In today’s world of extreme diets, detoxes, low-or no carb approaches, super-restrictive meal plans, fasting fads and so on, a “maintenance” diet probably sounds really, really boring. Who wants to maintain when you can get shredded?
The truth is, most people out there should be on some sort of maintenance diet. Let me elaborate…..
They say sex sells, and in the dieting world, that couldn’t be truer. In fact, I’d say extremism sells. When was the last time you picked up a diet book that promised sustainable, steady weight loss over the course of a year, with a plan incorporating calorie counting, a structured exercise program and promoting moderation and thought “Wow, that’s the diet book for me!”?
I doubt it’s happened yet, and it’s probably not going to.
Conversely, diets that promise rapid weight loss, involve a combination of detoxing, fasting, consuming only liquids, cutting or restricting carbs, fats, or whole nutrient groups are by far the most popular.
At the time of writing, out of the top 10 best-selling books on Amazon.com, two are based on the Paleo diet, two demonise wheat and declare it the mother of all dietary devils, one promises to “boost your metabolism” by eating certain foods, one is a 21-day juice detox, one goes to great lengths to dispel the calories in vs calories out theory and one is solely on greens drinks. Two do seem much more sensible and accessible, one giving tips on how to stick to a diet long-term, and the other simply providing healthy, balanced recipes, with no daft restrictions.
That’s still eight out of 10 that give this idea of a quick fix, or promote extremism to lose weight.
And that’s the problem with “dieting.” Here’s another question for you – How often has someone you know (or perhaps even yourself) started a popular diet and stuck with it long-term, maintaining the progress indefinitely? It does happen, but outside the bodybuilding and athletic community, it’s rare.
Pulling up a few examples, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with Paleo eating, a ketogenic plan, intermittent fasting, the 5:2 diet, Atkins, or any other way of eating, but the trouble lies with adherence…..
The Issue of Adherence and Why You Shouldn’t “Diet”
Know what the biggest factor in how successful your weight loss is?
It’s not the types of foods you eat, when you eat your meals, or anything else like that. It’s dietary adherence. You could have the best diet in the world, but if you can’t stick to it, you’ll go nowhere pretty damn fast.
A 2005 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association that examined the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets found little difference in weight loss between the diets, but noted that –
“increased adherence was associated with greater weight loss and cardiac risk factor reductions for each diet group” (1)
I also love this quote from Eric Rimm, Associate Professor in the Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard Medical School –
“There’s no perfect diet. Adherence to the diet one selects rules the day,” (2)
Generally, people will not stick to any type of diet that severely impacts their day to day life, or means they have to make difficult choices and exercise a large degree of willpower. This leads on nicely into the next section.
Who Should Eat at Maintenance?
As mentioned above, those who tend to always go for extreme dieting measures are the key category who should try a maintenance diet. Chances are you flit from diet to diet, usually with periods of binge eating in between, leading to yoyo weight loss.
If this is you, eating at maintenance for a while, and keeping a happy medium between losing weight and thinking “screw it, I’m going to eat what I want” is the best thing you can do. At least until you change your attitude to food, health and lifestyle, which will come about following a period of maintenance eating.
Here’s exactly who should be eating at maintenance –
At this point, you might be saying –
“Mike, dude, why are you making things so complicated? I know how to maintain – just eat healthy, do a bit of exercise and keep an eye on my body” – and you are completely correct. If you can do this, you can stop reading now.
However, it’s important to understand that not everyone finds it this easy.
People tend to be either “on” or “off” a diet. It’s that blast and dust, or fast and feast mentality. They feel like if they’re not suffering, they’re not getting results, and when they’re not worried about dieting, all sense of moderation goes out the window, and it’s a case of doing as much damage as possible at the dinner table, often leading into binge eating tendencies and a very unhealthy relationship with food. That’s why moderation can maintenance can be difficult concepts to get your head around.
How to Maintain
Before reading on, it may benefit you to take a look at two other articles I have on calculating dietary needs.
How to Calculate Macros for Cutting – http://www.healthylivingheavylifting.com/how-to-calculate-macros-for-cutting/
How to Calculate Macros for Bulking – http://www.healthylivingheavylifting.com/how-to-calculate-macros-for-bulking/
In both scenarios, calorie intake is the most important factor. To cut you need a calorie deficit and to bulk you need a calorie surplus. For cutting I recommend consuming between 11 and 14 calories per pound of body-weight each day, while for bulking it’s between 18 and 22 calories per pound for men, and between 16 and 18 calories per pound for women.
This might seem almost too obvious, but for maintenance, you’re going to aim for between these two figures. That’s 14 to 16 calories per pound for women and 14 to 18 calories per pound for men.
Sedentary persons, and those who carry excess body fat with little muscle mass should aim for the lower end of the spectrum, while athletes, hard-training individuals and leaner, more muscular males should opt for the higher end.
Macros for Maintaining
Were you to solely aim to meet your required number of calories every day, you’d likely maintain a relatively stable body-weight. While this would work, it wouldn’t be optimal, and certainly wouldn’t be the healthiest way to go about things. Instead, I’ve given a rough guide on macronutrient intakes. (Macronutrients being protein, carbohydrates and fats.)
When cutting and bulking, I prefer people aim for specific amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat each day, rather than just shooting for a total calorie target. As maintaining should be straightforward though, and is more about developing healthy habits you can stick to, rather than strictly monitoring your intake, I advise much more leeway during this type of diet.
Hitting your total calorie intake for the day is the most important factor. You should be within 50 to 100 calories either side of this each day.
After this, protein is the next most important factor. I’d like you to get at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body-weight. If you’re a woman weighing 120 pounds, that means 96 grams of protein each day. If you’re a 180 pound guy, that’s 144 grams.
After this, look at your fat intake. Fat should come in at a minimum of 0.4 grams per pound. That’s easy – just half your protein intake, so the woman above would need 48 grams of fat, and the man would need 72 grams minimum each day.
The only other caveat is that in order to ensure you get adequate carbohydrate and enough good quality food and micronutrients, you should also eat a minimum of 14 grams of fibre per 1,000 calories.
After this, how you hit your calories is up to you, but here’s where things get fun and interesting:
While I encourage you to eat mainly nutrient-dense whole foods, eating so-called “junk” or “unclean” foods in appropriate quantities that fit your macros is absolutely fine. In fact, eating these foods in moderation is encouraged, as it helps to break any restrictive relationships you have with certain foods or food groups, and teaches you to eat tasty foods without binging.
Calculations and Examples
I’ll give you two examples here to help out. Let’s use the woman and man from earlier:
Example 1: 120 pound woman. She’s relatively sedentary, so only needs to multiply her bodyweight by 14.
Calories = 120 pounds x 14 = 1,680
Protein = 120 x 0.8 = 96 grams
Fat = 120 x 0.4 = 48 grams
Fiber = 1.4 x 1,680 = 24 grams
(Protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram, fat has nine calories per gram. This will help when doing the rest of the calculation.)
Calories from protein + fat = (96 x 4) + (48 x 9) = (384 + 432) = 816
Subtract protein and fat calories from total calorie intake = 1,680 – 816 = 864
This means that once our lady has hit her 96 grams of protein and 48 grams of fat per day, she has another 864 calories to play with, and use as she wishes.
Example 1: 180 pound man. He’s relatively active, so can multiply his bodyweight by 16.
Calories = 180 pounds x 16 = 2,880
Protein = 180 x 0.8 = 144 grams
Fat = 120 x 0.4 = 72 grams
Fibre = 1.4 x 2,880 = 32 grams
(Protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram, fat has nine calories per gram. This will help when doing the rest of the calculation.)
Calories from protein + fat = (144 x 4) + (72 x 9) = (576 + 648) = 1,224
Subtract protein and fat calories from total calorie intake = 2,880 – 1,224 = 1,656
This means that this fine specimen of a man has 1,656 calories left over once protein and fat minimums are met. He’ll need some carbs in there to help him hit 32 grams of fibre, but other than this, he can eat more or less as he pleases.
KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid
If the above sounds simple, it’s supposed to be. Maintaining your weight and physique isn’t about anally monitoring every minute detail – this is a diet as much about adherence and enjoyment as it is about hitting everything precisely.
The calculation you just did, as much as it’s designed to work out exactly how many calories you need to maintain your current weight, will never be anywhere near 100 percent accurate.
Your “maintenance” changes on a minute by minute basis, depending on your activity levels, stress, bodily functions, and so on. Trying to manage it to such an intricate degree is futile. What you can do however, is take semi-regular progress readings to assess how you’re getting on. I have three methods of measuring progress I suggest you use.
1. How You’re Feeling
It sounds a little fruity, but how you’re feeling, and how you think you look is an excellent way to monitor progress when eating at maintenance. If you’re quite happy with the way things are going, generally feeling food and have no issues or worries, carry on as you are.
If, however, you’re feeling run down and weak, think about upping your calories a little. Or on the other hand, if you genuinely think you’re gaining fat, adding body weight and feeling sluggish, reduce your daily calories.
Measurements take a little longer to do, but they’re more accurate and less subjective.
My favourite measurement is progress photos. These are easy to do and provide like for like comparisons. Once every four weeks or so, have someone take one front, one side, and one back shot. Aim to use the same lighting and compare the photos with your last lot to decide if you need to make any changes.
Other simple methods include tape measurements of your waist, hips, thighs, chest and arms. Even simple tricks such as keeping an eye on what notch your belt buckle goes in works well.
You can also measure body fat with callipers (avoid electrical impedence scales as these are too unreliable.) Callipers are good, but do require someone skilled in using them to take an accurate measure, and even then there is a degree of error.
Body-weight is the way most people measure progress, and it does work, but you shouldn’t look into it too much.
This is worthy of a whole article in its own right, but just as a brief overview, body-weight fluctuates far too much day to day to be used as a regular measure of progress. Over time, your weight should stay relatively consistent during a maintenance phase, but you can experience fluctuations either way of up to 1 or 2 pounds depending on what you’ve eaten, your hydration levels, bowel and bladder movements, exercise schedule and so on.
Use weight as a measure, but don’t pay too much attention to the scales.
Adjusting Your Maintenance Plan
As with any diet plan, what works initially is very unlikely to work forever.
When following a maintenance diet, it is critical to realise that you won’t maintain exactly all the time. This relates back to what I said earlier about minute by minute fluctuations in metabolic rate and body functions. It would be unrealistic to expect everything to stay the same every single weigh in or progress check.
That being said, there are things you can do to ensure your maintenance diet is working. Adjusting your intake depending on performance and progress photos is relatively easy –
Performance suffering and energy levels dropping? Raise your calories.
Gaining weight and looking/feeling fat? Drop your calories
We’ll discuss how much you need to raise or lower calories in just a second, but first let’s take a look at body-weight.
I did say that weight is the least reliable measure of progress, and that still holds true. However, it’s also the easiest to make changes based off of. Weight gives you an objective number to see how you’re progressing. Here’s how to adjust your calories based on a weekly or fortnightly weigh in. (I encourage weekly weigh-ins for athletes and highly active individuals who may only be maintaining for a short time, and fortnightly for sedentary people and anyone simply looking to develop healthy habits and break the dieting mind-set.)
Weight Stays the same or fluctuates by under 0.5lbs in either direction = Keep calories the same.
Weight drops by 0.5-1.5lbs = add 50 calories per day
Weight drops by over 1.5lbs = add 100 calories per day
Weight increases by 0.5-1.5lbs = subtract 50 calories per day
Weight increases by over 1.5lbs = subtract 100 calories per day
How you subtract these calories and from what macronutrients is up to you, but you still need to hit your protein and fat minimums.
Alterations based on fortnightly or monthly measurements, body fat tests, and the “how you’re feeling” test is a little more ambiguous and you’ll have to use some intuition. Adding or subtracting between 50 and 100 calories per day based on progress is still about right, however.
Maintaining is an Art
Wrapping things up, maintenance might not be what you think you need to do, but for the vast majority of people, it’s exactly what they need.
By sitting at maintenance for a while, you’ll get into the practice of tracking your calorie and macronutrient intake, break the restriction/binge cycle and start forming healthy habits. Were you to start some sort of detox or quick-results diet now, I’ll be honest and say you could lose 5 to 15 pounds over the next month, depending on your starting point. How many of those pounds do you think you’d have kept off by this time next year though?
According to results of a study lead by Traci Mann, associate professor of psychology at UCLA, at least two-thirds of people who diet regain all the weight they lost within four to five years, and nearly a quarter gain more weight than they lost within two years. (3)
In my experience as a trainer and coach, I’d say this is conservative, with the real world results likely being much higher.
Therefore, while it may not seem sexy, why not simply try to maintain for a few months, before launching head on into a fat loss diet, and ending in a spectacular failure? By maintaining for a little while, then dieting down sensibly, you’ll be in a far better position, look better and feel great 12 months down the line.
Featured image courtesy of http://www.topnews.in/health/eat-fruits-and-vegetables-stay-happy-217090
Tags: calories, dieting, flexible dieting, IIFYM, maintenance
Sign up to the newsletter for regular updates