Macronutrients

So by now you should understand the fundamental principle of energy balance, have a clear goal in mind (cut or bulk) and know how to set your target calorie intake for the week based upon that goal (cut = weekly calorie deficit / bulk = weekly calorie surplus). 

It is now time to dive into the realm of macronutrients. This article is going to be a rather short one: each macronutrient will be discussed more in-depth in their respective articles. 

What are macronutrients?

Macronutrients (often conveniently referred to as “macros” from here on) are chemical elements that us humans obtain in fairly large amounts through the foods we consume. Macros are energy yielding nutrients: through them we obtain energy in the form of calories.  Thanks to this energy we can do awesome stuff, like live and lift weights (and everything else). We also need macros for things like growth and various important bodily functions.

There are three macros we are genuinely interested in when discussing diet optimization for body recomposition purposes. They are:

  • Protein, yielding 4 kcal per gram.
  • Fats, yielding 9 kcal per gram
  • Carbohydrates, yielding 4 kcal per gram

A very decent picture I found online. Note: there are no “best” or “top 10” foods, these are just 10 random (generally “healthy”) foods that are very dominant in one of the three macros.

Alcohol is another macronutrient, yielding 7 kcal per gram. However, since it doesn’t contribute much good to body recomposition (if anything, it’s detrimental to gains) I am not going to discuss it in these series. If you wish to incorporate alcohol into your diet and minimize the damage from it, check out “The Science of Binge Drinking” article from Menno Henselmans (Bayesian Bodybuilding), featuring some excellent “reduce diet damage from alcohol consumption” tips.

Other nutrients we are interested in – for optimizing health in our body recomposition endeavour – are micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) and fiber. These nutrients will be covered in the “diet quality” article, further on in these series. 

Total Macro intake = Total Calorie Intake

The sum of your total macro intake, obtained through the foods you consume in your diet, will determine your caloric intake. Macros and calories are hilarious easy to track once you get the gist of it – but it does require some effort in understanding the principles.

Simply put: if you eat a meal, track the macros (logging what foods you ate in which quantities), then add up the consumed macros in grams and multiply them by the amount of calories they provide per gram > you will find the total amount of calories for that meal. Add up the calories for all of your meals on a day, and you will have your daily total caloric intake.

The “Science and Math” Behind Determining Total Calories

I will provide a very simple “macros to calories” calculation example below to help you understand this. It’s honestly not that hard:

  • Example: You ate 250 grams of low-fat quark and 1 banana (120 grams). This constitutes as a “meal” for you because you’re not very creative with your meals – yet!

Quark, per 100 grams (just a random example, macros can very per brand etc.) and > per 250 grams.

  • 8.9 g protein > 22.3 g for 250 g
  • 0.2 g fat > 0.5 g for 250 g
  • 3.7 g carbs > 9.3 g for 250 g

So for 250 grams of quark you’re looking at approximately 22 g protein, 0.5 g fat and 9 g carbs. Note: I rounded most numbers, except for fat. Total calories for the quark can be calculated as such:

  • (22.3 from protein x 4 = ) 89+ (0.5 from fat x 9 = ) + 4.5 + (9.3 from carbs x 4 = ) 37= 130 kcal total for the quark.

Note: you can also simply look at the calories provided on the package: 50 kcal per 100 grams quark, so x 2.5 = 125 kcal for 250 grams. That’s a 5 kcal difference from what I showed you in the calculation from the macros above. Holy moley! Does this matter? Hell no. This can be due to rounding numbers, and sometimes the calories on the package just don’t “add up” 100% exactly. Those are factors truly not worth fussing about.

On to the banana! 1 piece (measured at 120 gram), is roughly 1 g protein, 0.5 g fat, 27 g carbs. That’s (1×4=) 4 + (0.5×9=) 5 + (27×4=) 108 = 117 kcal for the banana.

Add these 2 foods together, and you have yourself a meal of 23 g protein, 1 g fat and 36 g carbs – yielding ~247 kcal (I took “my” quark kcal value for this one, not the one on the package).

Not that hard, right? 

Please note: You absolutely do not have to do any of this by hand, haha! We have handy apps and programs for this nowadays (such as MyFitnessPalor FatSecret). Still, it is a very good thing that you understand the math behind all this.

Recommended Food Databases for checking Macros & Nutrition Facts

I recommend using the USDA database for checking nutrition facts of foods. Nutrition Data is pretty decent as well.

How to track macros?

I generally recommend tracking macros in the MyFitnessPal app – and while it has a decent database, it has a bunch of errors that you should be aware of. For one, the database is a user-submitted one. As such, anyone can submit food items > and thus the nutritional facts can be totally haywire.

Not all the nutrients “add up” (the total calories often don’t add up exactly from the macros), and often there are important nutrients missing (such as fiber or micronutrient content). Because of this, I recommend entering certain staple foods of yours into the MFP database yourself (make “custom” foods and add the nutritional info from the aforementioned databases).

You can also enter the nutrition facts or scan the barcodes on the package of your foods: but make sure to double check the numbers. I’ve often found that the “scanned result” is completely different from the actual package, and sometimes I even got a totally different food on the MyFitnessPal screen (once I screened a can of beans and I got the nutrition facts for red beets, haha).

How much of each macro do I need?

Since you already have a good idea of the weekly amount of calories you require to “hit” for your goal, and you understand how many calories each gram of protein, fat and carbs yield – it is now time to distribute those calories over the 3 available macro “slots”. Good thing we have some efficient guidelines for setting up your personal macronutrient arsenal for a successful body recomposition. Thank you, science!

We will be looking at total macronutrient intake over the week to start out. From there on we can set up macro intake on a day to day level. Total macronutrient distribution over the week will eventually become much clearer after I discuss nutrient timing in it’s stand-alone article: so stay tuned for that one.