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Why and How Increasing Your Calories Can Work If You’ve Stopped Losing Weight in a Deficit

Catchy title, right? Rolls off the tongue.

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding this subject as it quite literally contradicts what we all now known as the guiding principle to all weight loss that has ever existed – Energy balance, more specifically an energy deficit.

But hear me out…

First things first, if you finish reading this and think “Yes, that will work for me!” slow down.

As with almost every case in fitness and nutrition there is always the “it depends” caveat of context. This solution will work for some and not for others. “It depends” on how long you’ve been in a deficit, how much of a deficit, amongst other things.

That all being said here’s how it works in principle.

Increasing your calories from your existing deficit amount is known as reverse dieting – side note if you want to research more into this, that is the term you should be asking Dr Google.

Let me introduce you to Jane, she’s been in a 500-calorie deficit for 8 weeks but she’s maintained weight now frustratingly for 3 weeks in a row. What are her options?

- Reduce calories further by 50-100

- Stay the same and increase exercise

- Increase calories and increase exercise

That’s probably the order in which most would choose as a course of action.

Now before we decide, let’s understand the possible reasons why she has maintained.

Being in a deficit sucks. We’ve all noticed that we’re probably grumpier than normal.

Generally, feel a little bit more tired – as well as being hungry all the time.

One thing that will always occur is that our NEAT will decrease – our Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Quite simply whilst we’re in a deficit our tolerance levels things that annoy us decreases as well as, more significantly, our levels of daily movement. In this I’m referring to movements we generally don’t notice. Fidgeting in our chair, the little dance we do when walking to the fridge (just me? Surely not!) we can also find everything to be just a bit more of a struggle, i.e. walking to the shops or doing exercise.

The consequence of this is that our energy expenditure (calories being burnt) has now decreased from what it was when we started and was initially losing weight.

So, let’s now look at the options again.

Reduce calories further? If you’ve only been in a 10-15% deficit, reducing your calories is a very valid option. If you’re already at the lower end and finding it challenging to eat substantial enough meals (no a boiled egg is not a substantial meal) with your existing calorie allowance – then probably not the best option.

Keep calories the same but increase exercise?

Similar to above, albeit slightly harder to control. You reduce your calories by a further 100, you can know for certain you’ve reduced by 100. Increasing your energy output is near impossible to monitor as to how many calories you are burning. The watches, gadgets and gizmos (aside from tracking steps) are a load of shite. Too inaccurate to use for this purpose.

Third option? Increase both.

Firstly, remember that increasing your calories doesn’t automatically mean you’re in a surplus and now destined to gain weight. If you’re in a 500 calorie deficit and increase by say 250, you’re still in a 250 deficit. There is an argument that (and something I believe) that deficit, maintenance and surplus are not absolute numbers but actually ranges of about 200 calories). For example, if you’re maintenance is 2,000 calories, eating 1,999 won’t put you in a deficit as much as 2,001 won’t lead to weight gain. But by the by. Point is we’re not necessarily looking to go above maintenance.

Back on point.

Jane’s maintenance range is let’s say between 1,800 and 2,000 calories. Let’s move her up from the 1,300 she was on to 1,800. For a few days we keep her exercise, steps, etc.. as they were from her deficit days. Day 3-4 we increase her daily step goal by 2-4k steps and add in 2 x 30 minute workouts per week. Jane is now gradually actually putting herself back into a deficit albeit she is now eating more than what her previous deficit allowed her. The difference is she has upped her exercise and fuelling herself better for the extra activity.

Jane, if she absolutely hates exercise, can always reverse reverse diet (just made that up) and work her way back to where she was before, a calorie deficit amount based on lower amounts of exercise and daily activity.

In the process, she’s likely to have increased her energy level for exercise by going through a period of eating more, reduce her hunger levels and increase her NEAT. Another big factor is stress levels. Trying to lose weight not seeing results is stressful. By taking a break of 2-3 weeks at maintenance, removing the “argh why haven’t scales moved” alone can help decrease your stress which in turn can have a positive effect when you do decide to drop your calories again.

If you decide to try increasing your calories, aim to increase by 50-100 calories every 5-7 days, rather than go from 1,300 to 1.800 in one day.

Is it guaranteed to work? “It depends”.

Before making any changes if you’ve stalled in your weight loss, the first thing you should is assess what you’re currently doing.

Is your deficit still a deficit?

If you’ve lost weight, the numbers you punched into the calculator at the start will have now changed. So go back and see if the deficit you’re working to is still now a deficit. If it is, time to analyse your reporting. It’s impossible to correctly track your daily food intake. Again. It’s impossible to correctly track your daily food intake. Everything to a degree is an educated guess. Not only that you’re TDEE (your maintenance, deficit amounts) is not absolute. They’re dynamic. Changing little by little, up and down every single day. Little bit off on a tangent but good to know. Point is, assess your tracking.

Studies have shown that even the best-informed misreport by as much as 250 calories. So we all do. All the time. So, my point here, is we can all get better. Don’t obsess but take a step back and try to find where you could possibly be going slightly wrong.

Once you’ve audited your calorie tracking performance, go through the 3 options above and try the one you think best fits you.

If the one you choose doesn’t work, audit again and select a different option.

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