When I ask a new client who has tracked their food prior to working with me, “how did you come up with these targets?”, most don’t have an answer other than “that’s what the app set for me.” And that’s understandable, but also unfortunate. It means that despite diligent tracking, that person doesn’t really understand the purpose of macronutrient targets.
Macro targets allow us to control calories and manipulate your body weight, while allowing us to optimize food intake for better health and performance outcomes.
MyFitnessPal and similar calorie tracking apps will suggest macronutrient targets to new users, often in the range of roughly 20-25% protein, 50% carbs, and 25-30% fat. This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion in the vast majority of cases. But there are cases where the pie chart needs to be adjusted to reflect a client’s context.
The suggested targets haven’t been plucked from the sky — there is science behind them — but they have been put to the user of the app without explanation as to why they are appropriate targets.This does little to empower the user to make adjustments that are suitable to their goals or objectives.
Let me explain.
Protein anchors the other macros. As it's one of the most important considerations, we typically set the protein target first and manipulate fats and carbs around this. Protein requirements depend on the type and degree of activity a person does. For inactive people, targets as low as 1-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight are good starting points. For active people or those who partake in endurance-focused exercise, 1.4g/kg body weight is the bottom end of what we aim for. For those that are resistance trained (lift weights), 1.6-2.2 g/kg body weight is the preferred target. As a percentage, that’s often roughly 20-30% of intake, with some outliers. This means a 90kg gym goer can expect to shoot for 145-200g of protein per day (smaller people will need less, bigger people will need more). You can calculate your preferred intake in grams, then use the app to find a percentage that will allow you to arrive at approximately the right number of grams.
Next up are fats. Fat requirements are in place to ensure that a person remains healthy, and increase or decrease within a calorie target to allow fluctuations in carbs. Fats are required in the diet and dropping them too low can be dangerous or result in insufficient production of hormones. That would mean issues with sleep, libido, vitamin deficiencies, and poor immune function. So everyone has a lower-end of the safe range for their fat target (any lower than 0.5g/kg bodyweight is ill-advised for regular or long-term consumption). Fat targets are determined based on how much we need to optimize carbohydrate consumption. There is more allowance for fats for people with less intense or less total activity because the need to prioritize carbs is reduced. Carbohydrate and fat ratios are outlined below, so while we set the fat target first, you’ll need to understand the function of carbohydrates to contextualize the right approach.
Carbohydrate requirements are determined by an individual’s type, intensity and duration of activity. For athletes who train at a high intensity (think heart beating really hard for most of the duration of exercise - at or above 70% of your max heart rate), we like to keep fats on the lower end of the recommended range, around 20-25%. This allows more space for carbohydrates in the diet, because carbs are generally the main fuel source for high intensity activities.
Carb targets aren’t fixed either.- If, for example, I’mworking with endurance athletes like Iron Man athletes, marathoners or cyclists, we might play around with their fat to carb ratio throughout the year, depending on what their training looks like. As we approach competition day and the intensity of their training ramps up we might dial their fats down to allow for more carbs. Once they return to a period of lower-intensity aerobic fitness building where their average heart rate is lower, we might consider ratcheting up fats and reducing carbs.
Lower-end fat targets are useful for athletes in sports that eat up lots of energy at high heart rates. For example, some of my clients who hit low fat targets play rugby league or compete in Waka Ama, MMA or CrossFit. field sports. Put simply, the more movement someone does, and higher the physical intensity of their life and training, the more they need to fuel with carbs and less fat.
All of that careful attention to carbohydrate consumption is not necessary for the average gym-goer. Let’s define the average gym-goer as someone who trains less than 5 times per week, for roughly 45-75 minutes, at a moderate intensity, involving some weight or resistance training, whose outcomes for the gym are largely health-seeking or aesthetic. The average gym goer is not working at a very high intensity for very long, even if they’re doing cardio classes (because those classes are relatively short). The vast majority of average gym-goers also live a largely sedentary lifestyle outside of the gym, because most occupations are sedentary. For these people, there’s no need to be extremely cautious with carbohydrate and fat ratios.
Letting your fats go up to and above 30% of calorie intake will probably be absolutely fine for many people. I have had clients who exercise a few times a week on up to 40% calories from fat simply because that’s how they like to eat. This is particularly true for people who really value flavor, like foodies and chefs (because fat is delicious).
For those that value their gym training a little more, want to build lots of muscle, or are exercising often enough at higher intensities that you’ll feel a difference eating more carbohydrates, it’s worth playing around with how you feel on a slightly higher carb intake by dropping your fats a little.
In short, here’s a suggested fat target prescription:
20-24% - for highly active people (high-intensity and/or high-duration sport participants like marathoners, ultra-endurance athletes, iron man athletes)
25-30% - for active people (runners, people with muscle gain goals, bodybuilders outside of a prep, casual crossfitters, athletes in less energetically demanding sports, people with active lifestyles who also go to the gym a lot)
30-40% - for less active people or people whose activity is very low intensity (walking, yoga or for people who really value having more fats in the diet)
When setting your macro targets, set protein first, then consider the above and set your fat target. Allow carbohydrates to take up the rest. And don’t forget that these are not set in stone and if you’re struggling to make the macros fit, you can simply adjust the targets.
When determining your fat and carbohydrate targets, think a little about where you sit on the scale of physical activity. The greater the intensity of activity, set your fats lower and carbs higher. The lower the intensity of activity, set your fats higher and carbs lower. An important exception to this is if you are unable to eat enough calories with that carb target. Eating enough is always more important than the macro split due to our need to fuel your training.