One of the first few questions someone will ask me when they’re trying to figure out how to get stuck into “this macro thing” is what ratio of macronutrients to aim for. I don’t really believe in ratios as a way to set your intake targets beyond a very vague guide, and this is why. (Also, now I have a link that I can just send to people when I next get asked this question, yay!)
PS quick note: we’ve got a potentially NSFW image (depending on how long you linger I suppose) in this newsletter — I mean, ’tis the season for giving, amirite? ;)
What’s wrong with ratios?
Nothing, really. But let’s go back to my original FAQ series on macros, and, in particular, how to set up your calorie and macro targets.
To recap (because I do have access to click-rate data and I know a lot of you won’t bother clicking into the links that I SO PAINSTAKINGLY INCLUDE):
Set your calorie intake according to your estimated TDEE and your goals
Set your protein target according to your total body mass and your goals
Take note of your minimum fat intake
Set your carbohydrate and fat balance according to any specific physiological needs, personal preference, and performance goals (where applicable)
Now, for an average person with no preexisting medical conditions and who isn’t seeking to effect a change in their body mass and/or composition, a ratio of let’s say 30/40/30, or 35/35/30 will probably be a perfectly serviceable breakdown of where to get their calories from. For example, if we assume that someone weighs 80kg and that they’re eating 2500 cal/day to gradually “recomp” (or maintain their weight whilst slowly improving their body composition), 30–35% of those calories from protein would give them 185–220g of protein per day. That’s well clear of the protein guidelines for muscle gain, and their fat levels are easily going to be in an optimal range for good health and hormone function as well.
So that means we’ve found the golden ratio…right?
Butt! (Hurhur.) Let’s take a look at some cases where it doesn’t quite work as well:
Fat-loss case study: Denise
Denise’s goal is fat loss, she has no known insulin resistance issues, and she really likes carbs. She’s currently eating 1600 calories per day, which comprises 130P/180C/40F. After some months of dieting down, she’s assessed that her progress has stalled and decides to bring her calories down to 1450/day. Now, if we were to assume that her previous macro ratio of 32.5% protein, 45% carb, and 22.5% fat was “ideal”, she’d be dropping her targets in tandem to 118P/163C/36F, when it’s probably going to make a lot more sense to just take those “excess” calories out of her (fairly high) carb intake, and leave her protein and fat where they are, and drop her targets instead to 130P/140C/40F.
Wait, but why?
Firstly, protein has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF) out of all the macronutrients. As such, if Denise’s goal is to create a larger deficit, reducing any of the components of her TDEE (here: TEF) really doesn’t make sense. TEF aside, protein (along with fibre and hydration) usually contributes to feelings of satiety, so Denise is likely to feel the full effects that 10% reduction in calories has on her hunger levels. Also, going aggressive on protein will raise her chances of retaining as much muscle mass as possible, especially late into her cut. Finally, while that 4g fat may not seem like a whole lot, reducing fat intake by 10% when it’s already at a fairly low level could impact Denise’s health, and, even if it doesn’t, it’s almost certainly going to further restrict her already limited food choices, which will likely impact adherence.
Muscle-gain case study: Andrew
Andrew’s goal is to get thicc. He’s super active and has a fair amount of lean mass already, so he’s currently eating 4500 cal/day. If we use a fairly commonly bandied-about ratio of 30/40/30, he’d be eating a whopping 337.5g of protein a day, which — even if he really likes eating protein — is a LOT. Both in terms of volume and satiety (when you’re bulking, it’s usually a good idea to eat more calorically dense foods so you don’t constantly feel like you’re stuffing yourself way beyond capacity), but also just far beyond what is necessary or even shown to be helpful for muscle protein synthesis (even if there’s no existing literature that implies it may be harmful for the body to consume that much protein). It’s also going to cost more (than filling in those calories with cheaper sources of carbs and fats), especially if every effort is made to purchase high-quality and sustainable sources of protein. Instead, by calculating his protein goals according to his body weight, he’d probably be consuming somewhere around 200g/day, so ~40% less than a ratio-calculated breakdown would have given him.
Insulin-resistant case study: Martin
Martin is morbidly obese, showing signs of insulin resistance, and probably pre-diabetic. Regardless of the manner in which Martin effects a calorie deficit in his diet, it’s probably going to do him well to keep dietary carbohydrates pretty low (and to keep those that he does eat on the high-fibre, complex-carbohydrate end of the spectrum). Those ratios above? Also unlikely to work well for him, since he’s likely to still be eating in the region of 1500 to 2000 calories per day, and I’m pretty sure 130–175g of carbohydrates doesn’t fall under anyone’s definition of a “low-carb” diet.
Oh so many words…
And just in case you’d rather look at an aesthetically pleasing human being tell you more or less the same information, but in his words, I dug up an old video by my coach, Mike Vacanti. There are a couple of slight differences in the way we approach the topic, but he explains things really clearly (and I’d highly recommend you deep-dive on his existing content, especially anything with respect to macros).
Secret’s out — one of the biggest reasons I started this newsletter was because I got tired of repeating myself whenever the same few questions got asked over and over. #sorrynotsorry! Anyway, I get it. It’s a lot simpler to just pick a general ratio than to do a whole bunch of math, and, you know what? If you’ve been calculating your targets based off a ratio and it’s been working for you, far be it from me to fix what ain’t broke! However, if you’ve been fiddling with your macro targets via ratios and struggling, for whatever reason, might be worth it to try a different approach.
As always, hit me up if I can help you with anything, and quick reminder once again that this is the last newsletter I’ll be sending out for this year! Wishing all of you who celebrate Christmas a merry Christmas, and to the rest of you: happy holidays and have an amazing new year. See you kids in 2019!