Hopefully, we have a clear understanding of the role energy balance plays in our body, but that is just the base. When we put that concept into practice we quickly realize that is not as easy as just a thermodynamic formula that looks at the laws of energy conservation, the magic is in the composition of that energy.
Calories come from three main macronutrients (macros), proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Typically, you will find that most foods are a combination of these three macros. Fats are called “fats” if their main macro comes from fat. For example, a Brazil nut contains carbs, proteins, and fats, but the amount of calories coming from fat far outweighs the other two, that's why we call Brazil nuts a “fat source”.
Whenever we hear someone saying “I'm tracking macros”, what they mean is that they essentially are recording their protein, carbohydrate, and fat intake. Tracking apps are the best tool we have at the moment to record this data. It gives us a detailed overview of what went into our body, its nutrients, energy balance (calories), amino acid profile, etc. A few apps we’ve tried are: myfitnesspal, mymacros+, chronometer, and trifecta. We use these apps because we want accurate data, so we can make informed decisions on what's working and what's not working.
Now that we have a basic idea of what macros are, let's dive into each of them separately.
Proteins are long chains of amino acids that serve as the building blocks for your cells, muscle tissue, connective tissue, etc. There are 22 amino acids that your body needs to properly function, out of those, 9 are called the “essential” amino-acids”, because our bodies can't make them, so we have to get them via protein sources.
There are different types of protein:
1) Lean proteins ( >10% fat ): Egg whites, white fish, bone broth, protein powder, beans/legumes, etc.
Fatty proteins (<10% fat ): Beef (most cuts), whole eggs, milk, bacon, salmon, lamb, etc.
“Specifically, what happens when we eat protein?”
Well, the roles of protein are many, here are a few reasons why you want to make sure you are eating proper amounts of protein:
1) Increased thermic effect of food.
Out of all three macronutrients, protein uses the most energy in the digestive process, leading to a higher metabolic rate. Meaning, fat loss and muscle retention in a caloric deficit and muscle gain when trying to get heavier.
Protein requires around 20% of the energy it provides just for digestion and absorption, while carbs and fats require around 5%, in other words, if we eat 100 calories worth of protein, we are actually using around 20 of those calories just to be able to absorb the 100 calories ingested.
2) Increased protein turnover.
Your cells are continually replacing and improving themselves, this is called turnover. The balance between breaking down muscle tissue and rebuilding it, improves protein synthesis, therefore when we eat more protein, we recover our muscle tissue faster.
3) Increased fat loss in periods of caloric restriction.
When we consume protein, we also increase the plasma concentrations of a hormone called glucagon. One of glucagon’s roles is to antagonize insulin’s response in fat stores, leading to greater fat mobilization.
4) Nutrient Density.
When we eat protein, we are eating more than just amino acids, we are also eating other nutrients. Among some other sources, when we eat protein, we typically get branched-chain amino acids, creatine conjugated linoleic acids, etc. This illustrates the need to get most of your protein from food, not protein powders.
“How much protein should I eat?”
It depends. A good starting base is to be around 1.2-2.5 gr per kg, most of us are going to be among these ranges. Our specific targets are going to vary based on:
Activity levels (The protein demands of an elite-level powerlifter are bigger than someone who just wants to excel at their desk-job)
Age (as we get older, we don’t absorb protein as well)
Sex (males synthesize protein better than females)
"Mmm, I still don't get it, why not just follow a template?"
Take the following examples, if you had to assign a protein target to each of these individuals, you would assign a unique target to each of them, right?
A 65-year-old trying to preserve lean mass.
A teenager going through puberty.
A pregnant woman.
A guy that wants to increase lean muscle mass.
A pro athlete.
A person going through a caloric deficit.
Between proteins, carbs, and fat, we absorb and digest carbs faster. Our primary sources of energy are carbohydrates. They are stored primarily in your muscles and liver, some of them help reduce bloating and many of them contain essential nutrients, but for some reason, everyone is scared of eating them.
Carbs are good for us and we need them, the problem is the sources that we are consuming. Our bodies are going to react differently when we choose to eat carbs like bread, ice-cream, and cereal, over carbs like oatmeal, sweet potato, and blueberries.
“When should I eat my carbs?”
You want to eat most of your carbs around your training sessions.
If you train early in the morning, that means you should be eating most of your carbs in the morning. If you train late at night, that means you should be eating most of your carbs around that time.
Before training (90 minutes to 2 hours ), you want to make sure you get your carbs in. After training (or as soon as you can) you want to replenish your carb stores to start the recovery process and refuel your body for your next training day. There are many ways of doing this, the fastest and less time-consuming way is to add a scoop of a fast-carb mix to your protein shake. The best we have found are "karbolyn" and "glyco-bomb". Another option is to refuel with grains like rice and oatmeal, or fruits like bananas or strawberries.
A couple of tips:
Eating 10-20% of carbs 3-2 hrs before a workout is a good place to start.
Use a 1:2 or 1:3 protein to carb ratio for your post-workout meal.
If doing a long workout, consider taking around 30 grams of carbs during your workout.
If you don’t fuel right, especially for activities longer than 20 minutes, your body is going to consume all the carbs stored in your body and will start looking for other energy sources, which might make you feel tired and you may start "crashing" during your workouts. The reason being is simple, you didn’t fuel the race-horse right. To reach high intensity for long periods of time, you want to make sure you are eating right.
“What are re-feeds?”
In a nutshell, carb cycling or “re-feeds” are planned periods of higher carbohydrate intake in order to prevent metabolic down-regulation which prolongs caloric deficits, OR, periods of low carbohydrate intake followed by high carbohydrate intake in order to maximize athletic performance.
The thing with long-term caloric restriction is that your metabolism down-regulates, your little thyroid gland gets funky, leptin levels go down, sex hormones down-regulate, etc. Re-feeds are scheduled periodically so we can stay in caloric deficits for longer, while still having the effects of caloric restriction - fat loss.
The client’s maintenance is at 2000 calories. Eats roughly 1700 calories (caloric deficit) daily and has a re-feed day (extra calories) every 5 days at 2300 calories. The extra calories coming from carbohydrates, while protein and fats stay relatively constant.
The frequency of re-feeds might be once a week, every few days, etc. It largely depends on:
Depth of caloric deficit
Length of caloric deficit
Fasting blood glucose
If you are considering this nutrition strategy, follow these guidelines.
Don’t think of re-feeds as opportunities to indulge in everything, stay on track.
Try to eat most of your re-feed around training.
Schedule your re-feed.
“I don't know where to get good carbs…”
Fruits: Blueberries, bananas, mangos.
Vegetables: Brussel sprouts, kale, broccoli.
Legumes: Black beans, lentils, chickpea pasta.
Grains: Quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal.
Eat carbs. Make smart choices.
By far the coolest macro out there. Grass-fed butter, avocado, egg yolks, bacon… all of it sounds so good, and they are good for you - This is another macronutrient that received negative opinions in the past.
They deliver fat-soluble vitamins, provide essential fatty acids, and are the building blocks for many hormones, especially sex hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone. Many of them have anti-inflammatory properties, and depending on your sport, they tend to be a great source of energy. It’s easy to get confused on how to get them in, and what types of fats are the good ones and which ones are the bad ones.
Fat balance affects how the cell works. Too much saturated fat causes your cells to become rigid. Too much polyunsaturated fat causes the membrane to become too fluid.
The goal is to keep a healthy balance between saturated and unsaturated fats, and you will be fine.
"What are good sources of fat?"
Extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil.
Fat and protein:
Full fat yogurt
Fat and Carbs:
Any seed (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, hemp)
Nuts (brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, almonds)
“What about cholesterol? Egg yolks are bad for you.”
Good sources of fat don’t raise your bad cholesterol, and those healthy fats that raise LDL cholesterol (considered the bad ones), also raise HDL cholesterol.
Transfats, plus ultra fried french fries, plus gallons of coke, plus any other high sugar/high fat snack raises cholesterol.
Egg yolks don’t raise LDL cholesterol, in almost all cases it raises HDL cholesterol ( the good one). Just think about it for a second, one little egg has everything needed to create another life form!
Let's keep growing our knowledge base.
Let's take ownership of the foods we put in our bodies.
Hope this helped.
If you want to go deeper into the research behind this article, go to:
Concerning caloric restriction
On carbohydrates, caloric deficits and focusing on low glycemic carbs
On specific calories, macronutrient and micronutrient intake. Please see tables.
On the need for real protein.