Demystifying Macronutrients — Energy Sources That Fuel Your Body

Tanner Batten | tanner@paradigmsport.com


Energy Sources That Fuel Your Body

In the previous nutrition blog we dove deep into the world of calories, the base of the nutritional pyramid, and why they ultimately dictate whether or not we move towards our goals. If calories aren’t in check then it won’t matter what cutting edge nutrition tips you’re applying or what supplements you take.  If you haven’t read this piece yet, you can check it out, The Calorie and Energy Balance Relationship.  The next most important nutritional principle is, macronutrient (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) composition. This is a topic that many athletes are curious about.  Most people generally understand the breakdown of calories and the principle of energy balance, but there is much confusion surrounding macronutrients and optimal ratios of each one.  The 3 macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat.  Carbohydrates and protein each contain 4 calories per gram, while fat contains 9 calories per gram.  A balance of all 3 is essential for high-level health and performance. For the sake of this article I have made general recommendations for muscle gain, weight maintenance, and weight loss, but first, let's get a basic understanding of each macronutrient.
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
1 gram of protein or carbohydrates = 4 calories

Protein is the most talked about macronutrient in the health and fitness world. Simply put, protein helps you build muscle, recover from workouts, and keeps you feeling full.  This is why I believe it to be the most important macronutrient.  Every time you eat, you should be trying to include a protein source. Each meal, snack, or craving should be built around at least 10-15g of protein, with more coming at main meals.  This will ensure you've satisfied your hunger and have everything you need to rebuild and repair your body after training hard.  Those who center each meal around a protein source (think, chicken, ground turkey, lean ground beef, etc.) will generally consume fewer calories because it's hard to overeat a good, lean protein source.

Carbohydrates are by far the least understood macronutrient.  In today’s world they are often touted as the enemy of healthy eating.  As a result, athletes often limit or avoid them completely.  What many people don’t realize is that they provide your body with the best source of quick and efficient energy.  Athletes need carbs! With that being said, issues begin to arise when carbohydrate intake doesn’t match activity level.  Unfortunately many people eat like an endurance athlete and train like a coach potato.  An easy lesson I try to teach athletes is to “earn your carbs!”  Crushed a workout and went on a walk at lunch? Go ahead and have some brown rice or sweet potatoes for dinner.  Not able to make it into the gym?  Try and base most of your meals on protein, fats, and veggies.  Athletes should match their carb intake to their activity level.  So next time you reach for a carb source  ask yourself, “did I earn this today?”

The final macronutrient is fat.  Fats have received a bad rap over the years, but they are also an essential part of any athlete’s nutrition plan.  Fats provide insulation for your organs, maintain cell membrane health, and help your body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Like carbs, fats are not the enemy, rather poor fat choices are.  I encourage athletes to get more calories from unsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil) than saturated fats (butter, ice cream, sour cream). Like protein, fat also helps to provide you with energy for long periods of time.  One thing to note is that fat adds up quickly.  At 9 calories per gram, a handful of nuts or “splash” of olive oil can easily be hundreds of calories.  Be diligent about monitoring your serving sizes to ensure you aren’t getting too much.    

1 gram of fat = 9 calories
Now that you have a basic understanding of each macronutrient, let’s break down what a balanced nutrition plan looks like for a few different goals.  Regardless of your goal, protein should stay consistently high.  I generally recommend consuming,

1 gram of protein per pound of lean body weight.

Example: For a 200lb man with 20% body fat, that would equate to (200 lbs total weight – 40 pounds body fat) 160g of protein or (160g protein x 4) 640 calories per day. 

If you don’t know your body composition, it's a good time to sign up for our next DEXA Scan (February 18th)! While protein intake is locked in, carbs and fat can be manipulated based on whether you are looking to lose weight, build muscle, or maintain your weight. 

Weight Loss: Total calories will be low for athletes looking to lose body fat.  Using our same 200lb man, let’s say he wants to create a small caloric deficit and eat around 2400 calories per day (Body weight X 12).  In order to preserve his muscle mass he will want to keep protein intake high. Fats will also remain relatively high to keep him full while he is eating fewer total calories.  As a result, the main adjustment in calories will be from carbohydrates.  He will want to make sure to eat enough carbs to fuel his workouts, while staying under his daily calorie goal.  The table below gives you an idea of what the macronutrient ratio may look like for Weight Loss. 

Muscle Gain: Let’s say you want to spend some time building some quality lean tissue.  This will help raise your resting metabolism and improve your strength levels.  Here our 200lb man may want to shoot for around 3000 calories  (Body Weight X 15) to lead to slow and steady weight gain.  Adjusting those ratios to include more protein, more carbs and less fat will help give him the energy he needs to train harder and recover better.  Again the table below shows what the breakdown of each macronutrient would look like. 

Maintenance: Maintenance is the easiest goal to shoot for because it’s somewhere in the middle of the two.  Caloric intake and macronutrient ratios will be moderate. Our 200lb man should shoot to eat around 2600 (Bodyweight X 13) calories and keep protein high.  Check the table below for ideal ratios to maintain weight. 

Example: For a 200lb man,
Calories 3,000 per day 2,600 per day 2,400 per day
Protein 225g   (30%) 162g   (25%) 160g   (25%)
Carbohydrate 375g   (50-60%) 325g   (50%) 260g   (45%)
Fat   83g   (20-25%)   72g   (25%)   80g   (30%)
Note: Percentages are relative to calories per day (i.e., 30% calories per day = 225g Protein for Muscle Gain).

Keep in mind that these are simply guidelines to help get you started towards your goals.  Our bodies aren’t perfect mathematical equations and we may need to adjust these guidelines based on age, gender, body type, and activity level. Some athletes love tracking their food intake and knowing the data and numbers, while others can get their desired results by simply improving food quality and eating a little more or a little less depending on the goal.  If in doubt, try to make better food choices and eat mindfully.  Remember, even the perfect macronutrient ratio won’t be effective if total calories are too high or too low. If you have questions or want specific guidelines for you and your goals, schedule a nutrition consult at the front desk!