Counting macronutrient intake (fat, carbs, protein) is without a doubt the most reliable way to establish a calorie deficit and thus lose fat. But the main downside of the strategy, besides it being unavoidable extra daily work, is that it can make food selection very rigid and restrictive – it’s not exactly easy to fit one’s daily food intake to specific calorie and macro targets.
This post is written to help alleviate that problem, to – in the spirit of straightforward fat loss – make counting macros as simple, flexible, and thus easy as possible. The basic idea here is to accomplish two things:
- Set macro targets that will maximally expedite fat loss.
- Not impose any additional unnecessary complexity and restriction beyond establishing #1.
Clickable Table of Contents by Section
- The Pervasive Problem: Overspecificity, and The Alleged “Golden” Macronutrient Ratio
- The Solution: Take Advantage of Allowable Flexibility
- First: Calculate Your Calorie Intake
- Second: Calculate Your Protein Intake
- Third: “Calculate” The Remainder to Either Fat Or Carbs
- Concluding Cliffnotes: The Basic Hierarchy of Importance
- Supplemental Calorie/Macro Counting FAQ
The Pervasive Problem: Overspecificity, and The Alleged “Golden” Macronutrient Ratio
Run of the mill “how to calculate your macros” articles seem to call for exact targets – you have to eat exactly this number of calories, exactly this many grams of carbs, etc. For the average person, this is a problem for two main reasons:
- Exact calorie and macro targets/ratios don’t confer an appreciable advantage, and are utterly unnecessary.
- Exact calorie and macro targets/ratios make the process way more rigid and restrictive to a degree that makes it unfeasible. Or, if it is feasible, it feels like a royal pain in the ass.
In my Do Calories Matter article, I explain that many tens of so called “isocaloric” studies demonstrate no difference in weight and/or body fatness when either carbohydrate or fat levels are manipulated while calories are controlled for. For all the hoopla surrounding low fat and low carb diets, it turns out that neither really makes an actual difference towards fat loss.
Protein, on the other hand, does seem to provide a *modest* advantage towards fat loss. But how much so? And how much protein is actually needed to fully realize this potential advantage? The answer to both questions is not as much as you probably think. The “metabolic advantage” of protein is not likely to exceed 100 or so calories per day, and benefits towards body composition improvement are exceedingly unlikely to be significant with protein intake higher than .6-.8g/day per pound of bodyweight, even for those who are advanced weightlifters who train hard.
* Further Reading:
- High Protein Intake Is Overrated and Unnecessarily Restrictive – for a full breakdown of the issue down with references to pertinent literature.
The Solution: Take Advantage of Allowable Flexibility
To fully expedite fat loss, you only really need to do two things, it turns out:
- Hit the appropriate calorie target, as to establish a running deficit over the long run (think in terms of weeks and months).
- Get enough protein (.6g/day per lb of bodyweight is probably fine)
Upon understanding this, you likely realize that it’s not particularly difficult to satisfy these two conditions – you can make it work a wide variety of foods. And this is how it should be – maximally catering to flexibility, convenience, and personal preference is essential for realistic diet success, and for making all this stuff as simple and easy as possible for that matter.
Next, we can now get into the specifics of calculating your calories and macros within said context.
First: Calculate Your Calorie Intake
Establishing the appropriate calorie target to create a deficit is primarily important for a for fat loss cut to be successful.
Your goal is to hit a 15-25% daily/weekly calorie deficit, on average, over the long run. If you’re more overweight, the deficit can be more aggressive; vice versa as you get leaner.
* Further Reading:
- A complete guide on how to set a realistic rate of progress for fat loss (and other fitness metrics).
I recommend using this calculator, and simply choosing the default set Mifflin-St Jeor equation option, which doesn’t require that you know your body fat percentage.
Running my stats through the calculator, for example, look like:
If I want to lose fat, I’m looking to consume roughly 1900 calories/day on average, which is a ~20% deficit of 2400 calories/day, that being what I’d want to consume if I wanted to maintain my weight and body composition.
An important note: Do note the “on average” verbiage – it’s entirely permissible to eat 1800 calories today, 2000 tomorrow, etc. The important thing is that I average out to around 1900 over the long run.
Also important: It’s not critical that your initial calorie target is 100% accurate. The purpose of the calculator is to get a starting point that’s reasonably in the ballpark, and for you to establish a consistent set of dietary behaviors around it. That way, if you’re perhaps off by, say, 5-10% initially, you can simply adjust things in the initial few weeks, then be solidly on your way.
Second: Calculate Your Protein Intake
This part is fairly straightforward: just multiply your bodyweight (in pounds) by .6 or so to get a reasonable minimum. For me, that would come to roughly 100g protein per day. Another quick and dirty way to calculate this figure is to take your height in inches and multiply it by 1.5.
One thing that’s worth noting here: there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating more protein than that – if you prefer it – but the main practical reason for the prior section is that most people find that eating 1g+/day per lb of bodyweight to be prohibitively difficult.
Third: “Calculate” The Remainder to Either Fat Or Carbs
For all the apparent ramblings re: the superiority of carbs or fats, the physiological bottom line is this:
- The actual physiological requirement for dietary carbohydrate is zero.
- There is a bare minimum physiological requirement for dietary fat – aplty named essential fatty acids – but the amounts thereof are merely around 15g per day, which is about a single tablespoon.
Obviously in the interest of not starving to death we want to eat significantly more of both, but the practical takeaway here is that you should eat amounts of either that are preferable and convenient to you, especially so in the short term day to day basis.
Most people do best with moderate amounts of both fat and carbs, and most conventional meals/diets also tend to have moderate amounts of either. So, practically speaking, the moderate middle ground is generally the best way to go.
Optimal amounts of fat or carbohydrate largely depend on the individual and the situation. Some people do better on low carb and high fat, and vice versa. The more active you are, particularly with high intensity activity, the more carbohydrates you’ll probably fare best with.
* Further Reading:
- How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need? – Bodyrecomposition.com – this is a good article which extensively breaks down the issue
To “calculate” your fat and carb intake, simply partition the remainder of your calories after protein to either:
Protein comes to around 4 calories per gram, carbs also to 4 calories per gram, and fat to 9 calories per gram.
If I’m eating around 100g of protein per day, that leaves me with 1900 – (100 * 4) = 1500 remaining calories per day.
The idea is: (grams of carbs) * 4 + (grams of fat) * 9 = remaining calories, which in my case is 1500.
I prefer higher fat and more moderate to lower carb, so I’ll shoot for, say, 200g/carb per day (800 cal) and 80g fat (700 cal). Or maybe one day I’m craving a butter soaked steak and eat 150g of carb and 100g of fat. Again, the ratios just don’t matter too much, especially so in the day to day short term – as long as you’re hitting your protein minimum and your total calories, that’s about all you can do to maximally expedite fat loss.
Concluding Cliffnotes: The Basic Hierarchy of Importance
To successfully calculate your macros for maximally expedited fat loss on a cut, worry about the following, in order of importance:
- Overall calories being on target via ~20% deficit – primarily important.
- Eat foods that you like so that you’ll actually stick with the regimen – a close second in importance.
- Be consistent with your system to establish a clear baseline of behavior that’s thus meaningfully adjustable – also a close second in importance and hand in hand with #2.
- Eat enough protein (.6-.8g per lb/bodyweight) to favor fat loss and lean mass retention – somewhat important, but in no way critical, so try your best with this most of the time.
- Partition the remainder of your calories to carbs and fats – how much of each isn’t all that important, so just do what feels best for you.
Then, simply stick with a system consistently, assess your progress every month or so, and make adjustments as necessary.
Doing all of this right, in all honesty, is very simple and easy – the insidious trap is to try and complicate it thinking that you’ll find a golden goose egg in the devilish details that will speed things up.
Don’t fall for that trap. The reason we do the simplest and easiest bare effective minimum at Straightforward Fat Loss is precisely because we need to be patient enough to stick with it for long enough to actually get results. You’re more likely to do that with a simple and easy strategy than with an unnecessarily complex and hard strategy.
The practical macro equation for the average person:
calories > compliance = consistency >>>>> protein > carbs = fat.
Supplemental Calorie/Macro Counting FAQ
Q:What’s the best “method” for doing all this?
A: In my opinion, the best and easiest strategy – especially for beginners – is to create a pre-set weekly meal plan. It’s certainly possible to count things “on the fly,” but doing that can be fairly overwhelming until you get a few weeks/months of experience under your belt. A pre-set meal plan on the other hand might be boring and repetitive, but it does make the counting calories/macros really simple and easy. I wrote a guide on how to set up a weekly meal plan – read here.
Q:How do I count restaurant meals, family dinners, etc., when I’m not sure what’s in the food?
A: I wrote a full guide on this exact issue (and yes, you can absolutely partake in said occasions and still make calorie/macro counting work) – read here.
Q:What if my calculated calorie/macro targets aren’t accurate?
A: Don’t worry about it. It’s virtually impossible to be 100% accurate anyway. The primarily important thing is to just try and get reasonably in the ball park initially, then to be consistent. Consistency is what’s primarily important, not deadpan accuracy. The idea is that if you’re consistent, you can make meaningful adjustments as needed, and any person should generally be able to be on their way within a few weeks of ironing things out. I wrote full articles on the importance of consistency and how to apply running adjustments – here and here, respectively.