Macros Matter – How to Count Your Macros & Why You Should Try It

Have you ever wanted to have your cake and eat – without the weight gaining consequences? Maybe you’re more focused on improving your sport performance, or stacking muscle on top of even more muscle?

If these things don’t apply, this article isn’t for you. But if you’re nodding your head at the thought of becoming a macronutrient magician in the kitchen, stick with me. I’ll show you exactly why macros matter, how to count them, and ultimately why you should try it.

What even are macros and why should I care?

In simplest terms, macros are an abbreviation of macronutrients. Like their name suggests these are food groups we need to consume in the most bulk to survive. They’re essential the fundamental ways our body extracts energy from food – aka gets calories. Note that you can only get the macros you need from your diet, your body doesn’t produce any.

Each one has more than a handful of functions in keeping us fit, energized, and healthy. There are only three to remember too.

  • Carbohydrates – 4 kcal/g

  • Fats – 9 kcal/g

  • Protein – 4 kcal/g

Sometimes it’s hard to stay away from a cliche so I’ll say it anyway – not all calories are created equal. This is especially true when it comes to the amount of macronutrients you put inside your body.

If you’re not tracking your macros you run into the risk of not getting the right amount of nutrients for your goals. Are you sure you’re eating enough protein? Is there really enough omega-3 in that handful of almonds you’re rocking? Wait, why can I never finish my last set unbroken? Knowing your macros can make sure you’re supplying your body with all the essentials it needs to perform.

Yes, there’s no such thing as bad food (even ice cream and cookies)! But, a fistful of fries on a Friday night doesn’t offer quite the same things as a lean cut of meat – of tofu if you’re that way inclined. Whereas one is a carbohydrate source drenched in hydrogenated fat, another is a slab of protein, which is the first reason macros matter. All of this will make sense shortly.

Let’s get to know the three macros you’ll balance on the daily.

Selection of the carbohydrate pasta

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are still going through a rough patch in the mainstream media, which is a shame. Despite everyone and their aunt deciding to ditch them, these sugars are an important part of your wellbeing. In fact, they’re your bodies preferred energy source for survival, which is quite major. Forget what you’ve been told – carbohydrates are your friend.

More specifically, carbohydrates are sugars, starches, and grains. You’ll find them in natural products such as grains, vegetables, and fruits; while they also form a lot of processed foods like cake, sweet treats, soda drinks, and beer. Carbohydrates get their name from the fact that they contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen at the chemical level.

Carbs are also pretty important for energy, as they’re your bodies preferred energy source. Sugars, then fats, then protein. Keto-gang don’t get mad at me – it’s just the science. Another thing to remember is carbs are spare too! The more sugars available for energy the less likely you are to break down protein (muscle or otherwise) for fuel. As always, I’ll cover this in another article. For now consider carbohydrates as gains savers.

Complex carbohydrate rich foods include:

  • Grains

  • Brown rice

  • Wholewheat pasta

  • Oatmeal

  • Sweet potato

  • Quinoa

  • Barley

  • Fiber-rich fruits (apples, banana, berries etc.)

  • Legumes – beans etc.

Simple carbohydrate rich foods include:

  • Raw sugar (brown & white)

  • High-fructose corn syrup

  • Sweet treats – sweets, chocolate, biscuits, cakes etc.

  • Glucose, fructose, and sucrose

  • Fruit juice concentrate

  • Medjool & regular dates

  • Lactose

Bow of fat rich almonds

Fats

Fats are like carbohydrates in that they’re thrown under the bus by the media. But, do they really deserve such a bad rap? Absolutely not! Keto-crew, y’all can get excited again now.

Good, healthy fats are essential for your wellbeing. They help your body absorb vitamins, synthesize hormones like testosterone, and supply energy easily. That’s how people following the ketogenic diet are still able to live happy, active lives without carbohydrates.

Natural fats are considered the healthiest kind – not the hydrogenated ones made to stick processed food together. You’ll find these in food like eggs, organ meat, nuts, seeds, salmon and other oily fish, and certain cooking oils (olive, coconut, MCT, hemp).

As you guessed, I’ll create another article all about fats soon. We’ll look at the best kinds to eat for your goals and how to use them to hack your fitness.

Healthy fat rich foods include:

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

  • Oily fish

  • Organ meat

  • Eggs

Cut of protein rich chicken

Protein

Protein – the star of the show in most fitness diets. A lot of people will let their carbs or fats fly without much thought, but their protein is usually on point. Why? Because the amino acids that form it are the primary building blocks as muscle.

When you’re looking to build muscle or at least maintain it you need protein in ample amounts. The RDA given out for regular Joe and Jane’s isn’t enough to support the stress of strength training. Instead, you should be eating between 1.4/2.0 g of protein per kg to maintain or build muscle [1]. Alternatively, some trainers even advocate 1 g of amino drenched protein per lbs.

Eating enough protein allows your body to repair itself after exercise. Lifting, running, sparring, and swimming all cause muscle damage – mechanical or otherwise. Protein patches up these traumatized fibers and rebuilds them thicker, stronger, and ready to go again. You guessed it – protein guide coming up soon.

Protein rich foods include:

  • Poultry

  • Meat

  • Fish

  • Eggs

  • Legumes

  • Soy

  • Dairy

  • Protein power supplements – (dairy & plant based)


Image of a calculator to work out macros

How to count your macros

For this example I’m going to use myself as a model – you can grab your measurements and use yourself.

To do this I’m going to need to know your:

  • Age

  • Height

  • Weight

  • Biological sex

  • Active level

This information is all you need to find a close estimate to your daily calorie burn. Also known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), this is the amount of kcals you use on a standard day. Naturally, this number can change, but it’s a great place to start.

So, let’s start by working out your energy needs.

Finding your daily calorie burn aka TDEE

Discovering your daily energy requirements can be done by following a formula developed by Harris Benedict. First you find your basic calorie needs (basal metabolic rate) and then multiply it by your activity level:

Women BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in yrs)
Men BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in yrs)

My BMR will be: 66 + (13.7 x 75 kg) + ( 5 x 176) – (6.8 x 26) or 66 + 1,027.5 + 880 – 176.8 = 1,796.7 kcal

Next, I’ll multiply this by my activity level.

  • Little/no exercise – TDEE = BMR x 1.2
  • Light exercise (1-3 days per week) – TDEE = BMR x 1.375
  • Moderate exercise (3-5 days per week) – TDEE = BMR x 1.55
  • Heavy exercise (6-7 days per week) – TDEE = BMR x 1.725
  • Very heavy/intense exercise (2x per day training, super intense workouts) TDEE = BMR x 1.9

Now, you have to be extra honest here! Contemplate how your job might play into your activity level too, and be brutally honest about your workouts. Getting things as close to the mark first time should get you faster results.

Remember that this equation brings about an estimate – not an absolute. Monitor your weight to see if you’re going up or down during the initial process. If your weight stays the same while your activity stays the same, you’re very close to your TDEE. Losing weight or gaining weight means you’re either eating below or above your TDEE – adjust if necessary.

Okay, so my activity level right now is moderate exercise. I’m in the gym around five times per week at the minute and my workouts aren’t super hard or intense. With that in mind, I’ll multiply my BMR by 1.55.

BMR (1,796.7 kcal) x 1.55 = 2,784.89 kcal

TDEE = 2,785.99 kcal

In a rush to get to the gym? Try the MyFitnessPal app or another online Calorie Calculator instead.

Working out your macro ratios

Got your TDEE to hand? Good, because you’re going to break it down into specific macronutrient needs.

Despite what people claim there’s no magic macronutrient ratio. But, there are a few ways of divvying up your food intake that makes sense to your health and goals. The best macronutrient ratio is ultimately going to be the one you can stick to.

According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies the acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges are:

  • Carbs = 45-65% kcals
  • Fats = 20-35% kcals
  • Protein = 10-35% kcals

Understandably, as an active person chasing gains you’re going to want to keep protein high. Not only will this enable muscle building [1], but it’ll also aid maintenance and possibly fat loss while dieting [2]. Basically, protein shouldn’t be skimped on regardless of what you want to achieve.

Carbohydrates and fats can be adjusted to suit your goals. Remember that if you’re really active you might need more carbs to be for energy. On the flip side, if you’re not in the gym regularly, it’s likely you’ll need a lot less. Fat should never be reduced below 10% of your total daily macros because they’re vitally important for health.

Track and monitor how you’re feeling while you’re hitting a specific set of macros. You can always adjust accordingly to find the right ratio for you.

Example macro breakdown for maintenance
Earlier I worked out that I needed 2,785.99 kcal on average every day. I’m also going to use a ration of 45:30:25 (C:P:F) for this example and round my TDEE up to 2,786 for ease.

First, I need to know 45% for carbs, 30% for protein, and 25% for fats of my TDEE.

  • Carbs = 2,786 kcal x 0.45 = 45% = 1,254 kcal
  • Protein = 2,786 kcal x 0.3 = 30% = 835.8 kcal
  • Fats = 2,786 kcal x 0.25% = 25% = 696.5 kcal

Awesome, now I know how many calories I need from each food source. But let’s look at how many grams of each macro I need too!

To do this I just divide the above calories by how many kcals are in a gram of the chosen macronutrient. Carbohydrates come in at four kcal per gram, protein at four too, with fat fostering a hefty nine kcals per gram.

  • Carbs = 1,254 kcal ÷ 4 = 313.5 g = 314 g
  • Protein = 835.8 kcal ÷ 4 = 208.95 g = 209 g
  • Fats = 696.5 kcal ÷ 4 = 174.126 g = 175 g

Realistically, I’m not going to get such a finite number on the scale. It’s totally fine to round things up or down to the closest whole number – doing otherwise could be considered insanity

To clarify my 2,785.99 kcal per day will ideally be broken down into 314 g of carbs, 209 g of protein, and 175 g of fats. Now all I do is check the nutrient profile of the food I eat against these numbers and voila – macros tracked!

Tip: Try online platforms MyFitnessPal, Lose It, My Macros+, and IIFYM to save valuable time and effort. Use all those extra hours for squats, CrossFit, sparring, or whatever takes your fancy.


Man training for fat loss

Macros for weight loss & fat loss

Staying in a calorie deficit is the most important thing for weight loss and fat loss. Losing fat should be also your only priority with this kind of diet, not muscle. Weight loss isn’t always a good thing if it’s coming at the cost of hard earned gains.

Cutting calories doesn’t have to be severe either. Fat loss is best and sustainable when you play the long game – cutting around 10-20% of kcals per week maximum.

Yes, you can shred down using a super intense cut like a bodybuilder or an MMA fighter, but this isn’t very sustainable. Hard cuts can tank your hormones and cause muscle wastage among other nasty side-effects. Instead, take it steady.

Start out with the following before adjusting to suit your mood/needs:

  • Carbs – 10-30%
  • Protein – 40-50%
  • Fat – 30-40%

Saving your carbs for training times and using fats as a snack can help curb cravings. If you feel your sweet tooth going crazy, try to cut out simple sugars all together until your treat meal. Alternatively, try a rich square of 85% dark chocolate.

Muscular man bulking by using heavy back squats

Macros for bulking & building muscle

Long gone are the days of the dirty bulk. Chugging McDonald’s shakes and filling your face with fries isn’t a good look for anyone – especially if your goal is building your best physique yet. Leading experts like Brad Schoenfeld even say that the bulk and cut method can even result in muscle loss too, which is the exact opposite of what you want to achieve.

Lean bulking is where it’s at. Why get all fluffy with excess body fat before cutting at the expense of muscle mass? Why not just skip all of that and stay lean?

Yes, despite old-school dogma it can be done. All you need to do is throw 10-20% on top of your TDEE to enter a sensible surplus. Any more than 20% is likely to start clouding your abs and damaging definition.

So, you’ve got your tasty surplus, what next? Stick your protein intake up to around 25-35% if it isn’t already. As it’s these amino acids that are about to build the mass you’re after, they need to be readily available.

Next, hike up the carbs for power, energy, and to aid protein synthesis. Yes, that’s right, recent research sees carbohydrates as essential components for effective muscle building [3] [4] [5] [6]. 40-50% should keep you energized in the iron house and aid recovery too.

Fats? 15-25% is your optimal amount as they’re integral for vitamin A, D, E, and L absorption, alongside hormone production. Never drop fats below 15% regardless of your goals.

Start with the following before adjusting to suit your goals/needs:

Carbs – 40-50%
Protein – 25-35%
Fat – 15-25%

Track how you’re feeling/progressing and then change to suit.


High protein and healthy fat meal with macros tracked

Last rep – How to count your macros

Counting your macros doesn’t need to be difficult. There’s two ways you might want to approach it too.

  • Pen and paper

  • Macro tracking app

Most people find pen and paper a much longer process. Unless you’re planning all your meals in advance and don’t change them it can be hard to keep up with too – not to mention confusing. However, here’s how you do it pen & paper style:

  1. Work out how many grams of each macro are in the foods you want to eat – say 36 g of carbs in a portion of rice

  2. Minus their total kcals of each macronutrient from your TDEE allowance either in advance or as you go

  3. Repeat the process until you’re eating the set amount of calories from each macro source necessary to hit your ratios

Apps and online trackers give you a much easier option than this. MyFitnessPal for example lets you scan barcodes, input certain foods, search thousands of items, and even shows you a macro breakdown so you can check your ratios on the fly. Here’s how to count your calories with an app:

  1. Scan or input food item alongside weight – say 175 g of cooked brown rice

  2. App removes this amount of food from your TDEE allowance (macros included)

  3. Check the macro breakdown to ensure you’re within your desired ratio

Personally, I find using an app much easier to track my macros and plan meals in advance. It’s easy to change and alter the food you eat on the fly too, especially while out or having to grab a quick bite during lunch. An app should also help establish your TDEE too!

It’s up to you to ultimately decide what route you take. Whichever you choose, the principal remains the same. Find out the amount of macros in a certain food and align it to your goals.

Good luck out their Muscle Mindsetters. Go smash those goals.


References

[1] Jäger, R., Kerksick, C., Campbell, B., Cribb, P., Wells, S., & Skwiat, T. et al. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition, 14(1). doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8

[2] Campos-Nonato, I., Hernandez, L., & Barquera, S. (2017). Effect of a High-Protein Diet versus Standard-Protein Diet on Weight Loss and Biomarkers of Metabolic Syndrome: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Obesity Facts, 10(3), 238-251. doi: 10.1159/000471485

[3] Wang W, Ding Z, Solares G et al. Co-ingestion of carbohydrate and whey protein increases fasted rates of muscle protein synthesis immediately after resistance exercise in rats. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(3):e0173809. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173809

[4] Figueiredo VC, Cameron-Smith D. Is carbohydrate needed to further stimulate muscle protein synthesis/hypertrophy following resistance exercise?. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(1):42. Published 2013 Sep 25. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-42

[5] St-Onge MP, Mikic A, Pietrolungo CE. Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(5):938–949. Published 2016 Sep 7. doi:10.3945/an.116.012336

[6] Watson, A. (2017). Sleep and Athletic Performance. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 16(6), 413-418. doi: 10.1249/jsr.0000000000000418

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