Skinny fat individuals often struggle to make progress because they don’t know what nutritional path to take:
- Lose fat
- Build muscle
- Eat at maintenance (and hope for the best)
Today’s guide will discuss the last option (maintenance calories) and if it works well for skinny fat beginners.
Let’s dive in.
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What Does It Mean to Be Skinny Fat And How To Fix The Body Type?
Being skinny fat means carrying a lot of body fat but having low muscular development. As a result, you appear skinny but lack any muscle definition.
Skinny fat men often have more fat around the chest, stomach, and lower back. Women typically carry more fat around the abdomen, lower back, buttocks, and thighs.
Here is what a skinny fat man and woman might look like:
Fixing the skinny fat body type requires building muscle mass and losing fat. Doing so adds shape to your body and improves your definition, making you appear more athletic.
Let’s now discuss maintenance calories and whether they can help you achieve these two objectives.
What Are Maintenance Calories?
We must first look at weight gain and loss to understand maintenance calories. Your body expends calories through:
- Basal metabolic rate (BMR) - the bare minimum energy your body expends to carry out its essential processes
- Thermic effect of food (TEF) - the calories your body burns to break down the foods you eat and absorb their nutrients
- Exercise activity thermogenesis (EAT) - the calories you burn through dedicated exercise time
- Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) - the calories you expend to perform activities outside your exercise time
Together, these four make up your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) (1).
Losing weight requires eating fewer calories than you expend (2). In contrast, weight gain is about eating more than you burn.
Maintenance calories means eating roughly the same calories as your expenditure (TDEE). Doing so allows you to maintain your body weight and body composition.
Should You Be At Maintenance If You Want to Lose Fat And Build Muscle?
Some people believe eating at maintenance is an excellent way to work toward goals like fat loss and muscle growth. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Optimal muscle gain requires a slight calorie surplus––consuming more calories than you expend (3).
Doing so supplies your body with the energy necessary to carry out all internal processes, and some calories are left for tissue gain (muscle and fat).
It is possible to build muscle without a surplus, but the process occurs excruciatingly slowly, and most people fail to see any progress for months.
In contrast, fat loss requires a calorie deficit–-consuming less energy than you expend (2).
Doing so forces your body to break down tissue (lean and fat) to get the remaining energy it needs. As a result, you lose weight, most of which ends up being fat if you do everything right.
As you can see, maintenance calories fall right in the middle between what’s optimal for muscle gain and fat loss. You’re trying to maintain a balance and possibly pursue both goals simultaneously.
Unfortunately, the human body doesn’t work that way. Combining maintenance calories with progressive resistance training could deliver some results, but you wouldn’t be able to lose fat, and muscle growth will occur slowly until it eventually stops.
A much better approach is to cycle between strategic overeating (bulking) periods and dieting (cutting). The former is necessary for building muscle, whereas the latter helps you shed the fat you gain during your bulk.
A body recomposition protocol can also work for skinny fat beginners. Maintaining a slight calorie deficit, eating enough protein, working out, and sleeping well can help you gain muscle and shed fat simultaneously.
Running a recomp for even a few weeks can lead to drastic visual improvements. Check out my guide on how to put together a meal plan for body recomposition.
Three Reasons For Spending Time At Maintenance
1. You’re Getting Extremely Hungry On a Diet
A maintenance period can be beneficial in the middle of a diet if you notice that you’re starting to feel too hungry and food-obsessed.
Temporarily increasing calorie intake can normalize important hormones (like leptin), give you a psychological break from dieting, and help you prepare for the next phase.
I recommend increasing your calories to maintenance for at least a week after dieting continuously for six to ten weeks.
You don’t have to increase your calories if you’re handling the calorie deficit fine, but doing so can be a nice way to boost your chances of fat loss success.
Related: 9 Science-Backed Tactics to Deal With Hunger on a Diet
2. You’re Dealing With a Minor Injury or Illness
Let’s say that you’re bulking or cutting, and things are going well. You’re tracking your nutrition, training consistently, and making good progress.
But then, you pick up a minor injury at the gym or catch a virus, taking you out of the gym for at least one week.
In such a case, I recommend bringing your calories to maintenance until you can resume regular training.
Being in a calorie deficit without training increases the risk of muscle loss. Similarly, eating more calories than you expend without working out makes you more likely to gain fat instead of muscle.
3. You Don’t Have Much of a Choice
The third reason to eat at maintenance for a while is if you don’t have a choice.
For example, going on vacation for a week or two would be an excellent time to eat at maintenance for the same reasons discussed in the previous point.
Going on vacation is also a good time to recover from your training and get back to the gym strong and motivated.
Various sources on the internet claim that eating at maintenance is a great way to make optimal fitness progress. Unfortunately, as you saw, that isn’t the case.
Fat loss requires a calorie deficit; optimal muscle gain needs a slight calorie surplus.
Eating at maintenance puts you in the middle between the two, stopping you from making good progress toward either goal.
1. Trexler, Eric & Smith-Ryan, Abbie & Norton, Layne. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: Implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 11. 7. 10.1186/1550-2783-11-7.
2. Strasser B, Spreitzer A, Haber P. Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Ann Nutr Metab. 2007;51(5):428-32. doi: 10.1159/000111162. Epub 2007 Nov 20. PMID: 18025815.
3. Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Front Nutr. 2019 Aug 20;6:131. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2019.00131. PMID: 31482093; PMCID: PMC6710320.