Updated: Jan 6, 2021
What does it mean to "count your macros?" Can doing so help you reach your health and physique goals? How do you go about doing it?
*Necessary Disclaimer: I am not a Registered Dietician, and I am not a doctor. I’m not even that big, bro. Please, do not misinterpret anything on this site as medical advice. It’s not. Always consult a doctor before doing anything that might negatively impact your health, and always use caution when listening to an opera singing personal trainer.*
*Another thought: it is my job (and I like my job) to help people attain their physique goals. This can be a fun, rewarding experience, and I've been thrilled to help many clients reach those goals.
That said, hyper-awareness of body image and body dissatisfaction are closely associated with disordered eating and a litany of mental health issues. If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or a stressful relationship with food, please reach out to a mental health professional. *
*One last thing before we start . . . If you're reading this, I'm assuming that you've already accepted that energy balance (calories in/out) is the only determinant for meaningful weight gain or loss, and that "toning" is a fantasy that distracts us from making meaningful progress with diet and exercise.
If you're already mastered these concepts, you're ready for the next step: determining what KIND of weight gain or loss you'll be achieving (or, if you're patient and/or don't like the idea of gaining or losing weight, how to slowly but effectively change your body composition).
Ok, onto the article . . .
Macronutrients: What Are They?
As I scoured the internet for a great definition of macronutrients, I noticed they were all a bit more complicated than I think is necessary. Macronutrients are nutrients that provide energy: carbs, fat, protein, and alcohol. We're going to focus on the first three, as they are essential, whereas you can survive (albeit a bit less joyfully) without alcohol.
For physique purposes, this is our most important macronutrient. Let's chat about why protein is good:
It is the macronutrient from which muscle (and most of your body, for that matter) is built.
It is the most filling macronutrient per-calorie (we'll get into calories/gram of a macronutrient in a bit). There are several reasons for this, but if you'd like to impress (or annoy, depending on your audience) at dinner parties, you can know that meals high in protein cause an increase in an appetite-suppressing hormone called Peptide YY, helping you to stay sated between meals.
High protein diets are particularly effective for preventing muscle-loss in a calorie deficit.
Let's also chat about why protein is not bad:
High protein diets are not bad for otherwise healthy kidneys, as has been shown . . . actually, let's you and I not chat. Chat with the guys over at examine.com; they're smarter than I am, and they've already said everything I would say.
Protein Intake Recommendations:
There is a lot of variability in recommendations for protein intake, but I find that 1g/lb bodyweight is a good place to start. If you're wondering "what range is acceptable," Renaissance Periodization's excellent ebook, The Renaissance Diet pegs ABSOLUTE MINIMUM protein requirements for athletes at .6g/lb bodyweight. I wouldn't recommend going that low, as it's also stipulated that for this to be adequate protein intake, your timing needs to be on point, your genetics need to be tremendous, and you need to be in a hypERcaloric state (i.e. eating more calories than your body needs to maintain its weight, and thus gaining weight). I'd say the minimum you'll want is .8g/lb bodyweight, and while there's no upper limit in terms of general health, if you're eating protein in the real world (as in, you don't have unlimited calories to play with), you probably don't want your intake any higher than 1.3g/lb bodyweight (1g protein = 4 kcals).
If you're losing weight, you'll want to be on the upper end of the protein requirements, and if you're gaining weight, you'll want to be on the lower end (more protein keeps you fuller, so it's helpful when losing weight and can be a chore to consume when gaining weight). If you're maintaining weight, keep it around the standard 1g/lb bodyweight.
Carbohydrates:n id="attachment_300" align="alignnone" width="300"] Yes, I've used this memerongly about carbs. #teambagel[/caption]
Carbs get demonized in today's society, and while I understand some of the reasons (it's easy to eat a lot of refined carbs), I think that most of them apply to a more sedentary audience than readers of this site. Why do you want carbs in your diet? Let's make a list (I love lists)!
Carbs provide your nervous system with its preferred energy source. I know the keto and paleo crowds are thinking, "bruh, you're just not fat adapted," and to them I say, "seriously, go eat a fucking potato." Carbohydrates can help you to work out harder, longer, and they make you feel more motivated and less fatigued while you do it. I frequently eat turkey bagels before workouts, and so should you (especially if you're a Brooklyn-based reader, contact me on Facebook for bagel recommendations).
Carbs cause the secretion of insulin by the pancreas. Insulin is a scary word in today's society, but it gets more hate than it deserves. Not only is insulin vital to muscle growth; it has an underappreciated role in hunger suppression.
Carbs become glycogen. Glycogen is stored primarily in your liver and in your muscles (and it is hydrated with 3-4 part water, which is why increases and reductions in carbohydrate intake can have an acute affect on your bodyweight). Not only is muscle glycogen important to performance; having chronically low muscle glycogen can have a catabolic (loss of muscle) effect, regardless of how hard you're working out.
Carbohydrate Intake Recommendations:
If weight loss is your goal, you have a minimum amount of protein you'll want to consume (see above), and a minimum amount of fat you'll want to consume (see below); if you're at the lower end of each of those macronutrient sources and need to further cut calories, carbs are where you'll have to do it (1g carbohydrate = 4 kcals). For the reasons mentioned above, I like to keep carbs as high as I can for as long as I can, but individual needs and preferences (as in, some people really like cooking with oil, whereas other people really like bagels, and most of us like to eat foods we enjoy) differ, so that will be a choice best left to you. As for physiological considerations: lean people generally do better with high(er) carbohydrate consumption, whereas overweight and obese generally do better with low(er) consumption.
After I chat about fat, I'll describe an easy way to set up your macronutrient intake, including carbs, so read on!
Dietary fat is the source of a lot of confusion when it comes to dieting: do you want low-fat, or all fat? Are there only certain types you should eat? If you eat those types, will all of your health woes disappear? Should I go keto, bro (answer: no)? Just like Dwight said above, let's keep it simple and treat fat as one macronutrient. You don't want too much, as it's very calorically dense, but you also don't want too little, as fat is useful for the following reasons:
It tastes awesome.
It helps us to make and balance hormones, particularly steroid hormones (e.g. sex and corticosteroid hormones).
It forms our cell membranes, brains, and nervous sytems.
It transports fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), as well as calcium and other minerals.
*For heart health and a range of other considerations, types of fat do matter, but that's outside the scope of this article. If you'd like to read more on that subject, check out this great and simple article from Precision Nutrition.*
Fat Intake Recommendations:
Fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient (1g fat = 9 kcals), and so it is a useful variable to manipulate when trying to increase or decrease overall calorie consumption. If you're losing weight, you'll want to stay on the lower end of what is healthy (the absolute minimum recommended by the aforementioned Renaissance Diet book is 0.1g/lb BW, but I usually have people above 0.3g/lb BW), whereas if you're gaining weight, you'll use fat as an easy way to increase daily calories (eating 600g/day of carbs is even harder than it sounds, but covering food in tasty oils and cheese and avocado actually makes it easier to consume).
Putting it all together:
Macronutrients provide energy (calories), and you'll need to eat a certain number of calories to reach your goals.
How do you figure out that number?
This calculator should give you a good starting point.
Now, you know what your average calorie intake needs to be to reach a certain goal. From here, you'll just need to a do a little bit of math to get your basics set up:
Total calories = Carbs X 4 + Protein X 4 + Fat X 9 (times for and times 9 respectively because carbs and protein are 4 kcals per gram and fat is 9 kcals per gram).
As an example, let's say that I'm a 200 lb male and I want to lose 1 lb per week. The calculator told me that in order to do so, I need to consume 2,500 kcals/day.
1 lb/week seems like a pretty modest deficit, so let's shoot for 1g protein/lb bodyweight/day: 200g protein
200X4 = 800. That's 800 calories already used, leaving us with 1,700 to play with (2,500-800).
Now, I know that I want to have at least around .3g fat/lb bodyweight, let's see what looks like: .3X200 = 60; I'll want to consume at least 60g fat per day. What does that leave us, calorie-wise, for carbohydrates? Well, we had 1,700 kcals to play with, and we've just used up 60X9 (540); 1,700 - 540 = 1160. We have 1160 kcals left for carbs and wiggle room (more on wiggle room in a second).
If this were a pure mathematical equation in class, we'd find our carbs (the only remaining variable) by subtracting dividing our leftover calories (1160) by 4 (because each gram of carbohydrate is 4 kcals); we'd thus round out our macros with 290g carbs.
That would actually be fine; we want 2.5k kcals made up of 200g protein, 60g fat, and 290g carbs. Hitting those numbers exactly, though, isn't really going to be all that much better than being somewhere in that ballpark. This gives us license to play.
Turning IIFYM into IIFYL (if it fits your life):
If you're a bodybuilder or high-level athlete, ignore this section; you'll need to be far more precise than most of us. If you're just someone who'd like to look good and maybe have a super sexy 6-pack, read on.
Our bodies aren't machines, and we don't digest everything perfectly. Because of that, we can take some pressure to be perfect off of ourselves (no matter how hard we try, we won't be!). That said, counting calories and macros and helps us to consistently track our energy intake and make adjustments as necessary. Perfection might not be that important (or even possible), but consistency is key! For that reason, I like to give myself (and my clients) a little wiggle room so that we're not aiming for perfection, and so we have a better chance to be consistent.
Using our numbers from above, I know that we want daily protein to be around 200g, but I also know that .8g/lb bodyweight is probably enough protein, so 190g is probably also going to be plenty. I can still consume 200g protein, but I don't NEED to. When we set our fat intake, we set it pretty low, which allowed for a lot of carbs, but we probably don't NEED that many carbs. We don't want to go weirdly low (we saw above that there are a lot of benefits to carbohydrate intake), but maybe we don't need that exact number all the time. So, what if we added some flexibility like so:
Daily macronutrient minimums:
This prevents me from doing anything weird with my macros (too low of any single macronutrient will cause more harm than too much of one), but also gives me a lot of flexibility. How much? This much: 2,500 - 190X4 - 60X9 - 200X4 = 400. This gives us 400 "free" calories to mess around with, and it doesn't make a big impact on our progress!
Extra Credit Macro Ideas:
If you're doing what's listed above, that's more than enough to get some awesome progress. Is there something more you could be doing? Totally! You could cycle your carbs and calorie intake so that they're consumed at times they'll be most beneficial to you (if you were waiting for that bit on body composition changes without changing weight, adjust the following example to use maintenance calories, and widen the difference between workout and rest day calories and carbohydrate needs).
Using the 200 lb male losing 1 lb/week example from above, his AVERAGE calorie intake needs to be around 2.5 kcals/day to stay on track. What if he ate more on days when he worked out, and less on days he didn't? If he lifted weights three times per week, he could add 300 kcals to those days (consuming 2,800 kcals on those days) and eat 200 few kcals on rest days (consuming 2,300 kcals on those days). Does the math check out? We need an average of 2,500 kcals/week (7 days)? Our example has 4 rest days and 3 workout days in a week, so 4X2,300 + 3X2,800 = 17,600 weekly calories. 17,600/7 = 2,514 daily calories. I'd call that "close enough!"
We know our daily protein needs to be above 190g, and our daily fat needs to be above 60g, so that leaves us with carbs to make up the difference.
Maybe on a rest day, our macros look like this:
That helps us to meet our basic needs, and also gives us some wiggle room (400 kcals of wiggle room, to be exact).
And then on a workout day, our macros might look like this:
That helps us to fuel our workouts with extra carbohydrate intake, and still leave us lots of wiggle room to play around with (300 kcals of wiggle room on these days).
The Macro View on Macros:
I know I just gave you a lot of details, and those details DO matter. You know what matters more, though? I do: consistency. If you look at all this and think, "there's no way I'd do that consistently," know that you're not alone; I, the one who wrote this guide, do not track things this meticulously. When dieting, I try to make sure I hit my protein goal each day, and I try to make sure that when I average my calorie consumption over the course of a week, it ends up being whatever my goal is. For example, I'm currently cutting weight on ~2,600 kcals/day. Some days, I'm not that hungry (I thank the baby Jesus whenever this happens for me); on those days, I stop eating (pro tip: if you're dieting to lose weight and you're not hungry, don't eat!). Other days, I'm starving in the evening! I'm very thankful that I "under-ate" by a few hundred calories earlier in the week, and I make myself a little snack to try and curb my hunger. As long as my weekly calories are in check, I know that I'm on track.
Carbs and fats do matter, and I make an effort to keep my carbs high(er) and fats low(er) because my training volume is pretty high, and carbs help me to maintain that training volume. These needs change, and it is a good idea to try to hit your macro minimums (see above), but as long as protein and weekly calories are in check, you'll still be making progress.
This whole thing seems like a lot of math; can someone else do it for me?
Otherwise, just do your best! You'll need to make adjustments as you go, anyhow; I recommend weighing yourself daily and using the averages week-to-week to gauge your progress and adjust accordingly.
This just seems like way too much for me. Can I improve my health without doing all this?
Absolutely! Check out my first article on the site. If you have a lot of weight to lose, I'd suggest mastering some of the skills presented in that article before moving on to this.
Specifics Regarding Implementation:
To my knowledge, there's no better calorie/macro counting app than My Fitness Pal. It changed my life, and it could change yours, too. That is not an affiliate link, by the way; I just love the app, and encourage anyone interested in logging their food intake to download it.
All of my clients receive a guide with examples of meals and how to track them, as well as their macronutrient assignments, and a few strategies to make life a little easier. If you'd like to receive that .pdf file, go to the training application, and under the "Please, tell me (succinctly) about your health and fitness goals" question, just let me know that you want the macro guide and nothing else; I'll send it to you within 24 hours. If you want the macro guide AND you'd like to chat for 15 minutes about training and how I may or may not be able to help you reach your fitness goals, you can also let me know that there.
If this article helped you, or you know someone who might benefit from reading it, share this article on Facebook.
Thanks to Renaissance Periodization, Lyle McDonald, Andy Morgan, Greg Nuckols, Bryan Krahn, and the textbook "The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition" for the information contained within this article. I specifically referenced some of these sources throughout the article, but my knowledge base would not be what it is had I not spent hours upon hours studying the work of each of these people. They're good people who do great work, and I'm fortunate to have found them; if you'd like to know more about exercise and nutrition, read their stuff.