Your daily maintenance calorie level is influenced by a number of factors such as weight, age, gender and activity level. In order to find the exact calorie level that maintains a constant weight, we will use a calculator to come up with an initial estimate. You will then refine this estimate over time.
The beauty of knowing your maintenance calories is that it allows you to adjust your calorie intake to achieve your goal physique. If you want to lose weight you would eat between 10 and 20% below your maintenance calories. If you want to gain muscle with minimum fat gain you would eat about 10% above your maintenance calories (while doing strength training of course). Lastly if you just want to maintain your weight you would eat around your maintenance level.
Here’s the three step process to determine your daily maintenance calories.
1. Understand Your Calorie Needs
Your overall daily calorie needs consist of your basal metabolic rate plus your activity level. Your activity can be broken down further into incidental exercise and planned exercised.
Calorie needs = Basal Metabolic Rate + Activity (Incidental Exercise & Planned Exercise)
Basal metabolic rate: This is the amount of calories your body burns without any activity at all. Imagine you would be lying in bed all day without moving at all. This is what your body would burn during the day to keep all of your vital organs going.
The main variable affecting your basal metabolic rate is your lean body mass. The best way to increase your lean body mass is by building muscle. Muscles burn the most energy even if you are not moving around. Therefore building muscle is a great way to increase your resting metabolism.
Incidental exercise (referred to as non-exercise associated thermogenesis): Incidental exercise refers to walking, talking, washing, shopping etc. It includes all of your everyday activities that are not ‘planned exercise’.
This can amount to a lot of calories if you move around or fiddle much. It’s also one of the easiest areas to increase the number of calories you burn every day. You don’t have to plan this kind of exercise, it’s simply a matter of integrating it into your everyday life.
Planned exercise (exercise associated thermogenesis): This can be anything from an hour of strength training or running to playing basketball.
In most cases your incidental exercise will amount to more calories burned than your planned exercise (unless you exercise a lot).
2. Calculate Your Calorie Needs
In this step you will calculate your calorie needs. I recommend the the following calorie calculator:
Let’s take a guy, 30 years old, 5’10″, weighing 200 pounds.
Select “Basal Metabolic Rate” as the exercise level for now. When you click on calculate it should show his maintenance calories as 1,875 per day.
He will roughly burn this amount of calories every day without any activity at all.
If you change it to “little/no exercise” his maintenance calories will become 2,250 per day.
Now change the activity level to “3 times/week”. His maintenance calories will increase to 2,579 per day.
Quite a difference right?
This shows you that in determining your maintenance calories, it’s most important to get your overall activity level right. Your activity is the largest variable in the overall calculation.
If you overestimate your activity level you will be using a calorie number that is higher than your actual maintenance calories. This can be frustrating if you are trying to lose weight and wondering why the scales aren’t moving.
Getting your maintenance calories 100% right is something you will develop a feeling for over time. We will cover this in more detail in step 3.
Think of the calculations above as a good estimate that you will refine over time.
3. Test Your Calculations And Adjust If Necessary
In step 2 you have calculated your daily calorie needs based on your activity level. It’s now time to test whether this figure is actually correct.
The only way to find out whether your calculations are correct is by keeping a food diary and weighing yourself once a week thereby testing whether your weight remains the same over time.
I recommend you use the food diary application MyFitnessPal for your smartphone. You can also create an online profile, both options are free. You will then log everything you eat in your daily food diary and hit your maintenance calories as closely as possible.
Note that it’s most important to hit your overall weekly calorie target. Your daily calories can vary as long as the average is still in line with your calculation from above.
iPhone users: MyFitnessPal gives you a neat overview of your daily calories and weekly average when you click on “Home” at the bottom left and then “Weekly” at the top right. When you hold your finger on the “avg.” bar at the right it will show you the average daily calories you consumed during that particular week, very helpful.
You should keep track of your diet and weight for at least four weeks to determine whether you have determined your maintenance calories correctly.
One More Advanced Strategy
If you want to make sure you get your activity level right, I have a cool strategy for you. You can buy an activity monitor such as the Fitbit and link it to your MyFitnessPal account. Fitbit is a small device that you carry in your pocket.
It will automatically monitor the number of steps you walk every day. Based on your activity it calculates the calories you burn and uploads it to your MyFitnessPal account. This is the most accurate way I know to measure your activity level. It is also the best way I know to motivate you to walk more every day. I wrote a detailed Fitbit review here.