Now, I’m not talking about 500+ calories a day here.
But a simple change of 200-250 calories either way of maintenance depending on how you train.
So, for a strength training session you would add approximately 200 calories to daily calorie intake.
And on a cardio day you would reduce your daily calorie intake by 200 calories.
Let’s say that for breakfast you have good old porridge and eggs (not together by the way, although I’m sure some people do).
So, on maintenance day you have a bowl of porridge with blueberries and a banana, plus an omelette made from 2 whole eggs and 2 egg whites.
On strength training day your breakfast consists of porridge with blueberries, banana, and peanut butter.
Your omelette is now 3 whole eggs + 2 egg whites, on a slice of wholemeal toast, washed down with an orange juice.
On cardio day you have porridge (10g less than maintenance day) with just blueberries and 2 hard-boiled eggs.
So, as you can see, these are tiny, almost insignificant changes.
However, this also means that you can keep every other meal during the day exactly the same.
And this is regardless of whether you’re having a rest day, strength training, or doing cardio.
Key Learning Points
- Yes, it is possible to lose body fat while eating maintenance calories.
- This is far easier if you’re new to exercise, overweight or obese, coming back to exercise after a break, or if you use anabolic steroids.
- The vast majority of people don’t train or eat to their full strength-training and fat-burning potential. Therefore, a few changes to the way you exercise and eat can make all the difference.
- Calorie-cycling, which involves a slight difference in your calorie consumption based on your activity levels that day, is potentially a better way to lose body fat.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.