Updated: Jan 15, 2022
If your life involves fitness at all, you've likely heard the terms: calorie surplus, calorie deficit and maintenance calories before.
They're crucial term to understand if you're serious about reaching practically any goal in fitness.
And in case you're more of a beginner and aren't too sure what these terms mean, we'll be covering the basics of what they are, why they're important and who would likely be using eating in each range depending on their goals and individual fitness journey.
First of All: What Is a Calorie?
Calories are a measure of the amount of energy that a person gains from eating or consuming a specific food or drink.
For example, if a person ate a hamburger that contained 400 calories, he or she would've consumed 400 calories worth of energy that could then be used and burned by the body to perform everyday tasks such as walking, breathing, speaking, tissue repair, etc.
Everything from your brain to your muscles needs calories to function properly and help you get through your everyday life.
Calories are very important, and you must be eating the right amount of them throughout the day if you want to reach your goals in fitness.
You see, the number of calories that we eat and burn each day is going to determine whether we gain weight, lose weight or stay at the same bodyweight.
And if you're not eating the right amount of calories for your goals, you could start to move further and further away from it, or see very slow progress.
What Is a Calorie Surplus?
A calorie surplus is exactly what the name suggests.
It means that you're eating more calories throughout the day than you burn, which leaves you at a surplus of calories each day.
The excess calories and energy have to go somewhere if they're not burnt or used up, and so will be stored as fat on your body.
For example, let's say you ate 2500 calories throughout the day, and burned off 2250 calories through everyday activity and some exercise.
You would then be left with a calorie surplus of 250 in your body, which would then have to be be stored as fat for long-term energy.
This is going to lead to some weight gain, and is the only way to gain weight.
That's right. If you want to gain weight, you absolutely have to be eating in a calorie surplus.
If you're eating less than you burn or eating roughly the same number of calories as you burn each day, you're not going to gain any weight.
It's vital that you understand this, as you won't be able to make progress towards weight gaining goals if you're not eating the right amount of calories.
A calorie surplus is also going to be the most optimal range to be eating in if you want to build muscle and get stronger, which most people do.
Eating in a caloric surplus is going to mean that you have more energy throughout the day and are able to push harder in your workouts, build more strength and stimulate more muscle growth.
Plus, eating in a calorie surplus is going to mean that your body always has fuel to burn and use when it needs to, and you're not going to risk it eating away at other parts of your body such as your muscles.
Eating in a calorie surplus is going to be beneficial to most people looking to pack on muscle and get stronger as quickly as possible, and don't mind gaining a little bit of fat at the same time.
Many athletes will eat in calorie surpluses during their off-seasons to try and put on as much strength and mass as possible, before cutting again closer to the beginning of their competitive season.
A calorie surplus is also going to be important for people that want to maintain their muscle mass and are very physically active during the day (including people that have physically active jobs).
Eating in a calorie surplus is going to ensure that their bodies always have the energy necessary to perform the tasks, and that they're not going to end up losing strength or muscle mass over time.
The Key Takeaways: A calorie surplus means you're eating more throughout the day than you burn, and is the only way you can possibly expect to gain weight on your body. It's going to be helpful and beneficial to people trying to gain as much strength and muscle mass as possible, and don't mind gaining a little bit of fat at the same time. Also important for maintaining muscle mass and feeling energized.
What Is a Calorie Deficit?
A calorie deficit is the opposite of a calorie surplus.
To eat in a calorie deficit means to burn more calories throughout the day than you're consuming.
As we said earlier, the body needs energy to expend in order to get through everyday lift and function properly.
Since your body isn't going to have enough energy to burn from the food that you consume, it's going to burn some fat (and possibly a little bit of muscle mass) to get the energy that it needs.
We'll use a similar example to the one we used above.
If you're eating 2000 calories each day, but are burning 2500 through everyday activity and some exercise, than you're going to end each day at a calorie deficit of 500 calories.
This is going to cause you to lose some weight, whether that's by burning some fat off your body or slightly reducing the amount of muscle mass that you have.
And similarly to a calorie surplus and weight gain, the only way to lose weight is to eat in a calorie deficit.
No amount of cardio, magic food or pills are going to cause you to lose weight. You absolutely have to be burning more than you eat throughout the say in order to lose weight.
Learn more: Does cardio really burn fat?
Once again it is very important that you understand this.
If you have weight loss or fat loss goals and are serious about reaching them, you have to be watching what you eat, and how much you're eating.
There's no point trying to lose weight if you can't commit to burning more throughout the day than you eat. You will not make any progress towards your goals.
Please note that while a calorie deficit is absolutely crucial if you want to burn fat off your body, it's actually suboptimal for building muscle and gaining strength.
There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, eating in too much of a calorie deficit can cause us to feel tired all the time, and not be able to push as hard during our workout sessions.
This is going to lead us to either lift less weight than we otherwise would've been able to, or train less intensely some other way.
And if we're not working as hard or not providing our bodies with a proper challenge, we can't expect them to grow and get stronger by that much.
Next, our bodies are going to start to cut into our muscle mass for energy if we're not feeding them enough food throughout the day.
Most people read this, but it's completely normal to lose a little bit of muscle mass on a cut, or when eating in a calorie deficit.
You body should and will still burn fat, but it's expected that it's going to eat away at a little bit of your muscle mass as well.
And if you're losing some muscle mass, it's going to be harder to put on muscle that you can visually see, as well as get stronger.
A calorie deficit is going to be important and beneficial to be eating in for those people that want to lose weight and want to burn some fat off their bodies.
Whether this means people that start out on the heavier side in their fitness journeys, or competitive athletes starting to cut for the competitive season, it's all the same.
Strength training should continue to be a part of their programs to ensure that they maintain as much muscle mass as possible and retain their strength, while their bodies burn away at the fat.
However, a calorie deficit is likely not going to be beneficial to anyone else.
If you don't have a real reason to be eating in a calorie deficit, you probably shouldn't be.
You're going to risk losing muscle mass, strength, feeling fatigued more often and other things for no real benefit.
For most people, it's going to be better to eat at your maintenance level of calories or eat in a surplus instead.
The Key Takeaways: To eat in a calorie deficit means to burn more energy throughout the day than you consume from food and drink. It's the only way you can lose weight (unless you've got some kind of a condition), as it forces your body to burn your fat 9and sometimes a little muscle mass) for energy to expend. Only recommended if you're trying to lose weight. Otherwise, it's better to eat at maintenance or in a surplus.
What Are Maintenance Calories?
Your maintenance level of calories is the number of calories that you burn throughout the day.
Eating below this number would cause you to go into a calorie deficit, and eating above this number would cause you to go into a calorie surplus.
However, eating at this number would cause your bodyweight to remain the same.
You would not gain, nor lose any weight.
Eating at maintenance is a great choice for those who aren't yet too sure abut their goals in fitness, and would rather take things a little slower at the start.
You can still build muscle and get stronger, and it's going to be somewhere in between eating in a calorie surplus and eating in a calorie deficit.
It's not going to be as optimal for muscle growth and strength gain as eating in a calorie surplus would be, but it's not going to be as hard as it would be in a calorie deficit either.
If you're happy with the way you currently are, and you're still deciding where to go next, then eating at your maintenance calories is going to be a pretty good choice. You won't put on any fat, and you won't risk losing muscle mass and strength either.
You can simply maintain everything you've built and worked so hard for.
Lots of competitive athletes will actually eat at their maintenance level of calories during their competitive seasons, to ensure that they're not always starved of energy, but aren't going to be putting on fat either.
The Key Takeaways: Eating at your maintenance calories means to eat the same number of calories as your body burns throughout the day. This is going to cause your bodyweight to remain the same, and not increase or decrease. Great for people who aren't sure where they want to go next, and people that need to build muscle, get stronger and get fitter, but can't risk putting on too much fat at the same time either.
How to Determine Which One You Should be Eating In
To know the range that you should be eating in, it all comes down to looking at your goals and what you're wanting to achieve.
As we mentioned earlier, eating the wrong number of calories each day can cause you to make backwards progress away from your goals, or cause very slow progress, if any at all.
If you want to lose weight, you absolutely have to be eating in a calorie deficit.
And the size of your deficit is going to determine how quickly you lose weight. (Recommended to be in a deficit of 300-500 calories each day).
If you want to build muscle and get stronger as quick as possible, and don't mind putting on a little bit of fat, then you'll want to be eating in a calorie surplus.
Again, the size of the surplus is going to have an impact on how much fat you put on your body.
Healthline recommend eating in a calorie surplus of 10-20% additional calories.
So if your maintenance calories is 2000 each day, you'd look to eat somewhere between 2200 and 2400 calories to gain weight, muscle and strength optimally.
And if you're not sure where you want to head next in terms of your fitness goals, or you have to be strict about how much fat you put on but still want to build muscle and get stronger, then eating at your maintenance calories is going to be the best option.
So take a look at your goals, learn the necessary approaches that you have to take to get there and you'll follow them!
To figure out your maintenance level of calories, it's very tough to do it manually.
The best option for most people is going to be online calculators that do it for you.
We like to use this calculator here by calculator.net to figure out a rough estimate of what your maintenance calories are.
Simply put in your age, height, gender, weight and exercise frequency and they'll provide you with a rough estimate of how many calories you should be eating to maintain your weight.
And don't worry, it's completely free.
Then, simply take this number, and either eat below it for a calorie deficit, eat above it for a calorie surplus or eat this number of calories each day to maintain your weight.
There are lots of other online calculators that you could use to get your estimate of maintenance level calories, and this is just one of them.
Wrapping It Up
It's important that you do understand the calorie ranges and how they affect your ability to make progress towards your goals in fitness.
You have to know that if you get them wrong, you're not going to see much progress towards your goals and could be wasting your time.
Sit down, understand everything and then you can make an informed decision on the number of calories that you're going to eat each day, and how you're going to go about tackling your fitness goals.
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