Should I Go Straight to Maintenance After A Diet? - Coach Mark Carroll

Will I Gain Fat If I Go Straight to Maintenance After a Diet?

Oct 6, 2022
Sheridan Skye

Our head of nutrition, Sheridan Skye answers this important question!

Congrats!

You set a goal to lose fat and have followed through with success. Now you are likely wondering, where to from here? What do I do with my calories now that I have reached my goal? 

To that, we would answer – go straight to your maintenance calories which is probably blowing your mind right now. 

STRAIGHT TO MAINTENANCE? 

But won’t I gain fat if I do that? 

The answer is: 

No, no you won’t! 

Because you are going to MAINTENANCE. 

Let’s remove science for a moment and focus on a simple definition of maintenance. 

Maintenance: “the state of being maintained”.

This means that jumping straight back to maintenance will have you MAINTAINING your current levels of body fat. 

This might sound extremely obvious, and it is when you break it down. But it is something that so many people fear to do after a dieting phase out of fear that they will undo all of their hard work. 

The main reason someone gains body fat after a dieting phase, is because they have not gone to maintenance. Instead, they have entered into a surplus (they are consuming more calories than their body burns). 

There is one main reason why this happens: 

They use a standard TDEE calculator which does not provide an accurate representation of their maintenance calories. 

A TDEE calculator is a ballpark figure at best. It is not gospel and it certainly won’t take into consideration your unique metabolic requirements. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. Sure, they aren’t fool-proof but they do provide a good start point. To figure out your TDEE, you can use our online TDEE calculator found here. 

The second reason is because the person jumps straight back to the amount of calories they were consuming BEFORE they lost weight. To understand why this is an issue, you first need to understand metabolism. Your metabolism is also called total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This number is determined by various factors, including age, height, and activity level. To maintain your current weight, you need to consume enough calories to match your TDEE. However, if you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll need to consume fewer calories than your TDEE. And if you’re trying to gain weight, you’ll need to consume more calories. 

There are four main components of energy expenditure:

  • Basal metabolic rate
  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis
  • The thermic effect of food
  • Physical activity

Let’s break down each of these topics a little more. 

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the minimum amount of energy that the body needs to maintain vital functions such as heartbeat, breathing, and cell growth. Generally speaking, the BMR decreases with age and is higher in men than women. But this isn’t always the case! This is mainly because your BMR is directly linked to your overall body mass – meaning, the more you weigh, the higher your BMR. BMR also accounts for 60% of your total daily energy expenditure! Yes, 60%!

Most people are familiar with the concept of exercise-induced weight loss, but there is another factor that can have a significant impact on metabolism: non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT is the energy expended for all activities that are not sleeping, eating, or exercising. This includes activities like walking, cleaning, and even fidgeting. While the individual impact of each of these activities may be small, they can add up to a significant number of calories burned over the course of a day. In fact, studies have shown that NEAT can account for up to 35% of daily energy expenditure, making it the second most costly component of TDEE. What most people don’t know about NEAT is that it is the most adaptable component of metabolism, meaning your body has intelligent physiological processes that slow NEAT when it senses low energy availability (aka, dieting). You may have noticed this if you are around people who prep for body-building competitions. These people literally blink slower, talk slower and use fewer hand gestures. What is also super interesting about NEAT is that it varies considerably from person to person. Some people naturally have a high NEAT, while others have low NEAT, directly impacting how many calories a person needs to maintain weight. 

The thermic effect of feeding (TEF) is the number of calories your body burns to digest, absorb, and store the nutrients you eat. While the TEF only accounts for a small percentage of your total daily calorie burn, it can still significantly impact weight loss. Many factors can influence the TEF, including the type of food you eat, how much you eat, and how often you eat. For example, protein has a higher TEF than carbohydrates or fat, so a high-protein diet can boost your metabolism. 

One of the mechanisms by which exercise helps to burn calories is through a process called thermogenesis. Thermogenesis is the production of heat, and it requires energy from calories. When we exercise, our body temperature rises, and our cells produce more heat. This increased heat production burns calories and helps to maintain our body weight. This is known as exercise activity thermogenesis (aka EAT).

Dieting to lose weight usually involves consuming fewer calories than you burn off through exercise and daily activities. However, your body often adapts to this change by burning fewer calories itself. This is known as metabolic adaptation. Metabolic adaptation is an unavoidable consequence of dieting because your body is designed to fight back during periods of famine (sure we aren’t prisoners of war but your body doesn’t know the difference between forced famine to lose weight and starvation). 

Metabolic adaptation occurs through several different mechanisms: 

  • Reduction in basal metabolic rate. 
  • Increase in hormones that affect hunger and a decrease in hormones that affect satiety (this makes you hungrier and more food focussed). 
  • Reduction in NEAT levels.
  • Potential downregulation of thyroid hormones (which decrease BMR below what would be reasonably considered).
  • Potentially a decrease in exercise performance. 

The process of metabolic adaptation is complex and something we dive into greater detail in the Art of Reverse Dieting but these are the main areas you need to be aware of in the context of this blog post. 

Why is this important? 

Because your current maintenance is not the same as your pre diet maintenance! 

Why? 

Because you weigh less! Remember, BMR is directly correlated to overall body mass. You become a smaller version of yourself when you diet (because you lost weight). Therefore, your NEW TDEE will be different because you are a smaller human.

So what you should do is recalculate your TDEE (using our calculator) at your new body weight. 

But here’s another nuance. 

TDEE calculators are a ballpark figure at best. They do not take into account your unique metabolic needs. For example, we previously discussed that NEAT is the second highest component of TDEE and that NEAT levels vary considerably among individuals. We also discussed that NEAT is the most adaptive component of TDEE. 

Why does this matter? 

Some people will experience a higher degree of NEAT adaptation and naturally move less. Practically, this means that a standard TDEE calculator may not capture the full picture. 

So what’s the best way to determine what your new maintenance is? 

You have a few options. The first is to use our TDEE calculator to get an idea of your new maintenance calories. Yes, this isn’t 100% accurate and it won’t consider alteration in NEAT or hormones. The downside to this option is that you may gain a little bit of fat in the process. Usually, it isn’t a huge amount. For those who have a low tolerance for fat gain, the Art of Reverse Dieting will guide you step-by-step on the reverse dieting protocols we use with our clients to keep the weight off.  

Other caveats to consider: 

You will gain weight when you increase calories, even at your maintenance calories. The goal of a reverse diet isn’t to maintain your current body weight. It is to maintain your current levels of body fat! Your weight will increase by virtue of increasing: 

  • Food volume (there is more in your digestive tract). 
  • Increasing carbohydrate consumption (this will replenish glycogen stores in your liver and muscle and increase water retention). 
  • Potentially, consuming a diet higher in sodium which may increase water retention. 

So there you have it! 

The goal of your post-diet protocol should be to go to your NEW maintenance. If you do this, you won’t gain fat in the process. 

 

Yours in Health, 

Sheridan Skye 

Head of Nutrition at Coach Mark Carroll 

IG: @sheridanskyefit