I now get asked quite a lot about how to calculate and pick macro targets, especially for fat loss (cutting). Having recently published an article which discusses the ostensible “golden ratio” of macronutrients, I realized that I’ve yet to publish an actual guide on how to specifically calculate and pick your macros for an iifym cut. That’s what this post will be.
You might be wondering: there are already a bajillion “how to calculate your macros” articles under the sun now – why throw my own into the ocean of superfluous information?
The problem with this topic, as is the same problem with just about every current topic in the overall fitness discussion at large, is that the silent majority falls through the cracks. What I mean is, fitness culture tends to pigeonhole people into either side of a false dichotomy: you’re either completely apathetic and sedentary, or you’re trying to edge out the one percent of the one percent to become a fitness competition champion.
Neither of those end-points of the spectrum applies for most people. Most people simply want to be healthy and look good. You know, solid weight room numbers, solid lab values, and solid aesthetics that look decent in a fitted t shirt. That’s vague on purpose because most people just care about things being generally good, not the nitpicking and arbitrary specifics.
The problem with your run-of-the-mill 10k word “how to calculate your fat loss macros” article that insists you need exactly 64.8 grams of carbs 96 minutes after you workout is that they are, one, unfeasible for average people, and two, overly specific to a degree that’s utterly unnecessary.
Straightforward Fat Loss, contrarily, only concerns itself with the simplest and easiest bare effective minimum because, well… that’s *good enough,* and who wants to unnecessarily worry about anything above and beyond that?
The goal here is to:
- Set macro targets that will maximally expedite fat loss.
- Not impose any additional unnecessary complexity and restriction once #1 is established.
Clickable Table of Contents by Section
- The Truth About Macro Ratios, Right Out of The Gate
- First: Calculate Your Calorie Intake
- Second: Calculate Your Protein Intake
- Third: “Calculate” The Remainder to Either Fat Or Carbs
- Lastly, And Importantly, Initial Accuracy Doesn’t Actually Matter – Consistency With Meaningful Running Adjustments Does
- Concluding Cliffnotes: The Hierarchy of Importance
The Truth About Macro Ratios, Right Out of The Gate
They don’t matter, straight up.
Well, they might matter a little bit if you’re trying to win your pro card at your next competition, but for the rest of us 99 percenters who just want to look good in fitted clothes – running calorie balance and compliance are 95% of the battle.
The only thing that’s really been shown to *slightly* favor body composition in a caloric deficit is eating a certain minimum of protein. It’s probably lower than you think – .6-.8g/lb body weight, to be specific. Most people hit that easily as long as their diet isn’t totally silly.
Regarding carbs and fats, you can bore yourself to death with an endless online discussion about which is the superior choice focus, but you’re almost always dealing with opinion or anecdote. When you actually look at pertinent dietary science, the clear trend is that manipulating either carbs or fat doesn’t make a difference towards weight loss if calories remain controlled for.
Point being, again, running calorie balance and compliance – actually doing it – is 95% of the battle. The understated corollary to that is that you shouldn’t unnecessarily restrict your diet, because it’s obvious that less flexibility is less conducive to real world compliance.
Now with that said, lets get into the specific calculation steps. I’ll run my own figures through the gauntlet as a running example.
First: Calculate Your Calorie Intake
Establishing the appropriate caloric deficit for fat loss is, again, by far, the most important thing for a 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, choosing the ‘Katch-McArdle’ equation option, then ball-park guessing your bodyfat percentage. It’s not critical that your initial target is dead accurate (more on that momentarily), but doing it this way will get you as reasonably close as you can.
Here is an image of relative bodyfat percentages for reference:
Running my stats through the calculator looks 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 current body composition.
Again, I’m only worried about getting *roughly* close enough initially, not deadpan accurate – we’ll discuss why towards the end.
Second: Calculate Your Protein Intake
Again, there is at least one factor for favorable influence towards fat loss that’s actually substantiated by hard science: hitting a certain daily minimum of protein.
It’s unlikely that that benefit caps out at anything above .6-.8g per lb of bodyweight, so the idea is get into or above that range on average. Eating more protein, if you like it, is certainly fine, but not necessary. Most people find that excessive protein, especially in a calorie deficit, is too restrictive and annoying. I personally have zero interest in choking down anemic egg whites and rubbery 5% beef on the regular.
Simply multiply that range by your bodyweight to get your rough target. For me, that comes to around 90-120g protein per day. That figure wouldn’t change much if I were fatter, because non-lean mass is not very pertinent to your protein requirement. If I happened to be, say, 30% bodyfat and 190-200 pounds, I’d still shoot for roughly the same amount of protein.
I also wouldn’t care much if I dipped below that figure some days. Do not believe the sheisty supplement companies – your arms and legs won’t fall off if you don’t get “enough” protein in the short term. Remember, all the science says is that a certain minimum, on average, is *slightly* favorable for lean mass retention and fat loss when in a caloric deficit. Again, overall calories and compliance are 95% of the battle.
Third: “Calculate” The Remainder to Either Fat Or Carbs
Once the protein is set, the rest of it, in all honesty, just doesn’t matter all that much for the average person – you should do what feels best and is preferable.
Most people do best with moderate fat and moderate carbs. That’s how I do it. A normal and balanced diet that’s congruent with convention usually winds up being moderate fat/carb – I feel like this is an incredibly important and understated point.
Some people feel/do better with higher carb and lower fat, others vice versa. Or, take advantage of the flexibility and go high carb one day, and low carb the next day. There’s a lot to be said for just getting to eat what you feel like. You should tinker and eventually settle on what you like, then just stick with that.
Don’t fall for the allure of restrictively ultra low fat or ultra low carb – neither shows any appreciable additional benefit to fat loss as long as calories remain the same.
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’ll eat 150g of carb and 100g of fat. It just doesn’t matter too much – 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. No need to unnecessarily complexify things beyond that.
Lastly, And Importantly, Initial Accuracy Doesn’t Actually Matter – Consistency With Meaningful Running Adjustments Does
A lot of people get really hung up on hitting the “right” calorie target, or the “right” macro ratios, or which calorie calculator is the “best” and “most accurate” (answer: none of them are, so just pick one – it doesn’t matter which).
They stress over frivolities like how much fat is lost in the pan when they fry an 8oz steak, or whether or not to count the splash of no-cal creamer in their morning coffee.
Here’s the truth – I don’t actually have any damn idea what my *actual* calorie intake and expenditure is, and good luck trying to figure that out.
Precision Nutrition just released a great infographic that fully explains the futility of “accurate” calorie and macro counting: check it out here.
Here’s the point: Pick an initial starting point as best you can, then stick to a system of hitting it consistently. Always count the creamer or don’t, always subtract the lost pan fat or don’t. It doesn’t matter which way you choose, just always do it the same way no matter what.
* Further Reading:
Then, be sure to assess your progress periodically and make running adjustments accordingly. If you overshot the mark initially, that’s fine, just adjust, little by little, until it starts working. Furthermore, what worked initially might stop working as you get leaner, which is also why periodic assessment as adjustment is critical.
* Further Reading:
The key of consistency is that it establishes a clear baseline of behavior which you can meaningfully adjust as you go. If you intuitively understand this, you understand that you’ll inevitably dial in on the sweet spot of optimal progress, then stay dialed in on it.
Concluding Cliffnotes: The 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.