When you are eating maintenance calories, the expectation would be that you would maintain your weight on this amount of food. This is because if you are eating at maintenance, then you are consuming the same number of calories that you are burning.
But, can you lose fat by eating maintenance calories? If you are truly eating maintenance calories, it’s unlikely you will lose fat, since fat loss requires a calorie deficit. However, there are circumstances where fat loss on maintenance calories is possible, such as for someone who is very overweight, or someone new to lifting who is changing their body composition.
If you are looking to lose fat, you will have the most amount of success if you are in a calorie deficit. However, if you notice that you are eating maintenance calories and still losing weight, there are logical explanations for this, which I will explain in further detail below.
In this article, you will learn:
- Why you CAN or CAN’T lose fat eating maintenance calories
- Does the macronutrient composition matter while eating maintenance calories?
- If your maintenance calories change, how does that impact losing fat?
- Can you stay the same weight eating maintenance calories, but change your body composition?
Why You CAN or CAN’T Lose Fat Eating Maintenance Calories
If you have been consuming maintenance level calories, and you have noticed that your weight has remained stable, this would be considered normal.
A couple of reasons that you are NOT losing fat while eating maintenance calories are:
- You have calculated your maintenance calories accurately
- You are very consistent with your diet and workouts
1. You Have Calculated Your Maintenance Calories Accurately
If you have properly determined how many calories that your body burns in a day, and you are consuming this number of calories, then you should not lose fat and you should be maintaining your body weight.
In order to properly calculate your maintenance calories, you must determine your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
This equation includes the calories your body burns performing life sustaining tasks (BMR), If you are curious to know your BMR, use our BMR calculator, the Thermic Effect of Food, (TEF), along with calories burned through exercise (EAT, or Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) and daily movement (NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis).
If you want to read more on how to determine exactly how many calories that you need to eat in a day to maintain your weight, you can read this article here.
- Related Article: Eating Below TDEE & Not Losing Weight (8 Reasons Why)
2. You Are Very Consistent with Your Diet and Workouts
If you have been consistently working out and tracking your calories, then it is expected that your body will only experience fat loss if you are in a caloric deficit.
This is due to the fact that your body is accustomed to the number of calories that you eat and your activity level, so any desired fat loss will require either a reduction of calories or an increase in activity.
If you have accurately calculated your maintenance calories, and you are consistent with the number of calories that you eat and the amount of activity that you do, then it is highly unlikely that you will experience fat loss.
- Check Out: Body Recomposition Calculator: Lose Fat While Gaining Lean Muscle
What Should Happen When You Eat Maintenance Calories?
When eating maintenance calories, you should be maintaining your weight, since your maintenance calories are based on how many calories you burn in a day.
If you are eating the same number of calories that you burn, you should not lose or gain any weight.
While this is less likely, there are a few different scenarios where one might experience fat loss while eating maintenance calories.
A few scenarios where you could LOSE FAT while eating maintenance calories are:
- You have not calculated your maintenance calories accurately
- You are new to dieting and weightlifting
1. You Have Not Calculated Your Maintenance Calories Accurately
If you are losing fat while eating what you think are your maintenance calories, the first thing that you should do is check your calculations in order to make sure that your numbers are correct.
While the equation to determine your TDEE is relatively simple, it is possible that the number of calories that you calculate you are burning and the amount that you are actually burning are different.
There are certain variables that could affect the accuracy of your calculations, such as:
- Your activity level: If you either underestimate or overestimate the number of calories that you burn in a day in your EAT and your NEAT, this could result in either fat loss or fat gain on maintenance calories.
- Your fitness tracker may not be 100% accurate: If you’re relying on your Fitbit or Apple watch to track your TDEE, there is a chance these estimates are inaccurate and could be overestimating your daily expenditure. In fact, reports show that fitness trackers can be out by more than 10% when measuring TDEE.
- History of dieting: If you have recently been in a caloric deficit or have a long history of dieting, this can cause the metabolism to adapt and burn fewer calories, therefore the number of calories your body burns decreases.
- Underlying health conditions: Certain health conditions can affect the rate at which your body burns calories. For example, with hyperthyroidism, many will experience unintentional weight loss due to an accelerated metabolism from an overactive thyroid.
In instances such as these, it would make sense that you are losing fat or bodyweight even while eating what you believe to be your maintenance calories.
2. You Are New to Dieting and Weightlifting
It is very typical to see those who are new to weightlifting and dieting experience what are known as “newbie gains”.
This is where one will experience rapid fat loss and even fast muscle gain when they first start to diet and train consistently. This is not typically seen in individuals who have been consistently lifting and dieting.
Considering this, it is possible for an individual who is embarking on their health and fitness journey for the first time to begin to eat their maintenance calories consistently while also going to the gym, and experience fat loss.
This could be because they were eating an inconsistent number of calories before, or that their increased amount of activity or new muscle growth has resulted in fat loss due to an increased BMR.
Does The Macronutrient Composition Matter While Eating Maintenance Calories?
While the most important factor of a maintenance phase is balancing the number of calories that you consume with the amount that you burn, the types of calories that you choose to consume can have an impact on your results.
The types of foods that you eat can each have a different effect on metabolism due to the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).
For example, foods higher in protein take more energy to be metabolized, while foods that are high in fat tend to require much less energy to be digested and absorbed.
Similarly, if you were to get most of your calories from carbohydrates (specifically processed, refined carbohydrates) then this may have an impact on your hormones and metabolism.
When you consume an excessive amounts of refined carbohydrates, this can increase your blood sugar levels, and potentially cause insulin resistance, which can lead to weight gain.
If you want to see good results from your maintenance phase, it is recommended that you balance your calories.
An example of a good macronutrient split would be consuming roughly 40-50% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 20-30% fats.
- Related Article: Is It Better To Hit Your Macros or Calories?
If Your Maintenance Calories Change, How Does That Impact Losing Fat?
There are many different scenarios that could result in your maintenance calories changing, and this will have an effect on your fat loss. If your maintenance calories change, then the calories that you need to consume for fat loss will change as well.
For example, if you take an active 150 pound woman who is 30 years old and 5’4” tall, you could determine her maintenance calories to be approximately 2030 calories.
That would mean that in order for her to experience fat loss, she would have to consume around 1530-1780 calories per day.
If this same woman was to experience a 20 pound weight loss, she would no longer be able to maintain her weight on 2030 calories, as her TDEE would have shifted.
After her weight loss, her new maintenance calories would be about 1897 calories per day, and her new caloric deficit would be about 1397-1647 calories per day.
If this woman did not adjust her maintenance calories or her deficit calories after her weight loss, it is likely that she will not see the results that she desires.
With this information, it is easy to see how a slight shift in body weight and in maintenance calories can impact an individual’s ability to lose fat.
Can You Stay the Same Weight While Eating Maintenance Calories but Change Your Body Composition?
It is possible to stay the same weight while eating maintenance calories, while also experiencing a shift in your body composition. If you are eating a balanced diet and weightlifting, you could experience an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in body fat, even if the scale doesn’t move at all.
Gaining muscle is possible when you are consistent with weight lifting and strength training. If you regularly strength train, your body will build muscle, and the more muscle you have, the more fat your body is able to burn.
If you increase the amount of muscle on your body, this will inherently help you to decrease the amount of fat you have. If you were to add one pound of muscle to your body while losing one pound of fat, the scale will stay the same, but your body will look different.
While it is thought that you must be in a caloric surplus to gain muscle, it is still possible to do so while eating maintenance calories. When you strength train, you are damaging your muscle, and when it builds itself back together, it builds back better and stronger.
In addition to this, if you eat a balanced diet that is high in protein, you are more likely to build lean muscle mass, which will result in your body being able to burn more fat. When your body composition changes and you put on lean muscle mass, your BMR will change and you will require more calories to maintain your weight.
It is important to note that calorie requirements can potentially vary between two people if they have different amounts of muscle, even if they share the same age, height, weight, and gender. Individuals with more muscle mass will have a higher BMR, therefore will have a higher caloric requirement to maintain their weight.
What To Read Next
Now that you know there are some scenarios where you can lose fat while eating maintenance calories, check out what happens if you burn more calories than you ate and gain weight.
If you’re looking for a way to track your calories and macros, I reviewed the MacroFactor app, which in my opinion, is better than MyFitnessPal.
If you want to learn how macros relate to weight loss, check out Do Macros Matter For Weight Loss?
Passler, S., Bohrer, J., Blöchinger, L., & Senner, V. (2019). Validity of Wrist-Worn Activity Trackers for Estimating VO2max and Energy Expenditure. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(17), 3037. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16173037
Westerterp K. R. (2004). Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutrition & metabolism, 1(1), 5. https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-1-5
About The Author
Colby Roy is a holistic health and nutrition coach. She is certified through Precision Nutrition and has a passion for all things nutrition and healing the body. More specifically, Colby likes to work with clients who want to optimize their gut health and energy levels.
Why Trust Our Content
On Staff at FeastGood.com, we have Registered Dietitians, coaches with PhDs in Human Nutrition, and internationally ranked athletes who contribute to our editorial process. This includes research, writing, editing, fact-checking, and product testing/reviews. At a bare minimum, all authors must be certified nutrition coaches by either the National Academy of Sports Medicine, International Sport Sciences Association, or Precision Nutrition. Learn more about our team here.
Have a Question?
If you have any questions or feedback about what you’ve read, you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We respond to every email within 1 business day.