How to Calculate Vegan Macros in 5 Easy Steps

vegan macros

There's one trick that allows you to effortlessly manipulate your body composition:

Calculating and tracking your vegan macros.

You might have heard that if you simply stick to your macros you can eat whatever you want and at the same time build a fantastic body, also known as "If it fits your macros (IIFYM)" or "flexible dieting".

This is true.

Basically, if you know how to set up your macros correctly, the diet part of your fitness journey becomes pretty easy.

Here's the gist of it:

You calculate the proper vegan macros (proteins, fat and carbohydrates) tailored to your specific goal, whether that be building muscle or shredding fat. 

Eat whatever you want within the boundaries of those macros and follow a sensible training program = get the results you want. 

Sounds interesting? Well I'll give you the exact blueprint to figuring out your optimal vegan macros now.

Let's do it. 

1. Calculate your calories.

vegan pizza

Based on Instagram and Youtube fitness celebrities the secret to getting lean and muscular is to go on bingeing sprees and eat thousands of calories (mostly in the form on not-so-clean 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, icecream, indulgent pasta dishes 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 key factor that determines weight loss is eating fewer calories than you burn, even if said calories come from pure junk food.

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.

What tracking macros provides is an incredibly useful tool to accurately and effectively manipulate body weight whilst eating a flexible and enjoyable diet. 

Determining your total daily energy expenditure

metabolic fire

Your body uses a certain amount of energy per day.

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 maintenence calories, basically where energy needs meets energy supply. Theoretically at this calorie intake your weight should stay the same.

You then increase or reduce this number depending on what you're current body composition goal is. 

So to give an example, 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.

The next step is to calculate your proteins, fats and carbs - the stuff that your calories come from. 

2. Calculate your protein

legumes

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 an awesome body. 

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

If you're unsure about the effectiveness of plant protein you can always ask vegan strongman Patrik Baboumian.

Contrary to what muscle magazines preach you don't need astronomical amounts of protein to efficiently build muscle.

So how much plant protein do you actually need to eat?

Here's what sports nutrition science suggests:

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 gaining muscle mass and maximizing muscle protein synthesis...

... and upwards of 2.0 g/kg, or 0.91 g/lbs, can be potentially useful for retaining muscle mass during weight loss (according to this, and this, and this, and this review of protein needs).

Now:

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 (this is all explained in great detail in the article linked below).

Fortunately though, both of these downsides can easily be remedied by simply eating more plant protein.

One study compared the effect of drinking 48 g of either rice protein versus whey protein immediately after exercise.

After 8 weeks there was no difference between the two groups - both had seen an equal increase in strength, muscle mass and decrease in fat mass.

So what I'd recommend for plant-based athletes is shooting for the higher end of the range at 1.8 g protein per kg, or 0.82 g per lbs.

For cutting it's advisable to go even higher at 2.0 g protein per kg, or 0.91 g/lbs, to prevent the body from catabolizing muscle tissue. 

Using our previous example of a 180 pound lifter he would thus need to eat 180*0.82 = 148 g of protein (potentially more during a fat loss phase)

3. Calculating your fats

walnuts

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 and just in general sanity.

So we absolutely do need a certain amount of dietary fat.

Now:

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

squirrel eating

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, enhances your overall well-being and consequently performance.

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 recommend eating less than more fat. The reason being that when you've satisfied your basic needs required for hormone production and so on, there's not much more benefit to adding more fat.

And an increase in fat intake means reduced protein and carbohydrate within your calorie limits. 

We've already established why a high-protein intake is beneficial. Now as we'll soon discover, carbohydrate is also tremendously important for making the most amount of vegan gains.

4. Calculating your carbs

sweet potato

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.

On the other hand, an inadequate carbohydrate intake impairs strength training performance an contributes to reduced muscular endurance in athletes on a calorie deficit.

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

red lentil stew

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.

Now there's a better way of calculating carb intake, 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 carbs. 

5. Tracking macros and adjusting accordingly

calculator and pen

That's it, you now possess the "secret" knowledge that pretty much all shredded guys and girls use to build muscle and lean down.

Let's briefly recap:

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    Calories are king. The main factor that will determine weight gain and loss is energy in and energy out, or how many calories you eat or not eat.
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    For bulking eat 10% above your estimated TDEE and for cutting eat 20-25% below your estimated TDEE
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    Eat a high-protein diet of 1.8-2.0 g of protein per kg, or 0.82-0.91 g per lbs
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    Eat a low to moderate-fat diet of 0.5-1 kg per kg, or 0.25-0.5 g per lbs. 
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    Fill out the rest of your calories with carbohydrate.

How do I actually track my 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.

Looks like this:

myfitnesspal

Not my account in case you were wondering about the yoghurt and eggs.

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 as you go

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.

Now this can be easily fixed. 

By tracking macros as well as your weight progress you can adjust your macros accordingly - 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.

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    You're not gaining weight. Then increase your daily caloric intake by 5% and see what happens after a couple of weeks.
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    You're not losing weight. A 20% calorie deficit 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, completet 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. Third, make sure your workout routine includes both weight training and some cardio. At this point you can go ahead and drop calories by another 5% and see what happens. 
  • Alex
  • November 29, 2017
Alex
 

Hey there! I’m Alex and I’m obsessed with a vegan diet, strength training and bodybuilding, as well as health and nutrition. When I’m not writing articles on here I am either in the gym, playing electric guitar or cooking vegan food!

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