We’ve talked before about calculating calories for weight loss, which involves finding what your Base Metabolic Rate calorie consumption is, adjusting it for your activity level, then applying a deficit of between 10-30 percent.
Assuming you’ve already calculated your calorie target to lose weight, the next step is to figure out the Macronutrient profile FOR that caloric target. This allows you to figure out a meal plan and actually eat the food needed to fulfill those nutrients and reach your calorie target for the day so you can lose weight.
What are Macronutrients?
Before we start, quick definition of what macronutrients are:
There are three primary macronutrients defined as being the classes of chemical compounds humans consume in the largest quantities and which provide bulk energy. These are protein, fat, and carbohydrate.
In layman terms Macronutrients are the main components of your diet and will make up your meal composition. There are other important compounds like vitamins and minerals called micronutrients that you need; but for the most part, you can divide your dietary needs in terms of protein, fat, and carbs.
Now here’s where you ask the obvious question: “But Ben, can’t I just eat ANYTHING to reach that calorie target without worrying about the macro nutrient profile of your meals?”
The quick answer is YES you can completely ignore macronutrients and still lose weight. People have lost weight only eating Twinkies. But you shouldn’t.
The long answer is more complicated and a controversial topic. I believe you should absolutely pay attention to the macronutrient profile because you want to give your body the right nutrients it needs to function effectively. We are not only talking about weight loss here but health and (assuming you do a sport like Muay Thai), athletic performance. Giving your body the RIGHT type of calories is particularly important if you want to maintain as much muscle as possible while you LOSE weight. Simply eating a see food diet might mean you are deficient in nutrients like protein which could mean you lose muscle mass when cutting. In addition, adding excess fat to your diet (for example you eat too much fat from say fast food) can slow your weight loss results down.
The Basic Macronutrient Profile
The macronutrient to calorie conversion per gram is as follows:
1 gram Protein: 4 calories
1 gram Carbohydrate: 4 calories
1 gram Fat: 9 calories
Alcohol: 7 calories
How to Calculate Your Daily Macronutrient Needs for a Target Calorie Figure
Say you’ve done your calorie calculation and let’s say you hypothetically figured out that you need 1800 calories a day to lose a lb. of fat a week (which assumes a -500 calorie deficit per day) if you are 180lbs.
The next step here is to figure out the macronutrient profile that makes up that 1800 calorie figure. You might see various “macro ratios” tossed around on fitness forums or websites that people adopt for their meal plans. These are often splits like 40% carbs/40% protein/10% fat or 20% carb /60% protein /40% fat, etc. These are simply a ratio of nutrients of protein, carbs, and fat in roughly those ratio amounts that people create their meal plans for the day from.
I’m not a firm believer in coming up with an EXACT macronutrient ratio as a one size fits all formula because your body doesn’t care about exact ratios either. All your body cares about is getting adequate nutrients to fuel itself through whatever activity you are putting it through. Macronutritional ratios are simply a suggestion for meal planning based on a specific dietary philosophy. For example, the Paleo Diet will suggest a specific macro profile, Intermittent Fasting another one, and a strength building program yet another one.
Furthermore, your macronutrient ratio can easily change depending on the following:
- Your level of activity (are you an athlete or maintain a cardio heavy lifestyle)
- Workout day or rest day (did you lift weights or not)
- Meal timing (is the meal breakfast, lunch, or dinner / meal after workout or before)
- Dietary Goals (are you trying to lose fat, gain muscle, or maintain your current state)
So as you see, it’s pointless to give an exact breakdown. Rather, it’s better to look at what bare minim type of macros your body needs for a specific goal (fat-loss, body maintenance, or lean muscle size gains) at your current weight, factor in your activity level, your dietary approach (are you doing a low carb diet, a high fat diet, a moderate carb diet, a strength building diet, etc.) THEN calculate your macronutrient requirements. You can always adjust them later based on your real world results.
Step 1: Calculate Your Macronutrients for the whole day
My approach here is to look at your body requirements, your level of activity, and your goals (weight loss, body recompoaition, bulking) then coming up with a figure.
Calculating Protein Requirements
This figure can change depending on your goals, but as a rule of thumb, assume 1 gram per lb. of bodyweight. This figure can go up on a variety of factors.
Some thing that will affect your protein intake:
are you on a calorie deficit or calorie surplus?
are you lower bodyfat or higher bodyfat (15%+)?
Calculating Fat Requirements
You can assume a base of about 1 gram of fat per lb. of body weight. Again, this figure could go up or down depending on your dietary approach or other factors.
Calculating Carbohydrate Requirements
The carb ratios can drastically change depending on your dietary approach (paleo diet, low carb diet, intermittent fasting, etc.) and your activity level. The more active you are, the more important carbs are going to be to fuel you through your activity.
There are two approaches here to calculating your carbs
- If you are on a specific sort of dietary approach that emphasizes low carbs, you simply calculate your Protein and Fat first then calculate your carbs per day to reach your target calories.
- The other approach (say you are an athlete or you are following a diet that limits carbs), would be to make calculating your carb intake the priority then figure out protein and fat with the remaining calories.
Moderately active: 4.5 – 6.5 g/ kg (about 2 – 3g/ pound)
High active: 6.5 – 8.5 g/ kg (about 3 – 4g/ pound)
INTENSE activity: + 8.5g / kg (more than 4g/ pound)
Option 1: Calculate your macros based on your Carbohydrate needs FIRST
This option is best suited for those diets that put a lot of emphasis on carbs, either LOW carb type diets or diets that require lots of carbs (you’re an athlete say).
Let’s do a working example here:
Now if you are under some strict guidelines to keep carbs lower (under 100 grams or 30 grams say), then you will need to play around with your figures and increase either protein or fat or both to make up the remaining calories so you reach your calorie target.
For example, say we are following a paleo diet that says we need to keep carbs under 30 grams per day. So we calculate carbs first.
30 x 4 = 120 calories per day from carbs.
This means we need to make up our other 1800 -120 calories from fat and protein.
Because we’ve already figure out how many carbs we have to keep our diet to, we need to calculate protein with this in mind. We know it’s good to keep a base of say at least 1 gram of protein per lb. of bodyweight. But we might say adjust this upward slightly to 1.5 grams.
1.5 x 180 = 270 grams x 4 = 1080 calories per day of protein assuming a bodyweight of 180 lbs and 1.5 grams of protein per lb.
So now we have 1080 calories from our 270 grams of protein and 120 calories from our 30 grams of carbs. We just figure out our fat intake now with the remaining calories. 1200 calories / 9 = 133 grams of fat.
So to keep our carbs under 30 g per day and to keep a 1.5 gram per lb. of bodyweight ratio of protein, we would need to eat 133 grams of fat per day.
Option 2: Calculate your macros based on Protein and Fat and use Carbohydrates after to reach your calorie target.
This option is good for people who put a lot of emphasis on high protein, moderate fat, and moderate to low carb intake. You figure out the basic protein requirements you need, adjust for basic fat requirements, then balance the equation by figuring out the carbs you then need to reach your calorie target for the day.
Assuming 1 gram of protein per lb. of bodyweight.
So if you are a 180 lb. man, assume you need 180 grams of protein a day. The calories per day from protein would then be 180 x 4 = 720 calories per day
Assuming 1 gram of fat per kilo of bodyweight
So if you are a 180 lb. man, assuming 60 grams of fat per day. The calories from fat per day would then be 60 x 9 = 540 calories.
We have 720 calories from protein, 540 calories from fat which gives us 1260 calories. 1800 – 1260 calories = 540 calories remaining. We simply divide the number of these calories by 4 to get the number of grams of carbs we need to eat to reach 540 calories. So 540/4 = 135 grams.
Step 2: Divide Your Macronutrients into Specific Meals
Once you have your macronutrients for your daily calorie target, it’s time to divide those into meals. This is pretty straight forward:
- Decide how many meals you are having per day (i.e.1 meal, 2 meals, 3 meals, etc)
- Decide on how many calories you will eat per meal. Depending on your dietary approach, cardio, and strength training regimen you might want to have more calories around lunch or dinner.
- Breakfast = 500 calories
- Lunch = 800 calories
- Dinner = 500 calories
3. Figure out your macronutrient ratios that reach your caloric target, then break these down into each meal so your total calories = the sum of all your meals together.
Working Example: say you eat three meals a day and your caloric requirement is 1800 calories a day. You want to break the calories down into three segments THEN figure your macros for each segment. When it comes to finding your macro ratio, keep in mind this figure will change depending on your dietary approach, your level of physical activity, etc.
Keeping in mind that for our hypothetical 180lb man using OPTION 1 strategy for determining macros, our test subject will have to eat the following to reach 1800 calories a day:
- 180 grams of protein
- 60 grams of fat
- 135 grams of carbs.
Now you simply divide these into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You might play around a bit with some of the ratios depending on your activity. For example, you might up your protein and carb intake for the meal directly following a weight lifting session. This “meal timing” control is actually a very strategic part of your nutritional planning. You will likely determine the meal timing ratio of macronutrients according to the dietary approach you are following AND your workout times.
For Breakfast we might have:
- 60 gram of protein
- 20 grams of fat
- 60 grams of carbs
For Lunch we might have:
- 60 grams of protein
- 75 grams of carbs
- 20 grams of fat
For Dinner we might have:
- 60 grams of protein
- 0 carbs
- 20 grams of fat
The sum total of all three meals will still equal 1800 calories, so there is a lot of flexibility here. Just a few rule of thumbs to keep in mind:
- Always keep protein high every meal. Don’t opt for low protein meal then high protein for the other meals. This is because protein is absorbed better by spreading it out (there is a max limit of protein your body can absorb in one go).
- Most nutrition plans will have carbs higher after a weight lifting session
- If you have intense cardio, it’s a good idea to throw more carbs on the meal BEFORE the cardio session
Step 3: Create Your Meals from Your Macros
Once you’ve figured out your macros need for the day’s calorie target and divided them up into individual macros per meal, you simply need to put together your meals based on those macros.
There is a lot of flexibility here and you’ll need to know how to count meal calories so you can come up with foods that match those macros. (Hint: if you are confused at this point, refer to our calorie counting article which tells you how to figure out how much of X food is Y macros).
I’ll have a future article with some simplified macro counting rules that will help you put together a meal plan without having to constantly refer to an online database of macro information.