It seems like everyone talking about counting macros these days, but are you lost as to what they’re all talking about, let alone how to count your macros?
You desperately want to shed that body fat and build some muscle. You don’t want to seem like THAT guy or girl that doesn’t know how to count your macros, or worse still let on you're not even sure what a macro is.
So you keep quiet, afraid to ask the question of that hulk-like dude in the squat rack. Languishing in mediocre progress in terms of getting that lean physique, you’re crying out for some help.
Well, this article is your saviour. The knight in shining armour you’ve been waiting for.
If you’re a complete newbie to the world of macros then this guide is going to walk you through the process step by step.
And heck, you could pick up a few top tips at the same time, even if you're more experienced.
Here’s what we’ll be covering:
- What macros actually are
- Why you should give a crap about them
- How much of each one you should be having
- How to plan your meals around the numbers
- And how to cope with those situations where it’s impossible to count your macros
I want you walking into that gym tomorrow confident and feeling like you are the oracle of all things macro.
By the time your next workout comes around, you’ll be ready to give the Bruce Banner of the squat rack some advice...well almost (let’s not get ahead of ourselves here).
So without further ado let’s get started.
What the fuck is a macro anyway?
If you even have a passing interest in fitness and have a social media account, you can’t help but have come across the word ‘macros’ or the hashtag #IIFYM or #ifitfitsyourmacros in your Instagram feed.
I just checked mine and the hashtag count for ‘#macros’ is up to 3,805,722 posts (I’m probably guilty of a few of those, so I apologise for that!)
Click on that hashtag and you’re greeted with body transformation pics and a plethora of food shots.
The world and their wife appear to be making massive changes in the way they look. And it seems though they’re doing it by eating pizza and ice cream all day long.
As you scroll through your feed, making your way through what seems to be a picture of every morsel of food that the world consumed in last 24 hours (I apologise again, I’m guilty of that too), you’re wondering how you can use this macro concept to your advantage too.
But to the uninitiated, you’re left none the wiser as to what the hell they’re going on about.
Let me shed some light on this dark art…
Macros is a shortened term of macronutrients. A macronutrient (I’ll go back to calling them macros from now on) is a food group from which the body derives energy through calories.
There are 4 macros in total, which are:
Yes. Alcohol is a macro, but for the purposes of you getting lean and building muscle, we can forget about it for now, but we’ll come back to it later.
Now let’s take each one in turn and find out a little bit more about them, what they do and why you need to give a crap.
I like to think of protein as the building blocks of muscle. I’m going to keep this article fairly light, so we’re not going to dive into all the science talk right now, we’ll save that for another time.
Protein is what helps your muscles repair and grow after those tough sessions in the gym.
And if you’re reducing weight as opposed to bulking up, then protein is going to help preserve the lean muscle you have, which is crucial if you want that muscular and toned look.
The humble protein is also going to help you stave off hunger for longer. Consume a high protein breakfast, for example scrambled eggs, then you’re going to feel hungry much later than would if you’d had your favourite brand of breakfast cereal.
In a nutshell, protein is good.
What foods are proteins?
There are lots of good sources of protein. Meat, eggs, dairy, and fish are among the best. Plant based proteins, such as tofu are classed as a protein source, but are nowhere near as good as the ones mentioned first in the list.
This is due to their Biological Value (BV). I promised to spare you the science lesson, so I’ll stick to my word. In simple terms, BV relates to how much of the proteins are able to be absorbed by the body. The higher the value, the better.
As an example, eggs weigh in with a BV of 100 and soy comes in at 74.
So the more you can use fresh meats and eggs as your protein sources, the better.
Other so called protein sources like quinoa and nuts get popularised in the media, but these are in fact not great protein sources.
Quinoa is about 4.5% protein and 19% carbohydrate, which makes it more of a carb than a protein in my book. Take almonds too (one of my favourite foods). These are 21% protein, but 50% fat, so they have a lot of protein but come with a ton of tag along fats.
Now don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t eat them. It just means that if you’re looking for protein, look elsewhere.
Generally speaking 0.8g - 1.2g per lb of body weight is the best place to start.
If you’re looking to reduce body fat then I’d edge towards the top end of the scale.
Conversely, if you’re bulking and looking to gain weight then you don’t need to have quite so much and can lean towards the lower end.
So, if you weigh 200 lbs then your protein target should be anywhere between 160g - 240g per day.
Other factors such as body fat come into play here as well. If you’re above 25% body fat then you can measure your protein requirement off of your lean body mass (ie weight without fat).
Here’s an example of what I mean. A guy weighing 200 lbs with a body fat of 25% would have a lean body mass of 150 lbs (ie 200*25%). He would then base his 0.8 - 1.2g per lb requirement of that new number.
Got it? Good.
Now on to fat.
You want to get rid of fat, so you need to cut out fat, right? Wrong!
Fat is essential. That’s a fact you can’t deny.
Despite how much you want to get rid of it from around your belly and expose that six pack, your body still needs you to consume fat in your diet in order to survive.
Fat helps your brain work properly (there’s a few people I know that could clearly use some on that basis…). Fat is also going to assist in hormone regulation, vitamin absorption, along with healthier skin and a stronger immune system.
What foods are fats?
Meat, oily fish, nuts, butter, oils etc are all sources of fat. The list is almost endless.
There are “good” fats and “bad” so be on the lookout for those when it comes to planning your meals.
A good fat, generally speaking, is either unsaturated or polyunsaturated. These are your Jedis of fat.
Doing good as they help your body be totally awesome. You’ll find these in oily fish and nuts, amongst other foods. You might hear the term Omega 3 a lot. This is a good fat, some thumbs up for those bad boys.
Trans fats are the Sith Lords of the fat world.
Trans fats are like the Emperor Palpetine of fat. These guys are the leaders of the Dark Side. Artificially created, they’re most commonly found in packaged snack food, baked goods, and cookies etc. Although many companies are getting wise to the fact people want to avoid them and have adjusted ingredients accordingly.
Best thing to do is always keep an eye out for things like ‘palm oil’ in ingredient lists and also eat things like cake and cookies in some degree of moderation.
As a start point I would recommend calculating your fat requirements based on 20-25% of total calories (as a rough guide). This is going to give you the minimum amount of fat your body needs to stay healthy and carry out the functions it needs to.
You can have more, but you need to bear in mind that there are 9 calories per gram, so more fat in your diet will quickly eat away at those calories, leaving you less calories for carbs and less food (in terms of volume) overall.
Carbs aren’t essential, but that doesn’t mean they are the enemy!
Let me digress for a second and tell you a story.
I was on Twitter the other day looking for people that needed some fitness tips (something I do as much as possible, so tag me if you have any questions). After scrolling through a few posts, I stumbled across a woman who’s tweet was something along the lines of,
“What’s the best way to lose 7kg in 4 weeks? Going on holiday soon.”
To which the first reply was,
“No carbs babe. No carbs. Worked for me.”
At this point I had my head in my hands trying to fathom why this type of BS advice is still being dished out. If you understand the basic rule of calories in vs calories out then you immediately understand that carbs are not a dieter’s worst nightmare.
My reply to the tweet was.
“Resistance training and being in a calorie deficit. Carbs aren’t the enemy. And 7kg is too much to lose in 4 weeks.”
Fact is, carbohydrate are a great source of energy. They fuel your workouts and generally make you feel much better.
Low carb diets exist that people swear by, but in my experience the majority of people find them restrictive and difficult to sustain.
What foods are carbs?
Carbs are found in bread, pasta, vegetables, and fruit to name but a few.
And let’s dispel one myth right now. It’s become oh so popular to be gluten free or wheat free in the belief that it’s miraculously healthier for you than the ‘gluten full’ variety.
This is totally not the case.
Unless you have a specific intolerance there’s no need to be THAT guy or girl.
When you hit that artizan coffee shop in Camden Town, don’t spend 20 minutes interrogating the staff as to what’s gluten free. Just order your sandwich, Peruvian Blend espresso, and South African Peace Crisps and enjoy them.
Once you’ve calculated your protein and fat requirements, just put what calories you have left to carbs. Usually this works out to be around 1g per lb when you’re losing weight and 2g per lb when you’re gaining weight. But this varies from person to person.
Last but not least we have alcohol. This will be quick, so let’s fly through this one.
Booze has many benefits. It makes you think you’re more attractive to the opposite sex than you actually are. It makes you funnier, wittier, more sociable and cool (or at least you think it does).
None of which have any relevance to your nutrition programme.
What foods / drink are alcohol?
Don’t think you need me to answer that one. Basically, any booze!
You don’t need alcohol in your nutrition plan. That doesn’t mean to say you need to give it up totally though. You just need to know that you’ll have to make sacrifices from your other macros to fit these calories in.
Why Count Macros?
Ok. So we’ve got the concept of macros under our belts, you might be wondering why the hell you need to bother with all this and why can’t you just count overall calories instead.
It’s a good question and one that a lot of people tend to ask. Truth is, you don't...
First off, calories matter. Your overall calorie intake should be your first priority.
Eating less calories than your body needs on a daily basis will put you in a calorie deficit and will mean you lose weight. A simple fact that a lot of people try to argue, but they’d be wrong.
As I mentioned before, protein is going to help preserve that lean muscle, so keeping intake high is worthwhile. After that, you can kinda do what you want with carbs and fat. The ratio between the two doesn't really matter for fat loss.
Bottom line is that you need to focus on calories and protein to get the result you want.
Turning Macro Numbers into Food
I get asked a lot of questions about this next stage of the process.
Let's imagine you’ve been through the maths, got your calories and macros worked out, but now you’re stuck. How do you turn these numbers into something you can actually put in your mouth and eat?
There’s lots of ways to do this, but there are two simple approaches that I tend to start people off with, and we’ll get on to those in just a second.
But before we do, there’s one thing you’ll need, regardless of the approach you decide to take. A decent set of weighing scales. Measuring your food accurately as you make a recipe or prepare a quick bowl of cereal before you rush out the door in the morning might sound inconsequential, but it is an important part of sticking to your macro numbers.
So invest in a set and learn how to use them…
Back to turning those numbers into some real food.
This is where we get to dive into getting to know you a little bit more.
In my experience, people fall into two broad categories. There are planners and there are freestylers.
If you’re a planner then you’re like me (I like you already). You like to map things out, have a structured plan to follow and a nicely thought out routine you can stick to.
If you’re a freestyler then you’re not into structure and plans (don’t worry, I still like you). Plans are too geeky and you’ve got no time for that.
Which one describes you best? Have a think for a moment.
Determining which characteristic explains you best can assist a lot with adherence to your nutrition plan in the long term. Let me explain.
Let’s say you’re a freestyler. You hate prepping food in advance and you can’t stand living your life out of Tupperware. You want everyday to be a surprise and for your food choices to be constantly varied.
That’s cool. And it’s eminently possible to achieve the results you want doing that. Now, as a coach, it would be pointless me providing you with a structured set of meal plans to follow, where you prep meals in advance and have the next 4-5 days planned out ahead of you.
You’re simply not going to enjoy it and you’ll end up deviating back to your old ways and most likely going off the rails.
On the flip side of the same coin, if you love planning, then setting you off on your way without that map to guide you is unnerving and fills you with a sense of dread. You’ll feel lost and almost paralysed with all the options available too.
If any of that sounds familiar here’s my strategy for dealing with the situation.
Recipes and Food Labels
First up we’ll look at recipes. Recipes are for the planners.
Ahead of time you can plan out what meal you want to eat for the next, 2 days, or even week. You can even go to the trouble (and I recommend you do) of working everything out in a spreadsheet or a macro tracking app like MyFitnessPal.
Can you imagine how good that feeling of having everything planned out to the last gram will be?
When you’re carrying on with your busy day, you can do so safe in the knowledge that the food you’ve prepared will bring you in exactly on plan.
That’s the piece of mind you need.
These days there a countless websites posting all sorts of recipes, all with the macros written out for you (bbcgoodfood.com is a favourite of mine). Simply search for the meal you fancy eating, be it beef stew or a nice Thai chicken curry then simply put that in your plan and see how it affects your macros.
Start with your main meals and then work around them with snacks and your pre / post workout nutrition. It can be a little bit of an art form, but stick with it and you’ll get better at the entire process.
How to interpret the recipe correctly.
Servings: Take note of how many servings the recipe makes. The macros apply to one serving, so make sure you apportion the food out equally to hit those macros.
Macros: Within the Nutritional Facts there's loads of information about calories, saturates, sugars, etc. Although it’s useful information to know, it doesn’t really help us track macros, so just ignore it for now.
So for you planners out there, that’s going to be your main process for planning your meals. You still need to pay attention to this next section because not every meal comes in a nice recipe format online.
And so we come to the freestylers. You’re eating things on the move and on the fly, so you really need to pay attention to those food labels and rely on a macro tracking app to keep you on plan.
As you fly through the day, perhaps skipping from meeting to meeting, you grab a sandwich from Starbucks and your dinner is a mash-up of what’s in the fridge at the time.
It’s therefore crucial you know you to read a food label and track the macros accordingly. Let’s have a look at one and break it down.
Make a note of the serving size. This nutrition label was picked at random, so I don't know what it is, but whatever this particular food is, there are 4 servings in the container. However, all the macro and nutrient information is based on just 1 serving. So, if I intended to eat all 4 then I need to multiply all these numbers by 4.
You don’t need to pay attention to this, because we’re tracking macros. And by doing so the calories take care of themselves. Here’s an illustration of what I mean:
- Protein (4 calories per gram): 24g x 4 = 96
- Carbs (4 calories per gram): 13g x 4 = 52
- Fat (9 calories per gram): 14g x 9 = 126
- TOTAL CALORIES = 274
Don't sweat the few calories that will always get lost in the minutia of the rounding. The point is, you can see that by tracking macros, we didn’t need to bother tracking the calories as well.
Calories from Fat:
Not needed. Ignore it.
Absolutely track this. It’s an essential part of the process. As for saturated and trans fats, well it’s not essential to track for these purposes, but you’re going to want to keep them to a minimum.
This has had a bad wrap in the press for years, but it’s not all bad and your body actually needs it. But for what we need to do, you can ignore it.
Do you have a blood pressure issue? No? You don't need to track sodium then. Sodium is a bit like cholesterol in that it’s gotten a bad name over the years. But it need not be the case. Your body needs sodium to function, so a super low sodium diet probably nothing more than a fad.
It contains no calories, so you can ignore it as well. You might see a pattern developing here!...
Yes track this. Carbs are one of the 3 most important macronutrients we covered earlier and as such we are definitely interested in it. You don’t need to specifically track the dietary fibre and sugar content, just the overall carb number will be fine.
Having said that, you should make sure you have plenty of fibre in your diet, so get your fruits, veg, and roughage into your plan. You can also throw in a few sugary dessert treats if you want to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Oh yeah baby. This is the mac daddy of the macros. You need to keep an eye on this number for sure!
% Daily Value:
Nope. Not worth bothering with. In my opinion these values are worked out for an average human being that doesn’t actually exist and has never walked the Earth. We’ve worked out what macros you need, so don’t sweat this at all.
Vitamins and Minerals:
No calories in these, so no need to pay attention to them. If you base your meal plan on a good mix of fresh foods and possibly supplement with a multi vitamin then there’s zero need for you to pay attention to that part of the label.
What happens when food doesn’t have a food label?
This happens a lot.
The best advice I can give you is to either look up the food on MyFitnessPal to see if someone’s added it to the database. If they have, that’s a bonus! You can also look the food up on Google. You might not find the exact brand or ingredient, but an apple is pretty much the same the world over and the differences will be too marginal to care about.
Other than that, you can look at supermarket websites. Nutritional facts for most foods are on there these days, so with a bit of research you can figure all this out.
Your other option is to give it your best guess. As you get more familiar with weighing out food, you can get a feel for what 200g of chicken looks like and how much real estate on your plate 100g of rice takes up.
Eating out in a restaurant can also bring on those feelings of dread and anxiety that I know all too well.
Lots of restaurants, like Nando’s to name one publish their nutritional information online, so again, you can plan ahead or retrospectively programme in those numbers more accurately.
Failing that you’re back in the realms of guesswork. Do your best and err on the side of caution by overestimating.
Time to wrap this one up
Phew! We’ve covered a lot just now. Let me try and sum it up for you as best I can.
- Macros are the food groups that contain calories and supply your body with energy.
- Calculate how many calories you need to achieve your goal.
- Get your protein range right. But don't overly fuss about carb and fat ratios.
- Buy a decent set of scales and weigh your food properly.
- Find out which method of tracking macros suits you best and focus on that primarily.
- Take the time to understand food labels and what they mean.
Nail those 6 steps and you’ll be onto a winner for sure!
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