Want to effortlessly manipulate your body composition on a plant-based diet?
Get your vegan macros right.
I see many fellow plant-eaters failing to balance this crucial equation...
...and because of that they fail to achieve results they want when it comes to building a great body.
Well in today's post I'll not hold back on any information - read on if you want the exact blueprint on how to calculate your vegan macros in 5 simple steps.
What are Macros and Why Should You Care About Them
You may know all of this already, but I'll briefly go over the basics so no-one gets left out of the fun.
The foods you consume contain calories (energy).
These calories are made up out of the three macronutrients (or macros):
So why is this even important to know?
Why can't you just eat bananas, drink pea protein and hit the gym on a consistent basis and not have to bother with 'macros'?
For sure, eating good nutritious food and training hard can work for some (or it might not).
But if you take a few minutes to learn how to calculate and track your macros, a whole new world of simplified and highly effective dieting opens up.
This is all based on the principles of IIFYM (if it fits your macros), or flexible dieting, which is a method of dieting based on meeting daily macronutritional intake targets.
This means your goal every day is to hit a certain amount of protein, fat and carbohydrate.
For instance, here's what my personal macros look like at the moment (obviously tailored to my body and specific needs, so don't copy these):
● Protein: 150 grams
● Fat: 60 grams
● Carbs: 500 grams
When applied correctly, IIFYM, tracking your macros or whatever you want to call it, it gives you extremely reliable results and 100% control over your body composition.
If you do this intelligently nothing is left to chance. Hit your macros consistently every day together with a well-structured training program and you're guaranteed to reach your fitness goals, fast.
Let's start with calories:
1. Getting Your Calories Right
Based on what Instagram and Youtube fitness 'celebrities' are doing, the secret to getting lean and muscular appears to be eating out all of the time and ordering ridiculous amounts of decadent food.
Just yesterday I saw an Instagram story of someone ordering 6 (!) different entrees as well as one giant slice of cake to top the debauchery off.
Today I peeked at his story again and his abs were still looking shredded.
Okay... what's going on here?
Are these people taking steroids?
Do they spend all of their waking time at the gym to burn off the excess calories?
Are they blessed with fantastic genetics that stave off all fat storage?
Well, I suppose all of these could help explain this great mystery.
But most likely, this is what's going on behind the curtains:
The truth is that you can eat as much junk food, pizza, ice cream, muffins or other extremely palatable foods and still maintain a great body...
...given that you don't eat more calories than you burn.
While they might claim that it's possible due to their "Secret fat-burning regimen" (also conveniently offered as an e-book for you to purchase) - what is not mentioned is that they also meticulously track their total calorie intake to maintain low levels of body fat.
It boils down to the simple principle of calories in and calories out:
This is why it's possible to lose 56 pounds in 6 months eating nothing but McDonald’s - eating junk food whilst staying under your body's caloric requirements will result in significant weight loss.
Okay so here's the bottomline on calorie intake:
Weight loss and weight gain does not depend on whether you eat a diet consisting of 'clean' or 'dirty' foods.
The laws of thermodynamics and scientific consensus agrees that the only way to reliably lose weight is to consume less energy (calories) than you burn.
And vice versa for weight gain.
How to Calculate Exactly How Many Calories You Should Consume
We have established that there's really no reliable way of 'cheating the system', so to speak, when it comes to fat loss.
Alright, so how do you know how many calories to consume?
Your body uses a certain amount of energy, or calories, per day.
Obviously your body burns calories during physical exercise.
But energy is also being expended through NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis) which include things like walking to work and trivial physical activity such as fidgeting, TEF (thermic effect of food) the energy cost for processing the food you eat...
...and the biggest contributor by far to your caloric needs are basic vital processes such as breathing and the activities of brain, liver and heart.
The amount of calories your use per day are the sum of all of these factors, typically expressed as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
Estimating your TDEE out is really easy if you have access to internet.
Head over to just about any basic TDEE calculator, such as this one, and plug in your stats.
This will give you a rough estimation of your maintanence calories, where energy needs meets energy supply. And at least theoretically, at this calorie intake your weight should stay the same.
You then take your TDEE and increase or reduce it depending on what you're current body composition goal is:
Let's look at an example to illustrate how this would work in practice.
The maintence calories for a vegan lifter who is 25 years old and weighs 180 pound is 2570 calories.
If he wanted to bulk up and gain muscle the calories would be 2570 x 1.10 = 2827 kcal
If he wanted to lose fat and cut down the calories would be 2570 x 0.80 = 2056 kcal.
Your TDEE is always a moving target as it's determined by a bunch of different factors that are constantly changing.
Whilst an online calculator can give you some idea of where your TDEE might be, it's pretty much guaranteed not to be a 100% accurate (which is why you have to be able to adjust your calorie intake if needed). Nonetheless, it's still a very good tool for anyone getting started with tracking their calories and macros.
Not quite sure whether you should be bulking or cutting? Head over the definite guide to vegan bodybuilding to find out what you should do!
2. Getting Your Protein Right
We have established that your total caloric intake is the key factor that drives both weight gain and weight loss.
Now onto the macro part, and why not start of with addressing protein.
I've noticed that within the vegan community the utility of a high protein intake often gets downplayed.
Remarks such as 'Dude you don't even need to worry about protein, just eat plants and lift weights' are not uncommon.
While this might be true for the average, non-athletic person that just wants to be overall healthy - it's not great advice for those of us who are looking to build a truly awesome looking body.
This is because protein is a key player when it comes to manipulating your body composition through diet...
... and a higher protein intake than the current RDA of 0.8 g protein per kg has been shown to enhance gains in both muscle and strength.
Dietary protein also helps in many other ways than just providing the required building blocks for muscles:
Which basically means that if you want to get shredded and look good on the beach protein is your friend, not foe.
How to Calculate How Much Protein You Need
Contrary to what muscle magazines preach you don't need astronomical amounts of protein to efficiently build muscle.
But you do absolutely need more than what is found in 30 ripe bananas
So exactly how many grams of plant protein do you need to get some vegan gains?
Well, to answer this question it seems appropriate to look at what the current body of sports nutrition science has to say on the subject:
In 2017 a huge meta-analysis was conducted to examine the effects of protein supplementation on muscle and strength gains, where they looked at all relevant RCT's longer in 6 weeks duration.
Here's the key takeaway from this review:
Protein supplementation beyond total protein intakes of 1.62 g/kg/day resulted in no further RET-induced gains in FFM.
Or put another way, eating ~1.6 grams of protein per kg bodyweight, or about 0.73 g protein per lbs, will maximize your muscle and strength gains.
Any more than that didn't seem to have any further positive effect.
That's all you need, period.
Or is it?
You see, there can actually be rather large differences between individuals in how much protein is needed to just maintain muscle mass.
This review found 1.6 g protein per kg to be the mean optimal intake, which basically means that for most people it will work optimally.
However there are always outliers and some individuals may do better with more protein, and some with less.
The authors bring this point up and recommend another number that would cover the needs of any outliers:
...it may be prudent to recommend ~2.2 g protein/kg/d for those seeking to maximise resistance training-induced gains in FFM.
At this point, I believe I don't need to confuse anyone any further.
If you want to look and perform great on a plant-based diet, simply consume anywhere between:
1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram per day = 0.73-1 grams of protein per lbs.
This will serve 99% of individuals seeking to improve their body composition and physical performance.
My personal recommendation is to lean towards the higher end of this range, seeing as plant protein generally speaking is less anabolic than animal-based protein (less BCAA and leucine content, not digested as well etc).
But that's more so an educated guess of mine, there's no real data or studies supporting this stance.
Also worth mentioning, is that a higher protein intake can be a good idea during a weight loss phase as it may help with preserving muscle mass.
Here's an example of how you would set up your own protein macros:
A 180 pound plant-eater looking to maximize gains would need 0.73-1 x 180 = 131-180 g protein.
3. Getting Your Fats Right
Next up are fats.
Depending on who you ask they are either the root of all evil and must be eliminated from foods to be replaced with low-fat, high-sugar cookies and cereals...
..or you'd be much better off bathing in coconut oil and eating from buckets of lard with a spatula to improve your health.
Okay that may have been a slight exaggeration - however the truth remains that most people have no real idea what fat even is, or less so what it's functions are in the body.
So to clear up any confusion here's a quick rundown on dietary fats:
Or put simply, any smart vegan will make sure to consume a decent amount of fat every day to stay alive, and also to improve health and physical performance.
How to Calculate How Much Fat You Need
It's abundantly clear that we should try and get some fats in our plant-based diets.
But exactly how much?
Well, the truth is that there may not be a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to dietary fat.
Some might do better on a high-carb, super-low-fat diet and some might thrive on a more moderate-carb, moderate-fat diet.
One study that illustrates these differences found that there can be up to a 40% difference between athletes in utilization of either carbohydrate and fat to meet energy needs.
The only approach I definitely wouldn't recommend is vegan keto which seems like a very bizarre and overall not good way of doing things.
For reasons I will elaborate on further later, carbohydrates are almost indispensable for athletes that desire rapid muscle growth and enhanced physical performance.
That is why the typical general recommendation is to get in enough fat to support good health, and then fill the rest of calories up with carbs.
When you've satisfied your basic needs for fat, there's not much more benefit to adding in any more... and an increase in carbs instead would most likely serve you much better.
Here's the bottomline on fats on a vegan diet:
To get enough of the essential fatty acids, while still leaving plenty of room for carbohydrate, 15-30% of your calories should come from fat.
Let's quickly look at an example again to avoid confusion:
Vegan athlete X has a calorie intake of 2570 calories.
That means 2570 x 0.15-30 = 386 - 771 calories ought to come from fat, which equals 43-86 grams.
4. Getting Your Carbs Right
Lately low-carb dieting has seen an upswing in popularity...
...and poor carbohydrate has been blamed for causing unwanted fat gain and a host of other diseases.
Below I've linked to a detailed article I wrote on the subject, but basically all you need to know is that carbohydrate is not your enemy and it won't make you fat.
In fact, quite the opposite.
Anyone looking to improve their body composition, increase physical performance, optimize recovery, build muscle and lose fat as fast as possible, should give some serious thought to bumping up their carb intake.
When you eat carbohydrate it breaks down into glucose, a highly efficient fuel for both your brain and body.
Glucose that is not directly used by cells is stored as potential energy in the form of glycogen in the liver and muscles.
During high-intensity exercise your muscles utilize these glycogen stores as an immediate source of fuel...
... and keeping these glycogen stores replenished at all times with a high carbohydrate diet improves exercise performance.
You don't have to be Einstein to figure this out.
Go ahead and perform a workout without any carbs in your system versus having a big meal of sweet potatoes and black beans before.
It's rather obvious which dietary approach results in better energy levels, improved mental state, more awesome pumps and performance.
How to Calculate How Much Carbs You Need
A recent review on nutrition guidelines for strength sports recommends carbohydrate intake for bodybuilding to be between 4–7 g/kg.
Plug in your own weight and that should give you some general idea of where carbs end up.
However here's how I would typically calculate carbohydrate intake:
We've already established how many calories, protein and fat to eat.
In order to reach the calorie target, it's simply a matter of filling up with carbohydrate.
Say we are working with a person with a TDEE of 2570 kcal, 150 g protein and 70 g fat.
As noted above, a gram of each macronutrient provides:
1 gram protein = 4 kcal
1 gram carb = 4 kcal
1 gram fat = 9 kcal
For this individual we're looking at 150 x 4 = 600 kcal from protein and 70 x 9 = 630 kcal from fat.
In order to reach the 2570 calorie mark for the day he would then fill out the rest of his calories with carbohydrate.
After having subtracted the calories coming from protein and fat (2570 - 600 - 630 = 1340), that leaves us with 1340/4 = 335 g carbs.
To recap: that's protein at 150 grams, fats at 70 grams and carbs at 335 grams.
If you've never done this before it's not actually as complicated as it seems. Calculate protein and fat macros and then fill out the rest with carbohydrate. Simple!
5. How to Track Macros and Adjust Accordingly
That's it, you now possess the "secret" knowledge that pretty much all shredded guys and girls use to both build muscle and lean down.
Let's briefly recap:
How Do You Actually Track Macros in Practice?
Accurately hitting your macro targets requires that you track the macronutritional composition of foods you eat.
This comes with the minor inconvenience of having to measure and weigh out foods.
This is best done by investing in a digital scale to do this.
Using cups or some other volume based measurement can also work but it’s not going to give you as accurate results as using a trusty scale.
When this information has been acquired you plug it into some sort of macro tracking tool or device.
I find that the most convenient way of tracking your calories and macros is to use the app MyFitnessPal on your phone
Usually when signing up you have to type in your fitness goals, weight, yada yada, and the app will come up with a set of macros for you. Well don't pay attention to what the app wants you to eat, it's wrong, just follow the macros as detailed here.
Okay so here's where we are at:
Vegan macros. Check.
Digital scale. Check.
Macro tracking tool. Check.
Now you add the food you've eating to this app and it will calculate how many calories, proteins, fats and carbs you're at.
Once again the goal being to reach your macronutrient targets at the end of each day.
Looks like this:
Not my account in case you were wondering about the yoghurt, honey and eggs.
At a first glance it might seem like a bit of a hassle of having to measure out and add ALL of your foods.
But you'll find that after a while of doing this it does become like second nature - it literally takes a couple of seconds for me to do this and doesn’t feel like a chore at all.
Another alternative for tracking macros is the browser-based www.cronometer.com
Whilst Cron-O-Meter might not be quite as convenient as an app on your phone, it does provide more comprehensive information on nutrition if that's
Making Adjustments To Your Macros As Needed
Now before you set off on your merry way counting macros, as I mentioned previously you have to understand that the TDEE estimation might not be perfectly accurate out-of-the-box.
In fact it very rarely is.
This is because there are so many variables that influence your energy needs, and they change all the time:
Individual differences in metabolic rate, exercise or movement that you didn't account for, perhaps your job burns a hell of a lot more calories than assumed and so on and so forth.
An online calculator will have a hard time factoring in all of these variables.
Don't despair, this can be easily fixed.
Here's what to do in case your macros are not producing the results you desire.
You're not gaining weight.
Then increase your daily caloric intake by 5% and see what happens after a couple of weeks.
You're not losing weight.
A 20% calorie deficit is a large deficit which should put most people in fat loss mode.
So if you're not losing weight, first make sure you're not retaining any extra water weight due fluctuations in sodium intake.
Secondly, rank beginners in the gym usually add a couple of pounds of water weight during their first weeks of training, so not losing weight is perfectly normal.
Finally, make sure your workout routine includes both weight training and adequate cardio.
At this point if you're not seeing progress, you can go ahead and drop calories by another 5% and see what happens.
Whether alterations in calories should come from protein, fat or carbohydrate depends on the particular circumstances so it's hard making any general recommendations there.
Admittedly it can be difficult knowing how to alter your macros if your progress has halted - moreover there's specific things you want to be doing when transitioning from a lean bulk to a cut, and vice versa.
If you feel like you need help with these things, I do offer one-on-one coaching which you can check out here.
To get a full perspective on the art of designing a vegan diet for optimal muscle gain, performance and health - check out this article which details what foods to include in your vegan bodybuilding diet plan!