Calculating Macros: A Goal-Oriented Approach

Calculating Macros: A Goal-Oriented Approach

Macronutrients (AKA macros) are the nutrients that are of primary importance when it comes to dietary requirements. These nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) have the greatest impact on the functioning of our bodies because they are the primary source of fuel to provide necessary energy. On the other hand, micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) do play an important role in various functions within the body but they do not provide energy to fuel the body.

When putting together a nutrition plan you’ll have a target for total energy intake (calories for the day) as well as some kind of breakdown of the macronutrient ratios that will make up those calories. In the fitness world, this is what people mean when they ask the question, “What should my macros look like?” Keep in mind that even when someone is using a non-tracking approach (i.e. not using an app or detailed food log), it is still a good idea to have a general idea of total energy intake and some concept of macro ratios as it helps provide guidance for food selections, portion sizes, and menu planning.

Before Getting to The Specifics …

Before we look at the various goals and how to come up with a good macro split, it’s helpful to understand how to calculate a calorie target and how you would break that down into the different macronutrients. Unfortunately, it does take some basic math skills.

The easiest way to calculate your estimated calorie requirements is to simply use the Body Weight Planner. You’ll provide your height, weight, age, goals and it will do all the math for you. Click HERE.

Once you have your calorie target, you need to understand the number of calories in a gram of each of the macros:

  • Protein – 4 calories per gram
  • Fat – 9 calories per gram
  • Carbohydrate – 4 calories per gram

The sections below will help you determine the amount of each to include, but the math is the same regardless of your goals. If you have a goal of 110g of protein, 50g of fat, and a calorie target of 1,500 (by the way, kcal is an abbreviation for kilocalories or calories):

  • Your protein would make up 440 calories of that 1,500 (110g x 4kcal = 440kcal).
  • Your fat would make up 450 calories of that 1,500 (50g x 9kcal = 450kcal)
  • And carbs would make up the remainder. You would calculate this by subtracting the protein and fat calories from the total calories which leave you with the carb calories. You would divide that by 4 (number of calories in a gram of carbs) to determine your carb goal in grams (1,500 – 440p – 450f = 610kcal … 610kcal / 4 = 153g of carbs)

NOTE: If you have trouble calculating this you can always find help in your Facebook community group. Just ask in there and someone will be more than happy to help you out.

What Is Your Primary Goal?

The first question to ask before trying to develop target macros is, “What is your primary goal for the nutrition plan?” Are you trying to decrease body fat? Maybe you’re looking to build muscle? Are you training for an endurance event or some other kind of sporting activity? While these goals do have similarities when it comes to general nutrition, there are some differences that can help optimize results.

General Health

Assuming you are in general good health with no known medical issues (e.g. no cardiovascular disease, blood pressure is normal, blood glucose is good, etc.) this is probably the easiest area when it comes to finding a good macro split. If your goal is general health your main concern is simply getting enough of each. That may sound vague, but it really is not all that important with regard to the specifics. Protein should come first and you should aim for somewhere in the range of 1.2-1.7g/kg (0.55-0.8g/lb) body weight. While the government’s recommended daily intake for protein is at 0.8g/kg (0.36g/lb), this is really only applicable as far as preventing someone from becoming deficient. In general, people will benefit from intakes in that higher range.

Something to note is that older adults require more protein, not less, as some might assume. The reason for this is that as we age our bodies become less responsive to the impact of protein on building and maintaining muscle. By keeping protein intake on the higher end, older individuals can minimize this effect as much as possible.

Fat should come next as it is important to the overall function of the body, especially as it relates to hormones. You should typically not go below 15% of your total calories from fat (for the average diet) but would probably benefit from keeping it between 25-30%. This means that for a 2,000 calorie diet, 500-600 calories might come from fat (about 56-67g of fat). That’s a reasonable range for most people. Higher is fine, a little lower is fine.

Carbohydrate comes in last. It is not vital to basic bodily function but it is an excellent source of energy, especially for those who are very active. Once you have your protein and fat targets set, just fill out the remainder with carbohydrate. Keep in mind that fiber is found in carbohydrate so you should aim for at least enough carbohydrate to get in roughly 30g of fiber each day. The “Before Getting to the Specifics” section above explains how to determine carbs when you have a protein and fat target calculated.

Fat Loss

Fat loss is similar to general health and the specific macro split is not all that important. Ultimately, fat loss is dependent on being in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn) so the most effective macro split is the one to which you will best adhere. However, there are a couple of key concepts that can help with adherence.

First, protein is quite satiating. So, setting your protein target on the higher end of the range mentioned in the General Health section is typically ideal. You may even consider going higher into the range specified below in the Building Muscle section. These higher levels of protein may help minimize hunger making it easier to adhere to your calorie deficit.

When it comes to fat and carbs, this is going to be highly individual. Some find carbs to be quite satiating and some carb rich sources are in fact, very high on the satiety index (where foods rank in their satiating effect). Potatoes are an excellent example of one of these foods. Keep in mind that fiber is also quite filling and found in carb sources.

In general, your best bet is to focus less on any specific fat/carb split and rather, aim for those foods that are high in volume (very filling) and lower in calories to keep calories in check while also keeping hunger at bay.

Power / Strength

When your primary goal is strength, muscle mass, and/or power, the general recommendation for protein is in the range of 1.8-2.7g/kg (0.8-1.2g/lb) body weight. This ensures adequate protein for muscle building and repair while leaving plenty of room for carbs in the diet which can be beneficial for energy during training.

If your goal is a combination of strength, power, speed, etc. (think CrossFit, boot camp type classes, high-intensity sports, etc.) you will benefit from a significant amount of carbohydrate in your diet. This means that you may want to prioritize your carbohydrate target over your fat target (as long as fat is high enough for health). There really isn’t a recommended range other than to say you should make sure fat is in the 25-45% range depending on your total calorie target and the remainder carbs.

If your goal is primarily hypertrophy (muscle mass) or raw strength (think powerlifters), but you are not too concerned with athletic performance, you won’t have the same carbohydrate needs and so you can opt for higher fat intake over carbs. Ultimately, it comes down to how well your training sessions progress. If you feel like you don’t have the energy you need, consider increasing your carbohydrate intake and lowering fat intake.

Endurance

The final group we’ll address are endurance athletes. Endurance athletes will benefit from first setting a protein target (generally 1.2-1.7g/kg or 0.55-0.8g/lb), then determining a carbohydrate target based on training/performance needs which are generally related to the duration of the event/session. Fat intake will depend largely on the individual and overall calorie intake for the day. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the specifics but just understand that carbohydrate needs are quite important and generally should be prioritized over fat intake, again, as long as you are getting enough for general health. For more information on carbohydrate intake for endurance athletes, you may find, “Carbohydrate Considerations for Endurance Athletes/Enthusiasts” helpful.

Final Thoughts

You may be thinking to yourself, “That was a bit vague. All he made clear was how to calculate my energy needs and how much protein I should eat.” If that is you then I accomplished my goal! My main point is this. Calories always come first. Next, set a solid protein target based on your goals. From there, even with specific goals, it ultimately depends on the individual. For those looking for general health and weight loss, it just doesn’t make much difference as long as you are keeping your calorie intake and hunger managed well.