If you go to the gym or are a part of the health and fitness community you’ve probably heard the term Macros before. The term is simply an abbreviation of the word Macronutrients. They are the 3 food types which make up your total calories; Carbohydrates, Fats, and Protein. When you hear someone say they’re tracking or counting their macros, they basically mean they’re counting their calories and hitting target macros within those calories to reach their current body composition goal.
As mentioned above, the 3 macros are carbohydrates, protein, and fat, and they all serve different purposes. The main thing you need to be aware of when tracking them is their energy density. Carbohydrates and protein contain 4 calories per gram, whereas fat contains 9. This means that fats are over double the calories per gram of food, which is why the calories tend to skyrocket on high-fat foods.
By learning what macros are and how to track them effectively you’ll be able to burn fat, build muscle, and manipulate your body composition to achieve your fitness goals.
Although tracking macros is very simple, it can be quite confusing at first. To get more of an understanding here are the basic traits of each macronutrient.
Carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and fibers and typically make up the largest portion of a person’s calorie intake. Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram of food which your body either uses for immediate energy or stores as glycogen in the liver and muscles.
Carbohydrates are the only non-essential macronutrient, meaning you can survive without them. This is why keto diets and the Atkins diet are around. These extremely low or no-carb diets are designed to help you lose weight. However, you can lose weight just as effectively with carbohydrates in your diet, as only an energy deficit is required, not the exclusion of a particular food or food group.
A complex carbohydrate, known as Fibre, comes exclusively from plants. There are no nutrients or calories in fibre as it is not digested, it only passes through our digestive systems. It takes the body longer to process fibre, which means your stomach stays fuller for longer after eating high fibre foods, a big plus if you’re restricting your calories.
Healthy sources of carbohydrates include grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. Less healthy sources come from white bread, pastries, sodas, and other highly processed or refined foods. However, a carb is still a carb, and only the total number of them will dictate the calories, not the source.
Fats, unlike carbohydrates, are essential. You simply cannot survive without them. And you find out pretty quickly how important they are when if you cut them out of your diet. The signs that you’re not eating enough fat are constant fatigue, dry skin, and eyes, struggling to concentrate, and hormonal problems to name a few. Fats are responsible for energy production, transporting fat-soluble vitamins, nerve and brain function, and maintaining healthy skin and tissues.
Fat comes in three forms, which are Saturated, Unsaturated, and Trans, each of which contains 9 calories per gram of food. Fats typically take up the smallest portion of a person’s daily intake (20-30%) due to it being so high in calories. Unsaturated fats can be split into two groups Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). These fats tend to be liquid at room temperature, they are regarded as the healthiest type of fat and include foods such as avocados, olives, nuts, and fatty fish. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature and can be found in animal foods such as butter, egg yolks, whole milk, cheese, and meats.
Trans fats are fats that have been changed by a process called hydrogenation (adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid). This process increases the shelf life of foods while giving them a desirable taste and texture. These fats are notoriously unhealthy and can be linked to long-term inflammation, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Foods high in trans fats include cookies, cakes, pizzas, fast-food, snack foods, and other baked goods.
Click this link to learn more about the different types of fat.
Out of all the macros, protein certainly gets the most attention, particularly from a fitness standpoint. Protein contains 4 calories per gram of food, just like carbohydrates, however, unlike carbohydrates, they are essential.
Proteins can be broken down into amino acids, often referred to as the building blocks of proteins, and they are vital to many bodily processes. There are 20 different amino acids your body needs to grow and function properly, but only nine amino acids are classified as essential as they can’t be made by your body and must be obtained through food.
The best sources of essential amino acids are animal proteins like meat, fish, eggs, poultry, and dairy products. You can also supplement effectively with whey protein, the most bioavailable source of protein you can get. The amount of protein you require will vary depending on your body composition goals, age, health, and more.
You can also get protein from plants, however, plant sources lack one or more amino acids making it more difficult to get all the amino acids that your body needs. Plus, proteins are rarely found in isolation and usually come with a wide variety of other nutrients such as; Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, DHA, and Zinc, which are hard to get from plants but are abundant in animal proteins.
There are plenty of nutrients found in plants that are lacking in animal foods. Therefore, eating balanced amounts of both is the optimal way to get all the nutrients you need.
Learning how to track and count your macros can take a while to learn, but once you’ve mastered it you’ll find you can log a whole day worth of food in less time than it takes to brush your teeth.
To start off you need to work out your caloric needs based on your body composition goal. To do this, you need to determine resting energy expenditure (REE) and non-resting energy expenditure (NREE). REE is the number of calories you burn at rest, while NREE is calories burned during activity and digestion. Combining the two gives you the total number of calories burned in a day, which is known as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
Here is a simple online calculator you can use to work out your total daily energy expenditure.
Once you’ve worked out your total daily energy and expenditure you can add and subtract calories in order to reach different goals. If you are trying to lose weight you should be consuming fewer calories than you expend, known as a calorie deficit, while those looking to build muscle should be eating more calories then they expend, known as a surplus.
Once you have determined how many calories to consume each day, your next step is to decide what macronutrient ratio is best for you and your goals.
If you are trying to burn fat, the recommended starting point is 0.5g of protein per pound of body weight per day.
For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, you should eat 90g of protein per day.
180lbs x 0.5g = 90g of protein per pound of body mass.
If you are trying to build muscle you should consider eating 1.0 – 1.5g of protein per pound of body weight.
For example, if you weigh 180lbs, you should eat 180-270g of protein per day to build lean muscle.
180lbs x 1.0-1.5g of protein = 180-270g of protein per pound of body weight.
If you are trying to burn fat, the recommended starting point is around 0.5-0.75 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.
For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, you should be eating 90-135g of carbohydrates per day.
180lbs x 0.5-.75g of carbohydrates = 90-135g of carbohydrates per pound of body weight.
If you are trying to build muscle you should consider eating 1.0-2.0g of carbs per pound of body weight per day.
For example, if you weigh 180lbs, you should be eating 180-360g of carbohydrates per day to build muscle.
180lbs x 1.0-2.0 grams of carbohydrates = 180-360g of carbohydrates per pound of body weight.
If you are trying to burn fat, the recommended starting point is around 0.4 grams of fat per pound of body weight.
For example, if you weigh 180 pounds: you should be eating 72 grams of fat per day.
180lbs x .04 grams of fats = 72g of fat per pound of body weight.
If you are trying to build muscle you should consider eating 0.5-0.75g of fat per pound of body weight.
For example, if you weigh 180lbs, you should be consuming 90-135g of fat throughout the day to build muscle.
180lbs x 0.5 x 0.75g of fats = 90-135g of fat per pound of body weight.
Now its time to start logging your daily macros to reach your personal goals. Fortunately for us, we no longer have to write everything down on a piece of paper and use a calculator to work it all out. This is because there is an abundance of apps on the market that allow you to scan and input foods making it very easy to track your daily intake. The best one, in my opinion, is called MyFitnessPal.
You’ll also need to invest in a digital food scale if you don’t already have one, this is so you can weigh certain foods. For example cereals and milk. MyFitnessPal features a barcode scanner that will automatically input the food, sometimes this alone is accurate, but other times you’ll need to change the serving size to fit the portion you need.
Keep in mind that it’s not necessary to hit your macro targets with 100% accuracy every day. You can still meet your goals even if you are a few grams under or over. The idea is to stay as close to your target macros as you can while allowing yourself some leeway.
If you stick to it every day, before you know it, counting macros will feel natural. And when you see the results in the mirror you’ll see why it’s worth doing.
The main benefit of this type of dieting is that you can still consume the foods you enjoy the most, providing you hit your target calories and macros. This creates a more sustainable approach to dieting with a much higher adherence rate, and once you see the results in the mirror, you’ll see why it’s worth doing alongside a personal training program.