The title probably drew you in.
I mean, it really is one of the most popular questions in the health and fitness scene.
Let me be straight with you, if I had the exact answer for how to calculate the perfect macros for your goals I wouldn’t be writing this article.
I would have cashed in on my genius, made millions, and be drinking gin and tonics (diet tonic of course, gotta watch my figure) on a yacht in the Maldives.
In my decade of coaching and schooling I haven’t unlocked the perfect formula, but I have learned a ton about what works and what doesn’t.
At the outset it is important to note that each person is different and the perfect breakdown is going to vary quite a lot, but there are some good tools that can help us find a great starting point and tweak from there.
As this is going to be a bit long and belabored (grab a cup of coffee and get ready to educate yourself), we are going to start with the most straightforward of the three macronutrients, protein.
Diets with adequate to higher protein intake are more effective in maintaining muscle mass, promoting satiety. Additionally, most protein sources from whole food are extremely nutrient dense in regard to vitamins and minerals.
The protein you eat provides the substrates necessary to build muscle, maintain bones, and provide nutrients for your gut and immune system, so the quality of your protein is important.
Since protein plays such a vital and ubiquitous role in your bodies function, consuming an adequate amount of protein to provide the body the ability to maintain those functions is critical. Therefore, I recommend that your protein intake vary between 15% and 35% of your total caloric intake.
15% is a bare, bare minimum and usually applies to elite runners who consume a lot of calories to meet training demands and have a relatively low body weight. For example, a 130 pound male who runs 100+ miles a week probably consumes around 3500 calories a day, making 15% of his total daily intake around 130 grams of protein.
The other way to skin this cat is to use body weight as the “currency”. Typically we can use the 0.7-1.0 gram per pound of body weight as a starting point for most people. This is the ideal range. Now some people often require more.
Bodybuilders attempting to maximize their muscle growth can sometimes see benefit up to around 1.5-2.0 grams per pound. Most data shows that the difference between 1.5 and 2.0 grams per pound is negligible, although steroids might make more use of the 2.0 gram per pound range.
Now to add a bit of nuance to it, we need to take into consideration the biological value of the protein you are ingesting. Biological value (BV) just means how useful is the protein you are ingesting is to your body.
We rank protein sources as having a low or high BV. Sources of protein with high BV are animal sources (meat, dairy, eggs, etc) while protein sources with low BV are plant sources (beans, tofu, grains, etc.). In general, the lower the BV of your protein sources the more of it you need. This means if you are a vegetarian that you will probably need more grams of protein than a meat eater.
I could easily spend an entire month talking about the role of carbohydrates and how much you should eat. We could talk about ketosis and fat adaptation; we could talk about complex vs simple carbohydrates, resistant starches, etc. But whenever I give advice I like to make it as simple and actionable as possible.
Here is the basic concept you should know for your carbohydrate intake if you want to maximize performance, health, and body composition:
Eat enough carbohydrates to fuel your activity level and training domain.
Let us break this down a little bit to give you an idea of what this means and how to figure it out. Carbohydrates are turned into glucose and used to produce energy at a faster rate than when we turn fat into energy. The process by which this occurs is glycolysis (a fancy word for splitting sugar).
When you are just moving around doing your normal life thing your body is using a mixture of both fat and carbohydrate, but when you start moving really quickly or training really hard your body will start to use more carbohydrate (sugar) to keep up with the demand (See figure below).
Generally speaking, the intensity of the training you do is going to largely determine the ratio of carbohydrate to fat being burned, with the duration of the training being the second. This is likely because the harder to train the shorter you are able to sustain that workload…. Just think about it. Can you sprint longer than you can walk??
So this can help us decide how much of your diet should be carbohydrate. We can use both aspects of training, Intensity and Time, to determine the amount. The more time we spend in the “Carb-Using Sweet Spot”, the more we are going to need. Something I have found helpful is to think of it this way carbohydrate need = Intensity x Time.
Now let us apply this in the context of training. Ideally you need to figure out the intensity and duration of your training and figure out what your carb utilization is. It is difficult to prescribe numbers based on sport as there can be huge variations in the training of each sport.
For example, while both runners, an individual training to run a 5k in 30 minutes will have a substantially lower carbohydrate number compared to someone training to run the Boston Marathon in under 2:30. So really we need to plot it along two axis and you need to do a bit of self-assessment.
I saved fat for last on purpose as it can be viewed as the “left over calories." From my perspective we can easily view fat as the “fill in the gap” category.
We have determined how much protein we need to keep the repair mechanisms running, we have fueled out physical activity with carbohydrates, and now we need to make sure we consume enough fuel to keep your body running (i.e. providing your organs with something to use).
So as math would dictate 100%-CHO%-PRO%=FAT%. In the end… it’s really that simple for the fat category in terms of numbers.
Many times people will set fat calories first and then fill in for carbohydrates. While this can work, we find that people’s training and progress in the gym is more effected by carbohydrate intake than fat intake so we prioritize the carbohydrate macro in our hierarchy of decision making.
The Wrap Up
So here is the basic idea: Consume enough carbohydrate to fuel physical activity, eat enough protein to support lean muscle mass and systemic health, and round out the rest of your total calories with fat.