Making Sense of Macros

Making Sense of Macros

In this, the third part of “Eating Clean & Getting Fat”, I will describe a simple approach to allocating your Total Daily Calorie Expenditure across Macronutrients. Sounds far more technical (and perhaps complicated) than it actually is! Understanding a few key principles will enable you to set daily goals for yourself and identify a sensible starting point in terms of diet. Whilst managing your overall calorie in-take is important for weight management, ensuring an adequate supply of macro and micronutrients is essential to your overall well being. 

In case you have just joined this series, you might find the following recap and links helpful. In the first post: An Apple A Day, I described two “Golden Rules” for a diet that would ensure you not only managed your weight, but also provided your body what it needs to work efficiently. The first rule being that it is a biological certainty that you will lose weight if you are in a calorific deficit. Equally certain is that being in a surplus will cause you to gain weight. Whilst calories management is essential for controlling weight, I also looked at the idea of diet needing to meet all of your body’s nutritional requirements. After all, achieving your desired weight is pointless if it is at the expense of your overall wellbeing. 

In the second post: How Much Is Enough, I contrasted three ways to estimate your daily calorie requirement. Being able to quantify your calorific needs, and then tracking your consumption, gives you choice as to whether you lose weight or not. Whilst it is not a precise science, the approach suggested is certainly close enough to make a substantial difference for the vast majority of people. 

Whilst calorific surplus / deficit will determine if you gain or lose weight (a guaranteed biological certainty), it is also obviously important to ensure that we consume adequate quantities of the three macronutrient groups as well as micronutrients (Vitamins and Minerals). Our bodies need ALL of these nutrient blocks, in appropriate amounts. And that is why I feel so opposed to fad diets that advocate withdrawal, or severe restriction, of any particular nutrient. The only caveat being that under medical advice, due to diagnosed health issues, it may be appropriate. But as a strategy for weight loss it is not sustainable, potentially damaging and basically a bad idea! So if you are thinking of eating a Carb free diet for instance then just don’t… You really don’t need to. 

The guidelines that I suggest in this post are appropriate for an adult male or female that has not yet reached “old age”. During childhood and puberty we have different requirements as our bodies are growing and developing in different ways. This has an impact on our nutritional requirements. Similarly as we reach old age, levels of activity tend to reduce and our metabolism generally slows (the point at which this happens in terms of chronological age will obviously vary significantly) and again this will drive differences in our nutritional requirements. In this post I look at macronutrients and suggest a straightforward set of guidelines that you can use to calculate how much of each you might need to consume each day. I am not suggesting that this is an exact model, but it will certainly give you an informed starting point based on generally accepted recommendations.

What are macronutrients? Quite simply a collective term for Fats, Proteins and Carbohydrates, so named because we tend to need these three nutrients in relatively large volumes. You could (and should) also consider Fibre to be a macronutrient. Whilst it has no energy value (zero calories), it is vital to the function of our digestive system. That is one system that you do want to keep in good order… But I shall leave that there!

Each macronutrient serves a different purpose in terms of its primary use in the body (which is why restrictive diets are just a bad idea most of the time). Understanding how these nutrients are digested and used will be discussed in subsequent posts, but for now I what to consider their relative energy content and how they fit together to determine our daily / weekly nutritional goals:

Fat9 cal/gram
Protein4 cal/gram
Carbohydrate3.75 cal/gram
Macronutrient calorific values per gram

Understanding their respective calorific value is important, but we need to just go a little deeper into each one.

Dietary Fat

For many people, dietary Fat is a very palatable and pleasurable food to eat. This is good as Fat plays an important role in our diet and a completely “fat free” diet would not be good for our wellbeing. The issue however is the amount of dietary Fat that is found in many peoples regular diet. And it is this volume that causes the problem as Fat is relatively calorie dense and not particularly satiating. This means that it is very easy to consume a surprisingly large amount of calories in what looks like a relatively small portion of food, and not feel particularly full. However Fats do play an important part in our nutrition as certain Vitamins (A,D,E and K) are fat soluble. Fat being an excellent source of these (apart from D, which is best absorbed from sunlight) and being needed for digestion and storage if these particular micronutrients. Fats can be subdivided into saturated and unsaturated,  you may well have heard reference to ‘good’ (unsaturated) Fats and ‘bad’ (saturated) or more specifically ‘good’ Cholesterol and ‘bad’. This is particularly interesting as there are actually four types of Cholesterol not two… However, I shall be looking in more detail at Fat & Cholesterol in a subsequent post ( if you are interested in learning more about nutrition then please subscribe to my email updates so you get to hear when these are published). For now, though your Heart will thank you for avoiding “bad” Fats or slightly more accurately saturated Fats. We can ‘park’ Cholesterol for another day.

As you will appreciate there is much more to discover about Fats, but for now the take away (see what I did there!?!?!) message is: A small amount provides a LOT of calories (9 per gram), avoid saturated fats and try to keep your overall intake to less than 70g per day (of which saturated fat should be less than 20g). 

Protein

Whilst not overly used for energy (in the way that Carbohydrate and Fat is), Protein still plays a vital and unique role, enabling growth and repair functions to work in the body. If you are a runner, cyclist or into fitness then you will have a requirement for ‘repair’ even if you are NOT seeking to build muscles like Arnie! At 4 calories per gram Protein is not particularly calorie dense and it is also quite satiating to eat. From a nutritional stand point there is a lot to like about Protein. We do not need to explore what Protein does in detail right now, but suffice to say that most people need about 50g of it per day (as a guide) and it will represent a relatively small part of our overall diet. As I will address later, as an athlete you may choose to increase this amount, however unless you have a very specialist outcome you are seeking it will always represent a proportionally small amount of your diet. A closing comment don’t waste money on Protein supplements, you won’t need them.

Carbohydrate

Despite the current fad towards ‘cutting carbs’, you absolutely do need carbohydrate as part of your diet. In-fact in a sensible diet they will represent approximately 50% or slightly more of your daily calorific intake. At 3.75 calories per gram they are not particularly calories dense. But, in the same way that not all Fat is the same, Carbohydrates also come in different forms. For ease of planning, lets break this out as Sugar and non-Sugar carbohydrate.

Sugar 

Strictly speaking Sugar is not evil in and of itself, so before we vilify it completely, we should understand the issue. Commonly found in fruit, sugar is available to us from many natural sources (“easting clean” anyone?). And as an energy source it’s calories are highly ‘available’ to us, meaning that with little digestion we can benefit from a rapid spike in energy. At times this can be helpful but comes at a price. The issue arises (similar to Fat) when it is over consumed, and at time of writing large parts of the population are going way beyond ‘over consumption’ and are fully into the realms of gross excess. The consequence being that the surplus calories are stored as body fat and the kicker being that in addition to making us fat it leads to tooth decay. Despite not being calorie dense like Fat, consuming a little sugar can lead to an instant desire to consume much more in some people (a sugar binge), and this continues until we feel physically sick having effectively overdosed on it.

So why do we do this to ourselves? The reasons for this can be quite complex and will definitely be explored in a subsequent post (SUBSCRIBE NOW!!) but partly because consuming sugar is part of a cycle that releases a hormone that cause us to feel happy (for a short while). We can feel energised and happy, and if we are honest who DOESN’T like that feeling. Sadly though it is possible to become addicted to this process and feeling, and as with all addictions, over time we need greater quantities of the stimulant… And so it is with sugar. However, it is not quite as simply as that. Using any food to alter our mood can be part of a much more complex eating disorder (most easting disorders have nothing to do with food per-say) but are related to deeper psychological and emotional issues in the sufferer. Whilst eating disorders are far from specific to sugar, at a very mild level comfort eating sugar (chocolate anyone?) is not that uncommon. Is it?

Eating disorders (of all types, complexities and severities) are more common than perhaps is generally appreciated. And are far from limited to the higher profile disorders of Anorexia and Bulimia.

Having pointed out the negatives of sugar, I want to stress that we absolutely do need Carbohydrate, but ideally more weighted towards non-sugar (or slower energy release) Carbohydrate sources.

The short message for dietary planning is 260g or more BUT within that restrict Sugar to a maximum of 90g. (Be aware that fruit can have a lot of sugar and yet is often considered as ‘eating clean’). 

Fibre

Eat it. It’s as simple as that! It has no calorific content, so you don’t need to include it in your meal plan from an energy perspective, but we absolutely need to eat it. Upwards of 30g per day needs to be your goal here and your intestines will thank you!

So how does all this translate into practice? 

We know our estimated calorie requirements from the previous article, so now we need to do some more maths. But when it comes to planning our daily macro’s, science needs to meet ‘art’ as there is a degree of creativity and balance needed. 

Making It Real

Perhaps the best way to explain this is with a worked example using me. You almost certainly won’t recall (!!), but using the Harris-Benedict Formula, we previously calculated that I would need an estimated 2,790 calories per day to be in equilibrium or 2,300 to lose weight. Let’s work with the later:

Fat: I am planning to reduce my overall fat intake and minimise saturates. Whilst I could eat up to 70g of total fat each day, I will initially aim for 50g (of which a maximum of 15g will come from saturates). Therefore 450cal each day will come from fats, leaving me with 1,850cal to find else where. 

Protein: Whilst I might only need 50g (200cal) per day I’m going to increase this due to a high volume of exercise (and therefore a lot of repair work in my body). I will aim to eat some 75g per day giving me 300cal. This then leaves 1,550 to find.

Carbohydrate: Firstly I want to manage my sugar intake to 40g per day or 188cal from sugar. This leaves 1,362cal from non-sugar carbohydrate, equating to 363g per day (which is above the base line recommendation of 260g). Whilst I could consider reducing this and moving some into Protein, given my energy demands from exercise (and I’m not trying to build significant muscle mass) I think this ‘feels’ like a sensible starting point. 

To summarise my personal macro split for weight loss would be:

Fat50g450 cal(max 15g saturated)
Protein75g300 cal
Carbohydrate363g1550 cal(max 40g sugar)
Fibre60g0 cal
Example daily macronutrient goals based on a total of 2,300 calories per day.

Quite easy really! Of course if you have specific dietary requirements (such as being a diabetic or having CHD) then these general principles would be completely inappropriate for you and you should follow the advice of your Doctor or other qualified health professional.  

For the majority of people this will be a sensible starting point. But only a starting point and one that you should tune over the first few weeks of managing your weight more scientifically. In the next article I shall look at Fat in more detail (part 4), before going on to consider the above in the context of sports nutrition (part 5).  

Can happiness ever be found in a piece of cake?

Till the next time – Cheerio!

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