If you’re looking to build muscle, lose fat, or improve your performance in the gym, your calories and macronutrients matter. It’s simple thermodynamics: the body burns energy and food provides it. Manipulating the amount of energy — which comes in the form of calories — determines how much mass your body builds, retains, and loses. Fine tuning the protein, carbs, and fat you ingest helps to make sure that you’re gaining the kind of mass you want — muscle — and losing the kind of mass you don’t want – body fat.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
How We Calculate Your Macronutrients
This calculator uses several formulas to come up with guidelines — and they are guidelines — for how to structure your calorie intake.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.
Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
Using your height, weight, and age, one can reasonably calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR): the number of calories your body burns in a day to fuel its most basic functions. To be clear, your BMR is the amount of calories you’d burn if you lay in bed (or on the couch) all day, not moving. It’s the base, the floor, the minimum amount of calories you can burn.
Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)
Of course, most of us do more than lie in bed, which is why we ask you to approximate your activity level. Every time we move a muscle we’re burning calories (or at least fractions of calories), so folks whose activity mostly consists of walking to and from work have a lower TDEE than someone who’s hitting the gym a few times a week.
If you want your numbers to be very precise, it’d be best to buy some tech that more precisely measures your calorie burn, like a WHOOP strap. But the numbers we’re providing will be a good baseline to work from.
Your Macronutrients (Macros)
Based on extensive interviews and research, we’ve determined that the minimum amounts of protein, carbs, and fat you should aim for in order to support the goal of building or maintaining lean muscle tissue and minimizing fat gain. This is the long and short of it:
- Protein: 1 gram per pound of bodyweight
- Fat: At least 0.3 grams per pound of bodyweight, depending on total calories
- Carbs: The remainder of calories
The American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine, The International Association of Athletics Federations have all stated that a minimum of 0.7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is sufficient for gaining muscle or losing fat.(1)(2)
On average, athletes tend to shoot for 1 gram per pound — it’s easier to remember, has no deleterious effects, and it matters less if you happen to fall a little short, so that’s the number our calculator lands on. Know that you if you don’t quite hit this goal or you go a little over, it’ll make no practical difference.
Folks with a lot of muscle mass who are trying to retain as much as possible during weight loss may benefit from slightly higher protein intakes, up to 1.4 grams per pound, according to some limited research on bodybuilders.(3)(4)
A minimum of 0.3 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight every day seems to be the minimum required to minimize issues like nutrient malabsorption and hormonal issues. (Low testosterone is sometimes a consequence of diets that are very low in fat.(5)(6)(7)) Our calculator ensures that threshold is met when fat loss is a goal, and increases the fat intake if you’re eating at maintenance or for muscle gain, as it allows more variety in the diet.
Once you’ve hit your minimum protein and fat intake, the rest of your macros are carbs. If you’re in a deficit, most if not all of your calories will come from carbs once your protein intake is 1 gram per pound and your fat is 0.3 grams per pound. Again, if you’re eating at maintenance or in excess, your fat intake can increase a little.
What Are Macronutrients?
All the calories we consume are protein, carbohydrates, or fat. The main exception is alcohol, which is typically considered a carbohydrate (for all intents and purposes) but it doesn’t provide us with energy the same way.
Protein’s primary benefit is that it helps to build tissue, like muscle. The ideal protein intake is still hotly debated in some nutrition circles, but it’s generally understood that if one’s goal is to build or retain muscle while minimizing fat gain, one should exceed the FDA’s recommended daily intake of 50 grams, which is what’s advised to avoid a deficiency. Most sporting bodies recommend a minimum of 0.7 grams per pound of bodyweight; 105 grams for a 150-pound person.
Protein has an unusually high thermic effect, meaning that it requires more calories to digest it than other macronutrients. Evidence suggests some 20 to 30 percent of protein’s calories are burned just processing it, with carbs at 5 to 10 percent and fat at 0 to 3 percent.(8) This, in addition to its high level of satiety, is another reason why higher protein diets are recommended for weight loss.
Protein has 4 calories per gram.
A biomolecule comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, carbohydrate (or “carbs”) are the body’s main source of fuel. They usually fall into the category of starch or sugar and come in the forms of fructose, glucose, lactose (found in dairy), and others. It’s true that protein and fat can be a source of fuel, but carbs are the body’s preferred source unless one is following a very high fat and low carb diet like the ketogenic diet, which causes the body to burn fat for fuel in the absence (or reduction) of carbs.
Athletes typically eat more carbs before and after they work out: before in order to provide some energy and afterward to help replenish the energy stores.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate, but it’s not fully digested by the body and isn’t an especially efficient source of energy. Fiber is nonetheless an essential nutrient, helping to reduce inflammation, promote laxation, maintain a healthy population of gut bacteria (which help with nutrient absorption), improve heart health, minimize blood sugar spikes, and a host of other benefits.
Since a spike in blood sugar can be beneficial before and after a workout, athletes sometimes consume carb sources that are low in fiber, such as fruit juice or white rice, in these instances and eat more fiber at other times of the day.
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. The extent to which fiber contributes calories is unclear, but it’s standard to include fiber calories in your daily total.
Fat has more than twice the calories per gram than protein or carbs, which is why one should be a little more careful when measuring their intake — “eyeballing” a lug of olive oil could result in more unwanted calories than “eyeballing” some rice.
Demonized by the general public because of the untrue notion that “eating fat makes you fat,” fat is essential for a variety of functions, including maintaining hormonal health and helping nutrients to absorb. (This is especially true of fat soluble nutrients like Vitamin A and Vitamin D.)
Fats come in a wide variety of forms and are commonly split into “saturated” and “unsaturated,” but within those categories are several important sub. Perhaps those with the most benefits attached are the polyunsaturated fatty acids known as Omega-3 fatty acids, but all forms of fat come with some benefit when eaten in moderation.
Fat contains 9 calories per gram.
How to Track Macros
First, you need to know the calorie and macro makeup of your food.
This information is typically on the back of a packet of food, but if your food doesn’t come in packets (think apples and steak), apps like Calorie King are useful for providing this information.
To track your macros, apps like MyFitnessPal or My Macros + act as a daily food journal: you add in the food you eat and it’ll provide you with a breakdown of your daily macros. Every time you input a new food, like your signature egg scramble or protein cheesecake, the app will save it in the library. Keep doing this for your standard foods and within a few weeks, you’ll be able to add most of the foods you’re eating with the click of a button.
A Food Scale
It’s smart to pick up a food scale at the outset of your macro tracking journey. Note that this doesn’t mean you have to weight everything you eat for the rest of your lift; rather, try to be relatively strict for a few weeks until you get a feel for, say, the difference in calories between a large apple and a small apple, or about how many grams of potatoes you’re eating when you toss a couple in your vegetable steamer. Yes, this is all much easier if you tend to eat the same meals.
The Hand Method
Some also find it easier to measure with their hand: figure out the macros of a “palm” of protein, “four fingers” of carbs and a “thumb” of fat. Here are 6 tips for counting macros that make things easier for some folks.
Macro tracking can be daunting, but it’s a skill that’s worth cultivating — it might be hardest way to eat, but it’s simply the most effective way to change your weight and body composition.(9) Once you’ve measured your intake religiously for a few weeks, it’ll be much easier to get a feel for how much you’ve eaten, and especially if you’re eating the same number of calories and macros each week, ultimately you may be able to ditch the apps and scale all together.
Again: think of it as a skill you’re picking up that will help you be mindful of your food intake for as long as you intend to be.
Macronutrients vs Micronutrients
Let’s quickly make sure we’re clear on our terminology.
This term is usually used to refer to three macronutrients, protein, carbohydrate, and fat, which provide the bulk of our nutrition.
This is what most people consider vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C, iron, B-vitamins, these are all micronutrients.
Because they’re required in larger quantities (ie. hundreds of milligrams) than other vitamins and minerals, some nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and sodium, are sometimes called macronutrients. This isn’t universally accepted, however — the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization considers them macrominerals rather than macronutrients. For practicality’s sake, most dietitians consider macronutrients simply protein, carbs, and fat, with all vitamins and minerals listed as micronutrients.
A critical thing to remember is that while macros are important, so are micros. Don’t fill your day with protein powder, butter, and sugar to get your protein, fat, and carbs. Getting enough micronutrients will improve recovery, sleep, inflammation, and countless other areas of your wellbeing. A good rule of thumb is to at least ensure every meal has fruits or veggies, and even if you’re trying to limit carbs, you can still pile your plate high with cruciferous veggies like spinach and broccoli to get your micronutrients with next to no calories.
Do not forget your micros.
Macros for Weight Loss
Many ask “How fast can I lose weight” or “how fast can I lose fat,” and while it depends on your bodyweight — an obese person can lose fat more quickly and safely than an underweight person — the general rule of thumb is one to two pounds per week, with one pound per week considered the safest route. Losing weight too quickly can produce gallstones, constipation, fatigue, headaches, and other issues.(10)(11)(12)
This number depends on your age, metabolism, and other factors, but broadly speaking you need a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat. That means a 500-calorie deficit each day, which means you’d need to eat that much under your TDEE (not your BMR).
You don’t strictly need to have a 500-calorie deficit every day. If it’s 400 one day, you can bump it up to 600 the next. Some prefer to eat their TDEE on workout days and have a significantly greater deficit on rest days. (In both of these cases, protein intake is kept consistent.) Others like to eat at their TDEE most days and fast once or twice a week. So long as your total calories for the end of the week are 3,500 less than you burned, it doesn’t appear to make too much of a difference.(13)
Macros for Bodybuilding
It takes a bit more time to gain muscle than to lose fat: it’s taxing on the body, requires dedicated workouts, and depends a lot more on your age and training history.
An common rule is to eat just 100 to 200 calories over your TDEE each day to produce about a half pound of muscle gain per week.
That’s general advice. Some more precise advice, given by Dr. Eric Trexler of Stronger By Science, is to aim to gain 0.25 to 0.5 percent of your bodyweight each week. If you weigh 200 pounds, that’s 0.5 to 1 pound per week. But start on the lower side, 0.25 percent of your weight, to minimize the chance of gaining more fat than you want.
The rate at which you gain muscle, again, depends on your training history and your macronutrients should be followed more strictly.
Note that some athletes find it more beneficial to eat more carbs and more calories on workout days and more fat and fewer calories on rest days.
So long as your total calories and macros at the end of the week meet what has been suggested and produce the deficit or excess you’re prescribed, this is a fine strategy and there’s some evidence it may optimize workout performance and recovery.(14)(15) It also may be beneficial for improving insulin sensitivity, which refers to how effectively the body uses carbs for energy.(16)(17)(18)(19)(20).
Remember that total calories and macros are far more important when it comes to managing weight, body composition, and performance, and the precise timing is not a priority. But if you’re happy to put in the extra work, carb cycling usually looks like this:
Sample Fat Loss Program
Goal: 3,500-4,000 calorie deficit per week
Maintenance calories (TDEE): 3,000
- Monday (workout day): 3,000
- Tuesday (rest day): 2,000
- Wednesday (workout day): 3,000
- Thursday (rest day): 2,000
- Friday (workout day): 3,000
- Saturday (rest day): 2,000
- Sunday (rest day): 2,000
Total deficit for the week: 4,000 calories
Note that the deficit is still the same, but eating at maintenance on workout days and increasing the deficit on rest days from 500 to 1,000 may help with performance.
Again, this is entirely optional and it’s a small factor in your overall success.
Sources for Macros
Almost every food contains some protein and some fat and, with a few exceptions (like meat and eggs), some carbs. But these are the foods you want to think about when constructing your macros.
Note that plenty of foods are good sources of more than one macro: beans provide protein and carbs, and milk contains all three of them.
Best Protein Sources
Meat is typically the go to, as it delivers more protein per calorie than anything else. But you have some other options.
- Lean Beef
- Lean pork
- Firm Tofu
- Egg Whites
Best Fat Sources
Porterhouse steaks and bacon are all well and good, but you can broaden your options:
Best Carb Sources
Here’s where plants get their time in the spotlight.
- Starchy vegetables (eg. potatoes, yams, carrots)
Best Protein and Carb Sources
These foods contain roughly one gram of protein for every two to four grams of carbs. Legumes are a particularly good way to get both of these macros: 2 cups of lentils, for instance, provides 36 grams of protein, 80 grams of carbs, 32 grams of fiber, and less than two grams of fat.
- Sprouted grains
- Skim milk
Best Protein and Fat Sources
The combination of fat and protein help to really slow digestion, making these foods a good source of calories when you’re running low.
- Whole eggs
- Most beef
- Chia seeds
- Whole yogurt
Best Carb and Fat Sources
The truth is that next to nobody recommends a meal of carbs, fat, and little to no protein. Typically, that’s the profile you find in junk food, and even if you’re eating a combination of whole foods with these macros — say, a rice pudding with coconut oil in it — these meals are rarely filling and they don’t provide protein, which should ideally be eaten with every meal of the day. But hey, if you don’t have that much protein left in your macros, you could, in moderation, enjoy:
- Ice Cream
Armed with your macronutrient calculator, ideal food sources, and our tips for tracking, you have everything you need to go forth and sculpt the body you’re seeking. Just remember that it’s a slow process that takes months — be patient. Speak with your doctor before making changes to your nutrition and supplement plan. And for goodness’ sake, don’t forget your micronutrients.
Featured image via beats1/Amarita/Shutterstock
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