how to optimise your macro nutrient targets (protein, fat and carbs)
Most macronutrient and calorie calculators give you a specific target for calories, carbs, fat, protein and fibre.
This is simple, but unfortunately not optimal when it comes to ensuring optimal nutrition.
Nutrient-dense whole foods don’t come in prepackaged satchels of protein, carbs, fat, fibre and calories that you can mix together to meet specific macronutrient and calorie targets.
In real life, nutritious whole foods have a range of macronutrients and micronutrient profiles. Some days you might crave more energy or different nutrients based on your needs.
While calories and macros still play a role, chances are that you will do better if you initially focus on nutrient-dense whole foods rather than achieving specific macronutrient and calorie targets. Once you remove nutrient poor highly processed foods from your diet you will be able to better trust your food cravings and appetite.
Where to focus
The personalised foods and meals in your free Nutrient Optimiser report will help you re-balance your micronutrient profile, stabilise your blood sugars and provide the energy you need from your food (but not too much, particularly if your goal is fat loss).
To help you make the transition from just thinking in terms of macronutrients and calories, the Nutrient Optimiser provides you with personalised macro and calorie ranges.
The image below shows my macronutrient and energy ranges as someone who is currently 95kg with about 16% body fat and good blood sugars. My current goal, after building some strength in the gym last year, is to lose some body fat while holding onto as much hard earned muscle mass as I can.
Working within target ranges enables me to still listen to my appetite which may guide me to eat more on days that I am more active and when I tend to crave more protein and/or carbs. Conversely, there may be other days when I am less active and less hungry and hence don’t need to eat more than my body is craving.
For me, as someone who has become fairly insulin sensitive with good blood sugars, these macronutrient ranges are fairly wide. I could consume between 32 and 142 g of fat or up to 151g of non-fibre carbohydrates as long as I’m not overdoing my overall energy intake.
For contrast, I have shown below the macro and energy ranges that the Nutrient Optimiser would give for a woman who was also 95kg but had 50% body fat and type 2 diabetes and looking to lose weight.
Her overall energy requirement is lower because she has less metabolically active lean mass. Her target carbohydrate range is much lower to help her control her blood sugars.
At just over 500 calories per day, her lower limit of energy intake is also very low because she has a lot of body fat that can be mobilised. However, she still needs a minimum level of protein, essential fat intake and other vitamins and minerals.
These macronutrient and calorie ranges can act as a starting point. As you make progress with your weight loss or get your blood sugars under control, you can update your profile in the Nutrient Optimiser to update these numbers.
We’re also in the process of developing a Nutrient Optimiser Dashboard that will allow you to track your biometric data (e.g. blood sugars, waist, weight, blood ketones, breath ketones, body fat percentage etc.) help you fine-tune your macro and calorie targets to ensure you are moving towards your goal.
Lots of people are wannabe biohackers but end up getting caught up chasing markers that don’t help them reach their goals (e.g. chasing high ketones for weight loss). Alternatively, they don’t adapt their approach as they progress (e.g. they don’t transition to a more nutrient-dense lower energy density approach once their blood sugars have stabilised on a lower carb diet).
If you have run your free Nutrient Optimiser report we’ll be sure to let you know once the dashboard is ready.
There is endless debate whether calories, hormones or nutrients matter more.
While most people agree that you need an energy deficit to lose weight and an energy surplus to gain weight, the way your body processes energy is complicated and hence impossible to calculate precisely.
Focusing on calories alone may be short-sighted. Without attention to food quality and macros, it may be harder to manage your energy intake.
If you are healthy, your metabolism will increase to burn off any excess energy. You will fidget more and naturally move around more (i.e. non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
However, most people can’t do this forever, particularly if their food is nutrient poor and causes inflammation. A chronic energy excess that drives body fat levels higher will most likely cause you to become overweight and insulin resistant once your fat stores cannot take in any more.
Conversely, if you restrict calories, your body will become more efficient. You will adapt to cope with less energy. Due to this ‘adaptive thermogenesis’ over time you will need to take in less energy if you want to keep losing weight.
This adaption is often seen as a bad thing. But for most people, other than not getting to enjoy as much yummy food, training your body to do more with less is highly beneficial.
If your car is running well, it uses less fuel and gets the job done efficiently.
But if your car is getting old and blowing heaps of fumes, it’s probably burning more fuel than it really needs.
We want fuel-efficient cars to minimise cost and the impact on the environment. But when it comes to choosing the fuel for our body, many of us want to know how much food we can get away with without looking too fat.
Energy is conserved
While our bodies are complex systems and we don’t understand everything that goes on inside them, energy is conserved.
We would love to be able to eat lots and lots of yummy stuff and stay lean, typically doesn’t work out in the long term.
If you are losing weight off your body, you are burning more than you are eating.
If you are gaining weight, you are taking in more energy than you are burning.
However, while energy intake still matters, your primary focus should ideally be on consuming nutrient-dense foods that don’t spike your blood sugars. Once we have food quality dialled in quantity will fall into place. Your appetite will start to work the way it is meant to. Food that contains the micronutrients you need tend to help to prevent nutrient cravings, are more satiating and help you to consume less energy.
Is intermittent fasting better than calorie counting?
The unfortunate reality is that it’s not easy to maintain an energy deficit over a long period of time.
In the low carb or keto world, many people find some version of intermittent fasting helpful.
Others find calorie cycling or a targeted ketogenic diet (i.e. more carbs and/or calories on workout days) to be useful.
Still, others find that refeeds or diet breaks can be helpful to reset your hormones and appetite after a number of days or weeks of conscious and careful restriction.
Personally, I’ve done my share of intermittent fasting but found that I would always manage to compensate for my deprivation and congratulate myself with enough food at the end to maintain my weight over the long term. And it was hard at the end of the fast to make sure I was eating the most nutrient-dense foods. Once I started eating I would always find myself reaching for the energy-dense cream and peanut because I had earned it.
After a period of gaining strength in the gym last year and gaining a bit more fat than I would have liked, this year I have been more diligent in tracking my intake and making sure I’m eating nutritiously with adequate protein to support my recovery while maintaining enough of a deficit to ensure ongoing weight loss.
This has also included a couple of “diet breaks” programmed around intense periods at work when I didn’t want to be thinking about food all the time. After the period of mental and physical relaxation, once I dialled things back in the water weight dropped off and the weight loss continued.
However, you want to structure it, allowing some room to listen to your body’s signals can be useful. In the long run, you will need to maintain a deficit if your goal is to lose weight or an overall surplus if your goal is to build muscle.
While not many people find tracking their food intake fun, many people find that they need to track to stay accountable and achieve their goals. Even a short period of tracking can be helpful to help re-train your eating habits.
Your calorie range for weight loss
Rather than a fixed energy target, if you are trying to lose weight, the Nutrient Optimiser gives you a starting calorie range.
The lower limit calorie intake level is based on the maximum rate of weight loss you can achieve without excessive loss of muscle mass (i.e. 21 calories per pound of body fat)  while also getting a minimum amount of protein. The more fat you have to lose, the more aggressive your deficit can be without risking muscle loss.
If you aim is weight loss, your upper limit calorie intake level is based on your basal metabolic rate (BMR) minus 15%. This is a reasonably comfortable deficit for moderate fat loss that won’t generate excessive hunger for most people.
If you are feeling ambitious, you can aim for the lower calorie intake level. But then one day you may feel more hungry or be more active so you can allow yourself to eat up to the upper limit without feeling guilty.
Most people under-report their food intake, so targeting a lower intake will accommodate your optimism bias and crappy reporting.
Example calories and macronutrient ranges
The table below shows my recommended macro ranges from the Nutrient Optimiser in weight loss mode. My target calorie intake for weight loss is 1,606 to 1,962 calories per day. For me, this is a 15 to 30% deficit below my theoretical basal metabolic rate of 2,308 calories per day.
|net carbs (g)||
The image below shows how these lower limits look when entered into Cronometer.
If you click on the energy bar in the web interface or the app, we get this popup where you enter this calorie range.
While these values are calculated to four significant figures, they are only estimates of how much energy is in the food you are consuming. Theoretical calculations should only be used as a starting point and refined based on actual progress.
If you find after a week or two that you are not achieving the weight loss you were hoping for you should reduce the maximum allowable calorie intake to ensure that you are losing weight. A reasonable rate of weight loss is somewhere between 0.5 and 1.0% of your total body weight per week. If you’re aggressive and very disciplined, you might be able to achieve a 1.5% loss per week for a short time.
Many people have found that they can sustain a more aggressive rate of weight loss over the long term if they have adequate protein and micronutrients. You will also find it hard to overeat on the foods and meals recommended by the Nutrient Optimiser.
Similarly, if you find that your blood sugars are not trending down, you can reduce your carb target. Once your blood sugars are dialled in you can loosen your carb target a little to allow more nutrient-dense foods.
If you’re not looking for weight loss
If you’re a lean athlete not aiming for weight loss, you will be able to ‘eat to satiety’ to ensure you recover. If you’re looking to gain muscle without too much fat, you will want to target a slight energy excess.
Be careful eating back the calories from exercise if you are trying to lose weight. Your Fitbit or Strava may tell you that you just burned a lot of calories, but if you enter that into Cronometer and then have the extra ice cream that it says you are allowed, you may find you are not getting the results you hoped for.
If you want to get more background about the charts and discussion below, the macro targets in the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm are based on the analysis detailed in the How to get the minimum dose of nutrition and Macros > micros? articles.
Getting enough protein is important when losing weight to prevent loss of lean muscle mass. The minimum protein intake in the Nutrient Optimiser is based on 1.8 g/kg lean body mass (LBM).
Nutrient density starts to drop off once protein drops too. Getting adequate protein is as much about maintaining overall nutrient density as it is about getting protein for muscle growth and repair.
It can be helpful to target higher levels of protein if you are in an aggressive energy deficit. The upper limit provided by the Nutrient Optimiser is based on the optimum protein intake level or about 45% of your maintenance energy intake. Beyond this point, any extra protein starts to have a negative impact on nutrient density.
Similar to your calorie ranges, you can click on the protein bar in Cronometer and enter your minimum and maximum protein intake as per the example below.
If you find that you’re starting to lose too much muscle mass rather than body fat you can increase your minimum protein intake. It’s hard to track muscle loss vs fat loss accurately, but the chart below is my attempt using my bioimpedance scales. You can see during the first six weeks (during the Ketogains Bootcamp) I was losing twice as much fat compared to lean mass. Later in my journey when I’m not working out as much you can see the ratio of lean mass loss vs fat-free mass loss is drifting up.
Loss of hard-earned lean muscle mass in weight loss is real and you would be wise to do everything you can to avoid it. Other than taking testosterone, steroids or choosing different parents, resistance training and a higher protein intake are the only things I’m aware of that will help you lose more fat and retain more muscle.
As shown in the chart below, a very low-fat diet (less than 10% energy from fat) may leave you struggling to achieve a good micronutrient profile. Hence we recommend getting a minimum fat intake of 0.4 g/kg LBM. While this is less fat than most people eat you will easily be able to achieve the daily recommended minimum requirements.
My fat range is shown in the figure below. If you’re in fat loss mode, you will likely be closer to the lower limit. If you are trying to gain muscle or are very active, you will likely be eating more fat.
You don’t need a lot of carbs to get a reasonable level of vitamins and minerals. Non-starchy veggies like spinach and asparagus provide a range of vitamins and minerals that are typically harder to find in animal-based foods.
The image below shows how this looks when entered into Cronometer.
If you are managing diabetes?
If you are insulin resistant or have diabetes, the allowable upper limit of carbohydrates provided by the Nutrient Optimiser will be limited to help stabilise your blood sugars. As you can see from the chart below, there is a balance between nutrient density and a lower dietary insulin load.
Managing the insulin load of your diet will require a reduction in protein intake if you need a therapeutic ketogenic diet. Most people find that they get the outcome they need by reducing refined carbohydrates.
So, in summary:
- You should use the Nutrient Optimiser to focus on nutrient-dense whole foods that align with your goals without worrying too much about macronutrients.
- Logging your food in Cronometer enables the Nutrient Optimiser to fine tune your food and meal choices to rebalance your food choices and improve your micronutrient profile.
- The calorie and macro ranges provided by the Nutrient Optimiser can be used to double check that you are on the right path.
In the next instalment, we’ll look at how the nutrient score is calculated and what it takes to get yourself to the top of the Nutrient Optimiser leaderboard.