Macronutrient Madness

  • How much protein do I need Raj?
  • I read I should get exactly 17% of my calories from carbs for fat loss. Is this true?
  • How many grams of fat should I eat to not get fat?
  • I eat very healthy – hardly any fat and lots of whole grains. I still am not losing weight! Why?
  • I eat super clean – hardly any carbs and lots of saturated fats. I still am not losing weight! Why?

These are some common questions I receive on the blog and via email all day everyday! No I’m not kidding. You have no idea what kind of questions people come up with! But why? Why do people have these questions? Well, because their experts/gurus/researchers make ridiculous, baseless and sometimes compelling statements like…

  • Carbs cause obesity. The average man gets 45% of calories from carbs and the average man is fat!
  • Eating fat will make you fat. The average man gets 40+% of calories from fats and the average man is fat!
  • The body runs best on ketones and hence most of your calories must come from fat.
  • Protein is toxic in high doses.
  • Protein spares muscle, gets converted into glucose and even fuels the brain when needed. Load up on protein!
  • Eating more than 150 g of carbs a day will cause insidious weight gain.
  • Chicken breast and brown rice for the win! This is the way to get ripped!
  • Carbs are required for glycogen replenishment… low carb will starve your muscles!
  • Eating carbs at night lead to fat gain.
  • Never eat carbs and fat in the same meal!
  • A protein:carb:fat ratio of 30:30:40 is ideal for fat loss.
  • A protein:carb:fat ratio of 50:35:15 is ideal for gaining muscle AND losing fat!
  • A protein:carb:fat ratio of 10:20:70 is perfect for health and longevity!

Holy bambolly!! Who would not be confused right? I’ll admit that I’ve fallen for every single one of these statements. I’d read one experts blog/article/book, get convinced and change my diet. Then I’d read something else which says the right opposite and change my diet again. This cycle kept repeating itself for too long… but only until I realized I have the ability to think!

This post is a result of years of gullibility which resulted in astucity.

All macronurient recommendations are BS

Firstly let’s address in general the claims made my the million diet gurus in the gazillion diets they create/recommend.

Plain and simple – it is absolutely ridiculous for anyone to come up with any macronutrient split and claim it to be universal! I mean come on. Everybody is different and every body is different! This is line 1 on page 1 of the million page book of nutrition, fitness and health. If a health and fitness professional doesn’t realize this, then, well, he/she ain’t no professional!

The fact that we are all humans and hence we should all thrive with one magic macronutrient split is downright stupid! The fact that we all have the same kind of digestive system only means that we are all meant to digest the same kind of food. That is it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Why?

Let’s talk evolution for a little bit… just a little bit.

We humans today are at the peak of the food chain. We are so awesome that we have no predators! The only way we can die is if we kill ourselves (which we’re so good at) or due to some natural calamity. Why do you think we’re at the top of the food chain? We were never the strongest species! Neither were we the longest lived species! Neither were we the species with the more defense/offense mechanisms!

But… we were, are and will always be… the most adaptable species!

Sorry folks, survival of the fittest was true only to an extent. After a point it was all about survival of the most adaptable and we sneaky little humans excelled in it! How else could you explain 7 billion weak and diseased humans controlling the entire planet today? We control the survival and extinction rates of every other animal and plant and fish there is today!

The point I’m trying to make here is that we were, and still are, bloody damn adaptable! A lion is a hundred times stronger than a human. But if he doesn’t find his meat, hes done! But we humans can live off  leaves and yams and coconuts as well as we can live off bugs and milk and cow blood! And if you think I’m bullshitting you, read about the kitavan diet and then read about the masai diet.

So then… the answer is easy right? Macronutrient composition doesn’t matter! Boom! Done!

But wait… this is only true if you are healthy and lean and if your only goal is to live long and reproduce. But that isn’t the case today is it? We are fat and diseased and/or we all have different goals. Some of us want to lose every ounce of fat while some want to get big and strong and some others want to keeping running till our legs fall off!

In other words, what is the optimal macronutrient split for different people with different goals? Is there a health biased split? What about fat loss? What about strength/mass gain? What if you’re a competitive endurance athlete?

The Split

The answer is – Yes. Goal based optimal macronutrient splits change drastically with goals. Stated differently, what is optimal from a health and longevity standpoint might not be optimal for a 4-6 month strength gain phase or for marathon training. But before we get into grams and percentages…

First –  you need to be eating real food. Food quality is paramount and as far as long term health is concerned, there is much more to be gained from a real food based diet than from a perfectly weighed and measured processed food based diet. So step 1 – Eat real food! Get 70% of your calories from meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit and dairy, 20% from performance enhancers like rice and whey protein and 10% from whatever it is that keeps you happy (cheesecake anyone?!).

Second – you need to know what you are after in the short term. What do you want in the next 3 months? Lose 10 lb? Run 50 miles? Do 20 pullups? Deadlift 3 x BW? So step 2 – Define your goals and decide to stick to them!

Now on to macronutrient splits and other fun stuff.

Case 1 – Health & Longevity

Let’s say your goal is general long term health and you don’t really have a short term goal. You don’t care about losing weight or looking ripped or lifting 200 kg. You just want to live long and healthy. If you’re a lean and in good health, then macros shouldn’t matter much.

You would need to get about 10-20% of calories from protein to ensure normal functioning of your body. The remaining 80-90% of your calories can come from either fat or carbs. It’s all about food quality and it doesn’t matter if you’re eating fat or carbs or when you eat what. The only conditions are…

  • Your carbs need to be from fibrous and starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, yams, taro, cassava etc.) along with some fruit
  • Your fats need to be the good ones (mostly saturated and monounsaturated and a tiny bit of polyunsaturated).
  • You need eat to satiety. Never stuff yourself. Never starve. Done!

Case 2 – Fat Loss

But let’s say you’re a good 15-20 lb overweight, what should your macros in order to produce optimal fat loss in the next 3 months?

Irrespective of what your diet was like previously, you will need to eat a bunch of protein. Protein, though not the preferred fuel, is the king when it comes to leaning out. There are three reasons for this –

  • Protein is extremely satiating and hence helps with curbing appetite and prevents overeating.
  • It has the highest thermic effect among all three marconutrients and hence helps burn some extra calories.
  • It builds, repairs and spares muscle tissue which is critical when leaning out.

Though there is a lot of debate about how much protein is really required, about 0.8-1 g of protein per pound of body weight should keep you satiated and healthy. For most folks this will work out to be ~ 25-35% of their calories. The remaining 65-75% of your calories need to come from either fat or carbs.

If you’ve been on a high carb diet (like most people are), then there is no questioning the low carb approach. Realize – low carb doesn’t mean no carb. It just means reducing your intake of carbs from the current level. For eg. if you eat ~ 350 g (~ 70% of a 2000 cal diet) of carbs per day, you’ll do really well if you drop that down to about 100-150 g (20-30%) and get the lost calories from fat and protein.

On the other hand, if you’ve been on a very low carb (< 50 g per day) or a zero carb diet for a while and if you’re weight loss has plateaued, you’ll definitely do better with the addition of carbs. Once again the 100-150 g of carbs per day seems to work best for most people (more or less depending on body weight and activity level). The reason folks plateau in chronic low carb diets is that severe restriction of carb results in messing with  normal thyroid functioning and hence slows down metabolism to a crawl. Reintroduction of carbs (and by that I mean safe starches and fruit), almost always results in breaking such plateaus.

So for efficient fat loss, carb-cycling seems to be the best tool. In other words, go low carb and ride that pony for as long as you see results. Once you stall, do a major carb reload for a couple of days and get back on the low carb pony. For more fun stuff about carb cycling check this and this.

Case 3 – Strength Gain

Surely, all this becomes super easy ‘cos the only diet plan that works for strength/mass gain is… Eat! Eat real food and eat as much as you can. The only things you need to keep in mind are…

  • Get enough protein (~ 1-1.5 g per lb of bodyweight)
  • Eat about 30-100 g of starch starch post training depending on the intensity of your training and your body weight. From what I’ve seen in my clients, ~ 0.5 g of carbs per lb of lean body mass seems to be a good place to start. So if you’re 200 lb with ~ 20% BF, start with ~ 80 g of carbs post training and modify as you go on.

And No, you can’t gain slabs of muscle without gaining almost equal amounts of fat (unless you’re a genetic freak or you’re juiced up!)

Case 4 – Endurance

The thing with endurance training is that you need to constantly fuel your body and more importantly provide it with the right fuel. Like I mentioned earlier, protein is an inefficient fuel for the body and hence needs to be low compared to the other two macronutrients. Depending on the intensity of the sport/event and the nature of your training, you would need either a fat dominant or a carb dominant diet but based on anecdotal and scientific evidence it looks like a carb dominant approach works better when it comes to competitive endurance sports. So, if you are…

  • endurance training ‘cos you love it and are fat adapted – drop the protein, up the fats and eat little carbs.
  • endurance training to compete and/or are carb adapted – drop the protein, up the carbs and eat little fat.

Moving on to special cases…

What about cholesterol?

As much as the media would have you believe that eating fat will kill you and the blogoshpere will have you believe carbs mess you up, the truth is that macronutrients seem to have little to no effect on blood lipids. Sure eating transfat and/or huge amounts of sugar and/or gut irritants like wheat regularly will wreak havoc, but if you stick to the ‘eat real food‘ recommendations and base your diet around real foods, eating more fat or carbs won’t have any negative effect on your blood lipids.

What about diabetes?

Low carb is definitely helpful here, but then, building all your meals from real foods will automatically drop your carbs down and up your fat and protein. So as long as you keep your fruit consumption low to moderate and stay away from fruit juices and sugars, real food meals which are rich in fat, starch, fiber, protein and micronutrients will keep your blood sugar in check.

In summary…

  • There is no one macro-nutrient split that is applicable for everyone.
  • Humans are super well adapted to thriving on both high fat and high carb diets.
  • Protein is essential for normal functioning but also toxic in very high doses and is an inefficient source of fuel.
  • If fat loss is a goal, up the protein, cycle carbs and eat good fats without guilt.
  • If strength gain is a goal, up the calories. Eat anything you see, smell, feel or dream!
  • If (competitive) endurance is the goal, drop the protein and fat and up the carbs. Or get fat adapted and run on ketones!
  • Macronutrient splits have little to no effect on blood lipids.
  • Diabetics benefit from a low carb approach (which is built into the eat real food recommendations).

I know this isn’t like the other maronutrient posts you’ve read, but recommending random numbers without understanding the person’s goals and current physical condition is just nonsense. As always, be patient and keep experimenting till you find what works for you. Irrespective of what the studies or experts say, at the end of the day, n = 1 is all that matters!

If there is enough interest, I’ll follow this post up with sample meal plans for each one of these cases. Let me know in the comments section.

And as always, if you found the post useful please do help spread the word by sharing it.

36 responses to “Macronutrient Madness

  1. dss May 23, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Omg i was just thinking about this topic and viola the post appears .. talk about good luck huh!! ok now that brings me to the second set of questions.. now when you say real food do you explicitly mean the grass fed meat ,organic produce,free range etc because unlike the US in many other parts of the world the “organic” culture is not as popular and neither do we have any way of knowing the source of the meat or produce. So in this case would eating real foods have a negative impact.
    Btw awesome awesome post I absolutely adore the way you write its simple to the point and you explain everything in such a manner that anyone can understand. Good job!!!!

    • RG May 23, 2011 at 9:02 pm

      Thank you DSS.

      If you dont have access to grass fed meat etc., stick to lean cuts of meat and add in good fats like coconut oil/milk, avocado, butter, cream, ghee etc etc.

  2. A-kay May 23, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    That was quite informative. In your sample meal plan, can you suggest meals for a lacto vegetarian (basically yes to dairy and no to eggs)? It would be really great if you can give an idea on what can be eaten for BF / lunch / dinner. I am in the 2nd category – trying to lose 15-20 lbs and trying to go low-carb. Thanks in advance.

    Thanks to you, I have started eating real food, cheese and tonnes of veggies (salad and such). Would really appreciate your suggestions for meals to help me continue in this path.

  3. Vizeet May 23, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    Another nice post Raj.
    My two cents….For diabetic and heart patients I would suggest stay away from vegetable oils, grains (except rice) and sugar (even sugar substitute). If you have sweet tooth increasing saturated fat in diet should help.
    For diabetic it is better to move to insulin inj. from metformin if you are reducing carb because Metformin can cause low sugar level in that case. Actually even Ayurveda drugs may have same effect because they tend to artificially reduce sugar level. Always consult your doctor before making dietary changes or find a good Naturopath.

    • RG May 24, 2011 at 11:12 am

      Thank you Vizeet . Check out the eat real food post that is linked, it talks about avoid grains and vegetables oils and more.

  4. Sangeetha May 23, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Hi Raj,

    Well researched, definitely people have different goals,am on the fat loss goals now:)Thanks so much for the breakup and will look forward to the sample meal for fat loss 🙂


  5. Murali May 23, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    great post. quite interested in the sample meal plans for the various cases!

  6. Sindhu May 24, 2011 at 5:00 am

    Hey Raj,
    Great post as usual! My hub and I are working towards our own fitness goals. He is strength training while am trying to lose weight, a sample diet for both would be awesome. Thanks so much for the time and effort you put into your posts.

  7. SG May 24, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Excellent post Raj. Looking forward to see the sample meal plans for fat loss. Thanks.

  8. Parul May 24, 2011 at 9:35 am

    It’s absolutely fantastic that you (and others in the fitness and nutrition field) are so generous with your time and inputs. May your tribe increase. Love this blog!

    • RG May 24, 2011 at 11:15 am

      Thank you for the comment Parul. The more ppl know about nutrition the better it is. Considering you have a big ass tribe at your blog… send em here so they can get healthy n fit along with ya!

  9. Reva May 24, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Very neat explanation, Raj. I am off to calculate my daily requirements based on this. And yes, like the others have already said before me, sample meal plans would be awesome.

  10. Contemplationist May 24, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Great post!

    I’ve ridden the very low carb pony for around 8 months now (from September). Was down 35 pounds, but started serious strength training around February and have gained back 15 pounds, some of it fat around the belly. I’m still doing less than 40g of carbs per day, but do heavy cream with whey almost everyday, but the belly is persisting and its really frustrating!@
    From this post, I understand that I should go on a potatoes and yams binge for couple days. Should I also cut out my heavy cream with whey powder treat?

    • RG May 24, 2011 at 11:21 am

      You are definitely better off adding in some carbs. Since you’ve been VLC for way too long, I’d suggest you do a 2 day carb reload. Dont count calories. Eat as much starch as you can (rice, potatoes etc.) but drop the fat to a minimum during those 2 days. Keep the protein constant and stick to leaner cuts of meat for these 2 days. Your weight will go up initially due to water retention, but you should lose all that water along with fat within a week once you get back on to low carb.

      As an alternative, try adding in ~ 50 g starch (sweet potatoes, rice etc) in your post workout meal and see how you do. Add more if you do well on it. This is a more moderate and sustainable approach in the long run.

      • Contemplationist May 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm

        Thanks for the suggestion! I already do one small baked sweet potato only post workout, so that might push my starch to around 70grams on two days per week. It seems to workout okay though the belly fat still hasn’t gone and seems to be increasing a teeny bit.

        I’ll try out the starch binge for 2 days. But do you think the heavy cream with whey powder (which i eat everyday as a treat) could be responsible? I’ve only started eating that regularly around 2 months back.

      • RG May 26, 2011 at 9:43 pm

        The cream + whey should have no ill effects really… unless it adds too many calories which is preventing you from losing the flab.

  11. Anitha May 25, 2011 at 8:07 am

    Again an excellent post! I am trying to lose 15-20 lbs. Have lost 15 lbs already since Jan. I love eggs, but do not feel like having it everyday. Feel like having a heartburn, but feel good when I have it with carbs. Same is the case with paneer & avocado. Wondering why. Meals without carbs do not feel hearty. I eat a variety of carbs: rice, ragi, kambu, quinoa etc and keep wheat consumption very limited like once a week. Have reduced the quantity of carbs though. Would love to see your sample meal plan. And thanks for all the effort you are putting. I am trying to spread this among my friends circle and there are no takers yet. They look at me like I am a specimen! Makes me wonder if I should just keep shut.

  12. Lavanya May 25, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Hey Raj.. You are a real Saviour! I was thinking of one such question and was wondering If I should ask and now this post has several answers.. I am on a weight lose goal and I eat real foods and eat some carbs like rice, carrots etc… However, this month, my weight loss has improved and no visible inch loss.. I was wondering why the tummy fat has not reduced at all… I will wait for the meal plans….

    I am sharing all the information I can on FB and with some friends… Love your blog and its my BIBLE that I refer to almost everyday…. 🙂
    Thanks .. lavanya

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  14. mlc May 26, 2011 at 9:51 am

    AWESOME post! like someone mentioned earlier, u write in SIMPLE english tht most ppl wl get riteaway & it makes somcuh more sense!! thnx somuch fr tht! lookn frwrd to yr smpl meals.

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  16. bee May 27, 2011 at 10:31 am

    while it’s true that humans can thrive on high-carb as well as high-fat diets, what you eat is different from what your body does with what you eat. even high-card low-fat diets end up most as fat in the body because of mitichondrial oxidisation, creating fatty acids.

    so, in the end, your body is eating fat. i’d rather eat the fat directly without causing the tissue damage that carbs cause.

    • RG May 27, 2011 at 10:47 am

      Its true that everything you eat either gets converted to fat or if youre not eating enough your body makes energy by burning fat. But the deal is about fueling your activity. For someone engaging in glycogen depleting activity, carbs are a need for repletion and recovery. Again, there is no good or bad macronutrient here. Different strokes for different folks and the only thing thats constant is – eat your activity.
      And FYI – carbs in general dont cause tissue damage. Excessive consumption of carbs are what cause it. Eating real food carbs in reasonable amounts (low carb and not no carb) helps with recovery and super-compensation resulting in making you more insulin sensitive. Once again, find what works for you. If PHD works for you, stick to it till it stops working for you.

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