Your Comprehensive Guide to Macro Counting
Our goal with this comprehensive guide is to first show you how easy macro counting can be. We want to provide you with the basic tools you’ll need to build your dream body, improve your self-esteem and confidence, and give you a solid foundation of knowledge.
What is Macro Counting?
Understanding the concept of macros can be intimidating – but it’s not as complicated as it seems. Macronutrients (macros) are protein, carbohydrates, and fat that makes up total calories in the food we eat daily. By counting macros, we are able to learn and understand our body and, therefore, fuel properly. Macro counting is the same concept that drives If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) and Flexible Dieting.
First, let’s talk about diets, and why they often fail. Diets with limited food choices are designed to put the body in a caloric deficit. These limited food choices lead to burnout and “falling off the bandwagon” only to try again… and fall off again – the vicious cycle dieters know too well. Look at this chart with all different types of diets below:
Diets most likely strip away necessary nutrients, leading to an increase in food cravings. These increased cravings can cause occasional binges, and the lack of nutrients could cause other side effects such as a headache, fatigue, confusion and/or irritability.
You do not need to suppress your cravings in order to meet your health and wellness goals! We will teach you how to fit your favorite foods in your daily macros (which we'll explain later). Let's put an end to diets and focus on building a healthy and sustainable lifestyle now! But first, how do we break down macronutrients?
What Are The Macronutrients?
Macros are what makes calories (or energy) in food. Each macro has a specific amount of calories per gram, helping us track each macronutrient for optimal body functioning.
Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories
Carbs: 1 gram = 4 calories
Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories
Alcohol: 1 gram = 7 calories
* Note: Alcohol is not a macro because it contributes zero nutritional values (meaning no vitamins or minerals), but it does contain calories.
How to Calculate Your Caloric Intake
It is important to remember that it is better for you to know how many calories you should be eating daily before breaking it down into macros.
You'll find your baseline caloric intake by knowing your bodyweight and lifestyle multiplier.
Choose your Lifestyle Multiplier:
- 11: Sedentary and doesn't stay active at all
- 12: Individuals who train less than 5 hours a week
- 13: Individuals who train 5-10 hours a week (This is what we'd pick since most people fit into this category)
- 14: Individuals who train 10-15 hours a week.
- 15: Individuals who train 15-20 hours a week.
- 16: Individuals who train over 20 hours a week (i.e. competitive athletes)
_____ (Your Weight) x _____ (Your Lifestyle Multiplier) = _____ (Your Total Calories).
Example: 147 lbs. x 13 = 1,911 total calories.
1,911 is the estimated (meaning it's not perfect but a great number to start with) amount.
That's how much food I need to consume every day in order to maintain my current weight.
The most important macro is protein. It helps to build and repair muscles in the body and prevents muscle loss (during a caloric deficit). Protein is the most thermic – that is it requires more energy for your body to burn it during digestion of the three macros. Protein also helps curb your appetite and keeps you feeling full compared to carbs and fat.
Where do I get it?
The protein may be the most expensive macronutrient to purchase, but here is a list of protein sources that we usually eat:
Lean beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and turkey
Fresh fish, canned fish, fish in the packet
Deli meat (ham and turkey: low-sodium options if available)
Whole eggs and egg whites
Protein bars and/or powders
How much protein should I eat?
Research shows that you're able to consume anywhere from 0.64g to 1.5g of protein per pound of your body weight. The protein intake range comes down to three factors:
Eating Preferences: Vegan, Vegetarian, Non-specified, Paleo, or Keto.
Physical Goals: Body Fat Loss, Reverse Diet, Maintenance or Weight Gain.
Activity Level: Training frequency and job-related activity.
Fat is an essential macro for the body's optimal functioning. Fat helps with the absorption of vitamins (D, K, E, and A specifically), helps balance and regulate hormones (progesterone for women and testosterone for men), and helps with brain function. Among other benefits, fat is an energy source, like carbohydrates.
Where do I get it?
Fat comes from a variety of sources. It is often found in conjunction with other macronutrients (besides butter and oils). Here are some popular sources of fat:
Other Packaged (Non-Nutrient-Dense) Foods
How much fat should I eat?
Again, depending on your weight, body-fat percentage, physique goals, and eating preferences – the range can go from 15% of total caloric intake to 40% (or more).
To your surprise, carbohydrates considered to be nonessential; meaning we can survive without them. But it doesn't mean we should. You should acknowledge that carbs are not evil and will not make you gain weight; it's the caloric surplus that causes unwanted fat gain!
Our brain alone uses between 15% to 20% of our total daily caloric expenditure. It relies on glucose, which is known as the simplest form of sugar, broken down from the carbs we eat. Carbs play an important part in overall health, performance in training, and improving body composition. The body stores the energy sources it obtains from carbs in the liver, brain, blood and in the muscles as glycogen. (Glycogen stores prove useful for weight training and high-intensity-interval training!)
Where do I get it?
Grains and Bread
How many carbs should I eat?
Carbohydrate needs can vary, but we try to encourage you to aim for a minimum of 1 gram of carb per pound of body weight (if possible). If you have previously restricted carbs, (keto and/or paleo diets) we encourage you to begin a reverse diet to help you increase your carb intake with minimal fat gain.
We have clients who can eat well over their body weight in carbs (300g-500g per day!) while maintaining an active lifestyle. The key is to remember this: carbs are not the enemy!
Alcohol is not needed by our bodies, but it can be drunk in moderation. Alcohol is considered to be toxic and excessive consumption can cause death. Be mindful of how much you are drinking. It's okay to enjoy occasionally, but alcohol does not provide nutritional value for your body. There are 7 calories per gram of alcohol.
Where do I get it?
How much should I drink?
Try to keep it in moderation by limiting to 1-2 alcoholic drinks if possible.
Now... Let's Talk About Balance
Remember: macronutrients make calories and calories are the determining factor for either losing weight in a caloric deficit or gaining weight in a caloric surplus.
Weight Loss: Fewer calories in versus more calories out: caloric deficit.
If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less energy than your body is able to burn.
Weight Doesn't Change: Calories in equal calories out: weight maintenance.
If you want to maintain your weight and/or body composition, you'll want to eat enough to meet what your body is able to burn.
Weight Gain: More calories in versus fewer calories out: caloric surplus.
If you want to gain weight, you need to eat more energy than your body is able to burn.
How to Read A Nutrition Label
Nutrition labels are easy to read, but you'll want to familiarize yourself with a few things first. Let's use an example with one of our favorite foods: Kodiak Cakes - Dark Chocolate.
Serving Size: Found at the top of the nutrition label, serving size tells you the quantity or portion of that food that will account for the given macronutrients. For example — One serving of Kodiak Cakes is 1/2 cup or 53 grams.
Calories: The total amount of energy the serving size provides. For example — 190 calories for one serving of Kodiak Cake mix (but you'll be in for a surprise!).
Total Fat: The total amount of fat is listed above other fats found in the food. Count the total fats only. For example — 4 grams of fat for one serving of Kodiak Cake mix.
Total Carbs: The total amount of carbs is listed as well as fiber and sugar grams. Count the total carbs only. For example — 28 grams for one serving of Kodiak Cake mix.
Total Protein: Even though it is listed last, don't forget that protein is the most important! For example — 14 grams for one serving of Kodiak Cake mix.
Remember: when you count macros, your macronutrients always in line with the caloric intake recommendations for your numbers, not the total calories listed on the package.
For example, if a 1/2 serving of Kodiak Cake provides:
Fat: 4 grams x 9 calories = 36 calories.
Carbs: 28 grams x 4 calories = 112 calories.
Protein: 14 grams x 4 calories = 56 calories.
Total Calories: 36 + 112 + 56 = 204.
For this 1/2 serving of Kodiak Cakes, it will give you 204 calories– not 190 calories!
Unfortunately, many nutrition labels can be off by 5-10 (+/-) calories or more because the FDA allows companies to round to an even number. This is exactly why we encourage counting macros instead of calories alone.
Whenever we buy food in containers, we are told if the package is a single serving or if it contains multiple servings. With our example, a serving size of Kodiak Cakes is a 1/2 cup (53 grams).
In this container of Kodiak Cakes, there are about 10 servings (labeled in parenthesis beside the individual serving amount). Depending on your goals and needs, you might consume anywhere from 1 to 10 servings at a meal.
Again, it all comes down to your needs, preferences, and macro goals. If you are planning to consume more than one serving size, simply multiply the nutrition label facts for the amount you plan to consume. For example, if I wanted two servings of Kodiak Cakes, I would be eating 28g of protein, 56g of carbs and 8g of fats.
Fat: 4g x 2 servings = 8g.
Carbs: 28g x 2 servings = 56 grams.
Protein: 14g x 2 servings = 28 grams.
Recently, we shared a favorite dinner of ours – Sushi from King Soopers.
What's wrong with the nutrition label here?
You see... you don't need to multiply your macros by the number of servings because it already comes with the total macros based on an amount per container.
This is why it is important to read carefully because some nutrition labels can be tricky to understand!
However, some foods are not labeled with nutritional information. What then?
Foods With No Nutrition Labels
If you happen to get a food that doesn't come with a nutrition label, what should you do? Most fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats from butcher shops do not come with nutrition labels. Our recommendation is to find a macronutrient database such as MyFitnessPal and MyMacros+ to find a similar product or find a general macronutrient breakdown of the food.
Suggested Macro Tracking Tools
It's important to remember this: not every food's macro calculations will be exactly the same or perfect every time. For example, there are different sizes and types of bananas. The key is to do your best consistently. Results will come if you are being consistent with what you're entering in your preferred database.
How to Track Accurately
When we started teaching people how to count macros, it was normally okay for them to use measuring cups and spoons to start. However, we encouraged them to weigh their food in ounces and grams to improve their macro accuracy as they become more comfortable with the concept.
Measuring foods with cups or spoons is not as accurate as using a food scale. For example, we tested a measuring scoop that came with our protein powder. It labels 31 grams (weight) of protein powder per heaping scoop on the nutrition label. When we took a heaping scoop of it (minus the scoop's weight) on the food scale, it measured at only 24 grams!
Using a food scale can be seen as obsessive. We assure you that it is not. Rather, it is a useful tool for you in your kitchen, and, ultimately, it will save you time. Guesstimating macros by hand can be inaccurate because we have a tendency to overfill the cup or spoon. It may not seem like a lot at the time, but it can translate into several hundreds of calories/grams more than we think we're eating. Long-term – it'll lead us to frustration because we will not see results.
Get a food scale and learn how to use it. You'll be a pro in no time!
Weigh Foods Before/After Cooking
If you care about macro accuracy then do the best you can to weigh food in its raw state as much as possible. Most nutrition labels with animal products: meat and poultry represent the raw state (including frozen) unless it is stated differently.
For example, when it comes to cooking meat (99% lean ground turkey) – the nutrition label is being read like this:
Serving Size: 112 grams (4 servings = 448 grams total)
Serving Size: 87.5 grams (4 servings = 350 grams total)
You can see that 99% lean ground turkey's weigh has changed through cooking due to evaporation. We divided 350 grams by the number of servings (provided by the nutrition label) to get correct weight for each serving (with correct macros) before plugging it in our macro tracking app.
These macros are for the raw meat (99% lean ground turkey). This rule applies to all cuts of meat, chicken, fish, and pork. You'll also want to do this if it comes to cooking rice, pasta, vegetables, etc.
How to Track While Dining Out
Dining out doesn't have to be stressful. We want to share a couple of tips that will help you dine out and stay on track!
Tip #1: Figure out what you want to get at the restaurant ahead of time. Put the meal you plan to have in your macro tracking app before you enter any other food for that day. (This will allow you to plan your other meals and snacks accordingly with the number of macros you have remaining).
It's easy to plan ahead; simply look it up online. Here are some pointers to keep in mind as you're looking at the menu:
Start with a protein source (we recommend chicken, turkey, white fish, or a vegetarian protein option). If it is not already listed as being cooked these ways, try ordering it grilled, baked, or steamed.
Substitute greasy or fried sides for healthier options such as steamed veggies, rice, coleslaw, baked potatoes or side salad (with dressing on the side). Asking for no butter or less oil will help reduce additional/hidden fats according to your macro needs.
If you are limited on carbs, remember that ordering things with 1/2 a bun or even a lettuce wrap can save you a lot of carbs. Be wary of traditional wraps though! Tortillas are often just as high (or higher) in carbs as a bun.
Tip #2: Be sure to order water (in addition to whatever else you want to order) and try to drink as much water as possible. This will help to ensure that you are staying hydrated.
Try to drink 1-2 glasses of water before and after your meal.
Tip #3: If the restaurant does not have the nutritional information on websites, you can use these rules to eyeball the portion sizes.
* Important Note: Men have two servings, women have one serving!
Protein: Palm-sized portion, try either chicken, salmon, or steak and get it pan-seared or grilled.
The serving is about the following: Men: 40g-60g and Women: 20g-30g.
Starchy Carbs: Cupped-hand sized portion, try rice, potato, quinoa, squash, etc.
The serving is about the following: Men: 40g-60g and Women: 20g-30g.
Vegetables: Fist-sized hand portion, try to get veggies grilled, pan-seared, or steamed.
You can double this serving, which helps reduce the size of starchy carbs to help fill your stomach due to the higher fiber intake.
Fat: Thumb-sized portion, try avocado, seeds, olive oil, butter, etc.
The serving is about the following: Men: 15g-25g and Women: 7g-12g.
Tip #4: Enjoy your meal and be fully present with loved ones! Take your time to savor each bite, and remember – don't make it about food. Instead, make the moment about the company!
Although these tips can easily be implemented to ensure that you are staying on track, sometimes in "real life" it's not practical or do-able. If that is the case, remember this:
[clickToTweet tweet="The best lifestyle isn’t always one that’s most precise or scientific. The best lifestyle is the one that allows you to make consistent progress without feeling overly restricted or stressed. - Joshua & Julie Ledbetter" quote="The best lifestyle isn’t always one that’s most precise or scientific. The best lifestyle is the one that allows you to make consistent progress without feeling overly restricted or stressed."]
Consistency is more sustainable than rigidity. Think about this: slower progress on something that you can do the rest of your life OR faster progress that you'll only be able to do for a week, month, or maybe even three months before calling it quits (and falling back in the same habits, same frustrations, and same physical challenges).
If you do happen to eat out and not track your meal, we still suggest that you practice these tips above, but don't stress. One meal or one day is not going to ruin your progress, the habit itself will!
Enjoy your meal with each bite. Don't regret one thing. And get right back on track with the next meal!
Learning how to track macros does require skill development, but you'll become a pro in no time! The best part about macro counting is that it allows you to manipulate your numbers as your body and goals continue to change throughout your journey.
If you are confused by any information and/or have questions, please leave a comment below, contact us on Facebook or Instagram, or email us by clicking here.
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