Tracking macros or macronutrients may be among the hottest diet trends now, but this is nothing new. It’s how nutrition studies have been run for decades. In nutrition research, if you want to test the effect of a certain diet – you set diet parameters for protein/carb/fat, what I call a “macronutrient framework”, hit those nutrient targets each day, and then see how the body responds. This is the best and most efficient way to change your physique in the way you desire as it gives you great control and insights into how your body responds to your diet.
There are three main macronutrients. These are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. When people say that they are tracking macros it means they are tracking their diet, to hit specific gram targets of protein, carbs, and fat.
— Protein – 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories.
When protein needs are set, it is based on your body weight as that will give us the most accurate estimate of optimal protein needs.
— Carbohydrates – 1 gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories.
Carbohydrates can be further broken down into sugar and fiber. I recommend that you take in 14g of fiber for every 1,000 calories you eat. In general, seek to minimize the amount of added sugar you consume during the day except for post-exercise when you might use a sugar-based post workout drink to rapidly replenish glycogen stores.
— Fats – 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories.
There are various types of fat – monounsaturated (e.g. olive oil), polyunsaturated (e.g. nuts) and saturated (e.g. butter). You will drive yourself crazy if you count these subtypes of fat. Just try to get a variety of fats and don’t double down on any one type.
To do this, first, you need to determine your calorie needs. You can use a modified harris-benedict equation or a very simple way is to just multiply your body weight by 12.
Body weight = 175lbs
175 x 12 = 2,100 calories (daily calorie target).
Set your protein target to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. For our example, this means that the person would eat 175g of protein per day.
Start with carbohydrates at 40% of total calories (but you can start with 30% of total calories if you want a lower carb plan).
2100 x 35% = 735 calories
Now convert the 735 calories to grams of carbohydrates
735 calories ÷ 4 = 183 gram of carbohydrates (your daily carbohydrate target)
Your fat intake will make up the remainder of your total calories.
175g protein x 4 = 700 calories from protein
700 calories (protein) + 735 calories (carbs) = 1435 calories
2100 – 1435 = 665 calories remain to be eaten from fat
665 ÷ 9 = 74 grams of fat (your daily fat target)
Based on your above calculations, here is what your daily targets would look like:
Here are some other popular macronutrient breakdowns that are based on the % of total calories that you are eating (a very common way to set nutrition parameters). These will get you started in your macro counting if you are looking for more options.
To hit your daily macronutrient targets, track your food intake using a nutrition app/software. My clients will generally use MyFitnessPal (free or paid) or MyMacro+ (paid, but only mobile) to track their daily intakes.
A big point of discussion when it comes to tracking macronutrients and calories centers on the source of calories – does it matter if you eat Rice Krispy’s or brown rice if you are hitting your carb target?
It is an over-simplistic view of nutrition to focus solely on calories and macronutrients with respects to fat loss as your only guide for your diet plan. The foods that we eat contain so much more than just protein, carbs, and fat. They contain fiber, antioxidants, and multiple types of fatty acids for starters. The form of the food (solid vs. liquid, minimally processed vs. highly processed, etc) impacts the speed in which we digest and sense the nutrients. All these factors impact the hormonal response to the foods that we are eating which then has impacts on how our body responds and processes the food that we eat.
Relying more heavily on these kinds of foods will give you the best overall nutrition for your diet to fuel your life and not just fat loss or hypertrophy. I do recommend that you can slip in other, less nutrient dense, options within the context of your macronutrient framework to appease your sweet tooth or other cravings.
When you are tracking your macronutrients you will be engrossed in a high level of nutritional detail. However, don’t let the details drive you crazy. Food labels are not perfect. The label on a food and the food itself can differ by 20%!!
We’ve talked mostly about protein, carbohydrates, and fat but not the 4th macronutrient – alcohol. What should you do with alcohol? Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram (halfway between carb/protein and fat) but metabolically it tends to function more like a carbohydrate than fat. It’s important to note that I recommend only responsible consumption of alcohol. We will not have a macro target for alcohol so I recommend that you count 1g of alcohol as if it were 2g of carbs.
For example, a 12oz bottle of beer may contain 10g of carbs and ~15g of alcohol. I would count this as 45g of carbs (15g of alcohol x 2 = 30g of carbs for counting purposes + the 10g of actual carbs). If you continue to do the math on this 45g of carbs x 4 calories per gram = 180 calories. A 12oz bottle of beer could contain 150 calories. I consider this extra 30 calories an alcohol tax.
Tracking your macronutrients may seem tedious but it gives you a lot of flexibility to eat a variety of foods (foods that you might not normally indulge in) while still making progress towards your goal. Successfully tracking macronutrients will also allow you to fine-tune your diet exactly to your body and what works best for your body. Your mantra should be track, monitor, assess, and adjust. Track your macros, monitor how your body changes (body fat, waist measurements, etc), assess if these changes are what you want at the speed you want, and then adjust your macronutrient parameters accordingly.
Here are some quick tips to get you up to speed as a Macro Tracking Professional in no time!
1.) Proactively track. Enter what you are going eat ahead of time. Most people tend to eat and then log in their food. This puts you in a reactionary dietary position and sets you up for a greater chance of failure when it comes to hitting your targets.
2.) Spread your calories out equally across your meals.
3.) Eat higher carbohydrate meals after exercise and high fat/lower carbohydrate meals at other times during the day.
4.) Keep protein constant across all meals.
5.) Your diet should focus primarily on proteins (steak, chicken breasts/thighs), fruits (berries, apples, etc), vegetables (broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, etc), and fats (pistachios, avocados, olive oil, etc) that are as nutrient dense as possible.
6.) Think whole strawberries instead of a drink that touts “made with 10 strawberries!” or roasted potatoes over puffed potato chip snacks.
7.) When having nachos, pop tarts, pizza, or some ice cream do so in a way that fits within your macronutrient framework and then adjust the rest of your diet that around this. This will keep you on track while giving you the freedom to enjoy foods that you normally wouldn’t freely enjoy.
8.) You aren’t going to weigh and measure everything that you put in your mouth so don’t stress about hitting your macronutrient targets dead-on. Give yourself a 10% buffer and you will still get the results that you want.
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Dr. Mike is known for transforming complex nutritional concepts into practical nutritional habits that his clients can use to ensure permanent weight loss and long lasting health. Dr. Mike holds a degree in biochemistry from Hobart College and a doctorate in nutrition from Pennsylvania State University.
Dr. Mike’s academic background coupled with his broad range of experience from consulting with pharmaceutical and food companies, medical schools, top rated fitness facilities, professional athletes, and individual clients, gives him the unique ability to translate scientific findings into relevant, understandable, and actionable strategies that get results. As a scientist, his research has been published in the premiere clinical nutrition journal in the world, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Dr. Mike is a sought after continuing educator, speaking across the country to physicians, dietitians, nurses, and other health professionals on the most recent advances in the nutritional treatments for cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Mike’s unique approach to scientifically derived yet practical nutrition has made him a well-known expert contributor to both national print publications and leading online fitness outlets. In addition to being an adjunct assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Mike serves on the Advisory Board for both Men’s Health magazine and LIVESTRONG.com. He also writes the monthly “Ask The Nutrition Know-It-All” column for Men’s Health Magazine. In addition to authoring three books, Your Naked Nutrition Guide (2007), The 6 Pillars of Nutrition (2011), and Dr. Mike’s Ultimate Book of Smoothies (2015) he has served as the nutritionist for Men’s Health Book of Power Training (Rodale, 2007), Strength Training Cardio (Rodale, 2010), the Women’s Health Big Book of Abs (Rodale, 2012), the Men’s Health Big Book of Abs (Rodale, 2012), and Your Body Is Your Barbell (Rodale, 2014).