A calorie surplus could help you achieve your goals, here's how to calculate yours

calorie surplus
Your complete calorie surplus cheat sheetGetty Images

A calorie surplus is a bit like a well-mixed negroni; finding the sweet spot is key. Whether you’re looking to build muscle or have been advised to gain weight, knowing how to calculate the right calorie surplus for you, and what foods and training mechanisms can help you get there can be a quagmire of confusion. Should you count your macros? Can you really gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously? What factors affect how you should calculate your ideal calorie surplus?

These are all questions we’re here to answer, with the help of NHS GP Dr Mike. Consider this your calorie surplus cheat sheet, including:

  • Your own calorie surplus calculator

  • The difference between a calorie surplus, a calorie deficit and calorie maintenance

  • Step-by-step instructions to implementing a calorie surplus sustainably and effectively

  • Tips on how to build muscle and lose fat in a calorie surplus

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What is a calorie surplus?

‘A calorie surplus is when you consume more calories through food and drink than you expend through energy expending processes like exercise, movement and your basic metabolic functions,’ explains Dr Mike.

What is the difference between calorie deficit, calorie maintenance, and calorie surplus?

So. Many. Calories. Here’s a simple definition of each for you:

  • Calorie deficit: When you consume fewer calories than you expend.

  • Calorie maintenance: When you consume roughly the same number of calories that you expend.

  • Calorie surplus: When you consume more calories than you expend.

A calorie deficit is used when you want to lose weight, calorie maintenance is what you would consume if you wanted to maintain your current weight, and a calorie surplus is used when you want to gain weight. For the latter, the weight gained can be in the form of either fat or muscle (usually both).

Read on for advice on how to build muscle without gaining fat, including whether it’s actually possible.

How is a calorie surplus different for each person?

Every one of you reading this article will need to consume a different amount of calories in order to achieve a calorie surplus. This will depend on a number of variables that make you, you.

No two women will have the exact same genetic makeup, the exact same body composition, or the exact same metabolic rate; these are just a few factors that will influence how many calories you need to eat to achieve a surplus. For example, one study showed that the less experience you have in training, the more quickly you will gain muscle mass when consuming a calorie surplus.

Here is a non-exhaustive, but more comprehensive list of factors that will affect how large a calorie surplus you need, from Dr Mike:

  • Your genetics

  • Your current body composition

  • Your natural metabolic rate, i.e., how quickly you burn energy

  • Your hormonal status

  • Your current exercise habits and experience

  • How much energy you expend through NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis)

  • Where you're at in your menstrual cycle

It’s for this reason that calorie surplus calculators can never be 100% reliable. Dr Mike says working out your sweet spot is a ‘case of trial and error’. You may well take a ballpark figure from a virtual calculator, but then discover you’re consuming too many calories for your needs/goals. Be open to adapting.

How does gender affect a calorie surplus?

A very good question. Women tend to have a lower calorie requirement than men, ‘which is largely due to different proportions of muscle mass,’ Dr Mike explains, because of the naturally higher testosterone levels in males. The more muscle mass you have, the more energy you will expend as muscle is a metabolically active tissue (meaning it burns energy at rest) and therefore, the higher the calorie requirements needed for you to achieve a surplus.

How do I calculate my calorie surplus?

As mentioned, your calorie surplus will depend on the many factors listed above, but you can get a good estimate of your ideal calorie surplus with these three simple steps, based upon the Harris-Benedict equation.

1.Calculate your maintenance calories

1.Work out your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate)

Your BMR, or basal metabolic rate, is the number of calories your body burns performing basic life sustaining functions, at complete rest. Here’s how to calculate it.

  • BMR: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161

2. Calculate your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure)

Next, multiply your BMR by one of the values below, based on your daily activity levels to work out your TDEE:

  • Sedentary (little to no exercise + work a desk) = 1.2

  • Lightly active (light exercise 1-3 days/week) = 1.375

  • Moderately active (moderate exercise 3-5 days/week) = 1.55

  • Very active (heavy exercise 6-7 days/week) = 1.725

  • Extremely active (strenuous training 1-2x/day + labour intensive job) = 1.9

3. Add your guide calorie surplus

Dr Mike advises increasing your calorie intake by only 5-10%, advising that you start at 5% and gradually increase. Here’s an example:

  • TDEE = 3,000 calories.

  • 10% of 3,000 calories = 3,000 calories x 0.10 = 300 calories

  • 3,000 calories + 300 calories = 3,300 calories

Will my calorie surplus requirements change over time?

Absolutely. ‘The amount of exercise and training you do, how your hormones fluctuate (both with age and/or your menstrual cycle), changes in your muscle mass and body fat, and ageing can all influence your calorie requirements to meet a surplus,’ Dr Mike explains.

‘You should also consider any lifestyle changes; you might be more or less active in retirement, your job focuses may change, how you interact with your kids depending on their ages – for example, you might do more running around after toddlers, or spend more time sitting in a car taking teenagers to their various commitments,’ Dr Mike adds.

Can I lose fat and gain muscle in a calorie surplus?

If you’re on the #gains train, this is probably the question you’ve been waiting for. Dr Mike tells us it’s ‘near on impossible to gain muscle without putting on any fat at all’. Take this study. Participants implemented a calorie surplus alongside progressive overload in resistance training, and the results showed that while these methods helped them increase muscle mass, they also gained fat.

Other research shows that the only time it may be possible to lose fat and gain muscle in tandem would be if you already have higher body fat percentage, and you incorporate both strength training and a higher protein intake. In the same vein, another study shows that naturally lean people with a low body fat percentage are more likely to gain muscle than fat, when consuming a calorie surplus.

That said, there are certain techniques to implement that could help you get as close to losing fat and gaining muscle in a calorie surplus as possible. Here are Dr Mike’s tips.

Tips for losing fat and gaining muscle in a calorie surplus

1.Be conservative with your calorie surplus

‘People often overestimate how many calories they need to consume to gain muscle, which is why people often end up gaining a lot of body fat instead of muscle,’ Dr Mike explains. ‘Generally, you will be increasing your calories by 100-300 (although this obviously depends on individual factors – use the calculator above), but you should reduce your surplus if you gain weight too quickly, and consider increasing it if your weight remains stable or drops after 2-3 weeks.’

2. Incorporate strength training

A solid strength training programme is essential if you’re looking to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. ‘Any energy that is not used for building muscle will be stored as fat,’ Dr Mike tells us. Plus, studies have proven that resistance training and weightlifting is vital for muscle hypertrophy, as you tear your muscle fibres through the force of lifting for them to then fuse back together and form stronger, bigger muscle fibres, also known as myofibrils.

3. Increase your protein intake

‘Alongside decent strength training, a good protein intake of 1.6g per pound of bodyweight can aid massively in muscle growth,’ Dr Mike explains. Protein is what’s needed to help your muscle tissues heal and grow, so without it, hypertrophy won’t happen. This is called muscle protein synthesis (and no, it’s nothing to do with plants).

If you struggle to reach your target, taking a protein powder and adding it into your porridge or smoothies in the morning could help you get there.

Use our macro calculator to help you work out how much of each nutrient group you should be aiming for.

4. Allow for a ‘margin of error’

‘There really is no way of gaining your maximal amount of muscle without gaining some fat, because you’re a human being, not a calculator,’ Dr Mike says. ‘Even if you could work out your exact calorie requirement for a surplus, you would need to consider the margin of error that would come from inconsistencies and errors in food labelling, as well as your digestion.’ For example, some food labels might show a higher content of protein than the food really holds, or vice versa.

How can I achieve a calorie surplus, healthily?

If your reason for consuming a calorie surplus is to increase your muscle mass, you may be familiar with the 'clean vs dirty bulking' concept. Dirty bulking is typically used by bodybuilders when they want to gain weight, and they want to gain it fast – by means of whatever food they can get hold of. A clean bulk, on the other hand, involves setting a smaller calorie surplus and prioritising whole, minimally processed foods. Dr Mike is a proponent of the latter.

‘Make sure that you consume plenty of fruits, vegetables and fibre, and enough protein to support muscle maintenance or growth (depending on your goals), enough carbohydrates for energy and to fuel performance and exercise, and enough healthy fats for brain and hormone health,’ he advises.

Increase your calorie intake slowly and gradually. This will help your body adapt to the extra food without too much bloat or digestion issues.

Is a calorie surplus right for me?

‘Yes, if you are looking to gain weight in the form of muscle, or if you are underweight or undernourished for any reason,’ Dr Mike explains.

If you, or anyone you know, is struggling with an eating disorder, contact Beat, the UK-based charity that hopes to end the pain and suffering caused by eating disorders.
T: 0808 801 0677
E: help@beateatingdisorders.org.uk, under-18s: fyp@beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Always remember to consult a GP or health professional for advice on implementing a calorie surplus or gaining weight.

When should I avoid a calorie surplus?

Obvious one, but if you’re looking to lose weight, a calorie surplus probably isn’t for you. Dr Mike adds that anyone with an existing or previous eating disorder should seek advice from a professional before implementing a calorie surplus.

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