By Brittney Bergen
Fitness magazines, internet diets, and our friends tell us that women need to eat 1200-1500 calories a day to lose fat.
While this is true for some people (e.g. 125 lb, lightly active women), it is not true – not even healthy – for most people. Most women reading this should be eating between 2100 and 2300 calories a day to maintain their weight. And the men? Probably somewhere between 2800 and 3100.
If your mind is blown, this blog is for you.
The worst part? We’re turning this 1200-1500 calorie diet into a lifestyle. We think we need to eat like this all the time.
Staying in a calorie deficit for a prolonged period is neither healthy, nor productive. Here’s what happens when we stay on a diet for too long, and some tips on how to embrace the maintenance phase if it’s time for one in your life.
Down-Regulation – It’s a Thing
When we eat in a calorie deficit for too long, our body down-regulates to the amount of calories you’re giving it. (E.g. if you’ve been eating 1500 calories for an extended period, and your maintenance calories should be 2300, your body adjusts to 1500 calories as your new maintenance level.)
This was cool back in periods of feast and famine, but it’s not so cool when you’re still trying to lose fat.
Ever been on a diet long enough to see fat loss slow, or stop? Your body has down-regulated to the amount of food you’re giving it, and is holding onto your fat because essentially its afraid it’s never going to get the amount of food it needs to operate properly (some people call this, “starvation mode.”)
Being on a diet for too long causes your metabolism to slow down resulting in fat loss plateaus.
If this has happened to you, it’s time for a maintenance phase.
The Maintenance Phase – It’s Not a Monster
To prevent any lasting damaging effects on hormones, and to overcome the fat-loss plateau, I take my clients through a maintenance phase about once every 12 weeks.
Some people also call this, “reverse dieting.”
Basically, I slowly raise their calories 150-300 calories every 1-3 weeks until they are consuming as much as their bodies should be able to take in in a day to be functioning at their peak.
The maintenance calorie amount is also called “total daily energy expenditure” or TDEE. There are many ways to calculate yours, but here’s a link to my favourite calculator. (Remember that a calorie is a unit of energy. Therefore, your TDEE tells you how many calories you need to eat in order to support your current level of activity.)
The amount you should be eating might scare you. That’s totally normal. But that fear is an emotional thing, not a scientific one.
98% of my clients don’t gain more than 2 lbs during the maintenance phase. The additional couple lbs I believe comes from having full glycogen stores (carbohydrates uses for power in our muscles), and from the body adapting to new calorie levels.
So here are,
5 Tips to Embracing the Maintenance Phase:
- Affirm Yo’self!
It’s normal to become frustrated during this phase. You might feel like you’re stuck – like you aren’t making any progress towards your fat loss goal.
I’m here to tell you, you are! The maintenance phase is the fastest and healthiest way to get lasting results, and the sooner you embrace it fully, the sooner you can dive right into your next cut and be walking around in the body of your dreams.
You can use affirmations to remind yourself that this is an important step in your fat loss journey. Here are some of my favourites:
- “It’s about progress, not perfection.”
- “Trust the process.”
- “I accept myself unconditionally, right now.”
- “I am worthy.”
- “I deserve this.”
Borrow one of my affirmations to help you stay focussed when things get tough, or come up with your own!
- Let Yourself Feel, Dammit!
Any emotional things about your fat loss journey that you’ve tried to brush off will likely come up during the maintenance phase.
If you attach your self-worth to goal achievement, for example, that’s about to slap you right in the face.
Now is a great time to use a journal, meditate, or talk to a friend to overcome any of your limiting beliefs about your body.
There is no right or wrong way to use a journal, meditate, or open up about your feelings, but here are a few of my favourite ways:
- Free-Write – Take out a journal and let your pen flow with all the rambled thoughts and feelings you’re keeping in. Anything goes (you can always burn it). Brene Brown says that if you’re afraid someone might put you in jail if they find your journal, you’re doing it right.
- Do a Body Scan – I believe emotions are store in the physical body. If you feel overwhelmed by a feeling, close your eyes, and notice what your body feels like. Does your heart feel tense? Are you clenching your pelvic floor? Is your breath short? Each of these feelings will have a story attached to it. Let the sensations speak. They just might reveal a limiting belief you didn’t know you had about yourself – and as soon as you’re aware of it, you’ll be able to consciously let it go, and rewrite it.
- Phone a Fitness Friend – We are all in this together. When you feel down, stop and ask yourself, “How many people in the world are probably feeling exactly like I am right now?” Immediately you won’t feel so alone. Once you’ve done that, call a friend you know will understand, and ask if they have a few minutes to listen. They’ll affirm you and tell you, “You’re not crazy. I’ve been there too!” Sometimes, knowing we’re not alone is enough for us to keep going.
- Pay Your Coach to Worry For You
If you’re in a maintenance phase, you probably have a nutrition coach. (And if you don’t, but know you need a maintenance phase, it might be time to get one.)
For some reason the term “maintenance phase” translates to “bulking phase” in my clients heads. Does it translate the same way to you?
Your coach knows what she or he is doing. You’re probably not the first client they’ve guided through this part of the process.
I always say to my clients, “Don’t worry about the number on the scale – you’re paying me to worry about that for you. The only thing you need to worry about is doing what I tell you to do every week.”
- Focus on Behavioural Rather than Outcome Goals – If your coach tells you to eat 1800 calories a day this week when you were eating 1500 last week, focus on that rather than your end bodyweight goal. Heck, buy yourself some gold-star-stickers and put them on the calendar every day you hit your new calorie goal if it helps to distract you from that final target and notice the amazing work you are doing.
- Embrace the 80/20 Lifestyle (#8020lyfe?)
Maybe it’s that whole lost-in-translation thing I just referred to, but one of the most common things I see in the maintenance phase is that all focus on whole foods goes out the window! Suddenly, my clients are turning to fast food and sugar to meet their higher calorie goals.
I understand that when you’re used to eating 1500 calories of whole foods, 2100 calories is going to seem like a lot.
I also know that you’ll feel a lot better – and stay healthier – eating real food most of the time.
- DO – use the maintenance phase to enjoy the treats you couldn’t make fit during your cut. Have chicken wings, bacon, blizzards, pasta dishes, or a glass of wine up to 3 times a week
- DON’T – let everything you learned about eating healthy go, allowing sugar cravings to take over and make your decisions for you.
During your cut, you’re probably going to have to eat whole foods 90% of the time in order to a) stay full and b) hit your macros. During the maintenance phase, you can enjoy treats more often (20% of the time), but don’t forget your whole-food-homies (80% of the time).
- Ladies, Get Intimate With Your Hormones!
It’s normal to freak out and want to give up on it all! I want to quit everything in my life (including my nutrition and fitness goals) about once every 28 days, for about seven days at a time.
It’s also normal to see an influx in your weight during PMS and the first few days of your period (and some clients see a small spike in their weight around ovulation).
Getting to know your hormonal cycle will:
- Allow you to detach your emotions from the normal fluctuations in your weight, and
- Remind you, “Oh, I felt like quitting at this time in my last cycle, too. And then I got over it.”
Our clients use spreadsheets to track how things like their bodyweight, mood, and energy levels change throughout the month.
You can also download “period tracker” apps on your phone that notify you when your period, or ovulation, is just around the corner.
Getting intimate with your cycle won’t free you from freak-outs, but it will help you understand them, and let go of them.
Sweet Summary (See, I told you the maintenance phase wasn’t a monster)
Forget the fitness mags, internet diets, and what your friend Fiona said (Dammit, Fiona! Why you always tellin’ errybody to eat 1200 calories a day?!), and hear me when I say: It isn’t good for you to be in a calorie deficit all the time.
Eventually, we want to get you to a place where you absolutely adore your body, and want to keep it that way! Your end goal is to maintain your dream physique, is it not?
Embrace this maintenance phase as a practice run for where you eventually want to end up:
- Affirm yourself that this is helping you get to your goal (in the healthiest way).
- Process any feelings that come up (and they will come up) along the way with a journal, meditation, or a friend.
- Shift from your outcome-based goal to behaviour-based goals: Let your coach worry about getting you to your goal, and focus on putting in the work.
- DO: Enjoy treats 20% of the time. Don’t turn fast food and sugar into a staple, just because it fits.
- If you’re a lady, know that once every 28 days your weight is going to spike, and you’re prob gonna feel like quitting errythang in your life. Don’t.
I know the maintenance phase is mentally, emotionally, and even physically challenging. It’s normal to struggle during it.
Stop seeing the maintenance phase as a monster. Embrace it as your friend who wants to help you get to your final fat loss goal. The sooner you embrace it, the sooner I’ll get to whistle at you walking down the street in your dream bod (JK, I suck at whistling. But if I could, I would. And Fiona probably would too. And then you can tell her you got there eating more than 1200 calories a day. And we can look at each other and laugh as her jaw drops).
*maintenance high five*