How much should I eat? What should my macros be?
Two of the most commonly asked questions that I receive and with good reason, when it comes to weight loss how much you eat is all that really matters. You could eat the healthiest “superfoods” the world has to offer, but if you’re eating those foods in excessive amounts, you’ll be unable to lose weight.
Calories are the regulator for weight. Eat too many, you’ll gain weight. Too few, you’ll lose it. That is an indisputable fact, one of the few that we have when it comes to nutrition and health.
If you’re looking to lose weight, gain weight, or even maintain weight, you HAVE to know how much to eat. And I’m going to show you exactly how to figure that out in the article below.
Step One: How many calories do I need?
The first thing you need to figure out, even before you calculate your calories, is your goal. Are you looking to lose weight, gain weight, or simply maintain where you’re currently at? Answering this question will help guide you in calculating your caloric needs. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to approach things from a weight loss perspective.
Next, you’ve got to figure out how many calories your body uses (roughly) on a daily basis. This is your TDEE, or Total Daily Energy Expenditure. It accounts for everything from the basic functioning of your body aka Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR (breathing, digestion, circulation, etc.), physical activity including exercise and non-exercise activity (NEAT), and the Thermic Effect of Foods or TEF (how food effects your metabolism). For our purposes we will focus on BMR and activity, as these will have the greatest effect on your caloric needs, and if you enlist the strategies for macros below, you’ll take full advantage of the thermic effect of food as well.
There’s a ton of calculators for TDEE out there, all performing similar equations so it’s not so much about choosing the “perfect” or “best” calculator, but rather choosing one and sticking with it. Ultimately this number is only going to be a starting point anyways, so it’s just a tool we use to simplify the process. You can search “TDEE calculator” in google, or follow this link to find the calculator that I use for myself and clients.
Enter in your specific information, including your sex, age, height, weight, and activity level to get an estimation of how many calories your body needs on a daily basis. Leave the bodyfat percentage empty, unless you’ve recently had an accurate bodyfat testing procedure, like a DEXA scan, performed. In regard to activity level, always underestimate your activity to be safe. Choose a selection that is one level of activity less than you believe it to be, as most people grossly overestimate how active they are throughout their daily life. For instance, I typically workout 5-6 days a week and have an active daily life, but I choose moderate exercise (3-5 days per week) rather than heavy exercise (6-7 days per week) to be on the safe side.
Once you hit submit, the calculator will spit out a large number in bold black lettering on the left side of the page. This is your maintenance calories and the starting point for the short self experiment you will perform for the next two weeks. Before we get into that, it’s important to break down and calculate the individual macronutrients as well, as these can play a role in weight loss, performance and health.
Step Two: What should my macros be?
Macronutrients, or macros for short, are the separate categories of nutrients that make up the calories that we eat. They each perform different functions vital to our health. The 3 macros are protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Without going into much detail, the functions of each are laid out below.
The primary purpose of protein is to build and maintain bodily tissue. The most common tissue we think of is muscle, but protein also impacts the eyes, hair, skin, bones, tendons, ligaments, and much, much more. Protein contains 4 calories per gram. It is an essential nutrient, meaning that your body cannot live without it and you must get it through your diet.
Fat plays a role in energy storage, protection of vital organs, transportation and absorption of nutrients, and hormone production, among many other functions. Fat is the most energy dense of all the macros containing 9 calories per gram. Like protein, fat is an essential nutrient and it must be eaten consistently to survive and have good health.
Carbs are the body’s preferred energy source and provide fiber that’s necessary for digestion, immunity and overall health. Like protein, carbs contain 4 calories per gram. While carbs aren’t necessarily essential, meaning that you don’t have to consume them, they are a part of a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Now that you know a bit about each macro, let’s get into the specifics of how much to eat of each.
Protein is arguably the most important macronutrient, especially in terms of weight loss. It has the highest thermic effect of food, meaning that eating protein increases your metabolism much more than eating carbs or fats. Couple that with the fact that protein is the most satiating and filling macro, and it makes sense why it is most important for weight loss.
The most common and simplest calculation for protein intake is 1 gram of protein for each pound of bodyweight that you have. If you’re like me and around 200lbs, this means that you would need to eat 200 grams of protein every day. The truth of the matter is that optimal protein intake is, like most things with the human body, a range or continuum rather than a specific number or calculation.
The upper limit for protein is almost non existent, with studies showing no ill or adverse effects on protein intake up to 1.5g/lb of bodyweight (Antonio, 2016), so instead of setting a range, I like to use a minimum and an ideal goal. The minimum protein intake for an individual is .75g/lb of bodyweight. Again, taking a 200lb male as our example his minimum protein intake would be 150g/day. The optimal intake of protein is the more common number we see, 1g/lb of bodyweight, or 200g/day for a 200lb individual.
It becomes more important to hit that optimal intake number if you’re in a more extreme deficit (500 cals or more), longer deficit/diet period (12-16 weeks or more), and/or you’re pretty lean already (sub 10% BF for men, 15% BF for women). For most people though, getting at least 3/4 of your bodyweight in protein will be plenty.
After calculating your protein needs, it’s time to figure out how much fat you need in your diet. Again, I don’t set specific numbers him but I do give a minimum intake for health related purposes. That minimum is .3g of fat per pound of bodyweight. The 200lb individual will need to eat a minimum of 60g of fat daily for optimal health and performance purposes. Beyond that, the amount of fat that you take in is personal preference and will only be effected by how many carbs you eat.
Finally, we need to take a look at our carb intake. When it comes to weight and fat loss, carb and fat intake are interchangeable and make no difference in how much weight or fat is lost. This has been shown in numerous studies where protein and calories are equated, so it really comes down to personal preference and figuring out what makes the most sense in your life.
Are you someone who enjoys plenty of carbs like rice, potatoes and bread? Or do you prefer nuts, avocados, cheeses, and oils?
Do you feel and perform better in both your workouts and daily life with more carbs or more fat?
Answering these questions will ultimately decide how to break down your carbs and fats. As long as you hit that minimum fat intake and can stay within your calorie range, the way that you decide to consume the remainder of your calories, whether from fat or carbs, is entirely up to you and will not negatively effect your weight loss.
- .75 x bodyweight = minimum intake in grams
- 1 x bodyweight = optimal intake in grams
- Take the number from above (whichever you use) and multiply by 4, the number of calories in a gram of protein. Subtract this number from your total calories you calculated in step 1 of this article
- .3 x bodyweight = minimum intake in grams
- Take the number above a multiply it by 9, the number of calories in a gram of fat. Subtract that number from the remainder of calories after
- Fill in with the remainder of calories after calculating protein and fat, splitting the remaining calories between carbs and fats in a way that fits your lifestyle, preferences and needs
- 204lb, 6 foot tall, 29 year old male, moderately active
- Maintenance calories = 2989
- Optimal protein intake = 204g x 4 = 816 cals
- 2989 – 816 = 2173 cals remaining
- Minimum fat intake = 204 x .3 = 61g of fat x 9 = 549 cals
- 2173 – 549 = 1624 cals remaining to be split between carbs and fats based upon personal preference
In the example above those remaining 1624 calories can be split in anyway that you see fit. Truthfully, I don’t set specific carb or fat numbers (besides the fat minimum target) and just track protein, fiber, and total calories. This reduces the fixation that many people have with specific numbers, while still allowing one to reach their goals successfully. It works especially well if you’re using a food logging app like MyFitnessPal (MFP), where it does all the adding and subtracting for you. I’ll talk about how to set everything up and optimize your use of MFP in another blog installment coming soon.
Step Three: How do I know if I’m in a deficit?
This is where the self-experimentation comes into play. You will spend the next 2 weeks diligently tracking the foods that you eat and trying to get as close to your maintenance calories daily and weekly as possible. The more accurate you are with your calorie and macro intake (namely protein), the more accurate the experimentation will be which will guide you going forward.
You may be asking “If I already know my maintenance calories and how to calculate my macros, why don’t I just reduce my calories a bit to create a deficit?”
The answer is that the human body is extremely complex and there’s so many minute variations that go into the different processes that effect our absorption of energy and nutrients, metabolism and use of nutrients, that it would be nearly impossible to calculate caloric needs with 100% accuracy. We use the TDEE calculator as an initial estimation of caloric needs, a starting point, eat according to the TDEE number we calculate, and then monitor the way your body weight responds over the following 2 weeks.
If your bodyweight increases, you are in a caloric surplus and will need to reduce calories (300-500). If you bodyweight holds steady, you’re eating at maintenance levels and will need to reduce your calories slightly (150-300). If your bodyweight decreases, you’re in luck because you’re in a calorie deficit and can continue eating at that amount to lose weight. One caveat, if your weight drops excessively (more than 4lbs, or 2.5lbs for lean individuals) you may want to increase your calories slightly to make weight loss a bit healthier and more sustainable.
That’s the basics of calculating macros for weight loss. The same would be held true if you’re trying to gain weight or muscle, but reversed. Instead of reducing the number of calories from your TDEE, you would increase them and look to gain weight during your self-experimentation rather than lose it. In either case, the numbers that you punch out from the TDEE is just a starting point and it’s best to use the scale to monitor your progress and help guide your calorie intake.
Now that you have the tools you need to calculate your calories and macros to meet your goals, you have all the information you need to start reaching your goals it’s just a matter of putting it into action. So start planning and prepping meals, work to improve your mindset around food, and stay active throughout the day!
Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Vargas, L., Tamayo, A., Buehn, R., & Peacock, C. A. (2016). A high protein diet has no harmful effects: a one-year crossover study in resistance-trained males. Journal of nutrition and metabolism, 2016.