No macros from an online calculator or even an experienced coach are your perfect numbers. Yes, they can give you a good estimate, but you can do the same.
The quantity of food you need is based on two main factors:
- Basic Physiological Functions; and
- Activity (from walking around to working out).
Sure, we can make the “basic physiological functions” category more complicated (e.g., Resting Metabolic Rate, Thermal Effect of Food, etc.), but there is no real utility to do so. Essentially there is a baseline level of food you need to support some pretty basic functions. While there are ways to estimate this, it is dependent on your age, sex, lean mass, and the wildcard: genetics. Meaning, we can get an estimate based on an average human data, but it won’t be 100% accurate to you.
Then there is the food you need to support daily activity. This can be highly variable between individuals (e.g., sedentary to multiple training hours per day) and even can be highly variable day to day (i.e., rest days to high volume days). The quantity of food needed to cover your activity can be estimated from calculators as well. But some of these calculators get pretty in the weeds of including all daily activities (from each household chore like washing dishes and to each element of a mixed-modal training session). The intensity at which you perform these efforts is also a factor just as much as the activity and duration. So there is going to be some inherent error in these calculators. Many sites resort to using more simple descriptors like “sedentary” or “very active” that essentially become multipliers on your baseline level of calories needed for basic functions.
It is worth noting that the calculators are often not wildly off (assuming accurate inputs), but you can do better.
Your Baseline Caloric Intake
How? Record what you eat for 5-7 days. I’d recommend a stretch long enough that you include days with those dietary indiscretions and natural fluctuation in activity. For example, I tracked 7 days to include a full weekend when my diet isn’t as regimented and activity is reduced. Yes, you can do this for a shorter period of time, but a week is more likely to give you a realistic number. Ideally, you just eat “naturally” during this week not trying to do anything different.
This may seem more work than just using a calculator and getting an immediate answer. It is in the short-term, but the return on investment is that you will end up with numbers that are more meaningful to you. It already takes into account ALL of the factors above because you are the living example of them. Why leave it up to an online calculator when you have real data? This also means your starting point is likely more realistic, which will make the whole thing more sustainable.
You can just track calories, but apps like MyFitnessPal make it easy enough to get your macros as well. Here is my data for a week:
From there take the average for calories and each macronutrient. This is your baseline. Assuming you are at a constant weight, this number of calories approximates how to maintain your current weight in light of your age, sex, lean mass, genetics, and activity!
In this case, my average was 2,331 calories/day.
Now you need to determine how these calories “should” be split among the macronutrients. The “40/30/30” split recommended by Dr. Barry Sears for the Zone Diet is a good place to start for a couple reasons:
- It provides a good basis of the macronutrients nutrients needed for the active but non-professional-one-workout-a-day crowd;
- It is a middle ground: tweaks on the ratios are not as major as starting at more extreme ones (say a keto diet).
“40/30/30” means 40% of the calories come from carbohydrate, 30% from protein, and 30% from fat. You can choose any macronutrient split you want, but if you don’t know where to start this is a good one for most people. Here are my calculated macronutrients based on 40/30/30 compared to what I actually ate in the sample week:
Comparing your calculated average intake to your actual intake is worthwhile; someone may choose to make gradual steps towards their goal macronutrient distributions versus trying to switch immediately to them if they were very disparate (remember: sustainability is important!).
If you want to lean out, reduce your baseline by 10%. Yes, some will recommend greater percentages (e.g., 20%) for fat loss. However, one of the things I’ve found over the years is that just by recording all your intake, you generally end up eating less (despite attempts to eat “naturally”). Take an honest estimate of your recorded week; it may be that you just need to be consistent at this baseline versus reducing the caloric load even further.
And if you want to gain mass, baseline calories can increase by 10-20%. Yep, that’s it. The first step to all this stuff (as true for most things) is just starting and getting consistent in the practice. Don’t delay by trying to get it “perfect” out of the gates. It doesn’t exist and it’s more meaningful to just start where you are.
Have questions? Ask in comments below!