How to Estimate Maintenance Caloric Intake – Q&A

Question: If you would allow me a brief intro . . . my name is Leland Hammonds and I am a 29 year old Kinesiology professor here in San Antonio, Texas. I also own my own personal training business. For the last three years, I have spent approx three hours a day, six days a week studying nutrition and exercise research as they relate to fat loss. It consumes my every waking thought.

Although I do absolutely no marketing – I am booked solid Mon-Fri early mornings and late evenings (basically every second I am not at the college) with fat-loss clients. I believe this has more to do with my client selection/admission process and absolutely constant nagging about nutrition (I normally do not allow a client to continue training with me if they don’t get their nutrition right within the first few weeks of training). All my clients are referrals and almost all of them want fat loss.

That being said, although I read research incessantly, I was very apprehensive about using the internet and hearing what the “fitness experts” are saying and advocating. While I still believe a strong filter should be in place, I am so glad I changed my mind. Your articles, interviews, and books and been such a help to me, I felt obligated to thank you via email (I have also enjoyed Alan Aragon, Alwyn Cosgrove, and a few others but your work has really inspired me – end of dorky praise).

I have a few questions for you (sorry I am not using the forum – but basically they piss me off and I am always dumber for reading the crap in them), I know you are busy so I will just ask one (for now). First, I have read tons of your articles on the internet (I think I even found something you may have doodled on a napkin and threw away and somehow it made it to a website!) and I have only found that you mentioned multiplying a woman’s bodyweight for 14 and a man’s by 15 to calculate maintenance calories.

Because your a true nerd like me, I don’t believe that what you would actually do with a client (figured you mentioned it for simplicity and not to blow your readers minds) and was wondering if you would share what equation, formula, or what have you that you to set maintenance calories, taking age, weights, height, and current activity level into consideration.

Answer: Actually that’s exactly what I do and I’m going to explain not only where those values come from but why I do it this way. Assuming average activity (1 hour of exercise + normal daily activity), 14-16 cal/lb is usually a decent enough starting point for maintenance. I ignore all of the other variables since they don’t usually add much except complexity to the equations. Yes, they do affect things to be sure but, unless you’re looking at real extremes of age, body fat, height, etc. I don’t find that they add much overall.

You can prove this to yourself by comparing values spat out by the more complex equations compared to the quick estimates for a variety of different numbers. The variance usually isn’t much more than a couple hundred calories either way and you have to adjust for the real world anyhow so I just use the quick estimates and go. I have better things to do with my day than work math. I’d note that if you had a client that was at the extreme end (e.g. 80 year old woman), it might be worth working some of the more complicated equations to get a more accurate starting point.

But for the clientel most will end up working with (in a certain range of age, body fatness, etc), the below will be close enough to start. Anyhow, I base the 14-16 cal/lb on the following values which takes into account the four major variables that determine daily energy expenditure.

Resting metabolic rate: 10-11 cal/lb. Women use 10, men use 11. If you work something like the Harris-Benedict equation (which includes age, weight, etc.) for most realistic ranges, it’s always within shooting distance of this value. So I use the quick estimate. For example, I plugged my numbers (37 year old male, 5’7″, 155 lbs) into one of the online calculators and it spit out 1630 calories for RMR. 155*11 = 1705 calories.

Thermic effect of activity: This is always a crapshoot since it can range from a mere 10-20% over basal (if you sit all day) to 100% of basal if you’re involved in heavy activity. Assuming relatively average daily activity and training levels, a 30-50% multiplier is usually sufficient here. So 10-11 cal/lb becomes in the realm of 13-15 cal/lb. This assumes and includes an hour of exercise per day or so.

Thermic effect of food: Although it can vary slightly (especially if you look at extremes of diet), TEF usually amounts to about 10% of the total food intake. So add another 10% to the above. So 13-15 cal/lb becomes 14-16 cal/lb or so.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis: Of course there’s the additional component of NEAT which can vary massively between individuals. This can’t be readily estimated so I leave it out. It also only appears to be particularly relevant during conditions of overfeeding so I’m not sure it matters much for dieting applications in the first place.

Note: if you want a more detailed look at each of the above variables, I did a rather long article about Metabolic Rate that goes into this in more detail.

In general, women or those with a ‘slower’ metabolic rate should use the lower value (14 cal/lb) and men or those with a ‘faster’ metabolic rate should use the higher value (16 cal/lb) as a STARTING POINT ESTIMATION for maintenance calories.

By the way, slower and faster above are sort of subjective decisions, usually based on previous dieting and relatively tendency to gain or lose weight. It simply represents inherent variability in the components of total energy expenditure.

Ok, I put those last three words in caps to make a point, no matter what equation you use to ESTIMATE maintenance calories, that’s all it is: an ESTIMATION. Basal metabolic rate can vary somewhat even for people with identical stats, differences in activity add up, TEF can vary a bit and NEAT is the big wild card. People tend to use the equations as holy writ when all they are are estimations.

Now, from that estimated maintenance value, say someone wants to lose fat. A reasonable reduction for a moderate deficit diet might be 20% below maintenance which is 3 cal/lb (e.g. 15 cal/lb * 0.2 = 3 cal/lb). So ~14-6 cal/lb becomes ~11-13 cal/lb. Bodybuilders have long used 10-12 cal/lb as a starting point for fat loss; turns out they weren’t all idiots after all. For mass gains, you’d add to this estimated maintenance of course but your question wasn’t about muscle gain so I won’t talk much more about that. Clearly if you used a different deficit or surplus, you’d get slightly different values.

Now, here’s the key thing that most miss: the above ESTIMATES have to be modified based on real-world body composition changes. Because it doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things what some ESTIMATE EQUATION says should be happening if that’s not what’s happening. So then you have to decide what you consider a reasonable rate of either fat loss.

On average a male may be able to achieve 1-1.5 lbs true fat loss per week on a moderate deficit diet although this will be somewhat lower if he’s very lean and somewhat higher if he’s very fat. That’s assuming no muscle or performance loss mind you. Females, by dint of their smaller size usually have to accept lower rates of fat loss without truly heroic efforts. Two pounds per month true fat loss may be all that’s realistically achievable. Sucks, huh?

So any estimates of caloric intake have to then be adjusted based on whether or not that true fat loss is being seen. Losing less than that, you may need to reduce calories slightly. Losing more or losing performance, calories may need to come up. I’d note that this is a topic I address in more detail in both The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and A Guide to Flexible Dieting, in both I give the scheme I use to adjust calories while dieting based on what’s actually happening in the real world.

I’d note that it’s not quite this simple, water retention can mask true fat loss and fat loss isn’t always linear (there are often stalls and drops that occur, a topic I’m currently looking into in some detail right now). A female who is only losing 2 pounds per month, but who retains 5 lbs of water during her cycle may think that the diet is not working when she’s actually on the perfect caloric intake.

But if someone is extremely inactive, I’ve seen them needing 8 cal/lb to lose fat effectively even if they exercise daily. This is more common than you think. Sitting at a computer all days burns crap all calories, even standing up every few minutes significantly increases this (we’ve been using the Bodybugg to track it). Add an hour of exercise per day at moderate intensities and you don’t get much. Calories have to come down (or activity has to be consciously increased in either volume or intensity) for effective fat loss.

People who are insanely active may have to go much higher calorically to avoid excessive deficits and/or performance drops. This is the exception of course and probably not a major part of your clientele. Folks who are doing 4+ hours/day of training don’t usually hire personal trainers for fat loss.

But these tend to be the exception more than the rule so 14-16 cal/lb for maintenance and 10-12 cal/lb for fat loss work as simple and effective starting points. Since they have to be adjsuted based on real-world changes anyhow, I don’t find that using more complicated equations adds very much unless you’re just trying to impress your clients with your math abilities.

Put a bit more simply: since any estimate you’re going to use will have to be modified by real world changes, and since the more complicated equations invariably give results that are at least within close shooting distance of the quick estimates, I simply choose to use the quick estimates (which I’m going to have to adjust anyway) and spend my time doing more valuable things.

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27 thoughts on “How to Estimate Maintenance Caloric Intake – Q&A

  1. Fantastic article, Lyle – thank you.

    I came here from your recent dieting breaks article and am still working through some of the implications and applications, especially relating to “chronically underfed” athletes. Will keep poking around…. thanks again.

    Andrea

  2. Lyle,

    When you speak of multyplying for example 14-16 cal/lb of bodyweight do you mean lean body mass or total body weight? Because wouldn’t someones bf % affect the calculations different if they are say 25% bf versus someone of the same weight who is 12% bf. Because I thought fat doesn’t burn energy.

    Please elaborate.

    Thanks.

  3. What about a person who has been undereatting for long periods of time but still needs to lose 30bs and is quiet certain they have never eatten at maintanence for an extended time, should they up the calories to the fat loss mark or the maintanience mark and how long should an undereatter stay there before increasing or decreasing ( depending on your answer)

  4. Great piece. I’ve been looking for some validation (for lack of a better term) for years of what I’ve experienced as an obese person struggling to lose weight. Quite simply, the typical moderate calorie reduction just doesn’t cut it for us. I started out about 120 pounds overweight and got extremely frustrated that I wasn’t losing weight with any rapidity at 12 cal/lb body weight. I finally just said screw it and basically starved myself for a month. It worked like friggin gangbusters and I felt great.

    All generic disclaimers notwithstanding, I think this is a legit weight-loss strategy for the obese that should be advocated. Mind you, my metabolism didn’t begin to really slow until I had lost something like 60 pounds. I’m sure I could’ve done it better, but when you’re twice the person you should be, getting the weight off is really job one. In my experience, tip-toeing around one’s metabolism is necessary for people with low levels of BF, not for the obese.

  5. Hello Lyle,

    I just wanted to let you know that I was a client of a highly regarded canadian BB “coach” who tried to get me lean (in fact he was successful in leaning out my wallet, $1500.00 up front then $100/month). This is a guy who put Lenda Murray on stage at the olympia. I got suspect when he said it will take me 3 years to drop, and keep off, the 50 lbs I needed to lose. Well, at 250 #, he had me on rice cakes, chicken and potatoes and a caloric intake of 1800 – 2000 calories. The workout was very intense, and I dropped 13 lbs in about 6 weeks. Then the strange thing happened, the weight stopped coming off. His solution? DROP THE CALORIES BY ANOTHER 200! Are you kidding me? Even the fat loss layman knows this is probably a bad move. On to the future, CKD diet started at 3500 calories, 7 month later, A solid 195#. We all live and learn. Moral of the story people, those coaches who put people on the stage, may not understand what it takes to get you into looking and feeling good shape. Anybody can get you on stage with access to cytomel, winny, anavar. Buyer beware.

    P.S. Should of just bought a concept 2 with the money.

  6. Hi Lyle,
    First off, I’m a huge fan of your blog, and I feel I’ve learned tons.

    I’m a cyclist, and I was wondering what you would recommend to monitor caloric intake in the case of an endurance athlete? I’ve had success in the past controlling aiming to cover my daily needs excluding exercise, and adding extra calories to make up for exercise. This is because the difference between a hard and easy day could easily be 2000 calories in my case… Any recommendations?

  7. Well, there are numerous caloric estimate calculators that you can use to try to get a rough idea, they will at least give you a rough starting range which you can then adjust based on actual changes in body weight. If you have a powermeter, you can convert kilojoules to calories more or less.

  8. would you recommend a heart rate monitor’s calorie functionality? I hear they’re notoriously inaccurate…

  9. Lyle, while estimating my caloric maintenance for rest days, in order to create any meaningful caloric deficit to lose weight, I would have to dip below my bmr. Is this advised against or detrimental in any way?
    It is also worth noting that I am not obese and am looking to get down to a low bodyfat level and this question has always been bothering me at the back of my mind

  10. Thanks. I know the bmr is what you need just to breathe, organ function etc so I want sure if it’d be bad to eat less than it takes for normal body function

  11. Great article…seriously. You explain things in a very easy to understand and educational manner. It’s just numbers and facts, isn’t it. I love the way you approach nutrition and dieting.

    James,
    You’re not going to seize up because you go below your BMR. Be it 1%, 10% or 20%. It’s not even an issue. Look at it this way – you probably have been eating above you BMR for years (just like most of us) and you’re still living and functioning, albeit with an extra tyre around your waist (just speculating).

    I would leave the BMR thing out of it and soley use Lyle’s calculations above. Keep it simple man.

  12. In regards to the full diet break, how does an individual know what to increase in their maintenance calories? Carbs? Fats? Proteins? or is it individual choice upon the dieter?

  13. My question about these estimates is that does it really work for women who are relatively lean and small (aka me, I’m 5 foot 3, 110 lbs 22yrs) my RMR is 1330 while the estimate for my RMR is 1100 and when I calculate it out I end up with close to 1995 for maintenance using H-B equation and 1540 by multiplying 110 by 14. See my issue now is that I want to lose some fat but according to you that means I’d have to go all the way down to 1100 cals (versus 1596 using the H-B eq). Now I realize this is a lot of fusing over some numbers but my problem is that even eating at 1200 I’m not losing weight and I don’t feel comfortable going lower. I am seeing some more definition but I’d like to get a more knowledgeable opinion.

  14. great post, thanks so much, finally an article that sums it up succinctly without feeling the need to become all professor egghead about it and which gives you a simple and easy-to-understand formula for calculating your caloric requirements. there is so much volume of opinion on this subject matter out there that i can only agree with george’s comment above to keep it simple.cheers!

  15. Scientifically can someone have a higher maintenance just because? I always seem to underestimate my maintenance though I follow the higher guideline, I know that I am not that active other than the gym and have a high lean body mass I always figured it was around 3200 but than again I just finished week one of UD mass variant and didn’t gain much muscle , figured I either butchered the carb up or haven’t been eating enough
    I count macro’s and calories so I know I am at 3200 a day

  16. Hi please I need help……according to different calculators and calculations I would say my maintenance is about 2300-2700 so to start losing fat I should eat about 1800-2200 but prior to finding that out I was eating about 1200 and doing HIIT cardio for about an hour and I didn’t lose sh** cos my body adapted and held on to the fat so should I ramp up to about 2000 calories and see what happens or I should eat 2500 4 about a week for my body to re adapt and then drop gently to 2000 (thank you in advance)

  17. I did my calculations with 8cal/lb because I sit all day, 5 days a week. This gives me just 1,160 cals a day (I’m 145lbs). That seems way too low.

  18. Hey Lyle, quick question. How does this relate to obese or morbidly obese people? What is a good way to get their estimated cal/lb? Thanks!

  19. Serious question about finding out maintenance calories :
    Is wearing a heart rate monitor for 7 days straight a good idea to get to know ones total caloric exependiture for the week?
    I have an office job but do running and lifting at the same time and I end up having 7,8 work outs a week and I weigh 200 pounds.
    So I really have no clue what my intake should be like to have a slow rate weight loss, which doesnt decrease running and lifting performance.
    I understand youre busy, but hope its possible you can answer this question, though.

  20. At best it will be a semi-accurate estimate but that’s all any of this ever is, an estimate. You always have to adjust based on real-world changes.

  21. Hey I don’t get it on iifym.com they telling me I need 1, 780 calories to lose fat now with your calculations it says 1, 550 that’s too low.

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