Guides, Nutrition

January 13, 2021

Macros for weight loss and performance 101

By:
Coach Jason

"What are the best macros for weight loss?"
"How can I hold onto the most muscle if I do a cut?"
"I'm eating healthy but I just can't lose weight"
"My friends tell me I have to go keto to lose fat"
"Do I have to give up all my carbs?!"

From a theory standpoint weight-loss isn't complicated. Output more energy than you input. 

Don't get me wrong, as a multi-time former fat kid I can 1000% agree it can absolutely be difficult and frustrating. Especially when you don't focus your energy on the right actions.

There are a ton of strategies, and some may work a little better than others depending on the individual.

The science though generally agrees on the common rules to making weight loss happen. These "rules" are fairly clear and well understood.

The basics of which I covered thoroughly in my previous article "What's actually important for Fat loss" which I'd strongly recommend you read if you haven't. 

Though I touched on macros in my previous article you might still be wondering what macros really are, why they matter, how to apply them, or do you even need to?

In this article we're going to do a deep dive into answering those questions along with the some tactical strategies for optimizing your macros for weight loss. More specifically optimizing your macros to retain muscle, and maintain performance while trying to lose weight.

We'll also touch on some common myths and questions about macros and weight loss in general.

Before I dig into this one I want to make a really important disclaimer: 

If you have a history of disordered eating, a tenuous relationship with food or find yourself being triggered by conversations about calories this may not be the article for you.

As a coach my objective is always to promote health, and healthy relationships with your body so if you'd like to discuss your particular situation please don't hesitate to contact me here.

Ok, here we go.

What Are Macros?

Food is made up of nutrients our bodies need in large amounts to survive. We call these macro-nutrients. Things like vitamins and minerals would be considered micro-nutrients. 

Your body breaks down the macro-nutrients you eat into compounds used to help create energy, build body structures, create chemical reactions, and stimulate the release of hormones. Which means they can impact how you feel, perform, and even behave.

The 3 major categories of macros we'll be discussing are protein, fats, and carbohydrates.

Some practical applications to understand:

PROTEIN

Protein is essential for repair, rebuilding, maintaining and growing lean muscle. Protein rich foods are often highly satiating as well, so higher amounts of protein can keep hunger and cravings in check even in a calorie deficit.

CARBOHYDRATES

Carbohydrates fuel high intensity exercise, help preserve muscle mass and fuel the nervous system. Stress and recovery can be strongly influenced by levels of carbohydrates available, the requirement though varies from person to person.

FATS

Fats provide energy, help absorb key vitamins and minerals, and provide building blocks for hormones your body needs to function.

Each Macro has a calorie value: 

Protein and Carbs are worth 4 calories per gram.

Fats are worth 9 calories per gram.

So if you're tracking macros then by default you are also controlling for calories.

When it comes to losing weight (body fat) there's a hierarchy of importance to which actions are going to have the most impact. Figuring out the right macros for weight loss is part of the equation, but there's more to it that just that.

So just to make sure we understand each other before we go further, here's what matters for weight loss in order of importance.

Weight loss hierarchy of importance

  • Calories (Think energy absorbed vs energy expended)
  • Macros (The specific nutrients you receive from what you consume)
  • Meal Timing (When you eat, time between meals)
  • Everything else (Supplements, Food source, etc)

Not all food is created equal

Not all food is created equal it's just measured in the same way; calories. Calories are a measurement of the energy a food provides.

If we input more energy than our bodies output we gain weight otherwise known as a calorie surplus.

If we input less than our output we lose weight (calorie deficit).

If we have just enough we'll stay the same (calorie maintenance).

Note I say weight above not fat. Most people want to lose body fat not simply weight. Though fat is something you will lose as you lose weight, you will also lose muscle and water fairly proportionately in the process unless applying certain strategies.

The type of exercise you choose and the macronutrients you do (or don't) provide your body can strongly influence the proportion of fat to muscle you lose, along with how you feel and perform while in a caloric deficit.

The goal of a smart weight loss approach is to hold onto as much muscle as possible while losing weight, and try not to feel like garbage while doing it. This is why choosing the right macros for weight loss is important because they can just that.

Oscar the grouch being miserable in a trashcan

Yes, this is possible. More on why you need and want muscle in "How to lose weight in your sleep" below.

There are no "bad calories" 

A calorie is a calorie though that doesn't mean all food is created equal.


Calories are a measurement like a kilometre, no matter whether you travel a kilometre on a paved road, sand, or whether you walk, run, or drive, it's still a kilometre. Will it feel different, take more or less time, and offer varying experiences based on these things?

Yes, but it's still a kilometre.

There are no "bad calories" or "good calories", calories are not moral choices. There are simply foods that offer more or less nutrition for their calorie value.

If you eat 500 calories of processed food vs 500 calories of whole food, it's still 500 calories.

Now is eating more nutrient dense whole food going to leave you less hungry, more energized, feeling better and likely healthier over the long term? I'm betting hell yeah.

If you maintain health as a focus during the weight loss process there's a strong likeliness it'll make it easier to maintain your weight loss, make the process less uncomfortable, and allow you to better enjoy the fruits of your labor.

What I want to highlight though is the "rules" for weight gain and weight loss do not change based on the type of food you eat.

You still have to control for calories even if you're eating "healthy foods", but generally eating less processed food will make it easier to control for calories.

If you cannot lose weight or find yourself gaining weight when you're trying to lose it that means your bodies calorie output is still below the calories input.

Not all calories are absorbed

This is where things get tricky, I'm going to grossly oversimplify this process for the sake of understanding. I want you to be clear on the root of some of my suggestions but I don't want you to get stuck here.

Digestion makes the energy in food available to us and the digestive process itself costs energy. 

Basically, you don't absorb 100% of the energy available from the foods you ingest. 

Things like the level of processing, freshness and how efficiently our body can free the stored energy from said food will determine how much energy a food has to offer and will transfer to your body. 

Chandler Wait What?

I know you're like "wait wtf? I thought you just said a calorie is a calorie?!".

It still is my friend, the measure is still the same but how our body deals with food varies from person to person due to digestion, general health (especially digestive health) and even genetic influences. 

These difference can strongly affect both how efficiently we handle the input of energy, as well as our default output.


Want to read more about how calories can vary Precision Nutrition has a great deep dive on this available here.


In order to choose the right macros for weight loss we need to first understand macros themselves and how they interact with the body and how they're used.


There is also a chemical process that needs to happen in order for energy to be released from carbs, fats and proteins. It also takes energy to convert them to body fat for storage. That process is more or less efficient depending on the macronutrient being broken down.


Proteins require the most work from these systems to release energy and also to store. The body does not generally try to store protein as body-fat unless it absolutely has to.


Carbohydrates are the preferred nutrient for our muscles and brain because they more easily break down into glucose their fuel source. They require a little more work to reconvert into body-fat, your muscles can also store a small amount of carbohydrates as fuel called glycogen. Both these processes require that some energy is lost in that process.


Fats provide energy and come "prepackaged" in storage format. If you have enough energy in the system circulating they easily get shuffled back into storage so are the most efficient in that process.


Practical applications that matter to you

Processed food has more of it's calories available, think of processing like partial digestion.

500 calories of processed food is not going to net out to the same as 500 calories of whole food. So if you're eating more whole food you can typically eat more, curbing feelings of deprivation along with giving you more essential nutrients which help keep your system functioning optimally.  

Swapping processed foods for whole food equivalents often reduces calories without think having to think about it. This is often when people do this you'll hear people say things like "I'm not eating less I'm eating better and losing weight". 

Eating and digesting food uses energy. Eating at regular intervals is an important part of the calorie out equation. If you eat a lot of processed food combined with irregular eating intervals it means your calories expended are typically going to be lower than if you ate whole foods at regular intervals.

Want to burn more calories without more physical physical work? Look at your food quality choices and stop skipping meals.

Cooking generally makes more of a foods calories and nutrients available. Raw food can be more work for the body to digest so it can mean less calories available. So things like raw vegetables offer very minimal calorie input and can be great fillers.

Raw foods though can also cause digestive difficulties for some over time depending on the quantity. So if you have digestive issues eating less raw food could possibly help. 

Protein is really hard for the body to convert to bodyfat. It costs the most for the body to breakdown as well as to convert back to stored body fat. Much more so than carbohydrates or fats.

Lean proteins specifically are really hard to overeat as well. Just think how many baked chicken breasts can you smash in a sitting? Full just thinking about it right? My point exactly.

If calories are kept equal but you simply exchange carbs and fats for protein you would reduce your calorie input. This is why low carb adherents often feel they don't need to worry about the amount they eat if mostly eating whole foods and lean proteins or where the idea that you cannot overeat protein comes from.

Carbs and fat both provide energy and are fairly interchangeable. Total calories are the determinant for losing weight. Whether you choose to have more carbs or fats comes down to individual preferences and what makes the process easier to stick to. 

Carbohydrates levels can affect our stress/recovery hormones and fuel for our muscle. When modifying carb intake some people will note their mood, sleep, energy and muscular endurance being different when initially making changes. Our body is very adaptable and will adjust to these new levels but it can take up to 14 days to fully make the switch. Basically if you feel like crap after a couple weeks, change something.

How to lose weight in your sleep

Well kinda, it's more like want to keep your calorie output high at all times and have more liberty to eat more of whatever the f*ck ya want?

Denzel Washington pointing yeah you do

Got ya listenin' now don't I?

Yeah you do. 


Ok here's the secret, do absolutely everything you can to keep your muscle.

Stop that meal skipping, starve yourself, fit tea, cardio fiend, detox wielding bullsh*t.


These actions are sabotaging both your short and long term success, physically, mentally, and emotionally.


Instead, stop trying to be smaller, thinner, or skinnier, and start unleashing the savage.

You know the person who eats real wholesome food often because it builds a body that's strong and capable, lifts meaningful weights with intent because hard shit makes hard people, and moves fast because that's what life is, and you're not gonna be left behind.    


Why else? Here are some reasons:

  • Your muscle is metabolically active tissue. It uses calories simply existing, and it also helps influence the way nutrients get used in the body.
  • Muscles also use carbohydrates for fuel, so it helps make it less likely to store it as body-fat, and more likely to be used to power your workouts.
  • The more muscle you have the harder you can typically work as well which means you have an easier time using calories.
  • Last but not least most of us want to see the results of our work to a degree. We don't want to be softer smaller versions of what we currently see in the mirror. Muscle is the sculptor of that shape. Chests, butts, arms, backs, abs and everything in between need muscle to shape them.

Optimizing macros for weight loss, muscle retention, and performance

Your body has one priority; keeping you alive.
It doesn't care what you look like, it doesn't care how you feel, it'll make whatever you give it work, or it'll sure as hell try.

When you are losing weight it's because you're in a calorie deficit. When you're in a calorie deficit your body will breakdown available energy (carbohydrates), stored energy (fat), as well as what it views as expendable tissue which is namely muscle. 

Your job is to make sure it doesn't view muscle as expendable and that you fuel your body with what it needs to maintain that muscle and even grow it.


Feeding it the right macros during the weight loss process is how you do that.

During a weight loss phase this means you should do the following three things:

  • Increase your protein intake significantly. 1.5-2.2g/kg of body-mass is what you'd aim for over time or about 35% of overall calories. I hear you though, if that seems out of this world to you right now then start with getting an extra serving (20-30g) or two daily and working up from there.
  • Don't forgo carbs entirely. 1-2 servings (30-60g) around the workout would be optimal and eat about 20-25% of overall calories at a minimum.
  • Not food related but very impactful, challenge your muscles by doing some resistance training 3-4 times per week. This is a big reason why a full body workout is a staple in a fat loss phase of so many programs.

Common Macro myths or misunderstandings

Is there such a thing as too much protein?

You might have heard the statement that a high protein intake harms the kidneys. This is generally a myth. In healthy people, normal protein intakes pose little to no health risk. Indeed, even a fairly high protein intake – up to 2.8 g/kg (1.2 g/lb) of body-weight – does not seem to impair kidney status and renal function in people with healthy kidneys. Plant proteins appear to be especially safe. Now from a lifestyle standpoint you might prefer having less protein and that's ok.


Bernstein AM, Treyzon L, Li Z. Are high-protein, vegetable-based diets safe for kidney function? A review of the literature. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 Apr;107(4):644-50. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2007.01.002. PMID: 17383270.


Manninen AH. Are high-protein diets safe for kidney function? J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 Oct;107(10) 1722; author reply 1722. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2007.08.020. PMID: 17904929.


Is Keto and Low carb is the only way to lose fat ?

No. As we covered above carbs have a role to play in optimizing your macros for weight loss. But, in my experience and those of my clients who've voluntarily undertaken low carb approaches they can useful for those with blood sugar management issues (hangry much?) and/or craving control difficulty but they are not essential.


"But I just look at a carb and I gain weight"

If we're talking about eating high carb foods, especially closer to the end of the day, or in larger quantities that you normally eat,  and the day after you've gained weight it's because carbohydrates also help us retain more water. This will go away.


I heard carbs before bed will make me gain fat?

Digestion can take between 6-36 hours to fully complete. Basically food is always digesting. Beyond the workout window described above I would simply eat on a schedule that makes sense for your lifestyle first.


I heard carbs trigger insulin which makes me gain fat

Insulin is delivers nutrients from food to your tissues. It doesn't just create fat, it creates everything. So no, insulin doesn't make you necessarily gain fat. PN has a great deep dive on this available here.


What if I only eat "good fats" and "good carbs" and I'm not losing weight?

Macros and Energy balance cannot be moralized. You're either in a deficit or you're not. You'll either need to optimize your output or minimize your input of overall energy. I understand you're trying to make the right choices and fully understand how frustrating it can be not to see the results of those efforts. I'd be happy to chat about your specific situation, you can book a strategy call here.


Can you lose fat while gaining muscle? 

Yes but it's not easy nor is it useful to really focus on. Keep protein high and resistance train while in a calorie deficit and you might just be surprised by what happens. 

"I'm a woman, things are different" 

I hear you, and feel you rolling your eyes at some of this. I respect your experience and acknowledge there are some key considerations that will vary between sexes. The applicable portions of this article are still valid for both sexes but there will be individual circumstances that dictate a different approach. I encourage you to reach out if you want to discuss your specific scenario. I'll likely do an article in the future going over this in detail, keep a lookout or subscribe to the BID Collective below for updates.  

I hear x diet is the best though

This horse is dead, please go back and read "What's more important for fat loss"

Final Takeaways 

  • Total calories available to your body determine weight changes regardless of the macro breakdown, but optimizing for the right macros for weight loss can ensure the greatest return for your efforts.
  • Retaining muscle should be a strong focus of any weight loss strategy for short term effect and long term metabolic health, high protein intake facilitates this and 1.5-2g/kg body weight would be a good target or 35% of total calories .
  • Eating more nutritious foods at regular intervals may help your calorie output and input
  • To retain muscle while in a calorie deficit, lift, eat more protein and continue to eat some carbs.
  • Eating carbs around workouts or other physical demands can mitigate the performance loss in a calorie deficit. Aiming for a minimum of a serving or two of carbs (30-60g) around the workout window (within 2 hours before or after). 

How do I calculate my macros?

The one thing that's missing here is a formula to calculate your macros.

You didn't miss it, it's not there.

Spend some time on google you'll find various opinions on I'm not looking to give you another blanket answer. It's not a one size fits all situation, your weight loss, health, and exercise history all play into this. 

Since I'm in the business of actual coaching I want to make sure I give you something that will give you the opportunity for success.

If you want a personalized breakdown of what your macros look like for your goals, a guide to foods you may want to prioritize, and some recommendations for your situation and where you should focus your attention I'll spend 30 minutes doing just that. Just Claim your free strategy call and we'll get you started.

About the author

Coach Jason

Jason Ingham is a personal trainer, nutrition coach, powerlifter, sci-fi geek, multi-time former fat kid, lover of Bay (Bailey), food, and lifting heavy things. When he's not in the gym you'll probably find him buried in a book, crushin' a sandwich, or exploring the cities restaurants.

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