Have you ever wondered how to figure out your maintenance calories? It can seem complicated and overwhelming. And if you feel that way…
Know that you’re not alone.
In this article, you’ll learn different methods for determining your maintenance calories no matter if you are…
- Just getting started
- Finishing a building phase or
- You have reached your weight loss goal
I am also going to share some specific skills you can learn while dieting to help you successfully transition to maintenance and avoid weight gain.
Before I go too far, if you find the information in this article helpful, please share with someone else who could benefit from the information. And if you have not already done so, join my email list where I send out more great information to help you with your fitness and nutrition.
How to find your maintenance calories when you are just getting started
There are many different equations and methods that can be used to calculate your maintenance calories.
|⚠️ All calculations are purely an estimate and a starting point for understanding your caloric needs.|
If you are just getting started and not coming out of a calorie surplus or a calorie deficit here are 4 methods you can use to find your beginning maintenance calories.
- Online TDEE calculator
- Manual calculation
- An In Depth Best Guess
- Self Evaluation: Start With Where You Are
Online TDEE Calculator
An online TDEE calculator uses your age, weight, height, gender and current activity level to calculate the estimated number of calories you need to eat to maintain your body weight.
|🤓 Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is a measurement of how many calories you burn per day through normal body functions and movement.|
|⚠️The results you receive from different online calculators will vary from one another. The programming behind the calculator generally is a custom equation for the website.|
The TDEE calculator located on this website will generate pretty standard results you can get from doing manual calculations yourself by hand. I highly recommend this calculator for finding your recommended maintenance calories.
It is time to pull out the old pencil and paper and do the math yourself. There are two steps for determining your maintenance calories.
Step 1: Calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) using the Mifflin St Jeor equation.
|🤓 BMR (kcal / day) = 10 * weight (kg) + 6.25 * height (cm) – 5 * age (y) + s (kcal / day)|
where s is +5 for males and -161 for females.
To double check your work, I recommend using this online calculator which uses the Mifflin St Joer Equation for determining BMR.
Step 2: Multiple BMR by Activity Level
Your maintenance calories or Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is determined by multiplying your BMR by an activity level multiplier.
These are the standard recognized activity multipliers used to calculate your maintenance calories.
|Sedentary (little or no exercise) or 3K-8K Steps||1.2|
|Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week) or 10K -12K Steps||1.375|
|Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week) or 12K-15K Steps||1.55|
|Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week) or 15K + Steps||1.725|
|Extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job)||1.9|
|⚠️ When selecting an active level, place a higher emphasis on what you are doing outside of exercise and what you do for work. Do you primarily sit or stand? These factors are far more important when calculating activity level than on the few hours per week you exercise. |
🤓 Case Study Example: Gina is a 5”6, 160lb female, age 25. She sits for her job for 8 hrs. 5 days a week. Her average daily step count per week is 10K. She works out 5 days a week doing strength training and is doing 3 sessions of 30 minutes of cardio each week. Using the Mifflin St Jeor Equation (BMR) formula, you would calculate her BMR(10 X 73 kg) + (6.25 X 168 cm) – (5 X 25 age) -161 = 1489 Calories. Multiplying by 1.55 for moderately active would put her calories at 2308 for maintenance.
The next method is based on years of research in the evidence based fitness space and considers additional researched points of data to come up with a standard basic formula.
An In Depth Best Guess
There are many components that are factored into your metabolic rate and they are as unique to you as your fingerprints are. One of the leaders in the fitness industry is Lyle Mcdonald. His work on metabolism dives deeper into Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA) and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). All these components are important to be considered when determining your metabolic rate and your maintenance calorie needs.
Based on the caloric values from BMR, TEF and TEA, Lyle Mcdonald suggests a starting point of 14-16 calories per pound of bodyweight for determining maintenance calories.
For example, an individual weighing 165 lbs (75kg) would have a maintenance calorie intake of 2,301-2,640 calories/day.
165 x 14 = 2301
165 x 16 = 2640
Mcdonald suggests that women or those with slower metabolic rates should use the lower value (14 cal/lb.), while men, and individuals with faster metabolic rates, would apply the higher value (15 cal/lb.).
For example, an individual weighing 125 lbs. with a slow metabolism would have a maintenance calorie intake of 1,750 – 1,875 calories/day.
125 x 14 = 1750
125 x 15 = 1875
|🤓||The source for this information can be found here: 4 Determinants of Metabolic Rate|
Self Evaluation: Start With Where You Are
Personally, I believe the best way to find maintenance calories is based on self evaluation. Self evaluation is the process of tracking your nutrition for many weeks and comparing each week to determine whether you lose, maintain or gain weight.
Step 1: Tracking
Start by tracking your food that you eat normally for 2 weeks and notating your weight daily.
You may find it helpful to log your daily nutrition information like protein, carb, fat and calorie intake in a spreadsheet. This will make it easier to analyze your data in step 2.
Step 2: Analyze
Once you have two weeks of daily nutrition data and scale weights, you want to determine the average calories and scale weight for each week.
Compare week 1 data to week 2 data points. Did you lose, maintain or gain weight?
Step 3: Adjust and Reevaluate
If you gained weight, you may be eating in a calorie surplus. Reduce your calories by 100 from carbs or fats. Repeat steps 1-3.
If you have lost weight, you may be in a calorie deficit. Increase calories by 100. Repeat steps 1-3.
If you maintain your weight, you might have found your maintenance. Repeat steps 1 and 2 to confirm you are maintaining your weight.
Let’s see the self evaluation method in action
Week 1: Average Calorie Intake for 7 Days = 2435, Weekly Weight Average = 135
Week 2: Average Calorie Intake for 7 Days = 2535, Weekly Weight Average = 136
These results could mean you are in a slight surplus. You may want to reduce your calorie intake.
Week 3: Average Calorie Intake for 7 Days = 2400, Weekly Weight Average = 135
Compared to Week 2 you are down to your average weight in week 1. You may have found maintenance.
Continue self evaluation for a few weeks to determine if you are losing, gaining or maintaining your weight.
|It is normal for weight to fluctuate a couple lbs. on a daily basis. Check out my scale fluctuation checklist for more information. Maintenance calories can change if your activity level changes. Women who have normal menstruation cycles typically experience 2 weeks of higher water retention and 2 weeks of lower water retention. These fluctuations can create outlier scale weight data. It is recommended when determining your calorie intake to compare like weeks in your cycle.|
There are many more ways you can find your maintenance calories. These are just 4 methods that will provide consistent results.
Maintenance After Muscle Building Phase
Transitioning to eating maintenance calories after a time period of focusing on building muscle is probably the easiest to do.
You can do this a couple different ways depending on how you are managing your nutrition while you have been focusing on building muscle.
If you are tracking your nutrition, simply reduce your carbs and fats around 200 calories each week until you stop gaining weight.
If you are not tracking your nutrition, you can begin reducing calories by reducing portion sizes. For instance, instead of 1 cup of rice, reduce to ¾ cup of rice for your meals. If you are eating higher fat, try switching to oil sprays vs poured oils. You should not need to make any adjustments on your protein intake. Monitor your weight for a couple weeks to confirm you have stopped gaining.
Always start where you are currently at with your calorie intake instead of using a calculation. Your body may have adapted to a higher calorie intake.
If you are planning on changing any level of activity such as increasing or decreasing cardio you may have to tweak your intake a bit. Changes in activity level can make a big impact on the amount of calories you need for maintenance.
Dieting is measured in weeks and months.
Maintenance is measured in years
Maintenance After Weight Loss
Maintenance after weight loss is very different from maintenance when you are just getting started or when you are finishing a muscle building phase.
Your metabolism adapts and down regulates to manage energy availability based on few calories. You probably have noticed some of these adaptations during your diet. Here are just few examples of metabolic adaptations that can happen in a calorie deficit
- lower sex drive
- low energy for training
- lost of strength
- reduction in overall activity
- reduction in sleep quality
Because of these metabolic adaptations transitioning from weight loss to maintenance needs to be a more thoughtful process. Increasing your calories too quickly can result in rapid weight gain because your metabolism is in this adaptive state. You might have even experienced this before when you have previously lost weight.
I bet you might be wondering, “does that mean I have to eat fewer calories for the rest of my life to maintain my weight?”
The answer is no.
It is important to learn how to increase your calories to help your metabolism to return to a healthy, balanced state. While you might hear some people say, “I think my metabolism is broken”. Your metabolism is made up of no less than 10 different factors and it is always adapting. In reality your metabolism can not be broken. If you would like to learn more about metabolism, check out my article, I want to lose weight, How do I get started?
I can hear you saying, “It would be awesome to be able to eat more and not gain weight, but….”
I know, I know. You are positive that if you start eating more, you will gain it all back. I mean, you have dieted before and as soon as you started eating normal again all the weight came back. Yeah, I would have to agree that is probably what happened.
Because most people do not know what to do next after they have lost the weight they tend to just return back old habits and start eating like they did before they started a diet.
|Understand, you are a smaller individual now that you have lost weight. You should not expect that your calorie intake will be the same as when you weighed more. If you heard you would be eating way more calories after you are done with your diet this may not be the case for you unless your lifestyle changed as a result of the weight loss. You may be able to eat more food than before if you have increased your activity level substantially. The increase in activity could mean that you are expending more calories and therefore your calorie needs have changed from where you started.|
|⚠️ The fear of gaining a few lbs. after finishing your diet should not interfere with you taking the next step towards eating maintenance calories. Because the weight you typically gain is not going to be body fat.|
Before I provide you steps for transitioning from weight loss to maintenance I want to share with you some reasons why it is not a good idea to stay at lower calories because you are afraid of gaining weight.
- Eating fewer calories is not sustainable. You generally will start to experience challenges with adhering to lower calories. Lower calories means you may find it difficult to be able to fully enjoy and be present for social gatherings, holidays and traveling.
- Your overall metabolism has adapted to the lower calorie intake. You may or may not have noticed changes in hormone functions like sex drive, leptin and ghrelin. Your sleep and energy levels may be affected as well. You are probably more irritable than typical of your personality. Eating more will help your metabolism adapt to a healthier state.
- If you have goals of building muscle, you may be delaying your ability to build new muscle. Your body fat percentage may dictate the length of time your metabolism will need for recovery before you can to start the muscle building process. Many bodybuilding competitors do not experience optimal metabolism function for 4-6 months post diet. In reality, building muscle takes longer than dieting. The less time you can be in a calorie deficit the better you will position yourself to build muscle.
- Staying a calorie deficit too long can result in the loss of lean muscle tissue. This is something to consider when you extend your diet for many months to drop a few final vanity lbs.
|⚠️ Determining your maintenance calories is not an absolute. It is just an estimation. Your maintenance calories can change if you experience any changes with your metabolism including changes in your activity level. In 2020, during the COVID pandemic, many people found themselves gaining weight as daily life changed and fewer people were leaving the house and activity levels dropped and they became more sedentary and easy access to food increased. These changes resulted in many people experiencing weight gain.|
As mentioned above you do not just want to start eating like you did before you started your diet as that could result in rapid weight gain. You want to take a strategic approach to determining your new maintenance calories.
Transitioning to Maintenance: Two Approaches
There are two approaches that have been adopted by the fitness community in recent years for transitioning from dieting to maintenance. You might have heard of them called a Reverse Diet and a Recovery Diet. These approaches originate from the competitive bodybuilding community and have now been adapted to help dieters transition out of dieting. Both approaches are effective and one way is not better than the other.
It is important to understand that these approaches were designed to address recovery from extreme dieting for bodybuilding competitions. The metabolic adaptations that occur for competitors are extreme and someone who has lost weight to achieve a healthy scale weight might not experience the same metabolic adaptations that come from a low body fat level.
The Reverse Diet is a slower approach to getting out of a diet and resuming to a more balanced way of eating by adding around 125 calories every week (or every X amount of weeks) until you find your maintenance number.
Benefits with this approach:
- You can still lose weight as calories increase because technically you are still in a calorie deficit.
- You are 5 lbs. or less from your ideal scale weight and you want to start the diet recovery process while still losing the last few lbs.
- You may feel more energetic and experience increases in overall activity (NEAT).
- You notice strength and endurance improvements in training sessions.
- The small increases in calories may improve dieting adherence.
- May also reduce food focus.
- Allow you more flexibility in nutrition choices.
- Minimize fat gain while increasing calorie intake.
- Less likely to overshoot your maintenance calories.
- You may find it easier to transition to higher calories with smaller increases than adding many calories in all at once.
Drawbacks with this approach:
- Can take weeks to months.
- Delays the ability to transition to a muscle building phase.
- Extends physiologically and psychologically – dieting fatigue for a few vanity pounds.
- Extends mood disruption – i.e. being irritable, reduction in sex drive, lean muscle loss
- Keeps your metabolism in a suppressed state and delays hormone recovery
- If you are wanting to begin family planning, this approach delays your body from reaching a healthy place to be able to conceive.
As I mentioned in the benefits of a Reverse Diet, you do not have to wait until you have reached your weight loss goal to start a reverse diet. You can start when you are 3-5 lbs. away from your ideal scale weight goal. Towards the end of a diet it is common for dieting fatigue to increase and consistency to decrease. You may have experienced situations where you said “I am close, so I can indulge a bit more and I do not have to be as dialed in”.
The more often this occurs the harder it will seem to get the last few pounds off.
If you have been steadily losing weight and all of a sudden you stop seeing weight loss, the diet is not the reason you are not able to lose the final pounds. It is probably because your consistency has declined.
However, If you stay on point you will experience the same weight loss results you did week after week when your consistency was better.
Implementing a Reverse Diet
As I mentioned above, following a Reverse Diet approach means you will be incrementally increasing your calories over the next few weeks to months until you reach your maintenance calories. A good rule of thumb is to add an additional 125 calories per week. If you are tracking macros, you would make no changes to your protein intake but you would increase carbs by 20 grams and fats by 5 grams.
|⚠️ If you have been eating higher amounts of protein to manage hunger you may decide to reduce your protein intake. Protein intake can be set at your target scale weight number or .7 g per lb. of body weight. You may also choose to redistribute the extra calories to carbs or fats.|
🤓 For example: If you weighed 125 lbs., you would multiple 125 x .7 = 88 grams of protein or you could choose to set protein to 125 grams
The Recovery Diet is a quicker approach to getting out of a diet and resuming to a more balanced way of eating.
Benefits with this approach:
- You will have more energy allowing you to training harder and increase overall movement
- Your sleep quality improves
- Your muscles will look fuller as the glycogen is replenished
- Your hormones will regulate. Sex drive increases, hunger and satiety signals regulate
- Your metabolism and hormones return to homeostasis quicker allowing you to begin a muscle building phase
- Return to a healthy physiologically and psychologically state
Drawbacks with this approach:
- It is possible that you might overshoot what your maintenance calorie intake should be and then you might gain weight that does not drop off after a few days or weeks.
You can choose to begin a recovery diet when you have reached your ideal scale weight goal.
Implementing a Recovery Diet
As mentioned above, following a Recovery Diet approach means you will increase a greater amount of calories to target your estimated maintenance by adding 250-500 calories to your current calorie intake. Generally, these extra calories will be added to carbs and fats. As to specifically how much to increase your calories is dependent on your current calorie deficit. You may want to shoot for a conservative increase in calories. A good starting place is to add an additional 250-300 calories per week. If you are tracking macros, you would make no changes to your protein intake but you would increase carbs by 50 grams and fats by 10 grams for a 290 calorie increase.
You might wonder, “Why would I not just use a macro/calorie calculator at this point to find my maintenance calorie intake?” Because the macro/calorie calculator is really geared toward someone getting started, not someone who is already following a certain macro/calorie intake. The results you may get from the calculator might be far higher or lower than where you are at with your nutrition.
For example, you dieted for an extended amount of time and had to reduce your calorie intake to substantially lower to achieve your weight loss results. You might have been able to lose weight at say 1500 calories but based on some unforeseen circumstances you actually had to decrease to 1300 calories. The calculator might indicate your maintenance calories to be 2000K. Jumping from 1300 to 2000 K would be too high of an increase for where your metabolism is on a 1300 calorie diet due to metabolic adaptations.
No Matter The Approach
Honestly, you can do either approach. You will generally not gain any weight or minimal amounts with both approaches, one is not better than the other.
No matter if you choose a Reverse Diet or a Recovery Diet, it will be beneficial to continue to track your nutrition and document daily scale weight to monitor scale fluctuations for a few months. These extra weeks of tracking will help you to determine if you have underestimated or overestimated your maintenance calories.
Learning how to transition to maintenance can change your ability to manage your weight and help you break free from a lifetime of yo-yo dieting.
Now that you have decided on the approach you will be using to transition from being in a calorie deficit to your maintenance calories I want to make sure I cover a couple important items.
You may experience scale weight fluctuations when you increase your calories. You may gain weight for a few days due to more food in your digestive tract, increase in sodium, carbs and water. You may experience no scale weight changes. Or you may even lose weight due to an increase in activity from increasing food, better sleep quality, and a reduction in cortisol. I cover these fluctuations in more detail in the Q & A section below.
Transition from weight loss to maintenance does not always go smoothly for everyone. I want to alert you to a few warning signs to look out for during your transition.
- You may experience binge eating episodes. Binge eating generally occurs when you are following a highly restricted diet. But you can start to experience binge eating episodes as you add more food into your diet. Typically, sugary, salt or more processed foods. It is easy to slip into the I can now eat whatever I want mentality because you are no longer dieting. If you are not sure what binge eating is, check out my podcast, Fitness and Tacos: Episode 1 Binge Eating
- Reverting to old eating habits. Eating more processed foods, eating out more frequently, and choosing high calorie meals. Reduction in eating whole nutritiously dense foods like lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains..
- Eating under target maintenance calories to avoid weight gain. Essentially, never really moving to maintenance calories due to fear.
- If you find you are indulging more than not and feel you are consuming more calories, consider dialing your nutrition in tighter for a couple weeks to get back on track. Do not make reactionary changes like slashing your calories when the opportunity is better adherence.
|💡 Lastly, here are some tips for increasing calories. Increase more high calorie low density foods. For instance, adding in an extra banana would not have the same result as adding calories from complex carbs like potatoes or oats. Complex carbs digest slower than simple carbs like fruit. Increase portion sizes of foods you already eat. For example, you eat ½ cup of rice then increase to ¾ of a cup or 1 full cup. Increasing portion sizes may reduce some additional stress that might come from trying to figure out now what to eat with more calories. Give yourself a couple weeks with these adjustments and then you could start swapping foods to include some new foods into your diet. |
⚠️ If you have eliminated some foods from your diet due to available calories when dieting, adding these foods back in may cause some digestive issues like bloating.
Here are a couple final thoughts.
Once you have transitioned to maintenance you may want to monitor your success. I recommend using how your clothes are fitting as a guide for determining weight gain instead of weighing daily.
If you choose to continue to weigh yourself, set a red line number for your weight. The red line number is a predetermined scale weight number that you choose that is an indication to you that you are no longer in maintenance but gaining weight. Before you jump into another diet make sure you read the Q & A section of this article where I go over weight gain.
Skills for Maintenance
There are skills that help you maintain your weight without having to track every single thing you eat for the rest of your life. Learning these skills during your diet can help you successfully keep off the weight and live a happier, healthier life.
I am happy to share these skills that I use with my online one-on-one weight loss clients.
Skill 1: Non-Tracking Days
Your first skill I want you to teach you is; How to manage your nutrition without tracking.
I know it can seem a little scary. But hear me out…
When I first assigned this homework to my client, Miss Judy, she was a little apprehensive. In her mind, she had determined she would have to track her nutrition for the rest of her life to be successful and keep the weight off. Her past experiences with dieting indicated that as soon as she stopped tracking, she would gain all the weight back. My goal as her coach was to help her put her fears to rest and build her confidence by relying on what she knew, the foods she ate frequently. Here what she has to say about her experiences and her results.
The premise is if you have been logging your nutrition (tracking macros) for 4-6 months, you should have become familiar with the macros based on quantities for the foods you eat routinely. The foundational skill is that you can manage your nutrition without the assistance of an application like My Fitness Pal.
This skill will work best when you log your meals in your food tracking application and adjust the amounts of food when you are trying to hit your goals. If you are someone who just logs your food to just be logging it, then you might not be learning nutritional skills to be successful. I recommend if you are going to log your nutrition be intentional and learn along the way.
For 3 weeks, choose one day per week and do not log your nutrition in your food tracking application. On this one day you will eat all the foods in the amounts you know from months of tracking. You would still weigh your food so that you are being accurate with the amounts.
|🤓 For example: You typically eat 4 oz of protein, 30 grams of potatoes, and 100g of mixed greens for lunch. You would eat this same meal with the same amounts on your non-tracking day.|
Eating the foods that you know the macros for results in building trust in your knowledge of nutrition. Trusting your knowledge of nutrition helps you learn that you can manage your weight even if you do not track your food.
Now that you have conquered not tracking for 1 day, increase to 2 days per week for an additional 3 weeks while continuing to weigh your food. Again, you want to stick with the same foods and the same amounts.
After 3 weeks of successfully not tracking for 2 days per week, increase to 3 days per week for an additional 3 weeks while continuing to weigh your food. Again, you want to stick with the same foods and the same amounts.
Once you have been successful with not tracking 3 days a week, try a full week without tracking.
Each time period of not tracking will help to build confidence in your skills so that you can transition to not logging your nutrition when you reach your maintenance phase.
|🛑 Do not try no tracking days on days you eat different foods While working on learning this skill do not designate a “no tracking day” for events or vacations. You are not eating the foods you know. You may not have the skills to estimate the food you eat. This will make it difficult for you to be successful without tracking.|
Goals or Expected Outcomes
When you eat and log food in specific amounts routinely you create awareness of the macronutrient breakdown and calories of these foods. You can expect to be able to maintain your weight even when you do not track your nutrition because you have learned to estimate how many calories you are eating and can make adjustments to stay within your calorie guidelines.
Skill 2: Visual Awareness
Visual awareness is the skill of being able to estimate the calories of the foods you eat by just looking at them. While it is difficult to estimate extra carbs and fats added to meals, one of the best skills you can develop is visual awareness.
Each time you weigh your food you create a visual connection between the food you eat and what that amount visually looks like. This visual awareness allows you the ability to better estimate portion sizes when eating out.
⚠️When testing your visual awareness make sure you are using the same size plates each time. You can trick your minds to believe you have more or less food when you use smaller or larger containers.
|💡 3 Interesting Facts About Eating Out: |
1. The daily recommended calorie intake for men 2,200 to 2,800 calories per day. The daily recommended calorie intake for women is between 1,600 and 2,400 calories a day. Meal portions at most restaurants are geared towards the recommended calorie take for men. Therefore, women ordering the same meal will be getting far more calories than their daily recommended calorie intake. A quick tip for women is to half the portion and share with another person or save the portion for another meal.
2. When your meal is ready and is under the warming elements, if your meal does not look fresh, the server will add additional sauces or butter/oil to give it a fresher look.
3. Nutritional information available online and in food tracking applications for meals you eat when dining out are underestimated. Generally, restaurants are not weighing portion sizes like you do when you prepare your own meals. It is common for portions sizes to be much larger than are indicated in the nutritional information you can find online. A good tip when logging your nutrition when eating out is to add in 2-3 extra servings of fat. For reference, 1 serving of fat is 14 grams.
To develop your skills of visual awareness, cover the display on your scale with a piece of paper. Weigh your food, ie chicken and guess the amount of chicken. Remove the paper covering from the display and check your estimation.
For 1 week, prepare your meals as normal and test your visual awareness skills at each meal.
|You should weigh your food in different forms, for example chicken. You might eat chicken as a whole breast, shredded or diced. These different forms of chicken look visually different. Another example is potatoes, you might eat them mashed, baked, or as fries. Weighing them in many different forms increases your visual awareness.|
Each time you successfully guess the weight of the food being measured, you build confidence in your ability to estimate portion size.
As stated above, one huge benefit from visual awareness skill tests is so you can develop the skills to estimate your food when you eat out. Have you ever said, ”it is difficult to track nutrition when eating out?”
This can be because
- You may not want to track nutrition
- You do not have the visual awareness skills to estimate portion sizes.
Do yourself a favor and practice this skill frequently.
Skill 3: Portion Control Using Your Hands
One of the biggest challenges with managing nutrition is being able to identify appropriate portion sizes. In some cultures, portion sizes have increased substantially, which has led to an obesity epidemic. In western cultures, people want food fast and in large quantities even if meals are loaded with thousands of calories and the portion sizes are double or triple a healthy amount.
The next skill you want to learn is using your hands to estimate portion sizes. There are so many benefits to learning this skill.
- Hands are portable. They come with you to work lunches, restaurants, social gatherings, etc.
- Hands are a consistent size, providing a consistent reference.
- Hands scale with the individual. Bigger people need more food, and tend to have bigger hands, therefore getting larger portions. Smaller people need less food, and tend to have smaller hands, therefore getting smaller portions.
- Hand-size portions can help you track food choices, nutrients, and energy simply and easily.
This hand portion guide outlines the 4 different food categories, hand portion size with examples, estimated macronutrients based on hand portion size and examples of food.
Hand Portion Guide
|Food Category||Hand Portion Size||Macronutrient||Measure Equivalent|
|Protein||Palm (deck of cards)||20 – 30 grams||~3 to 4 oz (85-115 g) cooked meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, or tofu~|
1 cup (225 g) Greek yogurt or cottage cheese~
2 whole eggs~
1 scoop protein powder
|Vegetables||Tight Fist (tennis ball)||< 10 grams||1 cup non-starchy vegetables (such as leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli)|
|Carbohydrates||Cupped Hand (computer mouse)||20 – 30 grams||1/2 to 2/3 cup (100-130 g) cooked grains, legumes, beans(such as rice, lentils, beans or oats)|
1 medium fruit (apple, banana)
1 medium tuber (sweet potato, white potato)
|Fats||Thumb||7-12 grams||1 tablespoon (14 g) oils, nuts and seeds, nut butter, cheese, etc. seeds, nut butter, cheese, etc.|
Amounts are calculated approximations. Bigger hands, bigger portions; smaller hands, smaller portions. These average portion equivalents are just that. Generally men are at the larger end and women at the smaller, however the elegance of the hand portions is that they’re scaled to each person.
Don’t get hung up on precise details such as exact portion size to the gram. For most people, it doesn’t matter — you are just looking for an easy method of measuring food intake and increasing food awareness.
One of the biggest challenges I have seen working with clients is improperly logging their nutrition and these errors can lead to eating far more calories. When you log your food in a foods tracking application like My Fitness Pal, error on the higher end and choose options with higher calories if no entries have been confirmed.
Learning how to identify portion sizes with your hands gives you the confidence that you are making the best estimations you can.
Skills 4: Learning how to read nutritional labels
Learning how to read nutrition leads on food packages can really change everything with how you track your food. Nutritional labels can be very confusing if you do not know how to determine a serving size or the calories for a serving size. New packaging labels may show lower overall calories because the product is labeled “net carbs”, which means carbs minus the fiber. Additionally, some packages display the nutritional information in both uncooked and cooked forms, for instance microwave popcorn. Even more so is understanding the difference between cooked and raw versions of foods like grains, rice and proteins.
Here are a couple resources to help you to learn more about how to read nutritional labels.
If you take the time to learn the recommended skills I have shared with you may find maintaining your weight is easier than you thought. You might even find you ….
- No longer needing to weigh your foods due to visual awareness skills
- No longer needing to log your food due to eating foods you know the nutrition values
- No longer needing to weigh yourself because you have learned how to be free of dieting because of the skills, habits and lifestyle changes you made when you were dieting.
Q & A
Why am I so hungry now that I am eating more food?
You will find that as you increase calories that you may be hungrier. There could be a couple reasons for this.
- You are eating fewer whole foods and more processed foods. Processed foods do not provide the same satiety as whole foods. Try adding in more whole foods in your diet.
- Your metabolism is adapting and you are now moving more and creating a higher energy expenditure.
Why am I gaining weight now that I transitioned to maintenance?
Your body weight may go up a little bit, and it isn’t because you are gaining body fat or eating too many calories. You don’t need to freak out or worry about it.
The truth is…. When you reached your lowest scale weight, it may have been an artificially low weight. The scale number measures not only body fat but also lack of muscle glycogen, food volume in your digestive track and dehydration as well. Your actual true low body weight when it isn’t depleted is probably a few pounds heavier. Too many people try to manipulate the scale number by chasing a water weight scale number.
This is important to understand, especially as you transition to maintenance.
Your scale weight may slightly increase and there can be a number of logical and expected reasons why this it occurring
- Eating more food equals more food to digest. You might just have more in your digestive tract. Focusing on making sure you are still reaching your fiber and water intake goals will help with a steady elimination of waste.
- Eating more carbohydrates equals fuller muscles. Your muscles absorb glycogen and water. For each gram of carbs you eat, your body retains 2-3 grams of water. This is expected and normal. When dieting your muscles are depleted of glycogen and many people feel they look worse and smaller than when they started dieting because of this depletion.
- Reintroducing foods you might have restricted or eliminated can result in digestive discomfort, inflammation, and higher sodium intake.
- The diet you were following restricted specific foods or food groups. For example, Keto and Whole 30. The reduction or elimination in carbs results in water weight loss. When carbs sources are reintroduced then the body will store glycogen from the carbs along with 2-3 grams of water in your muscle tissue.
Alone these increases on the scale are not a bad thing because they are normal.
|⚠️ If your diet begins to contain more sugary, salty, fatty and processed foods you might be gaining body fat because these foods are highly palatable and less filling and can lead to higher consumption amounts which in turn means you are eating a greater number of calories.|
This weight gain is absolutely normal. BUT it is often where you might start panicking a bit. You say to yourself, “OMG all my hard work is coming undone”… which makes sense. You probably just saw a couple pound scale spike in the last few days after you probably spent the last 4 weeks pushing hard to get those last couple pounds off.
But realize this isn’t body fat, you aren’t actually backsliding in terms of your progress. You still have the same body fat and muscle mass you did when you ended your dieting phase. You just have a normal amount of water and you have filled your muscles with glycogen, which means you probably look even better than on the day you hit that lowest number ever.
However, if you are allowing yourself too much flexibility then the weight gain could also mean you are reverting back to habits that might not support weight maintenance like eating out more, eating high processed foods, reduction in activity now that you reached your weight loss goals.
This is all to say, “What often gets you somewhere, isn’t necessarily what keeps you there.”
|Maintenance means maintaining all the habits and lifestyle changes you made during the diet. This means continuing to live an active lifestyle. This does not mean lengthy workout programs or hours of cardio. It means physical activity, specifically your NEAT becomes substantially more important for weight maintenance.|
There have been several studies done on the participants from the Biggest Loser show. These studies followed the participants for years after the show to determine why some people regained most of their weight and some people kept most of the weight off. The studies concluded that the individuals that were successful with maintaining their weight loss had better adherence to nutrition and maintained active lifestyles. The individuals that gained the weight back reverted back to old nutrition habits and inactivity.
While nutrition alone can help you lose weight, maintaining your weight loss should incorporate an overall active lifestyle.
What if I gain weight and start to feel uncomfortable in my clothes?
First you need to identify if you are slipping back into old habits and routines. Are you…
- Being less active
- Eating out more often
- Drinking alcohol more often which is leading to eating high calorie food
- Eating more highly palatable foods (processed, sugary, snacks) and less nutritiously dense foods (lean proteins, fruits and vegetables)
If you can say yes to any of the above then the best next step is to dial your nutrition back in for a few weeks by logging and tracking. You know where your estimated calorie intake should be. Focusing on your nutrition in greater details will help identify if you are eating too much and this is why you are gaining weight.
Learning how to maintain your weight is a skill and you might not be successful the first time. You might find you feel you need to start dieting again because you are up 5-10 lbs.
|⚠️ BUT….Before you start dieting again, the best time to restart dieting should not begin until you have been eating maintenance calories for 4-6 months post diet. These 4-6 months allow your body the time to bring your metabolism to a healthy place before attempting to diet again. Beginning a diet too soon after your previous diet will make dieting even harder than before. You may have to implement a larger calorie deficit or substantially increase activity to see the same results you achieved the last time you were actively dieting. Many people will assume their metabolisms are broken or will say my body hates me. As I mentioned previously, your metabolism can not be broken, it always adapts. In reality, you are not allowing your body time to recover from the changes in your metabolism from dieting. |
Check out my article on Metabolic Adaptations and Weight Loss for more information.
Do maintenance calories change?
Yes, your maintenance calories can change. Remember, your metabolism is always adapting. Many people generally see the biggest changes in maintenance calories after the age of 30. This is mostly due to lifestyle changes. You may be getting married, starting a family, or start a sedentary career. These lifestyle changes can effect overall daily movement and activity. Instead of participating in activities you are tired and plop down on the couch and eat. Or you are taking care of your family and are forgetting to take care of yourself. Typically, age is not the issue but more so lack of activity.
Check out my article, I Want to Lose Weight, How Do I Get Started, for more information on metabolism.
In summary, maintenance calories are not always going to be the same, it is a moving target. Your maintenance calories should be reevaluated as your activity levels change.
- If you increase activity like walking, cardio or weight training, you may be able increase calorie intake especially if your goal is to build muscle
- If you decrease activity, you may need to consider reducing calories. Many people experienced a huge shift in activity levels during COVID where they shifted to working from home and left the house less for work, running errands, and social engagements. Keep an eye out if you notice you are sitting more after a long day and start skipping workouts or have reduced daily steps.
- If you change your daily activity level due to a change in jobs. If you transition from an active job like a construction worker or waitress to a corporate office desk job. Your new job can result in a huge impact on step count and can result in a 250-500 calorie decrease.
It is important to be aware of these shifts in activity levels and make appropriate adjustments to support weight management. I highly recommend a fitness tracker to help create awareness around your overall daily movement. The fitness tracker can track your sleep, step count and activity levels without you having to do anything except remember to wear it and charge it. The great thing is the data is tracked and highlights inactivity.
**** Disclaimer ****
Not every scenario is covered in this article. Bodybuilding competitors coming off a competition season should have the goal of gaining body fat that has been lost during their prep to return to a healthy body fat percentage. The information discussed in this article is focused towards the general population who have generally dieted down to a healthy body fat percentage and are wanting to maintain current weight loss with limited body fat gain.
Some metabolic adaptations that are experienced by low body fat percentages in the competitive bodybuilding community may not be experienced by the general population.
Consider the information provided in the article is based on the context of the experiences of the individual reading the article.
Information contained in the article may not apply to your specific situation.