High Fat, High Protein or High Carb?

29/12/2015 15:38 GMT | Updated 24/12/2016 10:12 GMT

There's a hell of a lot of confusion out there these days when it comes to nutrition.

10 years ago, most people had never even heard of 'macros' (macronutrients). These days, we're letting ourselves be defined by them. But with so many different styles of eating out there, how do you know who to listen to?

In one corner you have bodybuilders telling you that high protein diets build muscle and in another you have doctors who say that high protein diets give you cancer.

You've got the paleo crowd telling you that high fat diets are the secret to weight loss and then you've got the plant based community saying how their high carb diets give them endless energy.

All this leaves us asking one important question. Just who should we be listening to?

Macronutrients: the clue is in the name

In today's world, a lot of people like to focus on a single macronutrient as the answer to all our health concerns.

Want to build muscle?

Eat more protein.

Want to lose weight?

Eat less carbs.

It's very rarely that simple!

The term 'macronutrients' refers to the three essential nutrients that are critical to our survival. In other words, we need protein, carbs, and fat to be healthy.

It is for this reason alone that any diet that focuses on excessively restricting a single macronutrient and/or excessively advocating another, is not suitable for long term health.

People do have short term success on low fat or low carb diets. But that's not to say that you need to restrict either of these nutrients forever to be healthy. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And that's definitely not to say that either of these diets are right for you.

Finding your balance.

So now we know that all three macronutrients are essential, how do we work out how much of each we need?

Your own individual macronutrient needs depend on the unique physiology of your body. We're all different, so what works for one person won't necessarily work for you.

However, as a general rule, we recommend the following three key points when it comes to macros:

#1 - Keep protein consistent

Whilst we can effectively cycle carbohydrates and fats to suit the demands we place on our body on any given day (more on this shortly), our protein requirements remain largely the same each day.

For most people, the ideal protein requirements sit between 1.2 - 1.4g per kilo of bodyweight each day. If you're training hard, especially with weights, these demands can go up to as much as 1.6g per kilo per day.

As an example, an active man who weighs 80kg and trains 3 - 4 times per week needs approximately 128g protein per day. This is easily achieved through real food and without the need for supplementation. A smaller guy of 65kg who only trains once or twice per week will only need around 91g per day.

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You do not need to go any higher than this. Our body's natural rate of protein synthesis means that we can only utilise a certain amount of protein each day. Any more is just excreted as waste, or converted into glucose by the kidneys. Excess protein can put high demands on the liver and kidneys, which is why too much protein over a sustained period of time can lead to liver or kidney damage.

That's not to say that too much protein is bad. Too much of anything is bad! Keep your protein levels at a sensible amount, don't force feed yourself protein shakes because you think it will make you grow muscle faster, and you'll be absolutely fine.

#2 - Adjust carbs to suit your activity level

It seems that in recent years people have decided to label carbs as the root of all evil. If you believe the mainstream media, carbs make you fat, sick and unhealthy. Newsflash: This couldn't be further from the truth.

It's probably true that the average guy who works in an office and comes home to slob out on the sofa and watch Game of Thrones could do with less carbs in his diet. But he's not training hard and burning through glycogen on a regular basis!

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It's a simple equation: The harder you train, the more glycogen you burn, and therefore, the more carbohydrates you need. If you're an athlete or a regular gym-user, high quality carbohydrates are an essential part of your diet.

If you're having a rest day or a deload week, you'll need less carbs than usual. In this instance, you can increase your fat intake to keep you energised without the insulin spike.

Just remember that carbs are not the enemy. Don't be afraid to chow down on some rice or sweet potatoes, especially after training. You've earned them, after all!

#3 - Fill up the rest of your daily calories with healthy fat

When you've worked out your ideal protein and carbohydrate levels, it's time to take a look at how much fat you are eating.

It was only a few years ago that we were all advised to eat low fat diets. Now we know that this isn't the case, and that healthy fats are essential for wellbeing. Healthy fats include oily fish, coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds.

Whilst it is certainly a great thing that we all now make an effort to get more healthy fats into our diet, you can have too much of a good thing. So be careful not to view fats as a 'free pass' like people are starting to do, as this will end up causing weight gain.

Instead, work out your daily protein and carbohydrate levels, and then fill up the rest of your calories with healthy fat. If you're not as active and are eating fewer carbs, then you should be eating more fat to make sure you are getting enough calories to fuel your body. If you're eating a higher carb diet, then you'll want to keep fat at the lower end of the spectrum so you're not overfeeding yourself!

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Putting it into practice

As we mentioned earlier, the right macronutrients for one person can be dramatically different to those for another. But follow the three tips above, and you can work out what's right for you.

Example 1: Lisa is a 30 year old mother of two, weighing 64kg. She doesn't have time to hit the gym regularly, but her kids keep her fairly active. Calculating her protein intake at 1.3g per kilo of bodyweight, Lisa knows that she needs roughly 83.2g protein per day.

After using a daily calorie calculator, such as Cronometer or My Fitness Pal, Lisa knows that she needs approximately 2160 calories per day to maintain her current weight.

As the kids keep her active, she will need a decent amount of carbs in her diet, so she calculates her carbohydrate intake at 25% of her daily calories. This equates to approximately 540 calories per day from carbs and as carbs are 4 calories per gram, this equates to 135grams of carbs per day.

So that's 83g protein and 135 grams of carbs per day. 872 calories in total.

Lisa's daily caloric needs are 2160, meaning she will need to consume her remaining 1288 calories per day from fat. Remember, fat is the most calorie dense nutrient at 9 calories per gram (protein and carbs both have 4 calories per gram), so this equates to 143 grams of fat per day.

Lisa's total macros: 83g protein, 135 grams carbs, 143 grams of fat

Watch how much this can change in example 2.

Example 2: John is a 24 year old builder who trains five times per week. His job and training mean he is very active. John currently weighs 85KG but is looking to build muscle.

As he is very active John calculates his protein intake at 1.6g per kilo of bodyweight, giving him a total protein requirement of 136 grams per day. Given his activity levels, John sets his carbohydrate intake at 50% of his total calories, double that of Lisa. Given that John needs approximately 3400 calories per day, this gives him a total carbohydrate intake 425 grams per day.

So that's 136 grams of protein and 425 grams of carbs per day. This gives John a total of 2244 calories per day so far. He has 1156 calories left to consume through fat, which is a total of approximately 128 grams of fat per day.

John's total macros: 136g protein, 425g grams carbs, 128 grams of fat

Remember, don't be afraid to experiment and find out what's right for you!

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