How to Calculate Your Macros for Weight Loss Success

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.

Protein

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

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.

Carbohydrate

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.

Protein:

  • .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

Fat:

  • .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

Carbs:

  • 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

Example (Myself)

  • 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.

Use the scale to gather data. That data allows you to make informed decisions to better reach your goals.

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 metabolism2016.

Tracking Calories: NOT the Only Way to Lose Weight!

I’m a huge proponent of information and awareness. Regardless of what the problem or task is, having usable information and building awareness around the situation is paramount to success. Whether trying to solve the issue of bullying, world hunger, or in the case of many people I work with, trying to lose weight, the answer is almost always about gathering information and building awareness around the problem.

Without awareness of an issue, it’s difficult to understand first that there’s an issue to begin with, but second, where the issue actually lies and what solutions are available. This is why gathering information is so important, because it gives you tangible data to analyze and work from when trying to adjust and make changes. 

When it comes to dieting the same holds true. The need for awareness and information about an individual and their specific needs is a major component of any successful fitness and nutrition plan. This allows you to understand where the person comes from and gives you the ability to better help them get where they want to go. Without this background information, it would be like trying to hit a dart board in the dark, there’s going to be a lot of misses. 

As part of the gathering information and building awareness stage, I require clients to track and log their food over a 3-7 day period, usually with a food journal app like MyFitnessPal. This satisfies my need for information, by letting me know exactly what they eat during a short period of time, and increases their level of awareness about their eating habits and food choices that will be valuable going forward. 

While I don’t require clients to track their food beyond the 3-7 information and awareness period, I always recommend them to do so for several reasons. First, they will build a better understanding of portion sizes, and nutrition labels, allowing them to make smarter choices when preparing and eating food. Second, tracking their food gives me up-to-date information on their current habits, allowing me the ability to make more informed and accurate adjustments to the clients nutrition plan. Finally, and this is truly just my opinion, but one that many share, tracking is the most efficient way to lose weight, specifically fat. You can certainly lose weight without tracking calories, I myself recently lost 15lbs over a 5 week period without tracking or logging a single bite of food, but tracking makes the process so much quicker and more effective. 

As much of a supporter of tracking food and using a food journal I may be, I understand that it’s not for everyone. I too have to take a break from tracking food after doing it for extended periods of time, so I understand that tracking can seem or become tedious and difficult to do consistently. In these cases, it’s important to have other strategies and tools to help clients achieve their goals in an efficient fashion. 

If you’re looking to improve your health, and/or lose some weight, without the use of a food log or tracking everything you eat, check out the strategies listed below that will 

Portion Control

This is one of the best strategies as it’s something that will serve you regardless of what or how you eat. Learning proper portion sizes and how to adjust those to fit your needs and goals is a very beneficial skill to have. It works great on it’s own, or in unison with other styles of eating, including tracking calories and/or macros. Understanding portion sizes is a skill that I work with each one of my clients to hone so that they are well equipped to make healthy and smart choices when eating. 

If you want to improve your ability to estimate portion sizes, you first need to practice estimating portion sizes. This means either weighing and/or measuring your foods and matching it to what your thought or estimated, or simply using your hand as a basic guideline for portion sizes. If you’re interested in how to use your hand as a portion control guide, check out the graphics below: 

Low Calorie Alternatives

Low calorie and macro conscious foods are a rapidly growing and hugely popular industry right now. With obesity becoming the norm in many countries, including our own, companies are finding ways to make dieting easier and more enjoyable. As part of this movement, many companies are releasing lower calorie, health conscious versions of many of the foods you love. Foods like bread and tortillas, dairy products like milk, yogurt, and various cheeses, as well as many other options, are now available in lower calorie, and often times higher protein and fiber options which are perfect for the health conscious and/or diet-minded individual. 

Think about it. You don’t have to change anything you do as far as what you eat, you just have to swap it out for a lower calorie, healthier alternative. Without changing much about what you eat, you can easily slash upwards of 500 calories daily and put yourself comfortably in a calorie deficit working towards weight loss. This is a huge benefit for those looking to lose weight, but also for those looking to maintain weight who have a large appetite. It works on a principle called volumizing.

Volumizing is the process of eating more food in terms of overall weight and density, for less calories than before. For instance, I make french toast with 35 calorie per slice bread versus the traditional 70-100 calorie per slice bread, and it not only saves me hundreds of calories in that meal alone, it also allows me to eat 8-10 pieces of french toast, rather than 3-4 for the same amount of calories. This is a huge bonus when dieting, or when you simply have a crazy appetite and struggle to feel full because the eyes are a huge portion of how full and satisfied we are after a meal. The more food you eat in terms of visual size, the fuller you will feel afterwards, regardless of overall calories. It’s for this reason that I use this strategy of switching to lower calorie options year round, regardless of whether I’m working to gain, maintain or lose weight. It allows me to eat and enjoy far more food than I otherwise would be able to, and makes dieting much more enjoyable as a result. 

If you are interested in some low calorie swaps, some of my favorites include:

  • butters, cream cheese, yogurt, milk. Kroger has an entire line of dairy products called Carbmaster that is low in carbs and most products are lactose free.
Kroger CARBmaster, a dieter’s best friend
  • bread, buns, tortillas and other baked goods. These usually come packed with additional fiber as well, an added bonus to your health.
This brand is not only low calorie, they also taste GREAT
  • various meats. Swapping to leaner cuts and versions of meat, including beef, chicken, lamb, pork, etc, will save hundreds of calories, usually in the form of reduced fat. 
This can save you tons of calories and also increase protein intake in many cases
  • egg whites are a great option for reducing calories while still maintaining high protein content. There are many health benefits to the egg yolk, but it comes at the cost of an additional 45 calories. If calories are tight, stick to egg whites. 
Packed with protein and useful in a variety of recipes, egg whites are great to have on hand

Fasting

Restricting the amount of time that you can eat, aka your eating window, can be a big help in reducing calorie intake

Fasting, and intermittent fasting (IF), has garnered a lot of attention, especially over the last year or so. Many people claim that it’s a magical weight loss formula, and while it shows promise for certain health benefits, when it comes to weight loss it works on the same principle as everything else: calories in vs calories out. Fasting is just a tool that can be used to make creating that calorie deficit easier. 

There are many ways of fasting, which will be included in my next blog post which will cover everything you need to know about fasting and whether or not it’s right for you, but for now I’ll go over the most popular and promising versions. 

Easily the most popular version of intermittent fasting, the 16:8 protocol is used often because it fits so easily and naturally into people’s lives. The 16:8 protocol is when you have an eating window of 8 hours, usually from 10am-6pm, or something in that realm, and then fast for the remaining 16 hours. By limiting your eating window, or the amount of time you allow yourself to ingest food, you limit your chances of overeating. It’s much more difficult to overeat in an 8 hour period, than it is to overeat in a 12 or 14 hour period. With this variation all most people need to do is to skip breakfast, or your first meal of the day, and then avoid snacking or eating past a certain point. For most people, this is the easiest form to implement because of the simple and easy to follow guidelines. 

Another popular and promising form of IF is the 5:2 protocol. This involves eating ad libitum (whenever and however you feel) for 5 out of 7 days of the week, with 2 of the days being either fully fasted, or very low calories (500-600). This has been shown to be a viable and useful option for those who prefer to be extremely restricted for a couple days, followed by complete freedom on the remaining days during the week. These are just two of many variations of IF and can be used as a tool to help you control how much you eat, thus assisting in weight loss.

Cutting Out a Food Group 

It doesn’t matter which “team” you’re on, eat in a way that works for you

If you’ve ever eaten low-fat, low-carb, Keto, Atkins, or anything resembling these diets, you’ve implemented cutting out a food group as a way to lose weight. As much as people want to argue semantics over which food group is most important to eat or not eat for weight loss, beyond calorie control and adequate protein, it really doesn’t matter. The reason that diets like low-fat, Keto and others work, is because they cut out an entire macronutrient group almost entirely, making it more difficult to overeat their total calories.

Imagine you were from a family where you ate tons of carbs, pasta, bread, cakes, etc and every meal had some sort of calorie dense, carb portion. If you decided to one day switch to a low-carb diet, a large portion of your overall calories would be removed instantly. This could be very useful when trying to reduce food intake and/or the overeating of specific foods, those foods we like to call “trigger foods”. 

If you want to use this strategy to lose or maintain weight, the first question you should ask yourself is, “can I keep this up long-term?”. If the answer is yes, then you’re going to do just fine switching to a diet where one food group is removed. If the answer is no, you then have to ask yourself if you can consistently eat in this way to reach your goals, however long that may take, and then be able to transition under control back to a more balanced nutrition program. If you feel confident in your abilities to slowly introduce those foods back into your diet, without making drastic changes all at once, you’ll have a better opportunity to maintain the progress that you’ve made and the weight you’ve lost (or not gained), rather than have a negative rebound effect that many people experience after reintroducing a macro group to their nutrition program. 

While I will always require clients to record 3-7 days of food logs during the initial stages of any nutrition program, and will often push for them to continue logging for more efficient results, I understand that tracking food, calories, and macros isn’t for everyone. It’s important that those who don’t “click” with tracking their foods have alternative strategies they can use to make dieting, nutrition, and losing weight easier and simpler. The strategies listed above are great options to help you in improving your eating habits and losing weight, but they’re not exhaustive and there are plenty of others. You probably use many of them in your day to day life without even realizing it. This week take note of the choices you make on a daily basis regarding nutrition and eating, and figure out what you’re already doing to save calories that you didn’t realize at first.