Author: Maria Fischer • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • March 25, 2021
The body uses calories for energy to operate. Three nutrients — carbohydrates, protein and fat — contain calories that your body needs. Minerals, vitamins and water are also nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy; however, they do not contain calories.
Per the Cleveland Clinic, a calorie is a measurement, just like a teaspoon or an inch. Calories are the amount of energy released when your body digests and absorbs food. The more calories a food has, the more energy it can provide to your body. If you eat more calories than you need, that’s when your body stores the extra calories as body fat. Depending on where you’re located, energy may also be measured in kilocalories (kcal); however, calories and kcal are used interchangeably and refer to the same amount of energy in relation to food.
Just how many calories are in protein? How many calories are in carbohydrates and fat?
Below, we’ll discuss the different amount of calories in macronutrients and the best ways to balance these nutrients and healthfully keep track of your calories.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), protein has 4 calories per gram.
For the typical healthy diet, approximately 20-30% of your total daily calories should come from protein. Your body needs protein for growth, muscle maintenance and energy.
Protein is stored mostly by the muscles, with the body changing about 60% of protein into glucose. If your goal is to lose weight or build muscle, it’s important that you’re getting the right amount of protein in your diet. Muscle protein synthesis is the naturally occurring process in which protein is produced to repair muscle damage caused by exercise, and it’s maximized when you consume doses of around 20–25 grams of protein.
Carbs and protein have the same amount of calories per gram. The USDA notes that both carbohydrates and protein provide 4 calories per gram.
Carbs and protein may have the same number of calories per gram, but a bigger percentage of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates. Generally, about 50-60% of your caloric intake will be carbohydrates. This macronutrient contains the most glucose, giving the quickest source of energy. Your body changes every gram of carbohydrate into glucose.
While protein is stored mostly by the body’s muscles, the body can store carbohydrates in the liver. Your liver stores extra carbohydrates as glycogen and releases it when your body needs it; however, there is a limit to the amount of glycogen your liver can store. Once that limit has been reached, your body will turn the extra carbohydrates into fat.
Protein and carbohydrates each have 4 calories per gram, but fat has 9 calories per gram. In a healthy diet, approximately 20-30% percent of total daily calories should come from fat. Fat does give the body energy, but the body changes only about 10% of fat into glucose.
You might be familiar with the phrase “counting macros.” This phrase refers to a diet approach in which a person tries to eat a certain percentage of calories from each macronutrient — protein, carbohydrates and fat. This percentage varies based on your end-goal. If you’re trying to lose weight, you should aim to eat fewer calories with around 30% of your total calories coming from protein, 40% coming from carbohydrates and 30% coming from fat; however, if your focus is more on building muscle and increasing muscle mass, your macronutrient breakdown might look like 25% of your calories coming from protein, 55% from carbohydrate and 20% from fat.
It’s important to remember that you need adequate amounts of all three macronutrients, no matter what diet plan you may be on. Some people find that diets that emphasize certain macronutrients over the others (such as the ketogenic, or “keto,” diet or a very low fat diet) do help them keep in line with their goals and achieve results quicker; however, a diet that eliminates or heavily restricts one of the three macronutrients is often not sustainable and not recommended by medical and nutrition professionals. It’s important to remember that each macronutrient has a unique set of properties that influence health. That’s why every diet should still involve a balance of all three, with the total number of calories and percentages varying based on your fitness goals and activity level.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates” actually found that reduced-calorie diets resulted in clinically meaningful weight loss, regardless of which macronutrients each participant emphasized. For the study, researchers randomly assigned 811 overweight adults to one of four diets. Each diet varied in its amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrates. Some diets had a breakdown that included as much as 65% carbohydrates with very little fat and protein, while the other diets placed an emphasis on protein and heavily restricted carbohydrates and fats. The diets consisted of similar foods and met guidelines for cardiovascular health. At the end of the study, researchers found that a balance of all three macronutrients and reduced calories overall proved to be most important for weight loss in participants — not an “elimination” or emphasis on any one macronutrient. A strategic balance of all three macronutrients was needed for optimal results.
The goal is to understand how calories translate into foods, so eventually you don't have to spend time rigorously counting grams of protein, grams of fat, grams of carbs and calories, or meticulously reading food labels in order to maintain a healthy weight and meet your macronutrient and micronutrient needs.
So what does getting about 30% of your calories from protein even look like?
If approximately ? of your total calories needs to come from protein, then approximately ? of each meal should be a protein. The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight a day for adults over 18. So according to this formula, a person who weighs 150 pounds requires around 60 grams of protein each day. That person would want to get 20 grams of protein, or 80 calories of protein, in each meal.
Some foods that are around 20 grams of protein are:
about 3 eggs
2 chicken thighs
3 ounces of shrimp
A standard-size pork chop
2 cups of high protein dairy products like milk or yogurt
3 ounces of ham,
1 cup cooked black beans, pinto beans or lentils
1 cup cooked split peas
If you include one of these options on your plate for each meal, you’ll immediately know you’re on track to getting the proper amount of protein you need — no calorie counting necessary.
Everybody — and every body — is different, so each person’s nutritional needs are different. Gainful wants to help you with tracking your calories and macronutrients and tailoring your diet to your unique set of goals.
Our protein powder blends are made with you in mind. Each low-calorie formula is created with ingredients in the perfect amounts for your body, so you never have to second guess each scoop. If you have completed the quiz at Gainful.com, you will be able to check out the full nutrition facts, calories and ingredients breakdown for your personalized blend by logging into your account on the Gainful website. Most blends contain a little over 100 calories, usually between 110 and 130 calories.
Don’t forget: Each subscriber has unlimited access to a personal Registered Dietitian, who is there to answer any lingering questions you may have about calories, nutrition labels or anything related to your diet.
Never hesitate to reach out. We are here to take the guesswork out of calorie counting and tracking macronutrients.
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