With the rise in popularity of flexible dieting and if it fits your macros (IIFYM), countless people today are tracking macros to reach their fitness goals.
But, like anyone with no experience on the subject, you’re probably wondering what that means and how it works.
Let’s jump in and go over everything you need to know.
What Are Macros?
Macro stands short for macronutrients and refers to the components that make up the foods we eat: proteins, carbs, and fats. The term comes from the fact that we need large amounts of these nutrients to sustain ourselves. In contrast, vitamins and minerals are micronutrients because we only need trace amounts to remain healthy.
Every food has a unique macronutrient profile that determines its calorie content and impact on our health, well-being, and fitness progress. For example, lean meat consists of mostly protein. Similarly, fatty meat has a lot of protein, but it also has fats, causing it to be more calorie-dense. More on that in a second. In contrast, natural oils almost entirely consist of fats, which explains their high caloric content. Most foods you consume will offer some balance between proteins, carbs, and fats.
Aside from their unique functions in the body, macronutrients are essential for us because each carries an energetic value. Proteins and carbs provide four calories per gram, and fats offer nine. So, if you consume a meal that consists of 43 grams of protein, 62 grams of carbs, and 23 grams of fats, you would ingest 627 calories:
43 * 4 = 172
62 * 4 = 248
23 * 9 = 207
172 + 248 + 207 = 627 calories
How to Count Your Macros In Five Steps
1. Calculate Your Calorie Needs
The first step to understanding and tracking your calories is determining how much energy your body needs for your specific goals.
Basal Metabolic Rate
Start by determining your basal metabolic rate (BMR)––the number of calories your body burns at rest each day. You can use a formula, such as one of these:
|BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)|
|BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)|
|MR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)|
|BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)|
Once you’ve determined your BMR, multiply the value by the one that best reflects your activity level:
- Sedentary (little or no exercise): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.55
- Very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.725
- Extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.9
(Be honest here.)
Total Daily Energy Expenditure
Doing so will provide you with a rough estimate of your TDEE––the total number of calories you burn each day. You can adjust your intake depending on what goal you’re trying to achieve. For example, if you want to lose fat, you can start eating 500 calories below your TDEE. In contrast, you should add around 200 calories to your TDEE to gain weight and build muscle.
Let’s do a quick example calculation for Dave. Our hypothetical 28-year-old guy who wants to start gaining weight to build muscle. Dave is 6’0” tall (72 inches), weighs 170 lbs, and is moderately active. So:
BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
BMR = 66 + (6.23 x 170) + (12.7 x 72) – (6.8 x 28)
BMR = 66 + 1059 + 914 – 190
BMR = 1849 calories
Now, we multiply the above value by 1.55, which reflects his activity level during the week:
1849 * 1.55 = 2866 calories
Given that Dave wants to start gaining weight, we will add 200 calories, resulting in a starting daily intake of 3066.
Remember to Recalculate Your Macros Frequently!
It’s important to note that we’ve calculated an estimate of Dave’s caloric expenditure. The formula and multiplier work great, but there will always be a degree of inaccuracy. So, take the initial values as a starting point, but don’t be afraid to adjust weeks down the road once your body has given you some initial feedback.
2. Break Down The Macronutrient Requirements
Once you’ve calculated your caloric needs based on your goals, it’s time to determine your macronutrients. Don’t worry because doing so is easier than figuring out your caloric needs. We’ll be using the following rules:
- 0.7 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight
- 0.3 to 0.5 grams of fats per pound of body weight
- The remaining calories are dedicated to carbohydrates
So, let’s take Dave as an example again. As discussed in the previous point, he weighs 170 pounds and should eat around 3066 calories to start gaining weight and muscle. As such:
- Protein – 119 to 153 grams daily
- Fats – 51 to 85 grams daily
So long as Dave covers his protein and fats needs and remains within his 3066 calories for the day, his carbohydrate intake will sort itself out naturally.
3. Download An App or Get a Notebook
Once you know how many calories you should eat for your goals and what your macronutrient needs are, it’s time to decide how to log your food intake.
The first option is to get a simple notebook or log where you’ll write down each food you eat and the quantity (more on that in the next point). A log or notebook can work great because:
- Calculating your intake by hand isn’t that difficult once you get used to it
- Having a physical item can feel rewardinG
Your alternative is to download a food-tracking app like MyFitnessPal. All you have to do is:
- Head over to your preferred app store
- Download and install MyFitnessPal
- Input personal data (age, height, weight, activity level, etc.)
Once you’ve gone through the setup process, you can start using the app to track your calories and macronutrients. The great thing about MyFitnessPal is that you can find almost every food in their rich library, and you can scan barcodes of food items. That way, all you have to do is input the quantity for each food, and the app will go through the trouble of calculating calories and macronutrients for you.
4. Buy a Kitchen Scale
The next step in the process of counting macros is buying a kitchen scale. It doesn’t have to be anything expensive because the most basic model will work fine for at least a couple of years. Just make sure the one you buy has a ‘Tare’ button, which is spelled as ‘Zero’ on some models. The button’s function is to reset the value on the display, which can be beneficial when weighing different foods on the same plate. For example, you can place some cooked meat on the plate, press the Tare button, add rice, press it again, and add some green peas.
Many people don’t see the kitchen scale as necessary and instead prefer to eyeball the foods they eat to estimate how many calories they are having. The problem with this approach is that we are terrible at estimating how much food we eat. In many cases, we underestimate our calorie intake, so people often say, “I barely eat anything, but I can’t lose any weight.”
Some folks are reluctant to get a kitchen scale because they feel that doing so is too obsessive. But, the truth is, a kitchen scale is nothing more than a tool you can use to track your nutrition more accurately and reach your goals faster. Sure, it can be challenging initially, but you will get used to it, and weighing your food will come naturally.
5. Get Started
You’ve laid down the foundation. Now it’s time to get started with counting macros. It can feel a bit overwhelming and possibly even unnecessary. But, as discussed above, tracking macronutrients is beneficial for ensuring nutritional accuracy, which leads to better results and less time spent wondering if you’re on the right track.
Plus, as you saw from the previous steps, there isn’t anything too complex about the process. All you have to do is follow the steps as outlined, and you will gain momentum.
What Benefits Does Macronutrient Tracking Offer?
The most notable benefit of tracking macros is the nutritional accuracy. Like tracking your spending to understand your finances, being mindful of what you eat allows you to make better choices and see where you might be falling short.
Greater accuracy is also beneficial for streamlining the journey. Instead of spending your days wondering if you’re eating enough to build muscle or the right amount to lose fat, you know. Results come more quickly, you feel more at ease, and you’re less likely to switch gears and jump to a shinier opportunity.
Another considerable benefit of tracking macronutrients is the flexibility you gain with your nutrition. Instead of following a rigid approach like ‘clean eating’ or some diet, you can enjoy a variety of foods and eat your favorite treats every day while working toward your goals. The effect is possible because the primary goal is to hit your daily calories and macronutrients. So long as you do that, you can enjoy a variety of foods, go out for meals, and more.
Unlike many nutritional approaches, counting macronutrients is sustainable in the long run. The tactic isn’t one you follow for a week or a month to reach some goal before returning to old behaviors. Instead, counting macros is a long-term approach to your nutrition where you become more mindful of how much you eat relative to your body’s needs. Even if you stop weighing all of your foods or logging them at some point, the skills you develop through macro counting will be invaluable.
The fantastic thing about macro counting is that you get to maintain your health much better than you would with other eating approaches. Counting macros ensures that you get enough of the three essential macronutrients and the right amount of calories.
A Few Words on Tracking Macronutrients When Eating Out
Before wrapping up this guide, it’s important to say a few words about tracking your macronutrients when eating out. The problem with doing so is that you’ll always struggle to estimate your food intake accurately. Which can slow down your progress. You might undereat, causing you to struggle with muscle gain or overeat, leading to an inability to lose weight.
According to research, we are notoriously bad at estimating how much food we eat. In one paper, researchers noted that people could underestimate their calorie intake by as much as 700 or overestimate by nearly 300. Put together, that’s an error range of almost 1,000 calories.
So, while it’s not the end of the world to have meals out, realize that you might not be accurate with your estimation. A good way to go around the issue is to err on the side of less food when trying to lose weight and eat a bit more liberally when building muscle.
Some restaurants also post nutritional information for different meals on their menus, which can help you track macronutrients better. Still, you should be careful with the nutritional info because how a meal gets prepared will always impact the calories and macronutrients it provides. For example, if one chef is more liberal with the oil, salad dressing, and sauces, that can significantly increase the calories of the meal.
Tracking macronutrients is a simple and practical way to improve your nutrition, reach goals with greater ease, and take the guesswork out of the equation. Macro tracking is also a fantastic way to understand how much your body needs and how to estimate food amounts more accurately.
The best part is that tracking macros isn’t as complicated as some people would have you believe. Getting started is simple, and you get used to the entire process within a couple of weeks.