How to Calculate Vegan Macros in 5 Easy Steps
There's one trick that allows you to effortlessly manipulate your body composition:
Getting your vegan macros right.
I see many fellow plant-eaters failing to get this equation right... not enough calories, too little protein and fats, overdoing the carbs and so on.
Well it doesn't have to be this way. With a science-based approach and a bit of tweaking you'll have a set of vegan macros that will allow you to build muscle and shred fat as fast as possible.
Moreover it makes the diet part of your fitness journey a hell of a lot easier.
If you hit your macronutrient targets and hit the gym hard consistently, you can eat whatever food you want while still building a fantastic body (commonly known as "If it fits your macros" or "flexible dieting")
Sounds interesting? Well in today's post I'll give you the exact blueprint on how to do this in 5 steps.
What are Macros?
You might already know all of this but I'll quickly explain the basics of macros for anyone new to fitness terminology.
The term 'macros' is an abbrevation for macronutrients, which refers to the three basic nutrient groups proteins, fats and carbohydrate.
All of the calories you consume come from one of these nutrients:
- 11 gram of protein = 4 calories
- 21 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
- 31 gram of fat = 9 calories
And every food has their own particular ratio of these macronutrients.
For example 100 grams of oatmeal provides 379 kcal as well as 13.1 grams of protein, 69.0 grams of carbohydrate and 6.5 grams of fat. If you would do the math the macronutrients would approximately add up to 379 kcal.
High-protein foods simply means that there's a large percentage of calories coming from protein. Same goes for high-fat, low-carbohydrate etc.
The reason why you need a good grasp on macronutrients is to adopt the "if it fits your macros" approach to dieting.
The Basics of Flexible Dieting
The traditional strategy to getting jacked is to base your diet around 'clean' foods that are high in protein and low-er in calories.
Perfectly demonstrated as the bodybuilder's meal of lean chicken breast, brown rice and broccoli.
Essentially all the foods that are the exact opposite of the french fries above.
While this has undoubtedly worked quite well for many individuals... there are a couple of flaws to this method of dieting.
So rather than focusing on strange rules that forbid you from eating pancakes and the occasional "naughty foods", flexible dieting is all about eating the food you love while still improving your body.
You must eat the right amount of protein, fats and carbohydrate.
Here's the basic method of how "if it fits your macros" work:
1. Calculate the optimal macros for your goal, whether that is to gain muscle or shed fat.
2. Eat the foods you want to eat and make sure to hit your macronutrient targets.
3. Make serious vegan gains.
So without further ado, let's venture onwards to figure out an essential piece of flexible dieting: calories.
1. Calculate Your Calories
Based on Instagram and Youtube fitness celebrities, the secret to getting lean and muscular seems to be eating a metric boatload of calories from greasy restaurant food.
Once I saw an Instagram story of someone ordering 8 (!) different dishes as well as one giant slice of cake to top it off.
The next day his abs were still popping in the mirror.
Okay what's going on here.
Are these people taking steroids? Do they spend all their time at the gym to burn off all the excess calories? Are they blessed with genetics that stave off all fat storage?
Well I suppose all of these could help explain this riddle but the answer is much more simple.
You can eat as much junk food, pizza, ice cream and muffins you want and still maintain a nice looking body...
...assuming you don't consume more energy than you burn.
This is why it's possible to lose 56 pounds in 6 months eating nothing but McDonald’s.
The simple science behind both weight loss and weight gain is not if you eat a diet consisting of 'clean' or 'dirty' foods - it boils down to calories in, and calories out.
Some would like to claim otherwise to sell you shitty diet plans and services yet the truth still remains:
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.
Determining Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure
Your body uses a certain amount of energy, or calories, per day.
Obviously you burn plenty of calories during exercise, but even while you're sleeping you still need energy to keep the heart pumping, the respiratory system going and so forth and so on.
Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is an estimation of how many calories you burn per day with also taking exercise into account.
Figuring your TDEE out is really easy.
Head over to a TDEE calculator such as this one and plug in your stats.
This will give you an estimate of your maintanence calories, basically where energy needs meets energy supply. Theoretically at this calorie intake your weight should stay the same.
Let's look at an example to illustrate how this works.
The maintence calories for a hypothetical vegan lifter who is 25 years old and weighs 180 pound is 2570 calories.
If he wanted to bulk the calories would be 2570 * 1.10 = 2827 kcal
If he wanted to cut the calories would be 2570 * 0.80 = 2056 kcal.
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. Calculate Your Protein
I've noticed that within the vegan community the utility of a high protein intake often gets downplayed.
'Dude you don't even need to worry about protein, just eat plants and lift weights'.
While this is true for the average non-athletic person that just wants to be overall healthy...
... it's not the best 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 has been proven to enhance gains in muscle strength and fat free mass.
Other benefits of high-protein intake are:
Recommended Protein Intake for Vegan Athletes
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 bananas.
So how much plant protein do you actually need to get some vegan gains?
Well here's what the current body of sports nutrition science suggests:
Around 1.3-1.8 g protein per kg, or 0.59-0.82 g/lbs, seems to be the optimal range for us that are interested in maximizing muscle protein synthesis (according to this, and this, and this, and this review of protein needs).
Now a very recent meta-analysis on protein supplementation from 2017 looked at data from 49 studies with 1863 participants. The key takeaway was:
Protein supplementation beyond total protein intakes of 1.62 g/kg/day resulted in no further RET-induced gains in FFM.
Meaning that there's no evidence that a protein intake beyond 1.6 g protein per kg, or 0.73 g protein per lbs, will result in any further gains.
But here's the kicker:
What you might not know it that plant protein typically is less anabolic than animal-based protein due to not being digested as well, and also being slightly lower in the essential amino acids.
Now don't get me wrong: I'm not preaching the old dogma of plant protein being 'incomplete' and that it's worthless compared to animal protein. The notion that you have to combine proteins for a complete profile has been proven wrong since many decades ago.
What I'm referring to is the essential amino acid content which typically is lower in plant protein. As you can see in the diagram below the soy protein is about 10% lower in the EAAs compared to the egg protein:
And then there's also the lower digestability of plant protein...
...fortunately though, both of these downsides can easily be remedied by simply eating more plant protein.
One study comparing the effects of drinking 48 g of either rice protein versus whey protein as post-workout shakes found no difference between the two groups after 2 months - both had seen an equal increase in strength, muscle mass and decrease in fat mass.
Thus my recommendation for vegan athletes is to err on the side of caution and shoot for the higher end of the range at 1.8 g protein per kg, or 0.82 g per lbs.
That's not to say you can't make tremendous gains eating less protein, you absolutely can.
But eating more of this nutrient certainly won't hurt and will only benefit your body composition - especially during a fat loss phase where extra protein will aid with preserving muscle mass.
A 180 pound plant-eater would thus need to eat 180*0.82 = 148 g of protein
3. Calculating Your Fats
We seem to have an almost bipolar relationship to fat.
One day it's the the root of all evil and must be eliminated from all foods...
...the next you should bathe in coconut oil and eat buckets of lard.
Well here are the facts about this misunderstood nutrient:
Fat is an essential nutrient required for sustaining healthy hormonal status, manufacturing of cell membranes, satiety, cognitive function, nutrient absorption amongst other things.
So we absolutely do need a certain amount of dietary fat.
When you look at the absolute bare minimum need for fats you'll realize it's not a whole lot.
It might surprise you that from a survival standpoint, you only need about 1.6 g of omega-3 and 17 g of omega-6 (and even less for women.)
Beyond meeting these basic needs, we get into the discussion of what is required to support a healthy blood lipid and hormonal profile as well as the individual's needs and preferences.
Realistically though you'll need quite a bit more fat than 10 g per day (which you'll know if you've ever eaten 10 g of fat per day, it's miserable)
Recommended Fat Intake for Vegan Athletes
The bottomline is that there might not be a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to dietary fat on a plant-based diet.
So while I could tell you to eat exactly 32.126 g of fat per day...
... it wouldn't make much sense if more fat is what makes you feel satiated, improves your quality of life, overall well-being and consequently performance in the gym.
Hence why I prefer giving a range for fat intake, so you get to have some personal input and adjust accordingly based on the feedback you get from your body.
A good place to start with fat intake is within the range of 0.5-1 g of fat per kg, or 0.25-0.5 g of per lbs.
For our plant-based lifter weighing 180 pounds that would equate to 45-90 grams of fat.
Usually I tend to recommend eating less than more fat. The reason being that when you've satisfied your basic needs for fat, there's not really much more benefit to adding more...
... and an increase in dietary fat means reduced intake ofprotein and carbohydrate within your calorie limits (especially during cutting).
We've already established why a high-protein intake is beneficial. Now as we'll soon discover, carbohydrate is also tremendously important for making copious amounts of vegan gains.
4. Calculating Your Carbs
Despite what you might've read or heard, carbohydrate is not the devil incarnate.
Carbs are not your enemy and they won't make you fat.
In reality, any vegan athlete should make sure to load up on carbs as they increase performance, speed up recovery, and will help you build muscle and lose fat at the fastest rate.
Carbohydrate provides glucose that fuels your brain and body so that you can perform at maximum capacity in the gym (and in school or at work).
During high-intensity exercise your muscles utilize the glycogen stores as an immediate source of fuel...
... and keeping these glycogen stores replenished with carbohydrate enhances workout 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 becomes obvious pretty fast which dietary approach results in more energy, improved mental state, better pumps and performance.
Anecdotally bodybuilders tend to lean towards higher-carb approaches...
...and in a recent review with guidelines for natural bodybuilding it's suggested that if you have to sacrifice calories during cutting, it's going to be from dietary fat as you want all the carbs you can fit in your diet to maintain a high training intensity.
Recommended Carb Intake for Vegan Athletes
For many good reasons it's a wise decision to take advantage of a high-carb diet.
A recent review on nutrition guidelines for strength sports, provides recommended carbohydrate intakes for bodybuilding be between 4–7 g/kg.
However there's a better way of calculating carb intake and here's how you do it:
We've already established how many calories, protein and fat to eat.
Again using the example of our 180 pound gym-goer with a TDEE of 2570 kcal, he should aim for a protein intake of 148 g and a fat intake of 45-90 gram (For the sake of making the math easier let's assume 45 grams of fat.)
A gram of each macronutrient contains:
1 gram protein = 4 kcal
1 gram carb = 4 kcal
1 gram fat = 9 kcal
For this individual we're looking at 148*4 = 592 kcal from protein and 45*9 = 405 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.
That leaves us with 1573 kcal from carbs or 1573/4 = 393 g carbs.
If you've never done this before it's not actually as complicated as it seems. Just make sure to hit protein and fat macros and then fill out the rest with carbohydrate.
5. Tracking Macros and Adjusting 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?
A very convenient way of tracking your calories and macros is to use the app MyFitnessPal on your phone.
Usually when signing up you have to calculate your fitness goals and the app will come up with a set of macros for you.
Don't pay attention to what the app wants you to eat, it's wrong, just follow the guidelines as laid out here.
You simply add the foods you eat and then MyFitnessPal will calculate how many calories, proteins, fats and carbs you're at. The goal being to reach your macronutrient targets at the end of each day.
Looks like this:
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 enter the information into the app.
Another alternative for tracking macros is the browser-based www.cronometer.com.
Cron-O-Meter might not be quite as handy but it does provide more comprehensive information on nutrition.
Making Adjustments To Your Macros As Needed
Now before you set off on your merry way counting macros, it's important to realize that your 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:
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.
By tracking your macros as well as your daily weight you can adjust your calories until you find the sweet spot for weight gain or fat loss.
Here's what to do in case your macros are not producing the results you desire.
Hopefully that should give you some idea of how to set up vegan macros that'll aid you in the quest of acquiring jackedness (?).
To get a full perspective on 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!