The concept of eating at maintenance caloric intake is a tremendously underutilized tool, particularly for women.
In fact, when I ask women what it looks and feels like to eat at a maintenance intake, most look at me like I have two heads.
What the hell does maintenance even mean?
This is the caloric intake at which our bodies are neither gaining nor losing weight. In the land of dieting, we often forget about this magical state. We’re brainwashed and/or misled into thinking that if we’re not restricting and actively dieting, then the only other option is to gain weight.
Eating at maintenance provides a slew of amazing benefits, and this is especially true for women who have been dieting for extended periods of time and aren’t seeing the results they want in the gym.
1. More energy and brain power
Under-eating, or eating below maintenance caloric intake, can cause symptoms that begin to become our new normal if we do it for long enough. A notable one is experiencing low energy in the form of brain fog or general physical fatigue, and the positive effects are often immediately felt after increasing food intake to maintenance levels.
2. Gains in strength, muscle mass & performance
As someone who already struggles to put on strength and muscle mass (and let’s be real—most women have a far more difficult time putting on muscle than males), this is especially important. Have you been working your ass off in the gym, only to have nothing to show for your results?
I’ve been there, and it took a LOT of convincing myself to finally increase my food intake in an effort to see some gains. (Full disclosure: this didn’t happen until about 2 years ago, and progress is still super slow). However, it just isn’t possible for many of us to eat at a deficit and gain muscle mass unless we’re fairly new to training.
This is why it’s common to see transformations of women who are new to healthy eating and resistance or strength training. They lose fat and gain muscle at the same time—however, this occurs less frequently the longer we’ve been training consistently.
Aside from gaining strength and muscle mass, improved performance in conditioning workouts (such as Crossfit, Orange Theory, HIIT, endurance) can be felt almost immediately.
3. Restoration of metabolic and hormonal function
Our bodies evolved to protect us from starvation, so hormones increase or decrease (depending on their function) while when we’re in a calorie deficit, and our metabolisms slow.
This is essentially done by decreasing our NEAT—non-exercise activity thermogenesis—i.e. we move less throughout the day.
This means we need to decrease our intake, or increase our deficit, to continue to see fat loss. Eventually, we find ourselves in a hole, where our caloric intake is quite low, we’re not losing fat, we’re not gaining muscle, and we feel like total dog shit.
We may also experience low libido, missing or irregular periods, low thyroid function, poor digestion, and awful sleep.
At this point, the only way to go is up, and you may just gain back your hormonal and metabolic vitality. HUGE win!
4. Establishing body fat set point
Our bodies tend to find “set points”, or body fat percentages where they’re comfortable and don’t easily fluctuate from. Some experience this by not being able to hold a higher weight, while others experience the opposite.
The longer we remain at any given weight while consuming an appropriate number of calories (i.e. this won’t work if we’re always under-eating), our bodies adapt and re-establish the set point. This means we have more flexibility with our take when our bodies feel safe by way of adequate intake, as opposed to constantly feeling stressed.
Note: this appears to be largely anecdotal at this time, but many experience this phenomenon.
5. MORE FOOD
I think this speaks for itself if you love food like I do, as this girl has a big ol’ appetite.
If you’ve been undereating consistently for a long period of time, as many women have been (and I did), then it can be scary to eat more out of fear of gaining weight. But it can also be magical, as your cravings will likely decrease, and you’ll settle in to a more consistent and fulfilling relationship with food.
This might include keeping your “standard” choices the same, or keeping your meals consistent, but adding in dessert more often, enjoying more cocktails, etc. OR you may want to beef up each of your meals OR any combination of these two approaches!
Overcoming Fear of Fat Gain
One of the biggest complaints I hear from women regarding this concept is the fear of gaining fat. There is absolutely nothing wrong with gaining fat, and someone women actually need to for health reasons, but we don’t have to increase our calories to the point of fat gain if we don’t want to.
How does one accomplish this feat?
By slowly adding food back. This is much easier if you have somewhat of a routine already in place when it comes to food, as you can simply add 100-200 calories every week to your daily total.
Please note that this is different for everyone, so this is very much a starting point. You will have to pay attention to the feedback from your body! A few lbs. are completely normal due to increased water and food mass—i.e. it doesn’t mean fat gain. Start with 100 calories per day, and if you’re relatively weight stable, begin to add more and repeat until you observe fat gain via the scale, clothing, mirror, etc.
Time to Build Your Balanced Baseline
After increasing calories to maintenance, we want to ensure we’re developing sound habits. After under-eating for extended periods of time, many women have skewed perspectives of how much food they actually need to eat, so re-establishing an appropriate intake is essential.
I discuss strategies to find your balanced baseline here, and it’s important to take the time to discover what this looks like for you.
Because you’ll be enjoying life while spending less time and precious mental energy thinking about your food, and you’ll also feel a million times better. What’s not to love, right?
Once you have remained at this caloric intake for several months, your hormones should be normalized—if not optimized—your energy is high, your mood and sleep are great, digestion is rocking, and gym performance is on par with your goals (or at the very least you feel great during and afterwards).
You are then in a much better position to make changes to your body if you so choose.
Want to add muscle? Great—start with 100-200 calories per day and see how your body responds.
Want to lose fat? Great—start by decreasing your intake by 200-300 calories per day and increasing your activity via walking a couple times per week and see how your body responds.
By discovering and hanging out at maintenance for at least 3-6 months, your body will be primed to make changes down the road. This is starkly different from continuing to decrease your current caloric intake when you’ve been trucking along at a notable deficit for months or years on end, only to binge, rebound, and develop a tumultuous relationship with food.
Is this approach sexy? Not to the mainstream, as we don’t see physical fat loss results in 12 weeks.
More often than not, we’re staying the same (if not gaining a couple) BEFORE we can see fat loss results down the road.
But an elevated mood, physical performance, optimized hormones, better cognitive function, and a stable and nourishing relationship with food sound sexy as hell to me.
As much as your current thought patterns will attempt to convince you otherwise, I encourage you to play the long game. Your future self with thank you!