Building a Diet Plan: #2 Macronutrients (Macros)
Macros are the key ingredient to a proper diet plan, period.
If you don’t know what macros are or you don’t know how to follow a good macros strategy, we got you covered. But we need to start from the top.
What we are going to learn in this post:
- What are the nutrients (micro and macro)
- What are the best foods that provide us with these nutrients
- How to integrate them into our diet plan
- Myths about macros
- What are the guidelines for consumption of these nutrients
Nutrients are the substances found in foods, that are used by our bodies for energy, growth and other function by organisms.
These nutrients are further divided into 2 categories, macronutrients, and micronutrients. The first ones are needed in large amounts while the latter ones are needed in much smaller amounts, hence the name.
In this article, we are focusing on the macronutrients and their uses.
Macronutrients were first proposed as a classification of the substances in foods by William Prout in 1827. Initially, these classifications were sugars, starches, oily bodies, and albumen. Later they became known simply as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Alcohol was later included as it is a very calorically dense compound that can provide us with large amounts of energy and is different than the other three, but it is not a necessary dietary component.
Although we use this categorisation extensively, macronutrients alone are not enough for our organisms. Studies have shown that simply removing or adding nutrients to our diets, or getting them via supplements, doesn’t work.
We should better try to consume whole foods in general and some supplements in special cases.
Food as a fuel is much more complicated, but macronutrients give us a great model to work on. It’s a helpful background to categorize foods and make proper adjustments in our diets in order to fix our bodily functions.
So the three main macronutrients are carbohydrates (carbs), protein and fats.
|~4 calories/gram||~4 calories/gram||~9 calories/gram|
Carbs are the most controversial of all three as people nowadays, seem to divide themselves into two categories. Those that are saying carbs are evil and those that say they can’t live without carbs.
As with the most things in life, the truth is in the details.
They provide us ~4 calories(kcal) per gram.
Carbs are the non-necessary nutrient of all three. They are a fast way for our body to produce energy (by converting them to glucose) and store energy in our muscles and liver for later use. These are the two main stores of quick energy that our body has, muscles and liver. If these stores are full then we go on to store the remaining glucose as adipose tissue, fat.
Carbs can be furthered divided into 2 categories, simple and complex. I include this mainly for informatory reasons as it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, despite what you have heard about slow and fast carbs.
Simple and Complex Carbs
The trend is that “slow carb” foods (mainly containing complex carbs) are not so easily digestible and raise blood sugar much slower which makes the “fat loss” process easier. The reason is that a blood sugar rise also raises insulin levels, which inhibits fat loss. If only it were so easy.
There is some merit to the slow carb religion, but we need to learn a bit more about carbs.
The truth is there are simple carbohydrates (fructose) that raise blood sugar slowly and on the opposite, complex carbohydrates, that raise blood fast when processed. There are multiple factors that contribute to this like the specific food, the amounts of other nutrients consumed along, the way the food is cooked or even an individual’s differences in metabolism (how each person body, uses the carbs).
The thing that matters is the GI, short for glycemic index, of each food. The higher the glycemic index, the bigger the spike in blood sugar and consequently in insulin. Remember that insulin spikes are making us hungry earlier when compared to consuming the same amount of calories via a low GI food.
Foods that are rich in carbohydrates are:
- Bread (high GI)
- Rice (medium GI)
- Potatoes (medium to low GI)
- Fruits (medium GI
- Vegetables (not so dense but still a carb source) (low GI)
- Sugar (best be avoided) (medium GI)
The most important part of this classification is that there is a category of complex carbohydrates, called cellulose, or more commonly known as fiber, that contributes more than just calories to our body.
First of all, fiber is a “not-so” digestible source of carbohydrate as we can only get 2 calories for 1 gram of fiber. It aids in the health of the large intestine and in general, in the digestion process. Fiber recommendation is around 10gr per 1000 calories consumed on you daily diet plan.
Carb intake can vary a lot. Very low carbohydrates diets have the benefit of low insulin levels and also they help with hunger feelings.
Insulin is secreted when we have high blood sugar, to balance things out. When insulin goes up, our body is getting into fat storage mode. Don’t get confused here, you only gain weight if you get more calories than you burn. So if calories are up and insulin is up, it inhibits fat loss.
So about low carb intake. I wouldn’t recommend it when your training is intense, as low carb diets can hurt your performance and that shouldn’t be the case.
If you are training light or not at all, you can go really low, even to 50gr per day. You will probably have some mood swings till you get the habit of it, but after a couple of days, you will be fine.
Remember, that when we talk about any macro intake, we mean the amount of this macronutrient and not the weight of the food.
Example. 1 slice of bread is 30gr. But it contains 12gr of carbs. If you need to eat 24gr of carbs, you simply need to eat 2 slices of bread.
So the recommendations should be 18-20% of total calories, at the lower end. Most people don’t feel well below that level and they get extremely moody. If you feel comfortable with a lower intake, please do so, you are not hurting yourself.
If your goal is to gain size, then I suggest you go as much as you like, always taking into consideration your total daily caloric intake. This is the tricky part.
I am saying eat as many carbs as you like, but within your caloric limit. The caloric limit on the other hand, as we have mentioned should be around 500 calories below your TDEE (total daily caloric intake).
Again the devil is in the details. If you are a special case (you don’t put on weight easily or your progress in weight seems to stall), go on and get more calories in.
The main things you need to remember about carbs in your diet plan are:
- 4kcal per gram of carbs
- They are not essential, we can live without them or in very small amounts
- When consumed in high amounts, they raise blood sugar, which raises insulin, which inhibits fat loss
- The glucose produced by consuming carbs is stored mainly in the muscles and the liver. If these stores are full, adipose tissue, fat, is created.
- Minimum 18-20% of total calories, more if you want to gain weight
The holy grail of muscle building. The macronutrient that is responsible for a billion dollar industry of supplements, whey proteins.
They provide us ~4 calories(kcal) per gram.
Protein is the most abundant kind of molecules in a body, besides water. 40% is found in skeletal muscle, 25% is found in body organs and the rest is mainly found in skin and blood. Protein is needed by the body because it can be converted into amino acids, which are needed in order to produce our own proteins.
It’s actually the “building block” of the body, as it is the main component for growth as well as maintenance of the body.
Nine are the essential amino acids that we need to obtain from dietary protein. Phenylalanine, Valine, Threonine, Tryptophan, Methionine, Leucine, Isoleucine, Lysine, and Histidine. There are five more which we can produce on our own, alanine, aspartic acid, asparagine, glutamic acid and serine. Lastly, there are six more that can be essential under very extreme circumstances like prematurity in infants or severe catabolic distress in adults. Those are arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, proline, and tyrosine.
Leucine is the most important in terms of building muscle as it regulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis after exercise.
Protein rich foods are:
- Meat (chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb)
- Fish (white fish have less fat)
- Legumes (lentils, beans)
- Seeds and nuts (sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, not so dense in protein but still a protein source)
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cottage)
Whey Protein vs Protein dense foods
Well, the greatest benefit of a food compared to a supplement is that the food will always be more filling. When we are talking about protein this is even more true as protein is helping with satiety.
So what you can get from this, is that when you are dieting down and feeling hungry, it is best to consume protein rich foods rather than protein supplements (whey protein). When you want to consume more calories and more protein in general, then it’s a safe bet to add protein via supplements.
There is also some debate about the quality of proteins derived from meat compared to plants. To tell the truth, you need a variety of plants to meet the amino acids provided by animal protein sources. Plus, the legumes and nuts, have the added calories from carbohydrates and fats. When your diet is restrictive in carbs and fat, this can be a problem.
Your daily protein intake should change according to your goal. If you are trying to lose weight, it’s better to go for 2.5-3g/kg (1-1.4g/lb).
If on the other hand, you are trying to gain muscle mass, you can go with 1.8-2g/g (0.8-1/lb) since you will be getting more calories from carbs and fat.
These guidelines apply to lean body mass rather than total weight. This is to prevent from fat people overconsuming protein and very lean people to under consume. Remember that you need to address your daily diet plan as a whole and taking into account all macros, rather than simply protein or carbs.
Remember also that protein is probably the most important macro for either losing weight or gaining muscle. You should always try to hit your target intake.
So here’s what you need to remember about protein:
- 4kcal per gram of protein
- It’s an essential macronutrient, we need protein for growth and maintenance
- There are nine essential amino acids
- Protein dense foods come from animal sources
- Whole foods are better as a protein source than supplemental whey protein when dieting
- Plant-based foods can meet the amounts of amino acids found in animal-based foods when consumed in a variety, and in larger amount
- Recommendation: 2.5-3 g/kg (1-1.4g)/lb) of lean body mass
Fats are collections of the molecule triglyceride. When these substances are liquid, in room temperature, we call them oils, while when they are solid, we call them fat.
They provide us with ~9 calories per gram.
Fats help in a variety of functions in our body, mainly:
- Storing of excess energy (via adipose tissue)
- Absorption of some vitamins (A, E, D, and K)
- Testosterone levels & Other hormones (testosterone is needed by both men and women)
Dietary fats can be divided into two general families. Saturated and unsaturated fats. The first ones are called saturated because of their bonds with hydrogen, making them usually more solid, while unsaturated are mostly liquid.
Most foods have both types of these fats but animal sources of fat tend to have more saturated fats while plant-based fats like olive oil, nuts and some fish are mostly dense in unsaturated fat.
Unsaturated fats can also be man-made (margarine and some other hydrogenated vegetable oils). These are called “trans fats” and are the most harmful to our health.
They tend to raise our LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower our HDL (good cholesterol). There are traces of trans fats naturally occurring in foods but there’s no need to worry about them. Remember to always check the nutritional labels for the composition of foods.
Omega 3 Fats
Omega-3 fatty acids are a subcategory of unsaturated fats and are essential to our body. We can’t make them on our own like we can other fatty acids.
Famous Omega-3 fat sources are:
- Chia seeds
Omega-3 fats can also be taken in supplemental form, via fish oil. They come in liquid form as well as capsules.
The two essential Omega-3 fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Mainly these are found in fatty fish and small amounts of DHA are also found in algae. you can read more about EPA/DHA here.
Omega-3 daily intake should be 500-1000mg EPA/DHA (Remember to look at the label as there is a difference in the amount of EPA/DHA to total fat).
As for our total fat intake should be a minimum of 20% of the total calories. That’s a general rule of thumb.
There’s no upper limit as long as you hit your target calories and your other macros intake. Fat could be fluctuating depending on your liking. Just hit your minimum target of 20% on calories and 500-1000mg of EPA/DHA.
Example. You have decided to go with a 2000kcal diet plan. 20% of that is 400 calories. 400/9 is 45. So the minimum recommended fat intake should be 45gr.
What you need to remember about fats:
- Needed for absorption of some vitamins
- Promote hormonal balance
- Plant-based fats should be preferred to animal sources
- Omega 3 fats can also be taken via supplements (500-1000mg EPA/DHA)
- At least 20% of all calories
Alcohol is non-essential macronutrient which we don’t need to bother analyzing. We don’t need to consume it in large amounts as it’s calorically dense, ~7 kcal per gram.
Macronutrients in a diet plan
Having and hitting macronutrient targets helps the overall process of having a better body. There are some common myths about macronutrients that we need to debunk before we move further.
Myth #1 Consuming Fats withs Carbs
This is one of my favorites and I have to admit I have been following that for years. It’s pure nonsense.
There is only one thing you need to remember about food and fat loss and that’s
EAT LESS CALORIES THAN YOU BURN
Nothing more than that really. You should definitely hit it, whatever way you feel comfortable. High carb, high protein? High fat, High protein? All of them will work. The only catch is that some people work better on different diets.
Obviously, when you’re dieting protein is sparing muscle loss and has the advantage on satiety levels. It just makes you feel fuller for a better period of time. You can’t miss on protein.
Fat has the biggest ratio of calories per gram. This means that you only have to consume a little amount of fat and you reach your target calories for a meal. But we all know it can make a food taste delicious. What would cookies taste like without butter?
Carbs, especially sugar can give you an insulin spike which might make you feel lethargic or give you a bad mood after an hour or two, but it’s definitely the tastiest of all macros. Even a slice of bread sounds like a chocolate dessert to a person dieting for some weeks. Trust me, I have been there.
So what am I saying really? All or bad or all are good?
I am saying, find what suits your taste and your lifestyle. Make those meals have the appropriate amount of calories and you’re good to go.
My current breakfast is this:
This meal has 28% carbs, 35% protein, and 29% fat. Pretty much everything is balanced around 30% and they fit my daily schedule, plus its totally portable.
Myth #2 You need a lot of protein
This can be very confusing depending on your background.
If you have read bodybuilding magazines for years then you are taught that you should eat about body weight in lbs * 1.5 (kg * 3.3) or more grams of protein.
The lower limit for protein is 0,5 gram per pound (1 per kg). That’s if you don’t work out at all and you could only use the extra protein for satiety reasons.
For athletes or people who work out intensively, more protein works better. About double that amount. There’s a certain threshold around 1.5gr/lbs (3gr/kg), that if you consume more than that, you don’t get much benefit.
Moderation is the key. Eat more protein than most people do, but don’t over do it.
There’s nonsense also in the other end of the spectrum, that protein is messing with your kidneys. Thankfully, this problem has been solved as well. More here
Recommendations for all macros
The recommendations are based on various sources like from Andy Morgan’s blog “RippedBody” and Eric Helms’ “Muscle and Strength Nutritional Pyramid” because they are based on scientific evidence and research. Plus I have found they are working wonders so far for the users of Dutrition, so there’s no need to change them.
When entering your stats on Dutrition, you can get macros recommendations as well as calories, so you don’t have to worry about calculating them on your own.
|Protein||2,3 – 3,1 gr/kg LBM (1.1 – 1.4gr/lb)||1.8 – 2.2 gr /kg LBM ( 0.8 – 1 gr /lb)|
|Fat||0.9- 1.3 gr/kg LBM (0.4 – 0.6 gr/lb)||Minimum 20% calories|
|Carbs||Whatever calories left (Minimum 20%)||Whatever calories left (Minimum 20%)|
LBM is lean body mass.
As mentioned earlier, these guidelines apply to lean body mass rather than total weight. This is to prevent from fat people overconsuming protein and very lean people to under consume. Remember that you need to address your daily diet plan as a whole rather than simply protein or carbs.
Example. If you have a 15% body fat and your weight are 100kg(220 lb). Then your LBM is 100 * (1-0.15). 85kg(187 lb)
Here is the previous part in the series regarding calories and how to set your target daily caloric intake
Do you have any questions macros and their place in a diet plan? Let me know in the comments