Do you want to change your body composition while eating nothing but plants? Then get your vegan macros game en pointe.
Sadly, many vegan fitness fans fail to get this balance right during their training, meaning they never get the body that they’re after.
Do you want the exact blueprint on how to calculate your vegan macros in 5 simple steps? Then keep on reading!
What are Macros and Why Should You Care About Them
Apologies if you have already read up on all of this stuff, but let’s quickly 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, not bothering 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 that 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):
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, then 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 off the debauchery. Today I peeked at his story again and his abs were still looking shredded.
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 have tons of bad food like pizza, ice cream, muffins or other extremely palatable foods and still maintain a great body, given that you don't consume more calories than you burn throughout the day.
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 (1).
Okay, so here's the bottom line on calorie intake: Weight loss and weight gain do not depend on whether you eat a diet consisting of 'clean' or 'dirty' foods.
No, the laws of science (more specifically thermodynamics) stipulate that you lose weight by burning more caloric energy than you take in. In other words, eat less and move more. And vice versa for weight gain. The types of foods themselves are unimportant (2).
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 activities such as fidgeting, TEF (thermic effect of food) and the energy cost for processing the food you eat. Alas, 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 number of calories you use per day is 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 the internet.
Head over to just about any basic TDEE calculator (this one is a good example) and put your own statistics in. This way, you will receive a rough estimation of your maintenance calories, where energy needs meets energy supply. And at least theoretically, at this calorie intake, your weight should stay the same.
You then adapt your TDEE, making it larger or smaller according to your goal for your new body composition:
Let's look at an example of how this would work in practice. The maintenance calories for a vegan lifter who is 25 years old and weighs 180 pounds 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.
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. Good.
Now onto the macro part, and why not start off by 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 generally 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; also, consuming more than 0.8 g protein per kg (the current RDA figure) helps you to enhance gains in both muscle and strength (3).
Dietary protein also helps in many other ways than just providing the required building blocks for muscles:
To put it simply, if you want to get shredded and look great naked, then protein is your friend, not foe.
How to Calculate How Much Protein You Need
Contrary to what muscle magazines preach, you do not need to consume your own bodyweight in protein if you want to efficiently build muscle. But you do definitely 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 sports nutrition science literature thinks about this.
Back in 2017, a massive meta-analysis was designed to monitor the effects of protein supplementation on those looking to gain muscle mass and strength (4). In the study, they observed all the relevant RCTs for more than a 6-week duration.
It turns out that protein supplementation beyond total intakes of 1.62 g/kg/day had no additional RET-induced gains in FFM.
To put it more simply, they found that eating around 1.6g per kg of weight is the roof for maximizing your strength and muscle mass gains. After this point, it appeared that the effect was negligible, or was it?
Different people have different levels of how much protein they need in order to keep their muscle mass, which probably isn’t the world’s biggest shock (5).
Yes, this study found 1.6g per kg to be ideal, but this was a mean figure. In other words, there will always be outliers and corner cases where some individuals will need more (or less) protein in order to keep their muscle mass going strong.
the researchers acknowledge this problem and cleverly throw another sexy formula our way: ~2.2 g protein/kg/d.
This is said to be a maximum figure for anyone who is looking to maximize their gains in FFM while believing themselves to be a possible outlier (i.e. someone who needs more protein than the average person in the study). At this point, I believe I don't need to confuse you anymore. Sorry.
If you want to look and perform great on a plant-based diet, simply eat:
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.
I would recommend consuming the higher amounts of protein, as vegan protein tends to be less anabolic than animal-based protein. This means that it has less BCAA and is not used as efficiently by the body, so you might as well maximize the possibility of its digestion (6).
But that's more so an educated guess of mine, there's no real data or studies supporting this stance. As we touched on earlier also, protein can help to preserve your existing muscle mass, so it’s a good idea to pack a bunch of it in when you’re losing weight (7).
Here's an example of how you would set up your own protein macros:
A vegan weighing 180 lbs who is 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, fats 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 the 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 (8).
If you’re a vegan athlete who is looking for enhanced physical performance and speedy muscle mass growth, then you must pay close attention to your carbs intake. For this reason, it is generally a good idea to get the amount of fats you need in order to support your body, then using the rest of your calorie limit on carbohydrates.
Once you’ve got the fats that you need, adding more is not massively healthy (as you might expect) and it’s better to stock up on carbohydrates which slowly release energy throughout the day.
Here's the bottom line 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 should ideally be derived from fat, which equals 43-86 grams.
4. Getting Your Carbs Right
Lately, low-carb dieting has seen an upswing in popularity, and poor carbohydrates have 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, it’s quite the opposite. If you’re looking to improve your body composition, increase physical performance, optimize recovery, build muscle and lose fat as fast as possible, then you should give some serious thought to bumping up your carb intake.
When you eat carbohydrate, it breaks down into glucose, which is 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. When you’re exercising intensely, your muscles use up these precious glycogen stores as a quick go-to fuel source (9).
As a result, making sure that these resources are adequately supplied at all times with a high carbohydrate diet improves exercise performance. Conversely, not consuming many carbs can actually harm your strength training performance, as well as reduce your muscular endurance if you find yourself on a calorically restricted diet (10) (11) (12).
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
According to a recent study on nutrition for strength sports, you should make your carbohydrate intake for bodybuilding be around 4–7 g/kg. Plug in your own weight and that should give you some general idea of where carbs end up (13).
However, here's how I would typically calculate carbohydrate intake:
The amount of calories, protein, and fat has already been worked out earlier. In order to reach the calorie target, we just have to stock up on carbohydrates.
Say we are working with a person with a TDEE of 2570 kcal, 150 g protein, and 70 g fat. As noted above, 1 gram of these macronutrients provides:
1 gram protein = 4 kcal
1 gram carb = 4 kcal
1 gram fat = 9 kcal
For the person in our examples, we’re looking at 150 x 4 = 600 kcal from protein and 70 x 9 = 630 kcal from fat.
Reaching the 2570 calorie daily target would hence mean filling out the rest of the calorie target with carbs.
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 download the MyFitnessPal app to your cell phone. Usually, when signing up, you have to type in your fitness goals, weight, yadda yadda yadda, 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're eating to this app and it will work out the number of calories, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates you’ve eaten in total. Once again the goal is to reach your macronutrient targets at the end of each day.
Here’s what it looks like:
I know this screenshot isn’t vegan - I promise you it isn’t mine! And yes, I know that measuring out and adding ALL of your foods can look like a giant pain in the ass when you’re busy going about your day. But you'll find that this becomes a very natural part of your day after a while and you get used to putting stuff into it quickly.
You can also try using www.cronometer.com for tracking your macronutrient consumption too. Whilst Cron-O-Meter is less convenient than an app on your phone, it gives you more comprehensive nutritional data.
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, as 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 to fluctuations in sodium intake.
Secondly, remember that 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 that 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 to come up with any general recommendations there.
Admittedly it can be difficult knowing how to alter your macros if your progress has halted - moreover, there are specific things you want to be doing when transitioning from a lean bulk to a cut, and vice versa.
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!
1) Man loses 56 pounds after eating only McDonald's for six months. Retrieved from http://www.today.com/health/man-loses-56-pounds-after-eating-only-mcdonalds-six-months-2D79329158
2) Is a calorie a calorie? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15113737
3) A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2017/08/08/bjsports-2017-097608.full
4) Morton, R. W., Murphy, K. T., McKellar, S. R., Schoenfeld, B. J., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., . . . Phillips, S. M. (2018, March). A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28698222
5) Houltham, S. D., & Rowlands, D. S. (2014, February). A snapshot of nitrogen balance in endurance-trained women. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24476478
6) Van Vliet, S., Burd, N. A., & Van Loon, L. J. (2015, September). The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26224750
7) Helms, E. R., Zinn, C., Rowlands, D. S., & Brown, S. R. (2014, April). A systematic review of dietary protein during caloric restriction in resistance trained lean athletes: A case for higher intakes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24092765
8) Goedecke, J. H., St Clair Gibson, A., Grobler, L., Collins, M., Noakes, T. D., & Lambert, E. V. (2000, December). Determinants of the variability in respiratory exchange ratio at rest and during exercise in trained athletes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11093921
9) Coyle, E. F. (1995, April). Substrate utilization during exercise in active people. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7900696
10) Miller, S. L., & Wolfe, R. R. (1999, April). Physical exercise as a modulator of adaptation to low and high carbohydrate and low and high fat intakes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10365988
11) Effects of Carbohydrate Restriction on Strength Performance : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/abstract/1999/02000/effects_of_carbohydrate_restriction_on_strength.10.aspx
12) Macronutrient Content of a Hypoenergy Diet Affects Nitrogen Retention and Muscle Function in Weight Lifters. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.thieme-connect.de/DOI/DOI?10.1055/s-2007-1025018
13) Slater, G., & Phillips, S. M. (2011). Nutrition guidelines for strength sports: Sprinting, weightlifting, throwing events, and bodybuilding. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21660839/
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