What the heck are Macros?
The answer is simple. Macros are food, all the food. You may already know that vitamins and minerals are called micronutrients. The prefix micro means small and opposite of micro is macro. The big nutrients in food are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. These three categories of macronutrients make up all of the calories in food. Tracking how much of each macro you eat is important if you want to lose fat, gain muscle, or ideally do both.
Fad diets and strict meal plans fail because they are stuck on the old idea of good food versus bad food. I'm here to tell you there are no bad foods! All food is some combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, which means all food is good food.
Are we tracking Macros or Calories?
If you track macros then you are also tracking calories, but with a little more detail. Here are the number of calories in each macronutrient:
Let's say, as an example; you eat 100 grams of each in a day. Here's what the math looks like:
That's great. Now I have to do math every time I eat?
Nope. If you have a smartphone, you never need to do the math, but you do need to log your meals, which is very easy. Smartphone apps like Myfitnesspal have made logging meals quick and easy. I have been logging all my meals for 1,340 days in a row at the time of writing this article. For more information about how I make logging easy, check out my article 1234-days-and-counting.html.
How will I know how much of each macro to eat?
You want to know the secret already? We'll get to that in a little bit. First, you need to know your maintenance calories. This is the number of calories you need to consume per day to maintain the same body weight, and it's easy to figure out. No special tools required, just a bathroom scale and a smartphone app to log your food. Here's how to find your maintenance calories:
Easy right? If this is your first time tracking, use this first week to practice logging your food and don't worry about making any changes to your diet. Just try to be accurate.
If you use Myfitnesspal or a similar app to log meals, you can tap on nutrition in the menu screen and see your daily average of calorie intake. Did you lose, gain, or stay at the same weight after one week? If you stayed the same, this daily average is your maintenance level of calories.
If you gained one pound, then subtract 500 calories from the daily average to find your maintenance level. Conversely, if you lost a pound, add 500 calories to the daily average. (One pound of body fat is equal to 3500 calories. 3500 divided by seven days is 500 calories per day.) Here is an example:
In this example, the person gained one pound while consuming an average of 2800 calories per day. So their maintenance level would be 2300 calories per day. If you gained or lost more, let's say two pounds, then add or subtract 1000 calories from the daily average. Example
Okay, I know my maintenance calories, what now?
This depends on your goal. If I were to bet, I'd guess that your goal is to lose weight, and for that, I recommend going slow. Targeting a weight loss goal of one pound per week, maybe two pounds, will yield the best long-term results.
Take your daily maintenance calories number from above and subtract 500 calories to target one pound of fat loss per week. You could get more aggressive and target a lower number of calories, but it will be more difficult, and you may risk screwing up your metabolism. Example:
This is all calorie stuff, what about the macros?
For people just starting out with tracking macros, setting your daily macro target is a piece of cake. A lot of people will try to make this part unnecessarily difficult. Even fitness competitors can be guilty of making the individual macro settings way too complicated. I like to keep things simple because simple is sustainable.
Before I tell you the secret, let's first set the protein intake. Protein is the most important macro for a lot of reasons. Most important is that our bodies build muscle using protein. Adequate protein intake will help you maintain muscle mass while dieting, which makes losing fat easier. Muscle mass is more valuable than gold when it comes to having a healthy metabolism and a fit body. Having more muscle will give you a faster metabolism, which means a higher daily maintenance calorie level. Being able to eat more food means better sustainability for long term goals.
The formula for calculating daily protein intake is super simple. It's one gram of protein per pound of body weight. So, if you weigh 200lbs, you need about 200 grams of protein per day.
I use the one gram per pound rule because it's easy to remember and calculate. The science shows that optimal protein intake is a range between 0.8 grams and 1.2 grams per pound of body weight. One gram is right in the middle of the range. If you find one gram per pound hard to meet every day, going down to 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight will be just fine. If you just love eating protein, going up to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight will also be just fine. Try to stick within the 0.8g to 1.2g per pound range for the best results.
Can I have the secret now?
Ok, I'll tell you the secret, but first, let's recap what we just learned. We know our daily calorie goal and our daily protein goal. That's it! That's the secret. If you hit your daily calorie goal and your daily protein goal you will be 99% on your way to meeting your long-term weight loss goal.
What about Carbs and Fat? Everyone always talks about Carbs and Fat.
It seems like everyone is hyper-focused on carbs and fat. Low fat this, low carb that. The secret is making sure you eat enough protein, and then filling in the remaining calories with carbs and fats, without exceeding your daily calorie goal. Some people love bacon, which is mostly fat. That's great, go ahead and eat bacon, you can balance that out by reducing carbs. It's that easy. Here are two examples of macro goals that are both perfectly acceptable.
Protein = 200g/800 calories
Carbs = 200g/800 calories
Fat = 22g/198 calories
Total Daily intake = 1798 calories
Protein = 200g/800 calories
Carbs = 100g/400 calories
Fat = 67g/603 calories
Total Daily intake = 1803 calories
You can see the first example is higher carb and the second example is higher fat. They will both work for losing weight and maintaining muscle. These are just examples. After tracking for a few days, you'll learn your preference for carbs versus fat.
Bonus: The 4th Macro is fiber!
Fiber is a carbohydrate, but it's so important it deserves special recognition. Consuming adequate amounts of fiber is essential for gut health. Try to target 30 grams per day at a minimum. Check out my article my-bacteria-part-1 for more information about fiber and gut health.
So far I have explained the basics of macros and the secret to setting your personal macro intake. Advanced macro manipulation is nothing more than adjusting the ratio of carbs versus fat to fine tune athletic performance or body composition. The debate is endless. Some people eat a lot of carbs on days they go to the gym and higher fat on rest days. That's known as carb cycling, which may be good for you, maybe not. It's all about personal preference.
Some people eat an extremely low carb diet and get most of their energy intake from fat. This is known as the ketogenic diet (in drastically simple terms). New research is showing ketogenic diets may have therapeutic medical applications for a variety of conditions. I suggest looking into Dr. Dominic D'Agostino's work if you want to know more about the potential medical applications of a ketogenic diet. It's fascinating stuff.
Hitting your macro goals.
At first, it may be difficult to hit your goals. This is a learning curve everyone goes through. It might come as a shock that a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce is mostly just carbs with a tiny amount of protein and fat. I suggest focusing on lean meats and vegetables. Sounds familiar right? Go for chicken, steak, or fish to hit your protein goals. These will also have some of your fats. Then add vegetables for carbs, which will also provide fiber.
One big issue people have while trying to lose weight is feeling hungry all the time. Try eating 50 grams of carbs from broccoli and 50g of carbs from pasta and see which one fills you up. The vegetables are going to make you feel full and provide essential vitamins and minerals. Remember nothing is off limits, there are no bad foods. IIFYM is the acronym for If It Fits Your Macros, which describes potential food choices while macro dieting or flexible dieting. Go ahead and have that bacon, pop tart, or ice cream, if it fits your macros.
Keep in mind the old saying "if you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Try to log your meals before you eat them. Better yet try to plan a day ahead. Planning ahead will help you avoid potential food regrets. If you log your lunch after you've finished eating, and find it had more calories than expected, you might have to cut some calories from dinner. Planning ahead will avoid this common flexible dieting pitfall.
Spread out protein evenly throughout the day.
Research done by Dr. Layne Norton shows that muscles respond better to multiple protein meals spread throughout the day, rather than one large protein meal. For people trying to maximize muscle mass, shoot for 30 grams of protein every four to six hours. If you're just starting out tracking, take your total protein requirement for the day, and divide it by the number of meals you plan to eat. In our example case we need 200 grams of protein per day, if that person eats four meals per day, then the target would be 50 grams of protein per meal. To help hit your protein goal, I recommend protein shakes. I have a shake every morning for breakfast, then another 4 hours after lunch. Check out my article my-top-5-protein-powders-of-2016 to see which ones I recommend.
Long term adjustments.
While dieting, your metabolism will adapt to the new level of caloric intake and fat loss will slow down or stop. This is known as metabolic adaptation and is completely normal. The time it takes to adapt will vary from person to person. To continue losing fat you could cut more calories from your daily goal, add more activities that burn calories, or a combination of both.
What to do after you hit your goal.
The choices you make after reaching your goal are crucial to long-term success. Most people have no problem losing weight. The big problem is that they gain it all back, and more, after the diet is over. What I recommend is called a reverse diet. After you've reached your goal, don't jump your calories right back up to your starting maintenance level. Or worse, quit tracking and start eating mindlessly. For long-term success, start by slowly increase your calories over time. Some people can increase calories and gain very little weight. This is the holy grail of dieting. Eating more and not gaining weight.
If you need help setting your macros as progress stalls, or need guidance during a reverse diet, I recommend Avatar Nutrition. This website will ask you to set a goal and check in once per week with your current body weight. It will automatically calculate your macros and guide you through any plateaus and the transition into reverse dieting. The real value with Avatar Nutrition is the small adjustment their algorithms make over many weeks and months. It's also a great resource for more information about dieting and tracking.
Key points to remember.
Please leave your comments below. I would love to hear what you think and answer any questions!