One of the most frequently asked questions in the world of health and fitness is “how do I calculate my macros to reach my goals?”
While there is no exact formula or answer for how to calculate the perfect macros for your specific goals (because there are so many variables involved and everyone is different), there are some general guidelines you can use based on what I know works from years of experimentation and trial & error.
Again, it is important to keep in mind that every person is different and the ideal breakdown will vary from person to person.
However, there are various formulas and tools to use that can help you find a decent starting point and then make tweaks from there.
To simplify things for you, I’ve put together this guide to help you easily figure out exactly how much you need to be eating on a daily basis to hit your goals.
So regardless of whether you’re a seasoned vet or just starting out, you will be able to use this article as a guide to help you keep track of everything you are putting into your body to make sure you hit your daily targets.
So just what exactly is a macronutrient?
Macronutrients are nutrients that provide energy or calories.
The 3 most important macronutrients from a bodybuilding perspective are:
These nutrients are needed for growth, hormonal events, metabolism, and a variety of other body functions.
Protein helps keep repair mechanisms running and promotes growth. Carbohydrates help fuel physical activity, and Fats give us the fuel to keep the body going strong.
Arguably the most important macronutrient of all, protein helps build muscle, it provides your immune system and gut with vital nutrients, and it helps maintain bone health.
Pro Tip: Studies have shown that diets that maintain adequate protein intake are more effective in maintaining muscle mass.
Since protein plays such an important role in building muscle, maintaining muscle, as well as in many important body functions, it is critical that you consume enough protein to allow your body to maintain those functions.
So how much protein do you need to eat each day?
Method Number 1: One of the most common ways to determine your daily protein intake is to use your body weight as a baseline currency – and the ideal range for this is typically between 0.7 and 1.o grams per pound of body weight.
Some people may require more protein than this and may see some benefit if/when trying to maximize muscle growth by increasing this amount to 1.5-2.0 grams per pound of body weight.
Pro Tip: most of the current science shows that the performance difference between 1.5 and 2.0 grams is very small, especially if you are training as a natural athlete.
Method Number 2: Another simple way to determine how much protein you need is to use a percent of total calories, and the sweet spot should be somewhere within the range of 15% and 35% of your total caloric intake.
15% is a bare minimum and most often applies to elite athletes (triathletes, long distance runners, etc) that have a relatively low body weight and high training demands.
Take a 130 pound runner, for example, who runs 100 miles a week. He or she may eat around 3,500 calories a day, and with a 15% daily protein intake, would eat roughly 130 grams each day.
Pro Tip: It’s very important to pay close attention to the biological value of the protein you’re using.
What does “Biological Value” mean?
Biological value is just a term used to determine how useful or efficient the protein you are consuming is.
Here is a simple breakdown:
High Biological Value Protein Sources: Beef, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, (animal proteins), etc.
Low Biological Value Protein Sources: Grains, beans, tofu, (plant sources), etc.
Generally speaking, the lower the biological value of your protein sources the more of it you’ll need to consume on a daily basis. So if you’re a vegetarian/vegan you will most likely need to eat more grams of protein each day than a meat eater.
Pro Tip: Calculating the ideal amount of protein you need based on the biological value of that protein will take some experimentation + trial and error on your part.
Determining your daily carbohydrate intake can be one of the most complex concepts in all of health and fitness.
However, to simplify the process for you as much as I can, here is the basic concept you need to keep in mind if you want to maximize performance and work towards your physique goal(s):
Eat enough carbohydrates for the type of training you’re doing (weightlifting, running, crossfit, etc) and your activity level (sedentary/light/moderate/very active/extremely active).
Note: there is a breakdown on how to determine your activity level later in this article.
When we are active, the body uses a mix of both carbohydrate and fat for energy, and the more active we are (i.e. hard training session vs walking), the body will use more carbohydrate to keep up with that level of expenditure and demand.
The intensity and duration of your training will determine the ratio of carbohydrate to fat being burned, but we do place slightly more weight and importance on the intensity than the duration.
With that said, the more intense your workout is, and the longer your workout is, the more carbs you will use as fuel to power through it. This means you need to consume more carbs because you will be using more due to the workout intensity and/or duration.
This “carb utilization” factor can have huge variations by sport and by person, but with a little trial + error and experimentation, you should be able to eventually determine your daily carb sweet spot.
Depending on the macro calculation method you prefer to use, you may see fats as being more important in the macronutrient breakdown than I do…and that’s perfectly fine.
As I mentioned above, there is no perfect formula, but I like to view fats as leftover calories that help fill in the gap that is left behind from protein and carbs.
In my personal macro hierarchy of decision making, I like to prioritize as follows: (1) protein (2) carbs (3) fats – and use the following formula to generally determine what my fat intake should be: 100%-carbs%-protein%=fat%.
Here is a quick summary of the nutrients we have discussed so far and their various functions:
- Proteins – The chemical building blocks from which our cells, organs, and tissues are made.
- Carbohydrates – Your basic energy source that is composed of simple and complex carbohydrates.
- Fats – Your energy storage units.
- Water – Essential for a number of vital bodily functions & accounts for approximately 72% of your muscle tissue while transporting all of your nutrients, increasing your blood volume, and eliminating waste.
- Vitamins – These complex chemicals are required for bodily operations, are produced naturally by the body, and are referred to as “organic compounds.”
- Minerals – Not produced in nature and of referred to as “inorganic.”
So How Do You Determine How Many Calories You Need To Eat Each Day?
The first step in determining how many calories (or macros) you need to eat each day is to calculate your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), which is an estimate of how many calories you’d burn if you were to do nothing but rest for 24 hours.
Your BMR represents the minimum amount of energy needed to keep your body functioning, including breathing and keeping your heart beating.
Pro Tip: the BMR does not include the calories you burn from normal daily activities or exercise.
There are quite a few online calculators out there that can help you easily calculate your BMR, but here’s how you can calculate it manually if you’re old-fashioned like me:
Men: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
Women: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161
This example uses the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, which is the most widely accepted formula to determine BMR – and the one I prefer.
Once you figure out your BMR, the next step is to calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).
Your TDEE is an estimation of how many calories you burn per day when you factor in exercise and/or physical activity.
It is calculated by taking your BMR and then multiplying that value by an activity multiplier.
This calculation will give you your Total Daily Energy Expenditure.
TOTAL DAILY ENERGY EXPENDITURE (TDEE)
|Activity Level||Activity Multiplier|
|Sedentary (little or no exercise)||BMR x 1.2|
|Light activity (light exercise and/or sports 1-2 days/week)||BMR x 1.375|
|Moderately active (moderate exercise and/or sports 3-5 days/week)||BMR x 1.55|
|Very active (intense exercise, sports and/or physical job 5-6 days a week)||BMR x 1.725|
|Extremely active (world class level exercise, sports and/or physical job)||BMR x 1.9|
Keep in mind that your TDEE isn’t a contest, you don’t win a prize by listing “extremely active”…and overstating your activity levels will only hurt you in the long run.
It is important to try and be as honest with yourself as you can here, because if your TDEE is off, you will probably end up eating the wrong amount of food every day and your fat loss efforts will be in vain.
In my experience, I’ve found most fit people will fall somewhere in the Moderately Active category, unless they are also working a labor intensive job like construction, farming, building, or any other job that requires a significant amount of heavy lifting/carrying/running/energy burning.
Cheat Code: Use our super awesome Nutrition Calculator to figure out your BMR, TDEE, and much more!
Using myself as an example, I got a personal BMR of 1,790 after crunching the numbers. This means if I were to just exist, I would burn 1,790 calories every day to do so. My TDEE was 3,042.
If your goal is to lose fat you need to burn more calories than you consume – but just how big of a deficit do you need to run?
But before I get into what you SHOULD do, let me first point out a few things you should NOT do.
1. Eating as little food as possible. This may seem like a good plan at first, but you will inevitably crash and burn because when you run a large caloric deficit and are well-below maintenance level calories on a daily basis it means you won’t have enough energy to function properly, much less hit the gym. After a few weeks of doing this (if you even last that long) your cravings will eventually overwhelm you and you will inevitably fall off the wagon.
2. Using body weight to determine your caloric deficit. You have probably seen a lot of so-called experts recommending around 10-12 calories per pound of body weight, but this calculation fails to take into account certain factors like activity level and age, so you could end up with a deficit that is either too large or too small.
3. Blindly cutting 300-500 calories from your daily intake, no matter what your TDEE says. Templates are simple and easy, but they don’t usually work for fat loss. Yes, there are approximately 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, so on the surface it may appear to make sense to just subtract 500 per day to put yourself on a good pace to lose a pound or so of fat per week. The problem here is, if you reduce your calories too much you could start losing muscle (which could slow down your fat loss). On the other hand, if you don’t reduce your calories enough your fat loss will also be a lot slower than you’d like.
So now that you know what not to do, let me show you a much more efficient, and effective way.
When it comes to healthy and effective fat loss, I generally recommend eating below a certain percentage under your TDEE. This should help keep things simple when you are first starting out, and then allow you to make easy strategic adjustments as you go along.
Here is a general breakdown:
PERCENTAGE OF CALORIES CONSUMED BELOW TDEE
|Size of caloric deficit||Percentage reduction from TDEE|
|Large||25% or more|
So how do you determine which percentage is right for you?
To be quite honest, there is no true scientific method that will tell you exactly which percentage you should choose. The deficit you select will be completely dependent on your goals and what you can handle.
Keep in mind that the bigger the deficit, the more fat you’ll generally lose. However, the bigger the deficit, the risk of constantly feeling weak, fatigued, and hungry increases significantly.
Also, when you run a large deficit you will probably experience slower recovery times from exercise and/or muscle loss.
Pro Tip: I would recommend starting out in the 12% to 15% range, stay there for 2-3 weeks, see how you feel, and then make adjustments as necessary.
Using my personal example from earlier, my TDEE was 3,042. With a 15% percent reduction, my daily calories for fat loss would be approximately 2,586.
Once you know what your daily calories for fat loss are, the next step is to determine your macronutrient split.
There are a bunch of different theories out there on what the various percentages of a fat loss split should be, but you’re generally safe sticking with a 40/30/30 split.
This means that 40 percent of your total calories will come from protein, 30 percent from carbohydrates, and 30 percent from fats.
It’s important to keep in mind that while the amount of calories you eat will play a role in deciding whether or not you gain or lose body fat, it will be the TYPES of calories you eat as well as WHEN you eat those calories that will ultimately determine your success.
Meal timing, food quantity and quality are critical in determining success and failure.
So in order to effectively burn fat (and build muscle), you must consistently supply the body with the right amount(s) of macronutrients that it needs for energy – but not so little where you’ll slow down the fat burning process, and not too many where the extra calories will be stored as fat.
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to calculate and track your daily macros manually, I highly recommend using the Nutritionist+ app to make things a lot easier.
So now you have a general idea how to calculate your daily macros to begin structuring your healthy meal plan. Yes, it is that simple, and also that complex – but hopefully now you have enough info to get started.
To make things easier for you, we have created an excellent Nutrition Calculator to help you calculate your BMR, TDEE, LBM, and much more.
Pro Tip: you can find the Nutrition Calculator in the Member’s Section along with our Custom Meal Plan Builder, and a ton of healthy recipes.
Remember, I am always here to help assist you along the way. Just leave your questions and comments below or join the discussion on the forums for support and advice.