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Creating a Diet to Meet Your Goals Part 2: Setting Macronutrient Targets

In Part One of this article, we talked about how to calculate calories and set your intake appropriate to your goals. In today’s article, we’ll discuss how to use that information to set macronutrient targets for ourselves.

Why Count Macros?

macronutrient counting means donuts

Probably the best reason to count macros is the diet flexibility it gives you. The biggest problem with most diets is that they’re too rigid and don’t allow you to eat food you enjoy because they’re “forbidden”. While this may be sustainable for a short period of time, it’s almost always not in the long run because it doesn’t allow flexibility.

This type of flexible dieting is often referred to as IIFYM, or If It Fits Your Macros. The idea behind IIFYM is that because calories, and by extension macros, are king, it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you’re hitting your daily macronutrient targets.

Now I’m not advocating getting all of your macros from pizza, ice cream and pop tarts. What I am saying is that a flexible dieting approach of counting macros will allow you to enjoy these foods occasionally, as long as a majority of your diet is full in lean protein, fibrous veggies, and whole unprocessed foods. I tell people to follow the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of you macros should be from these sources, and the other 20 percent can be from whatever you enjoy!

The other advantage macro counting has is that it’s much better for physique enhancement than simply counting calories alone. By counting macros, you can tailor your diet specifically to what your body needs each day.

For example, as we’ll find out below, protein is important for maintaining muscle mass while in a caloric deficit. By counting protein and keeping it high everyday while we’re dieting, we can ensure we’re maintaining as much lean mass as possible and encouraging burning of stored fat for energy.

What Are Macros? (and Where to Get Them)

There are four different macronutrients: protein, carbs, fat, and alcohol. Each one plays a unique role in the body, and with the exception of alcohol, is vital for your body to function properly.

Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories

Macronutrient: Protein sources

Of all the macronutrients, protein is probably the most important. It is responsible for maintaining and building muscle. The amino acids found in protein are the building blocks of muscle tissue, some of which cannot be manufactured by your body, which means you must get them from your food. 

Protein is also digested slower than any other macronutrient, meaning it helps keep you satiated. Because of this, it also takes the body more energy to digest protein, which means that you burn more calories digesting protein than any other macronutrient.

Good protein sources include dead animal flesh like chicken, turkey, seafood, lean beef, as well as eggs, egg whites, some dairy, and a quality protein powder.

Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories

the macronutrient fat sources

For years, fat was vilified and made out to be the Darth Vader of our health. Thankfully, we know now that this is not true, and fat is actually essential for our bodies to function.

Fat is an essential player when it comes to hormone production, especially testosterone production. Fat is also responsible for regulating things like blood pressure, inflammation, vitamin absorption, and assists in brain function.

There are four different types of fat:

Monounsaturated fat: These are fats that are found in things like avocados, walnuts, almonds, and cashews, as well as olive oil. Monounsaturated fats help lower bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol and can help with fat loss.

Polyunsaturated fat: This is the type of fat that contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These are fats that the body cannot produce but are essential to our health. Polyunsaturated fats can be found in things like salmon, fish oil, and seeds.

Saturated fats: Saturated fat is the reason that fats as a whole initially got a bad rap. There were a number of studies (flawed, biased studies) that linked saturated fat to heart disease. However, recent research and longer-term studies have shown that not only are saturated fats NOT the cause of heart disease but that they are actually one of your body’s preferred sources of energy. As long as everything you eat is not swimming in butter, you will be fine

Trans fats: Trans fats are the exception to the fat rule. Most trans fats are artificially made, which means they are not good for you. Trans fats are manufactured by taking normally healthy fats and infusing them with hydrogen atoms. This gives the fat a longer shelf life, but also makes it much worse for you. Trans fats are found in most fried foods, and while eating them every now and again won’t kill you, they are something you want to severely limit your consumption of.

A lot of your fat is going to come from your protein sources, depending on what you eat. Outside of this, other sources of fats include some dairy products like butter, cream, and cheeses; oils like olive, flaxseed, coconut and fish oil; any kind of nut or seed; and a few veggies like olives and avocados.

Carbohydrates: 1 gram = 4 calories

macronutrient carb sources

Carbohydrates have taken a beating in recent years. They have been blamed for everything from the obesity epidemic to Justin Bieber (well maybe not that last one).

When it comes to fat loss, low-carb diets have been touted as the holy grail for dropping body fat. Cut out carbs and BOOM, instant fat loss! But the problem is, carbohydrates actually provide our body with a ton of benefits.

When broken down in the body, carbs are converted to glycogen and stored in the muscles, liver and brain. These stores help fuel the muscles for physical activity and help aid in brain function.

There are three types of carbohydrates:

Fibrous Carbs: Otherwise known as vegetables (heard of them?), fibrous carbs are the form of carbs you can really eat as much of as you want and not adversely affect your fat loss. These include foods like broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, peppers, cucumber, and zucchini, among others.

Because these veggies are so high in fiber, their calorie content is very low. This means that you can eat a lot…and I mean a lot…of these and you won’t be taking in that many calories. The high fiber content also means that they are digested much slower than other forms of carbs, meaning they will keep you fuller longer.

Simple Carbs: These are the type of carbs that are often referred to as “bad”. Simple carbs are highly processed and really don’t even resemble food. They often come in the form of table sugar, white flour, and syrups…in other words, the stuff that makes up some of the tastiest foods out there.

Simple carbs are broken down by the body much faster than other forms of carbs, leading to spikes in insulin. And while insulin is actually good, helping shuttle nutrients to the muscles; chronically elevated levels of insulin will cause you to become insulin resistant. This means your body becomes less efficient at getting the food you eat where it needs to go and can lead to more fat storage.

So while limiting your consumption of ice cream, cake, cookies, chips, and beer is a good idea, you don’t need to eliminate them completely. Any good diet plan will allow you to occasionally indulge in your favorite foods, just not every day.

Complex Carbs: These are carbohydrates that are less processed, meaning they are closer to their original form. They include foods like fruits, potatoes, rice, oats, etc. Unlike simple carbs, complex carbs are broken down much slower by the body, leading to fewer insulin spikes.

Another way to classify simple and complex carbs is by using the glycemic index. The GI scores foods by how much they raise blood sugar levels. Complex carbs typically score low on the GI, while simple carbs score high. Foods that fall in the middle are ones like whole wheat bread and pastas that are processed but still retain some of their original properties.

While it is probably a good idea that most of your carbs come from complex, lower GI sources, don’t think that exclusively eating these is the key to fat loss. If you only need 2,000 calories a day but you’re eating 3,000, it doesn’t matter if it’s coming from cookies and beer or rice and bananas, you will not lose fat.

High fiber veggies and fruits are going to be your best sources and should make up a majority of your carbs. After that, your next best sources are going to be things like rice (brown and white), potatoes (white and sweet), oats, and quinoa. Things like whole wheat breads, tortillas, and the like are fine too.

Alcohol: 1 gram = 7 calories

The macronutrient alcohol

Yes, alcohol is a macronutrient and yes it does contain calories. However, alcohol calories are unique in the fact that they can’t be stored in the body as fat. Now before you start thinking that you are free to go drink all the Jack Daniels you want, let me explain.

As ethanol (alcohol) is processed by the liver, it creates a by-product known as acetate. Acetate is toxic, so the body prioritizes the metabolizing of this over everything else in its system. That means that the body will not stop burning off alcohol until it is gone, meaning it can’t be stored in the body as fat.

Where the problem occurs however is that while this process is happening, the body cannot metabolize anything else. Therefore, any food in your system is stored until the alcohol is burned off.

Now if you consume alcohol and it doesn’t take you out of your caloric deficit, then you have nothing to worry about. Once the alcohol is metabolized, your body will go right back to using fat stores for energy. However, if drinking pushes you over your caloric limit for the day, or you decide to go on a Taco Bell binge at 3am after drinking all night, then you may be in trouble.

Like any other macronutrient, there is nothing inherently wrong with alcohol. Studies have even shown that moderate consumption of alcohol can lead to testosterone increases in men, a decreased appetite, and even a longer life! But it all needs to be taken within the context of your diet.

Setting Your Macronutrient Targets

calculating macronutrient intake-woman using food scale

In order to calculate macros you first need to figure out how many calories you need to eat on a daily basis. Thankfully, we covered that in Part One.

Like calories, macros will be set by using your lean body mass.

Step One: Figure Out Protein

The first step in figuring out your macros once you know how many calories you will be eating is to set your protein intake. For most of my clients, I’ll set their protein intake between 1.0-1.4 grams per pound of lean mass.

You can use your own specific calorie targets to set your macros but for the purposes of this example we’re just going to use a hypothetical client. Let’s say we have someone eating 2,000 calories per day with 160 pounds of lean mass. We’ll use these numbers to set our macros.

If fat loss is the goal, set your protein intake towards the lower end of the spectrum. If you’re trying to gain mass, set it towards the higher end.

Our hypothetical client is trying to lose fat, so we’re going to set their protein intake at 1.0 g/lb of LBM

Protein: 160 lbs x 1.0 g per lb = 160 grams of protein per day

Step Two: Figure out fat

I like to figure out fat a little differently. We don’t want to set fat too low or it will start interfering with our hormone production, and we don’t want to set it too high or a lot of it will get stored because it’s not our body’s preferred source of energy.

For fat, I like to set it at around 30-35% of total calories. If you’re trying to gain mass, you want to set a lower fat intake to prioritize carbs. If you’re trying to lose fat, you can get away with a little higher fat since carbs will be lower.

Since our client is trying to lose fat, we’re going to set their fat intake at 35% of total calories.

Fat: 2,000 calories x .35 = 700 calories from fat

Then we take our calories from fat and divide them by 9 for the number of calories per gram of fat.

700 calories / 9 calories per gram = 77.7 grams of fat per day

We’ll round that up to 80 grams per day for easy math.

Step Three: Figure out carbs

Figuring out your carb intake will take a little bit more math. Since we already have our protein and fat calories accounted for, we need to figure out how many calories we have left for carbs.

First, take your grams of protein and multiply it by 4:

160 grams x 4 calories per gram = 640 calories from protein.

Since we already know our calories from fat, we’ll add that to our protein calories and subtract from our total of 2,000:

2,000 – (640 + 700) = 660 calories remaining

Now we just take that number and divide it by 4 to give us our total grams of carbs for the day:

660 calories / 4  calories per gram = 165 grams of carbs per day

So there you have it! Our client’s macros would look like this:

Protein: 160g

Fat: 80g

Carbs: 165g

If you want to double-check your math, simply multiply each macro target by its caloric value:

P(160 x 4) + F(80 x 9) + C(165 x 4) = 2,020 calories

What to Consider When Setting Macro Targets

adjust macronutrients to your preferences

You can look all over the internet and find recommendations for setting macros. And most of them probably work just fine. The most important thing to take into consideration is your personal preferences.

If you enjoy eating protein, set your protein higher. Just remember that protein often contains fat as well, so unless you just want to eat chicken breast and tuna, you’ll probably need to set fat a little higher too. Regardless, taking into account your preferences are going to go a long way in making sure you can consistently hit your numbers.

Also, remember that these numbers are not set in stone. You will have to adjust based on progress and the results you are seeing. Don’t get too drastic though. It often doesn’t take more than an adjustment of 50 calories a day to get progress moving again. Make sure though that when you do adjust calories, that most are coming from either fat or carbs, as maintaining protein (especially when losing fat) is important.

Lastly don’t obsess! If you’re 2 grams under fat for a day, don’t think you need to eat a quarter tablespoon of butter to hit your goal. Allow yourself a little wiggle room. Aim to be within +/- 10 grams on protein and carbs, and +/- 5 grams on fat, keeping in mind if you’re over on one, you should try and stay under on another. Having this buffer will help you from getting too stressed out over your numbers.

Closing Thoughts

Counting macros is a skill, and like any skill it needs to be developed over time. I have some clients that have gotten the hang of it in a couple days, others it takes a bit longer.

The important thing to remember is stick with it. The payoff is well worth the effort and time it takes up front to learn. Once you get the hang of it, not only will it become like second nature to you, but it will reflect in you progress and results as well.

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