Macros for Cutting: 5 Steps to Dial in Your Nutrition

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

Looking for that extra edge in your diet? Learning how to dial in your macros can be just what you need to melt body fat and get shredded. Here is exactly how to calculate your macros for cutting. As well as how to ease your way into and out of a cut, and swing your macros day to day based on your personal fitness needs.

Counting Calories vs Macros

Cutting calories is the most widely recognized approach to weight loss. But when it comes to changing your body composition - losing fat and maintaining muscle mass - the quality of your food choices is key. This is where macros come into play.

Macros are where all of your calories come from. So counting macros is an easy way to manage calorie intake. 

But macros also play a role in supporting your fitness goals, energy levels, managing your mood, and keeping hunger in check - all of which can make sticking to a diet feel a lot easier.

Step 1. Calculate Your Calorie Needs

Determining how many calories you need a day to maintain your current weight is always step one. 

You can also skip the math and use an online calculator that considers individual factors like age, gender, and fitness level, to give you a fairly precise estimate in a few minutes.

Another way to estimate your daily calorie needs is by tracking your current food intake. A lot of times people go into a diet without any clue of how many calories they are eating before they start cutting. 

Take a week or two to get familiar with tracking calories/current macros using a food tracking phone app to get yourself a baseline to start with.

How to Cut Calories

Once you have an idea of how many calories you are eating most days/your calorie goal to maintain your current weight, you can add a deficit to promote fat loss (typically a 10 to 25% decrease). 

For example: If you need 2,500 calories a day to maintain, a 20% deficit would mean you need to eat 2,000 calories a day to lose weight (2,500 x 80%).

You should also have a rough idea of how long you’d like to diet for, based on how much fat you have to lose. The more body fat you have to lose, the longer you will want to be on a cut. 

Typically a six to twelve week cut is used. Anything shorter won't give great results and anything longer increases your risk of diet fatigue.

You can always take a short diet break after the twelve weeks and jump right back into it when ready to keep going.

Tip: If using a phone app, remember to track your weight changes to recalculate your calorie needs as you lose weight.

Using a Phased Approach to Cutting

Instead of diving right into a full blown cut, consider using a phased approach to ease your way into a diet. This is especially important if you are newer to cutting calories.

Systematizing your approach can also make the process feel a lot better (aka less like a crash diet that leaves you starving), which also means you’re more likely to stick to it longer and get better results.

Here’s how to do this like a pro:

  • Break up your cut into blocks.
    • For example, if you are dong a twelve week cut, split it into three four-week time periods.
  • Gradually increase your calorie deficit as you move from one phase to the next.
    • For example, cut your calories by 10% the first four weeks, 15% the second four weeks, and 20% the last four weeks.

For example: If your maintenance calories are 2,500 calories a day, you can structure you cut like so...

  1. Weeks 1-4 at 2,250 calories/day (2,500 x 90%)
  2. Weeks 5-8 at 2,125 calories/day (2,500 x 85%)
  3. Weeks 9-12 at 2,000 calories/day (2,500 x 80%)

Tip: Increasing your workout intensity or frequency can cause your daily calorie needs to increase. Be sure to recalculate your needs as your fitness level changes. 

Step 2. Estimate Your Protein Needs 

Research supports higher protein intake during a calorie deficit for a number of reasons, the main being:

  1. Improved body composition: high protein diets help protect lean muscle mass while cutting calories, and in some cases can help you gain a small amount of muscle at the same time you are losing fat (1,2,3). 
  2. Reduced hunger and cravings: protein is thought to be incredibly satiating and may also play a role in reducing sugar cravings (4,5,6,7). 

In fact, protein is the single most important macro to consider when cutting. If you were to only focus on hitting your daily calories and getting enough protein, you would likely get incredible results. 

Your protein needs are based on how many pounds of lean mass you have, so if you know your current body composition, you can easily calculate exactly how many grams of protein you need a day

Aim to get at least 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass for maintenance. Or based on existing research, you should aim to get roughly 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

For example: A 200-pound adult should get 160 to 240 grams of protein a day while cutting.

Tip: Your protein needs can remain constant day to day, regardless of your fitness routine.

Starting a High Protein Diet

Similar to decreasing calorie intake, jumping right into a very high protein diet can be difficult if you’re not already eating a decent amount of protein. 

You can use a similar approach to increasing protein intake as you do cutting calories, by gradually increasing this macro over time.

Start at a moderate amount around 0.8 to 0.85 grams of protein per pound of body weight and increase with each phase of your diet.

For example: A 200-pound adult can structure their protein macros like so…

  1. Weeks 1-4 at 160 grams/day (0.80 grams/pound of body weight)
  2. Weeks 5-8 at 180 grams/day (0.90 grams/pound of body weight)
  3. Weeks 9-12 at 200 grams/day (1.0 grams/pound of body weight)

Step 3. Figure Out Your Daily Fat Needs

A lot of times fat is cut to very low levels on a diet, but this isn’t always necessary. Eating fat won't make you fat, especially when you are decreasing calories in the first place. 

Dietary fat is not only essential for health, but can also make your diet feel a bit more satisfying by adding flavor to food. Moreover, fat is a source of long lasting energy, and some find higher fat intakes to be more satiating (8). 

To ensure you aren't cutting fat too low, aim to get anywhere from 20 to 40% of your calories from fat.

Because carbs will fill in the gap of your remaining calorie needs, you can calculate dietary fat amounts based on your activity level (more on this in a minute). 

The more active you are, the more carbs you will need, so you can scale fat to the lower end of the spectrum. Whereas those that needs less carbs can increase their fat to the higher end. 

For example: If you are eating 2,000 calories a day your daily fat needs would look like the following...

  • 89 grams of fat/day if you are lightly active (2,000 x 40%)
  • 67 grams of fat/day for moderately active (2,000 x 30%)
  • 45 grams of fat/day if you are very active (2,000 x 20%)

Step 4. Determine Your Daily Carb Needs

The remainder of your calories will come from carbohydrates. 

Your carbohydrate needs are directly dependent on how much exercise you get and the type of exercise. As a rule of thumb, the more active you are, the more carbs your body can utilize and store efficiently. 

Additionally, the more muscle mass you have, the better your body can tolerate higher carbs intake. This is because a majority of sugar is stored in your lean tissue as a source of reserve fuel for exercise and daily movement. 

By estimating fat needs based on activity level, you can assume your remaining calories are sufficient in meeting your basic carbohydrate needs. Especially since higher activity level will mean higher calorie needs in the first place (aka more calories left over for carbs).

You can easily calculate your carb needs by subtracting your fat and protein calories from your total daily calories - using nine calories per gram of fat and four calories per gram for protein and carbs. 

For example: If you need 2,000 calories a day, 160 grams of protein, and 67 grams of fat, your carb needs would look like so…

  • 2,000 calories - 640 protein calories (160 grams x 4 calories/gram) - 603 fat calories (67 grams x 9 calories/gram) = 757 calories from carbs
  • 757 calories/4 calories per gram = 190 grams of carbs a day

Swinging Your Daily Macros Based on Workouts

Because your fitness routine can impact the amount of carbs and fat you need, you can also swing your macros and calories day to day based on your workouts. 

This is also commonly referred to as carb cycling. But because you are calculating fat needs first, you can adjust your fat percentage day by day and your carb needs will fall into place automatically. 

On days you are lifting heavy weights or training at a higher intensity, you can decrease your fat percentage (naturally increasing your carb intake). And on the days that you are performing more moderate exercise or resting, you can increase your fat intake (thus cutting carbs for the day).

For example: If you need 2,000 calories a day on average and 160 grams of protein (32% calories), your weekly breakdown could like like so…

  • Weight training and high intensity training days = 32% protein, 20% fat, 48% carbs
  • Moderate cardio days = 32% protein, 30% fat, 38% carbs
  • Rest Days = 32% protein, 40% fat, 28% carbs

You can also take this one step further by increasing calories on training days and decreasing calories on rest days - as long as your weekly calorie average remains below your estimated calorie needs for weight loss, you will lose body fat.

Step 5. Meal Prep to Hit Your Macros

Knowing your macros is only half the battle, you also need to eat a diet that helps you hit them. This can take a bit of strategy and learning how to meal prep for a macro-based diet. It’s not always as painless as one might think!

The more you simplify your diet and rely on basic macro food lists - clear sources of proteins, fats and carbs - the easier this becomes. 

Additionally, consistently measuring and tracking your food intake will teach you exactly where your calories are coming from, helping you to fine tune your diet and improve your macros over time.  

Or skip a lot of the hard work and opt for macro-balanced meal delivery that is designed to help you control your portions and hit your nutrition goals with ease. Plus, no shopping, cooking or cleaning dishes needed!

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