A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about how to find your daily calorie needs. The logical next question (which many of you asked) is: How many of these calories should come from protein, carbs, and fat respectively?
In this post, I will explain what calories and macronutrients are and give my recommendation on how much of each to eat in your daily diet.
Calories are a measure of energy. There are roughly 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, meaning that if you burn 3,500 calories more than you eat, you will lose a pound.
To build muscle, you need to eat more calories than you burn, so you have spare energy that can be converted to muscle (unless you have substantial fat reserves that can be used for energy). This is why building muscle and losing fat at the same time is so difficult. Your body prefers to be in either “building” or “burning” mode at any given time.
Traditionally, bodybuilders have solved this by alternating between bulking and cutting cycles, aggressively adding muscle mass (and fat) in the off-season and losing fat before competitions and photo shoots.
However, having your weight fluctuate like this to maximize long-term gains isn’t very practical for most people, who just want to be healthy and look good year-round. This is why I recommend a more balanced approach, where you eat a consistently healthy diet with the right split of macronutrients to both fuel your muscles and avoid gaining unwanted fat.
The recommendations below are based on someone who works out (lifts weights) several times per week, but even if you don’t, you will still benefit from following the guidelines.
Macronutrients (Protein, Carbs, and Fat)
Each macronutrient plays an important role in keeping your body running optimally, so you need all of them in reasonable amounts in your daily diet (even though a lot of fad diets try hard to convince you otherwise).
Protein is the building block for muscles and ligaments and is essential for muscle growth. When you work out (lift weights), you actually damage your muscle fibers slightly. After your workout, your body starts repairing the damaged muscle fibers by fusing them together. This process is what makes your muscles both larger and stronger.
To complete this process, your body needs protein. This is why anyone who lifts weights as part of their workout routine should make sure to eat enough protein. I recommend getting about 40% of your energy (calories) from protein.
Carbohydrates are the main source of quickly released energy for the body. They are not only essential for maintaining your metabolism and overall energy level, but also for your brain functions. This is why I never recommend no-carb diets.
Carbohydrate-rich foods are often divided into two groups based on how quickly the carbs are converted into energy:
- Slow digesting (fibrous) carbs should be the majority of your carb intake, as they will supply a steady level of energy over the day and prevent hunger.
- Fast digesting (starchy or sugary) carbs are primarily for when you need a quick boost of energy to rebuild muscles right after your workout.
I recommend you get around 40% of your energy from carbs, and most of those should be slow-digesting carbs.
Fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient and the slowest to convert into energy. You need a certain amount of healthy fat in your diet for a variety of reasons (to transport vitamins, hormone control, etc.). Any excess dietary fat is stored as fat reserves in the body.
The differences between different fat types is a longer explanation, that will have to wait for another blog post, but as a rule of thumb, try to get the majority of your fats from fish, plants, and eggs while minimizing animal fat.
I recommend you get around 20% of your energy from healthy fat sources.
So how do I use this information?
Now that you know the optimal split between calories from protein, carbs, and fat, it’s time to calculate the actual amounts you need in grams.
Start by calculating your daily calorie need, using the guidelines from this post. Let’s say that you calculated a daily need of 2.000 calories. With a 40/40/20 energy split of protein, carbs, and fat, you would need:
- 800 calories from protein
- 800 calories from carbs
- 400 calories from fat
To calculate the amounts in grams, you divide by how many calories there are per gram in each macronutrient (4 calories/g in protein, 4 calories/g in carbs and 9 calories/g in fat).
For a 2.000 calories diet, your daily amounts would be:
- 800 calories from protein / 4 = 200 g Protein
- 800 calories from carbs / 4 = 200 g carbs
- 400 calories from fat / 9 = 45 g fat
And there you have it! It may seem a little complicated at first, but when you do it step-by-step, it’s actually quite easy to calculate exactly how much protein, carbs, and fat you need in your diet.
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