T Nation

When to Choose Sub-Maintenance Calories?


I have a general question for discussion, and not just to shoot the breeze, but because I think it is a real fundamental question about nutrition.

When should someone choose to actually eat fewer than their goal maintenance level calories, versus eating maintenance level nutrition and focusing on optimal nutrition?

Whether someone is in the 20-30% range or 12-15% range, is it ever better to eat say 500 cals below goal manitenance than it is to eat properly at maintenance levels?

Yet the first thing that people usually do to improve body composition is to cut calories, and not just below current eating levels, but below maintenance levels by say 400-800 cals per day.

There are 4 reasons why submaintenance cals may make some sense to me.

1) You body will supplement calories from bodyfat stores, so if you eat 80% maintenence, and have excess fat you already "have" the other 20% available.

2) Losing fat fast for short beginning period, especially if you are 20%+ can help improve hormone balance and help you get leaner.

3) Obviously if you are going down into the sub 10% range, for bodybuilding needs you may need to be willing to sacrifice some muscle to get lean enough to stand next to the other guys. I'm not really concerned with sub 10% though right now, but from say 10% or more, if you are looking toward long term body composition improvement.

4) Cycling calories between sub and slightly over maintenence may let you gain a little muscle and lose a little fat.


I don’t think it’s the first thing. If you go to the beginner forum, most of the nutritional advice is something like, “you eat like shit, eat more protein, less carbs, and less processed food.”

When I helped my girl cut, I actually increased calories, but made sure it was clean. Her first complaint was eating too much.


It all depends on your goal. You never want to be too far below maintenance, but to cut down it always come back to calories in vs calories out. Dropping more than 20% below maintenance is a sure fire way to lose muscle along with fat. That being said, you won’t cut fat at maintenance level calories just becuase you are eating clean calories. A calorie is a caloire, and you either eat less than you burna nd lose fat/weight, eat = in to burn and stay the same, or eat more than yu burn and gain muscle/weight.


I meant by maintenance, eating at a level that would be maintenance for your goal level. I have known people who always seem to be cutting calories, but never get to their goal. Others who eat the same all the time for a year or two become permanently leaner. They may even get leaner long term by eating more.

I just feel I have seen more successful permanent transformations by people who ate for performance than who tried to cut calories.


mertdawg I agree with your assertion. In my own personal experience I loose more adipose tissue at maintance calories. By severely limiting carbs, upping protein and including lots of fish oil.


Cutting calories is just one tool you have to cut fat. First you need to establish your maintenance level, eat clean and see how far you can take that. When progress stalls you change a variable in your favor like less overall calories, more cardio, fat burners, adjust macros etc.

As for gaining muscle in the process, that revolves heavily around using insulin to your advantage rather than the calories themselves.