Why you should or shouldn’t be counting macros.
These days there are many different types of eating plans – counting macros is one of them. “Macros” is short for macronutrients, the three key food groups required for our bodies to function: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Get the right balance of these and you’ll be more effective at burning fat and building lean muscle. But, not all calories are created equal (10 calories of fat will be used entirely differently than 10 calories of carbohydrates) so finding the right balance between them all is key to performance and reaching your desired goals. Interested in counting macros? Here’s what you need to know:
Carbs are not the enemy
If you’re active, carbohydrates are essential! Your body needs carbs for energy and getting the most out of your workout. They’re the fuel that gets you through that last set or that last mile. But be warned! If you don’t exercise regularly they can become an issue. If you have a more sedentary lifestyle, the body prefers fat as fuel rather than carbohydrates, so for rest days you should adjust your macro ratio to include a higher amount of fat and protein, while on active days, more carbohydrates and protein is preferable.
For veterans used to counting macros, the next (more advanced) step in the macros journey is around nutrient timing. Timing your carbs, fat, and proteins around your workouts can make your body even more efficient with fueling and recovery. Plus, it allows you to reap the benefits of your workout immediately – which means a faster recovery! Your body burns carbs first, so replenishing them right after a workout is important. A great starting point here is to plan your pre and/or post workout snacks (which should be a healthy carb and protein), and as you go further away from your workouts, eat less carbs and replace your fuel source with fats.
Need a little more help? Here’s an example day (with a workout in the evening):
- Breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled with veggies
- Lunch: veggie stir fry w/ lean protein
- Pre-workout snack: Health Warrior Coconut Chia bar + Kombucha
- Post Workout snack: protein shake w/ banana, almond milk + frozen berries
- Dinner: Baked sweet potato, broccoli, lean protein
- Snack: dark chocolate w/ nut butter
I make sure my highest carb meals are the ones closest to my workouts to maximize the fueling and recovery benefits of carbohydrates as well as allowing my body to utilize fat as a fuel source the rest of the day.
Want to start counting and calculating your macros? Remember these two things: your base metabolic rate (BMR) and how active you are. BMR is the minimum number of calories your body needs to function, breathe, blink, etc. You should NEVER go below this. When you add in your daily activity level this will be the calories starting point.
Below is a basic breakdown of how to calculate your macros:
BMR x Activity level
BMR= 655+ (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age)
- Little to no exercise (ex: desk job): 1.2
- Light exercise 1-3/week: 1.375
- Moderate exercise 3-5 times per week: 1.55
- Heavy exercise 6-7 times per week: 1.725
So, for example, calories needed for a 30 year-old, 150lb. woman who is moderately active: 2,308
A good starting point is 40/40/20 (40% proteins, 40% carbs, 20% fats)
Protein: 2,308 x 0.4/4 = 230g
Carbs: 2,308 x 0.4/4 = 230g
Fat: 2,308 x 0.2/9 = 51g
It takes a bit of trial and error to find your ideal macros. And depending on your goals (weight loss, maintenance, muscle gain), you may want to adjust them throughout the process.
So, now that you’ve got the gist of counting macros you’re good to go right? Think again! Counting macros goes beyond old school calorie counting – to find the balance of all the macronutrients your body needs, you may need a few tools.
The easiest and most accurate way track your macros is with a macro tracking app. My Fitness Pal has an extensive list of foods with their respective macronutrient breakdowns. Plus, it is super simple to use and best of all – free!
But counting macros isn’t just about calculating your protein, fat, and carb goals – now you have to make sure you’re actually eating those amounts. How do you do that? By weighing and measuring your food.
The tool for success in counting macros is investing in a food scale. If you’re like me, you’ll buy multiples. One to keep at home, one to keep at the office, and one for travel. Most are pretty affordable, but make sure it can provide measurements in ounces and grams at the least.
Now you’ll need to measure your food you so strategically calculated! Below are some tricks of the trade:
- Measure all food in it’s raw state first if possible (including meats, veggies, etc.). This will give you the most accurate weight of the food you’re about to cook (if you’re meal prepping or cooking for more than just yourself, you’ll need to measure again after you cook and divide by the servings you made).
- Try to avoid measuring cups! These usually aren’t the most accurate way to weigh your food, since measurements can vary. Stick to a scale if you can!
- Meal prepping will become your best friend! Write servings, weights, and macro breakdown for meals on your containers so it’s easy to grab and go!
- When eating out, do your best to estimate your macros. You’ll get pretty good at estimating weights the more you macro count. Ask the waitress if you can avoid added fats/oils especially in cooked vegetables. Many chain restaurants, like Chipotle, offer nutrition information on their website including macro breakdowns.
- Calculate your macros for the day either the night before or in the morning. This way you don’t end up using all your macros up for the day before dinner or ending up with way too much to eat after 8pm. Fail to plan, plan to fail!
Should You Macro Count?
I’ve been counting macros for over 3 years and it’s become second nature for me to open myfitnesspal every morning, whip out my various scales, and know what to do. And, in all honesty, I find it fun (it doesn’t take much for me!). I’m also an athlete in a weight class sport and need to be very strategic about my nutrition, making the most of my calories every day. So for me, counting macros is essential to my goals.
But counting, measuring, and tracking your food can be overwhelming for some people. If you have a history of an unhealthy relationship with food or don’t feel like taking out a scale and an app every time you eat, it’s probably not for you.
If you’re one of those people that already eats a healthy diet and are looking to perform better or reach certain goals, then I definitely recommend counting macros. It completely transformed my performance in the gym and made making weight for competition a much less stressful process.
If you’re looking for further information, I recommend reading Working Against Gravity or Renaissance Periodization which provide coaching, templates, and tons of information around counting macros.