So you want to lose weight and have decided the best way to do so is to start counting calories. And you’d be right – tracking the amount of calories you take in each day can help identify how your calorie intake measures up with your weight loss (or gain, if that’s what you’re hoping to do).
But it’s not all you should be doing.
See, counting calories alone might help you reach a healthy body weight, but it will not help your body be healthy. That’s because calories only measure how much you’re eating, not what type of calories they are. Believe it or not, this matters. A lot.
That’s where macronutrients come in.
What are Macronutrients?
“Macronutrients” – or more commonly known as “macros” – is a blanket term for three food types: Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. The human body needs a certain amount of each to carry out essential functions, and collectively they provide the daily energy our bodies need. In fact, if you’re tracking your macros, you don’t have to count calories in the first place.
That’s because each macronutrient has a caloric value. They are:
- 1g of protein = 4 calories
- 1g of fat = 9 calories
- 1g of carbohydrates = 4 calories
In other words, if I ate an item with 2g of protein in it, I’d know that I just ate 8 calories. Remember, each gram of protein I eat equals four calories (2g protein x 4 calories = 8 calories).
Let’s do one more. If I ate an item with 3g of fat, I’d know that I consumed a total of 27 calories since each gram of fat is worth 9 calories (3g fat x 9 calories = 27 calories).
Why Macronutrients Instead of Calories
I could write an entire post surrounding this specific topic, but in a nutshell, it all comes down to making sure you’re consuming a balance of nutrients that promote optimal health. For example, if you are only tracking calorie intake, you have no idea if you are taking in enough protein each day. Maybe your entire diet consists of cupcakes. You could technically eat 1800 calories worth of cupcakes and still lose weight, but your entire macronutrient intake would be carbs and fat. Your body would be terribly deficient in protein, which can result in soreness, muscle loss, and an inability for your body to regenerate new cells. If you lived exclusively on those cupcakes for months, your body would break down muscle tissue to get the protein it needs. When that ran out, it would likely start breaking down your organs. Eventually, bodily functions would stop all together and you’d be left with a headstone that said, “Death by Cupcake.”
On the flipside, tracking macronutrients gives great insight into not only how much you’re eating, but how that food measures up with the nutrients your body needs. It’s a great system of accountability. For example, if you’re aware that you’ve met your carbohydrate requirement for the day, you may be more motivated to skip those potato chips and drink a protein shake instead.
How Do You Know How Many Carbs/Fats/Proteins You Need Each Day?
This is probably the most difficult aspect of tracking macros. That’s because everyone’s macronutrient breakdown is different. Body type, weight, gender, age, genetics, activity level – all this and more influences the specific amount of protein, fat, and carbs each person needs. So how do you know what’s best for you? Here are a few ideas:
- You can calculate your own using the first part of my article: How much to lose and How to Cut Calories.
- Skip the work and questioning yourself by utilizing a nutrition/diet coach. Everyone and every situation requires a diet custom to their needs and calculating those macro numbers may involve some pretty complex equations and factors. Working with a professional who is familiar with establishing macronutrient ratios will, in my opinion, provide the most accurate numbers. Look for a certified personal trainer who also holds a certificate in nutrition, or you can find several coaches online (however, do your research! Check out my article on this here).
- Use an online macronutrient calculator: These are not nearly as accurate as an actual human being’s calculations, but they can at least give an idea of what macronutrient breakdown you might start with. Search for “macronutrient calculator” online for a hundred and one options.
- Go with the recommended daily allowance (RDA) as established by the National Academy of Medicine. It suggests:
- 45-65% of calories come from carbs
- 20-35% of calories from fat
- 10-35% of calories from protein
If you have any questions about macronutrient ratios, don’t hesitate to contact me and I can help.
How to Know a Food’s Macronutrient Composition
There are a few different ways to determine a food’s macronutrient breakdown, and there are times you may have to rely on a couple different sources to find the information you need. Initially this can feel tedious and like a lot of work, but food tracking apps can make this process so much easier. I’ll talk about this a little bit later. In the meantime, here are the best ways to identify macronutrients in specific foods:
- Product Nutrition Labels: Most packaged food has a nutrition label, and this provides all the info you need. It tells you how big a serving size is as well as how many calories, macronutritients, and vitamins and minerals are found in that serving. If you’re counting macros, nutrition labels are super helpful.
- USDA Food Database: Foods that aren’t in packages – like fresh fruits and vegetables – often don’t have nutrition information listed, but don’t let that stop you from eating them. You can easily find this information on the USDA’s Food Database. Simply type in the food you are seeking, and the database will provide the nutrition information for that item.
- Food Tracking Apps’ Built-In Nutrition Info: Most food trackers already have expansive databases listing foods that you may not have nutrition data for. Because these databases are often created by the users’ themselves, I consider them the least-reliable source of nutrition information since you have to trust the information is accurate. However, most allow you to manually enter nutritional data on your own, which ensures that the info provided is accurate since you are the one who entered it in the first place.
How to Plan and Fit Foods into a Macro Plan Each Day
Tracking macros is pretty simple, but for anyone new to the process it can feel overwhelming at first. After all, you now have a goal set for how much protein, fat, and carbs you want to eat each day, but how exactly do you figure out how to make that happen?
The best way is to break down the macro totals you want to aim for at each meal. For example, let’s say your total macros are 180g carbs, 60g fat, 135g protein, for a total of 1,800 calories each day. You decide you are going to eat five meals per day, so you divide those numbers by five to determine the total macros needed for each meal. In this case, the macro break down per meal is:
- 36g carbs (180g ÷ 5 = 36)
- 12g fat (60g ÷ = 12)
- 27g protein (135g ÷ 5 = 27)
- 360 calories (1800 ÷ 5 = 360)
Now that we know how much we are shooting for with our macros at each meal, let’s look at how to stay within those limits. We’ll walk through this using breakfast as an example.
First, I have to figure out what I want to eat. I already know that whatever it is has to include all three macros (protein, fat, and carbs), but I decide I’ll build my meal starting with protein first. Since it’s breakfast, eggs seem like a good option. I’ll start by figuring out how many eggs I can have to reach my protein goal for this specific meal. I’m going to turn to my food tracking app to do this (I am using Sparkpeople, but this strategy should translate to whatever tracking app you use).
To begin, I’m going to search for “eggs” on my food tracker. This is a pretty common food, so I feel confident that the tracker’s built-in nutrition info is pretty reliable for this particular item. A lot of options that include the word “eggs” pop up, but I’m going to choose the one that best reflects what I’m eating. In this case I select “eggs, fresh, whole raw” (in the event I can’t find an exact match for a food on the built-in tracker, I will manually enter the information using the nutritional label listed on my food’s packaging or go to the USDA’s Food Database).
Now I look at the nutrition information for the eggs I’ve selected. According to my food tracker one whole egg has 6.3g of protein, 4.8g of fat, and .4g of carbs.
Looking back at the macro goals for my meal, I know that I need 27g of protein and 12g of fat (and 36g of carbs, but clearly eggs are not the source from whence I’m going to get this particular macronutrient). So if I have one egg, then this is how many macros I have left over (I often round off macros to the nearest whole number to make the math easier):
The equation to use:
Your total protein/fat/carb limit for the entire meal – the total protein/fat/carb found in food item (in this case, one egg) = protein/fat/carb remaining
Using this equation, here is what I discover:
- 27g (total protein for this entire meal) – 6g (total protein in one egg) = 21g protein remaining
- 12g – 5g = 7g fat remaining
- 36g – 0g = 36g carbs remaining
Using this information, I can now decide what else I’d like to add to my breakfast. Since I have enough protein and fat remaining, I’m going to add a second egg. I’ll specify two eggs in my food tracker, which will automatically tell me how many macros these two eggs cost me.
So again using the equation above, I can again see how many macros I have left for breakfast if I eat two eggs:
- 27g – 13g = 14g remaining
- 12g – 10g = 2g fat remaining
- 36g – 1g = 35g carbs remaining
Now I know that I have just about met my fat total for breakfast, but still have to eat something with protein and carbs. I decide some Cheerios sound good, but I have to figure out how much of it I can eat.
First, I’m going to check out the nutrition label.
Immediately I can see that one serving (29g of cereal) is 2g of protein, 1.5g of fat, and 24g of carbs. Using the remaining macros I have, I do the math once again to see how much one serving will use of them:
The equation to use:
Your remaining protein/fat/carb for the entire meal – the total protein/fat/carb found in food item (in this case, one serving of Cheerios) = protein/fat/carb remaining
Using this simple equation, here is what I discover:
- 14g (amount of protein left after two eggs) – 2g (protein in one serving of cereal) = 12g protein remaining
- 2g – 2g = 0g fat remaining
- 35g – 24g = 11g carbs remaining
Since I have a decent amount of carbs left over, I know I can eat a bit over one serving of Cheerios if I want. I already know that 29g (one serving) of the cereal is 24g of carbs, so a little less than half should get me pretty close to that 11g of carbs remaining. Again, I’m going to use my food tracker to help me figure out exactly how much. To do this, I find and select “Multi-Grain Cheerios” in my food tracker, and adjust the serving size to “40g.”
My food tracker automatically changes the macro totals for me, so now I can see that 40g of cereal will be about 3g protein, 2g fat, and 33g carbs. Going back to the macros I have left over once factoring in the two eggs, I determine that:
- 14g (amount of protein left after two eggs) – 3g (protein in 40g of cereal) = 11g protein remaining
- 2g – 3g = -1g fat (one gram over fat goal)
- 35g – 33g = 2g carbs left over
Now I can see that I’ve pretty much met my carb and fat goals for breakfast. Yes, my fat is over by one gram and my carbs are under by two grams, but this difference is pretty minimal and not likely to affect my dietary goals. If needed, I can always make up for it by eating a little bit less fat and a couple grams more carbs in a different meal.
But back to breakfast. While I’ve met my fat and carb limits, I still have 11g of protein remaining. I already know I can’t have a third egg as this will make me go way over my fat goal for this meal, so I have to think of something that is high in protein, but low in carbs and fat. I know that my protein powder probably qualifies, so I take a look at its nutrition label for more information:
One serving of protein powder weighs 34 grams according to the nutrition label. Since that one serving contains 25g of protein, I know one serving is more than I need (remember, I only need 11 more grams of protein).
To give me an idea of how much protein powder I should use, I mentally split the 34g serving in half. If one 34g serving of protein powder is 25g of protein, then I know half of a serving is around 12g of protein. That’s pretty darn close to my 11g goal. So I go to my food tracker and adjust the serving size to just a little less than half. In this case, I’ll see how much protein is in a 15g serving.
It looks like it was a pretty good guess, because 15g of my protein powder contains 11g of protein – exactly what I was looking for.
However, I can see that this 15g of protein powder also contains .2g of fat and 1.8g of carbs. I’m already over my fat by 1g, so this will push me up just a smidge. Not a big deal. Remember, a one or two gram difference is okay.
I also know that I was short 2g of carbs, so the 1.8g of carbs found in my protein powder will fill this gap in nicely.
Now I know what I plan to have for breakfast: Two eggs with 40g of Multi-Grain Cheerios topped with 15g of protein powder mixed with water to serve as my “milk.”
For the remaining four meals I will follow this same process. It’s important to point out how important a food tracker can be not just for recording what you eat, but determining how much you can eat of it before you even open the package. Use this tool to create meal plans ahead of time, hold you accountable to your goals, and take the guesswork out of serving sizes. It’s an invaluable tool anyone can benefit from.
What questions do you have about macro counting? While I tried to cover everything here, surely there are many questions I missed. If you post them in the comments section below or contact me, I’ll be happy to help!