In my last article, I discussed how to find your caloric maintenance and set a reasonable deficit for fat loss. Today’s article is going to go a step further and show you what I and many other coaches believe to be a better way to count than just tracking calories. I’m talking of course, about macros.
This article is going to serve as a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about macronutrients. Since almost everything will be covered in the following sections, lets get right to it!
In an ideal world, everyone would count their macros. But because that utopia only exists in my dreams, I’ll settle for as many people as possible.
Look, I understand that calorie & macro counting may not be right for everyone, but I am a firm believer that everyone should try it for a short period of time at least.
What it does more than anything is teach you a lot about the food you eat. It teaches you which foods you should be eating more if you want to reach your goals, which foods you should maybe eat less of, and just makes you more aware about food in general.
For that reason, the first group of people I believe should be counting macros is anyone starting a fat loss program for the first time, or someone who has never done it before. You may not necessarily have to hit specific targets every day (like we’ll discuss in a bit) but rather you should use an app like MyFitnessPal to track your daily intake and see the breakdown of what you are are eating.
This simple act is a great educational tool and will make you more mindful about what you are putting into their bodies. You may find that they are eating way above your maintenance levels, or that protein is too low. You don’t necessarily have to hit certain macro numbers each day; just knowing where you are and making small adjustments can go a long way.
The second group of people who should count macros are those who may have reached a plateau in their progress.
Progress is rarely linear and never indefinite. You can’t start out doing one thing and expect it to work all the way until you reach your goal. Small, and sometimes large adjustments along the way are usually necessary. And if you don’t know where you are, how do you know where you are going?
Tracking your macros allows you to see what is going on with your diet. Maybe your protein is too low, causing you to be hungry and snack more than you should. Or maybe you’ve been losing weight eating 1,800 calories a day, but progress has stopped for a while, so you need to drop it down to 1,700.
Tracking gives you a point of reference and lets you see where you need to make adjustments; something you don’t necessarily get just ‘eating healthy’.
The last group of people who should, or rather, need to track are those looking to get to very low levels of body fat (sub 8%). It is very very difficult to get that lean without counting macros. Your diet needs to be pinpoint accurate at this level because your body has so little fat left to lose. This only applies to the small majority of the population looking to get cover-model lean or dieting for a show.
There are four different macronutrients: protein, carbs, fat, and alcohol. Each one plays a unique role in the body, and with the exception of alcohol, is vital for your body to function properly.
Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories
Of all the macronutrients, protein is probably the most important. It is responsible for maintaining and building muscle. The amino acids found in protein are the building blocks of muscle tissue, some of which cannot be manufactured by your body, which means you must get them from your food.
Protein is also digested slower than any other macronutrient, meaning it helps keep you satiated. Because of this, it also takes the body more energy to digest protein, meaning that you burn more calories digesting protein than any other macronutrient.
Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories
For years fat was vilified and made out to the Darth Vader of our health. Thankfully, we know now that this is not true, and fat is actually essential for our bodies to function.
Fat is an essential player when it comes to hormone production, especially testosterone. Fat is also responsible for regulating things like blood pressure, inflammation, vitamin absorption, and assists in brain function.
There are four different types of fat:
Monounsaturated fat: These are fats that are found in things like avocados, walnuts, almonds, and cashews, as well as olive oil. Monounsaturated fats help lower bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol and can help with fat loss.
Polyunsaturated fat: This is the type of fat that contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These are fats that the body cannot produce but are essential to our health. Polyunsaturated fats can be found in things like salmon, fish oil, and seeds.
Saturated fats: Saturated fat is the reason that fats as a whole initially got a bad rap. There where a number of studies (flawed, biased studies) that linked saturated fat to heart disease. However recent research and longer-term studies have shown that not only are saturated fats NOT the cause of heart disease, but that they are actually one of your body’s preferred sources of energy. As long as everything you eat is not swimming in butter, you will be fine
Trans fats: Trans fats are the exception to the fat rule. Most trans fats are artificially made, which means they are not good for you. Trans fats are manufactured by taking normally healthy fats and infusing them with hydrogen atoms. This gives the fat a longer shelf life, but also makes it much worse for you. Trans fats are found in most fried foods, and while eating them every now and again wont kill you, they are something you want to severely limit your consumption of.
Carbohydrates: 1 gram = 4 calories
Carbohydrates have taken a beating in recent years. They have been blamed for everything from the obesity epidemic to Justin Bieber (well maybe not that last one).
When it comes to fat loss, low-carb diets have been touted as the holy grail for dropping body fat. Cut out carbs and BOOM, instant fat loss! But the problem is, carbohydrates actually provide our body with a ton of benefits.
When broken down in the body, carbs are converted to glycogen, and stored in the muscles, liver and brain. These stores help fuel the muscles for physical activity and help aid in brain function.
There are three types of carbohydrates:
Fibrous Carbs: Otherwise known as vegetables (heard of them?), fibrous carbs are the form of carbs you can really eat as much of as you want and not adversely affect your fat loss. These include foods like broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, peppers, cucumber, and zucchini, among others.
Because these veggies are so high in fiber, their calorie content is very low. This means that you can eat a lot…and I mean a lot…of these and you wont be taking in that many calories. The high fiber content also means that they are digested much slower than other forms of carbs, meaning they will keep you fuller longer.
Simple Carbs: These are the type of carbs that are often referred to as “bad”. Simple carbs are highly processed and really don’t even resemble food. They often come in the form of table sugar, white flour, and syrups…in other words, the stuff that makes up some of the tastiest foods out there.
Simple carbs are broken down by the body much faster than other forms of carbs, leading to spikes in insulin. And while insulin is actually good, helping shuttle nutrients to the muscles, chronically elevated levels of insulin will cause you to become insulin resistant. This means your body becomes less efficient at getting the food you eat where it needs to go and can lead to more fat storage.
So while limiting your consumption of ice cream, cake, cookies, chips, and beer is a good idea, you don’t need to eliminate them completely. Any good diet plan will allow you to occasionally indulge in your favorite foods, just not every day.
Complex Carbs: These are carbohydrates that are less processed, meaning they are closer to their original form. They include foods like fruits, potatoes, rice, oats, etc. Unlike simple carbs, complex carbs are broken down much slower by the body, leading to fewer insulin spikes.
Another way to classify simple and complex carbs is by using the glycemic index. The GI scores foods by how much they raise blood sugar levels. Complex carbs typically score low on the GI, while simple carbs score high. Foods that fall in the middle are ones like whole wheat breads and pastas that are processed but still retain some of their original properties.
While it is probably a good idea that most of your carbs come from complex, lower GI sources, don’t think that exclusively eating these is the key to fat loss. If you only need 2,000 calories a day but you’re eating 3,000, it doesn’t matter if it’s coming from cookies and beer or rice and bananas, you will not lose fat.
Alcohol: 1 gram = 7 calories
Yes, alcohol is a macronutrient and yes it does contain calories. However, alcohol calories are unique in the fact that they can’t be stored in the body as fat. Now before you start thinking that you are free to go drink all the Jack Daniels you want, let me explain.
As ethanol (alcohol) is processed by the liver, it creates a bi-product known as acetate. Acetate is toxic, so the body prioritizes the metabolizing of this over everything else in its system. That means that the body will not stop burning off alcohol until it is gone, meaning it can’t be stored in the body as fat.
Where the problem occurs however is that while this process is happening, the body cannot metabolize anything else. Therefore any food in your system is stored until the alcohol is burned off.
Now if you consume alcohol and it doesn’t take you out of your caloric deficit, then you have nothing to worry about. Once the alcohol is metabolized, your body will go right back to using fat stores for energy. However, if drinking pushes you over caloric limit for the day, or you decide to go on a Taco Bell binge at 3am after drinking all night, then you may be in trouble.
Like any other macronutrient, there is nothing inherently wrong with alcohol. Studies have even shown that moderate consumption of alcohol can lead to testosterone increases in men, a decreased appetite, and even a longer life! But it all needs to be taken within the context of your diet.
One of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to macronutrients is “What’s a good source of [insert macro here]?”
While I am not a fan of classifying foods as “good” or “bad”, there are definitely certain protein, carb and fat sources that are going to be better for reaching your goals than others.
The most important thing when it comes to hitting your macros consistently is finding what foods you enjoy, and how those foods fit in the context of your macro targets. Some foods are going to be easy to fit into your macros each day, while others take a bit more planning.
When it comes to top-notch protein sources, you cannot beat good old fashion dead animal flesh. Sorry vegetarians, but its true. Gram for gram, meat provides more protein than any other naturally occurring food source. When it comes to choosing good protein sources, beef, poultry, pork, shellfish and other fishies are going to be your best bet.
Some sources of protein are going to be fattier than others, so you need to take that into consideration as well. These cuts of meat will take up a lot of your daily fat macros, meaning you have to be careful when choosing your protein source. If you decide to eat fattier cuts of meat like ribeye, chicken legs and thighs, or salmon, you need to reduce your dietary fat intake from other sources.
Some good non-meat protein sources include eggs, egg whites, non-fat milk, cottage cheese and protein powder.
If you’re going to consume carbs, the best place to get them is going to be from fruits and veggies. Not only are these about as whole and unprocessed as you can find when it comes to carbs, but they are also very high in fiber. And as we know from above, fiber = good.
After that, your next best sources are going to be things like rice (brown and white), potatoes (white and sweet), oats, and quinoa. Things like whole wheat breads, tortillas, and the like are fine too, but should not make up as much of your diet as the sources above.
The one thing that all these sources have in common is that they are all either unprocessed or minimally processed; meaning they are in or close to their natural form. These are the foods that should make up at least 90% of your carb intake.
Processed carbohydrates, like cereals, white breads, pop tarts, chips, ice cream, etc, all have a place in your diet. I mean, if you enjoy those things, it would be pretty miserable if you had to cut them out right?
Their place is small however…like a once or twice a week thing, not every day. And you still need to make them fit your macros.
Finally, there are the hybrid carbs: things like yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk, that in addition to carbs, contain a good amount of protein as well. Since they are higher in carbs however, that is where we classify them.
Like we discussed earlier, with the exception of trans fats, there really aren’t any fats you need to avoid.
For a lot of people, a decent portion of their daily fat intake is going to come from their protein sources. If you are eating any type of animal protein, you are going to get some fat from it as well. How much depends on the source. Seafood and poultry are going to contain less fat, while red meat and eggs are going to contain more.
Outside of this, other sources of fats include some dairy products like butter, cream, and cheeses; oils like olive, flaxseed, coconut and fish oil; any kind of nut or seed; and a few veggies like olives and avocados.
The big disclaimer with fats is you need to watch your portion sizes. Because fat is so energy dense, it doesn’t take much for the calories to start adding up. This makes fats very easy to overeat, and thus, overshoot your caloric intake for the day. This is true for any macronutrient of course, but because fat provides over double the caloric value of protein or carbs, you need to pay extra attention to how much of it you are consuming.
Now that you know what macros are, and where to get them, let’s talk about why you should count them.
Probably the best reason to count macros is the diet flexibility it gives you. The biggest problem with most diets is that they are too rigid and do not allow you to eat food you enjoy because they are “forbidden”. While this may be sustainable for a short period of time, it is almost always not in the long run because it doesn’t allow flexibility.
This type of flexible dieting is often referred to as IIFYM, or If It Fits Your Macros. The idea behind IIFYM is that because calories, and by extension macros, are king, it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you are hitting your daily macronutrient targets.
Now I am not advocating getting all of your macros from pizza, ice cream and pop tarts. What I am saying is that a flexible dieting approach of counting macros will allow you to enjoy these foods occasionally, as long as a majority of your diet is full in lean protein, fibrous veggies, and whole unprocessed foods. I tell people to follow the 90/10 rule. 90 percent of you macros should be from these sources, and the other 10 percent can be from whatever you enjoy!
The other advantage macro counting has is that it is much better for physique enhancement that simply counting calories alone. By counting macros, you can tailor your diet specifically to what your body needs each day.
For example, as we know from above, protein is important for maintaining muscle mass while in a caloric deficit. By counting protein and keeping it high everyday while we are dieting, we can ensure we are maintaining as much lean mass as possible and encouraging burning of stored fat for energy.
Another example where counting macros comes in handy is the concept of carb cycling. This is the process of cycling your carbohydrate intake to match your physical activity levels.
The idea is that you match high carb days with training days in order to provide the body with its preferred energy source when it needs it the most, and low carb days with rest days when your body doesn’t need the carbs. This cycling will allow more intense workouts, better performance and recovery, as well as promote more fat burning.
Now that we know why counting macros is so beneficial, lets talk about how…
In order to calculate macros you first need to figure out how many calories you need to eat on a daily basis. For a refresher on that, check out my article on setting a caloric deficit for fat loss.
Step One: Find your caloric target for the day
This could be your maintenance level, a deficit if you are trying to lose fat, or a surplus if you are trying to gain muscle.
For simplicities sake, lets say you just want to maintain your body weight.
Let’s use Rick as an example. Rick is a middle-aged male, living in a zombie apocalypse. Rick’s priorities are his son, infant daughter, the group he’s the leader of, and not getting eaten by zombies. Rick knows food is scarce so he isn’t interested in bulking, but he doesn’t want to get weak either, so he just wants to maintain his bodyweight.
Rick is 175 lbs with 12% body fat and is extremely active…you know, running from zombies and all…therefore, using the calculations from the article above, we know his maintenance calories are 3,365 kcal per day.
Step Two: Figure out protein
Since protein is the most important of the macronutrients, due to its muscle sparing and building properties, we want to figure this out first.
For most of my clients, I will set their protein intake between 1.0-1.4 grams per lb of lean mass.
When setting protein, it’s important to take into account your personal preferences. Do you like eating protein? Then you probably want to set your intake higher. Do you find it hard to get enough protein? Then maybe start lower.
Rick is living in a post-apocalyptic world, so protein is probably going to be scarce, so we’ll use the lower end of the range.
Rick has approximately 154 lbs of lean mass so we’ll round and set his protein intake to 155g/day.
Step Three: Figure out fat
Setting fat is a lot like setting protein, it’s largely based on personal preference. If you find you enjoy eating foods that are higher in fat, you are going to want to set your fat targets higher. If you enjoy carbs more, you want to set your intake lower.
For fat, you want to set your intake between 0.35 and 0.7 grams per lb of lean mass.
It’s probably going to be hard to come across a lot of fat in the apocalypse so we’ll set Ricks fat a bit lower, at 0.4.
0.4g x 154 lbs = 61.6 = 60g/day rounded.
Step Four: Figure out carbs
Figuring out your carb intake will take a little bit more math. Since we already have our protein and fat calories accounted for, we need to figure out how many calories we have left for carbs. Earlier we talked about how many calories a gram of each macronutrient contain….well now we are going to use those numbers to figure out how many calories we are eating from each.
First take your grams of protein and multiply it by 4:
– Ricks protein – 155g x 4 = 620 calories from protein.
Next, take your fat and multiply it by 9:
– Rick’s fat – 60g x 9 = 540 calories from fat.
Add those two numbers together:
– 620 + 540 = 1,160 calories from protein and fat.
Now take your take your total daily calories and subtract the calories from protein and fat:
– 3,365 – 1,160 = 2,205 calories remaining.
Finally, to figure out how many carbs you should eat, divide your remaining calories by 4:
– 2,205 / 4 = ~550 grams Rick needs from carbs each day.
So there you have it! In order to maintain his bodyweight, Rick needs to hit these macronutrient targets each day:
If you want to double-check your math, simply multiply each macro target by its caloric value:
P(155 x 4) + F(60 x 9) + C(550 x 4) = 3,360 (Slightly lower due to rounding)
And there you have it!
You can look all over the internet and find recommendations for setting macros. And most of them probably work just fine. The most important thing to take into consideration is your personally preferences.
If you enjoy eating protein, set your protein higher. Just remember that protein often contains fat as well, so unless you just want to eat chicken breast and tuna, you’ll probably need to set fat a little higher too. Regardless, taking into account your preferences are going to go a long way in making sure you can consistently hit your numbers.
Also remember that these numbers are not set in stone. You will have to adjust based on progress and the results you are seeing. Don’t get too drastic though. It often doesn’t take more than an adjustment of 50 calories a day to get progress moving again. Make sure though that when you do adjust calories, that most are coming from either fat or carbs, as maintaining protein (especially when losing fat) is important.
Lastly don’t obsess! If you 2 grams under fat for a day, don’t think you need to eat a quarter tablespoon of butter to hit your goal. Allow yourself a little wiggle room. Aim to be within +/- 10 grams on protein and carbs, and +/- 5 grams on fat, keeping in mind if you’re over on one, you should try and stay under on another. Having this buffer will help you from getting too stressed out over your numbers.
Counting macros is a skill, and like any skill it needs to be developed over time. I have some clients that have gotten the hang of it in a couple days, others it takes a bit longer.
The important thing to remember is stick with it. The payoff is well worth the effort and time it takes up front to learn. Once you get the hang of it, not only will it become like second nature to you, but it will reflect in you progress and results as well.