How much protein and carbs should I eat? Asking this question will get you many different answers. The reason for this is because, there is no right answer. What works for some people, may not work for others. But how do we decide how much protein and carbs to eat? There are some guidelines you can use to help make decisions about the quantity and quality of food in your diet.
Carbohydrates in the Garden of Good and Evil
Carbs have recently become the nutritional devil, so to speak. But like fats, you need them, too! One school of thought is that the quality of carbohydrate matters more than the quantity. But it’s probably more accurate to say that they both matter. Which ones and how much depends on your client’s goals.
Carbohydrates come in a variety of forms, but for us, the most important are:
- Sugars – The simplest form of carbohydrate. Common varieties of sugars found in foods are fructose (fruit sugar,) sucrose (table sugar), and lactose (milk sugar.)
- Fiber – Complex carbohydrates that come in soluble and insoluble varieties. Both are important for digestion and cardiac health.
- Starches – Complex carbohydrates made of many sugars bonded together to create longer “chains.” They are slower to digest and absorb into the bloodstream than simple sugars.
Carbs matter because they provide the body with glucose, the primary fuel for physical functions. There are healthy and unhealthy sources of carbohydrates. The healthy ones provide not just energy, but a variety of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. The unhealthy ones provide energy with a risk of obesity, diabetes, and disease.
Let’s look at some examples of both healthy and unhealthy carbohydrates.
- Healthy Carbohydrates – Whole grains like rye, barley, and quinoa. Green leafy vegetables like lettuce, kale, and spinach. Veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini. Fruits like apples, oranges, pears, berries, and melons. Brown rice, wild rice, sweet potatoes, and beets are examples of healthy starches. Some dairy products like milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt are healthy carb sources as well.
- Unhealthy Carbohydrates – White bread, pastries, candy, desserts, sodas, and even most sports drinks are examples of unhealthy carbohydrates that should largely be avoided.
Protein…Get Your Protein!
In fitness, we like to think of protein mostly as the building block for our gains. But there’s more to it than that. Protein is not just for pretty muscles. It’s key for healthy skin, hair, nails, bones, cartilage, and blood. It’s in every single cell in the body. Protein is kind of an overachiever.
Unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body doesn’t store protein. We need to get it from food. Getting enough (and high quality) protein matters if your client wants to be lean, strong, and fit. High quality protein sources include:
- Fish/seafood – Salmon, tuna, swordfish, halibut, clams, shrimp, mussels
- Animal meats – Beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, bison
- Dairy – Milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, eggs
- Plant sources – Beans, nuts, lentils, tofu, edamame, nuts, seeds
- Supplements – Whey or casein protein
When choosing proteins, remember that most come with “extras.” Many beef, pork, and lamb cuts have relatively high saturated fat content. Many plant-based proteins are also high in fiber. Some fish and seafood sources come with a dose of Omega fatty acids. Whey proteins offer the convenience of ease of preparation and portability.
While most people don’t really need to increase their protein intake, those who exercise should pay attention to their intake amounts. Those who strength train should aim for a minimum of 1 gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight each day, according to a common recommendation. But the real gauge should be how well you recover after each training session or workout and how you are progressing toward your fitness goals. Good muscle recovery and steady progress gaining lean muscle and/or losing body fat likely means your protein intake is adequate.
“What should I eat?” Like many answers in fitness, this one is also “it depends.” On your clients’ goals, on their preferences, and on what is sustainable. But a good place to start in figuring that out is understanding protein, fats, and carbohydrates so you and your clients can make informed decisions
What Percentage and Carbs, Protein Should You Eat?
One question I see a lot is “What percentage of carbs, protein and fat should I be eating?” It gets confusing because companies always seem to be pushing low carb, low fat or high protein eating.
It’s important to know how much carb, protein and fat you’re eating because they play different roles in your body. You want to give your body the right kind of energy — and everybody has different energy needs. Don’t eat ‘low this’ or ‘high that’ just because everybody else is doing it.
Let me quickly take you through why your body needs carbs, protein and fat, where you get them and what percentages are recommended.
To put it simply, the foods you eat are made up of carbohydrates – otherwise known as carbs – protein and fat. When your stomach digests the food you eat, the carbs, protein and fat are broken down into their simplest forms to be used by the body.
Percentage of Calories from Carbohydrates (Carbs)
Your body uses carbs as its preferred source of energy. You get the majority of your carbs from plant-type foods and milk products. When you eat carbs, you want to go for what’s called “complex” carbs and natural sugars – and you want to avoid “refined carbs.”
You get complex carbs from whole grains such as rice, oats and barley, whole grain breads and cereals, and starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and squash.
You get natural sugars from foods such as fruits, non-starchy vegetables, and milk and milk products.
Refined or processed carbs are products that have been processed by machines, so that they’re not “whole” grains anymore. They’ve been stripped of certain parts.
They usually don’t have any nutritional value either – meaning they don’t have any vitamins or minerals. They’re what’s called “empty” calories.
Refined carbs are things like sugar, syrups, anything made with white flour, such as white bread, white pasta, cakes, pastries, muffins, bagels and – well, you get the idea. If it was made by machines, chances are it’s been processed.
A healthy person should aim to get 45% to 65% of their calories from carbs, with active individuals aiming for 55% to 65% of their calories coming from carbs.
Percentage of Calories from Protein
Your body uses protein to help build muscle and other tissue. It also helps in the transportation of vitamins, minerals, fat and oxygen throughout the body.
You get protein from sources such as beef, poultry, fish — basically, any type of meat — and from other sources such as eggs, nuts and seeds, and tofu.
A healthy individual should aim to get about 10% to 35% of their calories from protein.
FINDING A BALANCE
Celebrity trainer David “Scooter” Honig helps chisel the physiques of luminaries, including pop star LL Cool J and WBA World Boxing Champion Vivian “Vicious” Harris. He describes the ideal pre-training combo he uses with Harris: “I have Vivian eat scrambled egg whites mixed with a whole egg or 20-30 grams of protein powder from whey because it gets in the system quickly and doesn’t upset his stomach. Energy wise, he sticks with a cup of oatmeal for the opposite reason: It digests slower, giving him sustained energy for his workout.”
Honig also acknowledges that the ideal meal can change from person to person, depending on metabolism. “I try to monitor my client’s bodyfat and energy levels,” he says. “If Vivian is low on energy, the ideal meal remains the same in terms of what to eat, but the quantities change; in that case, we’d boost the carbs. On the other hand, if his bodyweight is going up, say he’s gaining fat, the carb portion has to come down.”
That’s the tricky part of establishing a meal plan. The ideal meal contains ideal nutrients: lean proteins, complex carbohydrates for energy and glycogen replenishment, moderate amounts of dietary fat, plus veggies for fiber. What changes is the quantity. If you weigh more than 200 pounds, you need at least 40-55 grams of protein per meal. If you’re in the 150-190 range, that could come down to 30-35 grams. Carbohydrate amounts vary even more based on individual bodyweight, bodyfat and metabolism. One easy approach: If you weigh more than 200 pounds, fix your carbs at 80-100 grams per meal. If you weigh 190 or less, set them at 60-80 per meal. Success will come with figuring out what works best for your body.
Carbohydrates are important to health as is staying at the correct weight. It is important to note that not all carbs are the same, however.
Carbohydrates are commonly referred to as either “good carbs” or “bad carbs.” When trying to follow a healthful diet, and especially when trying to lose weight, carbohydrate intake should focus on good carbs over bad carbs.
Good carbs are complex carbohydrates, which means they are high in fiber and nutrients and take longer to break down. As they take longer to break down, they do not cause blood sugar levels to spike or rise too high.
Examples of good carbs include:
- whole fruit with the skin on
- whole grains
- high-fiber vegetables, such as sweet potatoes
- high-fiber beans and legumes
Bad carbs are simple carbohydrates that are easily broken down and quickly cause blood sugar levels to spike.
Examples of bad carbs include:
- white sugar, bread, pasta, and flour
- sugary drinks and juices
- cakes, candy, and cookies
- other processed foods
The Best Macronutrient Ratio Is the One You Can Stick To
While the macronutrient composition of your diet may not directly influence fat loss, it can affect your ability to adhere to a reduced-calorie diet.
This is important, as studies have shown that the single greatest predictor of weight loss is adherence to a reduced-calorie diet.
However, sticking with a diet is difficult for most people, and it’s the reason why so many diets fail.
To increase your chances of success on a reduced-calorie diet, individualize your macronutrient ratio based on your preferences and health.
For example, people with type 2 diabetes may find it easier to control their blood sugars on a low-carb rather than a high-carb diet.
Conversely, otherwise healthy people may find they’re less hungry on a high-fat, low-carb diet, and that it’s easier to follow compared to a low-fat, high-carb diet.
However, diets that emphasize a high intake of one macronutrient (like fats) and low intakes of another (like carbs) are not for everyone.
Instead, you may find that you can stick to a diet that has the right balance of macronutrients, which can also be effective for weight loss.
The acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDR) set forth by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommend that people get:
- 45–65% of their calories from carbs
- 20–35% of their calories from fats
- 10–35% of their calories from proteins
In any case, choose the diet that best fits your lifestyle and preferences. This may take some trial and error.
Diets commonly fail because people can’t stick with them for long periods. Therefore, it’s important to follow a reduced-calorie diet that fits your preferences, lifestyle and goals.