If you’re in the Feisty Fox Fitness Free 6 Week Challenge group, you’re going to receive a free calorie and macro number from me (wow!). I know that some of you don’t know what the heck that means but you heard “free” and you are hungry for change so you’re all in!! 😉 Nothing wrong with that! So, what is a “macro” and what does it mean to track it? Why do all that work?
This post is long but will teach you A LOT! I will address the following:
- Basic Nutrition Rules
- What are macros?
- Why would I track them?
- Reading Nutrition Labels
- Foods Without Nutrition Labels
- Measuring, Weighing, and Tracking
Basic Nutrition Rules
Whether or not you decide to track macros after you learn about them, I would encourage everyone to follow these basic nutrition rules:
- Drink water (9-11 glasses per day, more when you exercise)
- Sleep (check out my blog post about sleep here)
- When you look at two food items and know which is the healthier choice, eat that.
- Avoid fast food and processed foods as much as you can.
- Try new fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources.
- Start looking at nutrition labels to familiarize yourself with them. Try to apply what you’ve learned about macro and micro-nutrients. Not every food you eat needs to have a lot of each of those things. It’s about eating to get all the fuel you need when you add foods together!
- Enjoy a treat meal or a piece of cake and consciously choose to let it be a treat, not a week of splurging.
What are “macros”?
There are three macro-nutrients, or macros:
And, technically, alcohol is a stand-in fourth
All calories come from macro-nutrients. Vitamins, minerals, sodium, etc, are micro-nutrients and do not contain calories.
- Build and repair body tissues and structures.
- Involved in Synthesis of hormones, enzymes, and other regulatory peptides.
- Can be used for energy if dietary calories or carbohydrates are insufficient.
Protein requires more energy than other macros for your body to digest, thus effectively burning more calories gram for gram through the digestion process. A common misconception, though, is that there is no such thing as “too much” protein.
Protein intake that exceeds needs for synthesis and energy are broken down and may be stored as fat. How much protein you need varies greatly, depending on your weight, body fat percentage, and your goals. The range for daily intake can be anywhere from .5 to 2 grams per pound of lean body mass (bodyweight minus fat weight).
Meat, fish, eggs, dairy and protein shakes are all good sources of protein. Plants, nuts, and beans also contain protein in smaller amounts.
- Structure and membrane function
- Precursors to hormones
- Cellular Signals
- Regulation of uptake and excretion of cell nutrients
Monounsaturated fats (olive oil, peanuts, almonds, pistachios) and polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils, omega-3 fatty acids from certain fish, nuts and seeds) increase good cholesterol (HDL) and decrease risks of heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, and cancer.
Saturated fats (meat and poultry, butter, cheese, tropical oils, baked goods) raise both bad cholesterol (LDL) and good cholesterol (HDL). For decades, many believed this would imply a risk factor for heart disease but that has yet to be proven. Rather, they been found to be a precursor to testosterone production and to aid in brain function and immunities.
Trans-fats (margarine, shortening, fried food, fast food) increase LDL and decrease HDL levels.
Acceptable range for fat intake for an adult is 20% to 35% of total caloric intake (20% to 25% for athletes). No health or performance benefits have been found to consuming less than 15% of energy from fat.
- Chief source of energy for all body functions and muscular exertion.
- Help regulate the digestion and utilization of protein and fat.
Simple carbs: glucose (blood sugar), Fructose (fruit sugar), galactose, sucrose (common sugar), lactose (milk sugar), and maltose.
Complex carbs: foods containing starch and fiber found in plants, seeds, and roots.
Fiber– one of the greatest contributions made by complex carbohydrates. Recommended intake is 38g/day for males, 25g/day for females.
Soluble Fiber moderates blood glucose levels and lowers cholesterol (ex: oats, legumes, uncooked apples, oranges, carrots).
Insoluble Fiber reduces risk of colorectal cancer, hemorrhoids, and constipation (ex: bran layers of cereal grains).
Carbohydrates should make up 45% to 65% of total caloric intake, depending on goals, activity, and personal satiety and performance.
I think you know that alcohol is not an essential nutrient, but it does contain calories which is why it stands in as a fourth macro. It should be obvious why we need to REALLY watch our alcohol intake if we want to be fit. It is hard to hit your macros numbers while staying within the overall calorie number for the day if you have non-nutritive alcohol calories to count! Alcohol has many other detrimental effects on the body, which I will talk about in another post. Simply put, it stalls fat loss AND muscle gain. That’s definitely not ideal when you’re busting your butt in the gym and watching your food intake closely! You’ll see wine on my log for sure. But, knowing what I know, it’s rare and in small amounts. When I have a deadline goal, like for competition, though, there is just no room for it at all!
Why would I track macros?
Bodybuilders and competitors have macro tracking perfected. Ok, so you may or may not be training for a competition, but macro tracking for the general public is awesome, in my opinion for these reasons:
- Most people don’t have any idea of appropriate macro intake for their body and activity levels. Even if they do, they typically are far off in estimating how much they are actually taking in.
- Many people’s signals in regards to hunger and appetite are way out of whack due to some of the crazy foods we’re accustomed to eating. Using concrete numbers to get proper nutrients is a great way to get your body fueled properly instead of trying to follow misguided appetite and hunger cues.
- People like fad diets because they give you something concrete to stick to. While counting macros is sometimes more work than a simple “don’t eat that, eat this” list, it builds knowledge about nutrition and the give you the ability to more properly fuel your body for the long term. It’s not a diet. It’s not about deprivation. It’s about learning and tracking food as fuel.
- If you’re already lean and want to be leaner, or you’ve hit a “plateau” in your progress, it’s time to work with the facts and the numbers to fine-tune your intake.
Reading Nutrition Labels
Each macro-nutrient yields a certain number of calories.
- One gram of protein yields 4 calories.
- One gram of carbohydrate yields 4 calories.
- One gram of fat yields 9 calories.
- One gram of alcohol yields 7 calories.
I eat old-fashioned oatmeal every morning. Let’s use the nutrition facts label to look at the relationship between calories and macro-nutrients. Time for a little math!
- Protein = 5 grams * 4 calories per gram = 20 calories
- Carbohydrates: 27 grams * 4 calories per gram = 108 calories
- Fat: 3 grams * 9 calories per gram = 27 calories
20+108+27 = 155 calories
So, when I pour 1/2 cup or weigh out 40grams of oatmeal in my bowl, I’m taking in 155 calories (the label total was close), which breaks down into 5g of protein, 27g of carbs, and 3g of fat.
This should be easy for you. If it’s not, practice on a few items in your pantry before we move forward.
When counting macros, foods with a nutrition label are easy. Just take 30 seconds to look at the label (taking note of how the serving size relates to what you’re eating), jot down your macros using the math above and move on with your day. If you’re using a food tracker like myfitnesspal, it’s even easier. You can scan the barcode, input how large of a serving you’re having, and the math is done for you!
There is a lot of nonsense on a standard nutrition label that you can skip over which allows you to focus on what really matters: Proteins, Fats and Carbs, but lets go over everything.
The information listed on a nutrition label is for one serving. It is important to keep this in mind because many consumer products contain more than one serving in a package. Also, to track correctly, you need to take note of how your serving compares to the serving size.
As we discussed earlier, all calories come from proteins, fats, carbs or alcohol. Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) do not contain calories. If you’re tracking your macros, you don’t really need to count your calories also, since the math should all come together. But if you want to count ’em, it doesn’t hurt and it happens automatically on your tracker app like myfitnesspal.
Saturated Fat, Unsaturated Fat, Trans Fat
Saturated fats have been villanized for decades. However, studies are finding them to not be so harmful. Constantly eating more calories than you burn is the truest culprit in heart disease and obesity problems, not saturated fats. While polyunsaturated omega-6 fats found in vegetable oils (corn, soybean, etc) are considered healthy, most of us get way more than we need and should focus on balancing with omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (like from fish). Studies show that trans fats lead to insulin resistance, inflammation, belly fat accumulation and drastically raise the risk of heart disease, so they really should be avoided like the plague.
All that being said, avoid trans fat as much as you possibly can, but don’t worry about counting up your other fats too much- just aim for balance.
Cholesterol, like saturated fat, is produced naturally in the human body. Don’t worry about counting it unless asked to do so by your doctor.
Sodium is a mineral, so it does not contain any calories. The human body needs it to function, but of course, only so much. Excessive sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, dementia, sleep apnea, and kidney disease. The US government recommends that adults consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day, about two-thirds of a teaspoon. The average American actually takes in 3,436 mg a day—more than double the recommendation. Lack of a salt-shaker doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. The biggest culprits, by far, are processed and packaged foods. My biggest issue with high sodium intake is that salt triggers the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which can make salty foods as addictive as nicotine and alcohol, which creates cravings for a food that may or may not be healthy in every other nutritional aspect.
All that being said, unless you have high blood pressure, you don’t need to count it, but DO keep that 1,500mg/day number in the back of your mind when you’re looking at labels and avoid restaurant food!
I talked about fiber under the section about carbohydrates. You don’t need to count grams of fiber necessarily, they’re included in your carbohydrate number. But when looking at labels, opt for foods with higher fiber and lower sugar and you’ll know you’re getting a more complex carbohydrate that will do a lot of great things for you. And don’t forget those fibrous fruits and veggies!
Most people consume WAY too much sugar. Especially when they are a processed-food eater. You don’t need to ditch sugar completely. You don’t need to count it, necessarily. Simply aim to not have the bulk of your carbohydrates coming from sugar. Include a bunch of fruits and veggies in your diet, allow sugary desserts with moderation (be real about what that means) within your total macros. Remember that the best time for simple sugars is immediately after an intense workout session.
Beverages are a huge source of unnecessary sugars. You’ll find out quickly how tough it is to stick to the numbers of what your body needs to feel full and energized and make progress while still packing those sodas into your day.
% Daily Value
This is the government recommended daily intake of each nutrient based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
So, it’s based on the government’s suggestion for that macro or micro nutrient, with the assumption that every one of you (with very different bodies and activity levels) need to eat 2000 calories and take in the same proportion of nutrients. If you’ve learned from what I’ve taught you so far, this just sounds silly. So, just ignore the % daily value, honestly.
Food without Nutrition Facts
Counting macros in food with a nutrition label is straightforward, but there will be many situations where the macros are not printed nicely on the package. Here is how to handle those times.
For produce, look up the nutrition facts online on Google or Nutrition Data. If you’re using a tracker, you should be able to search for the food easily on your app. There may be some variation, but it should be pretty close.
Notice that you could measure the serving size as follows:
- Generic: One medium apple
- Metric: 100 grams
- US: 1 cup
You can eyeball the size or use a food scale to be more accurate.
Again, you can search online for nutrition facts. If you’re one of my clients, you’ll receive an suggested food list that will give you basic nutrition facts found in 1 oz of several great protein options (actually, it has carb and fat options listed, too)! Always remember that the nutrition facts represent the RAW meat/poultry weight, so weigh them raw before tracking.
This is the toughest part for most macro counters. However, trackers like myfitnesspal now have huge databases of foods at many restaurants and most places now publish their nutrition data online. Not only is it easier to track your food at home because you know what you’re eating… but the fact that you know what you’re eating should also make home cooking more appealing! It’s fun to have someone make your food for you, though, and you definitely don’t need to miss out on celebrations because you can’t eat at a restaurant. I’ve counted macros for so long that I can eyeball the macros on most any plate that I order. It takes a long time to get there, but it’s pretty neat when you really understand your food that well. Some people think that you have to be obsessive to have that understanding. To me, it’s no different than understanding which type of oil or fuel is going to make your car run best so that you can put in the right amount of the right thing!
If you’re eating foods without nutrition labels, you’re going to need to measure your food to accurately count macros.
You can use measuring cups and spoons, but that will get old quick. Why use more dishes? Plus, most people overfill measuring cups and end up with inaccurate food amounts. Food scales are cheap and easy to use once you understand how to tare the weight. You’ll want one that switches from grams, ounces, and pounds easily (most do).
Did I do a good job today? I stayed under all of my macro numbers you gave me!
I get this a lot from clients. We’re all so used to this mindset of stay below this number, don’t eat more than this much of this food, the less calories you eat the better, etc. Let’s reset. If you learn anything from me, I want it to be an understanding that FOOD IS FUEL. Macros represent how much of which types of fuel you are putting in. If I give you macros numbers, I am calculating them based off of your body, level of activity, and goals. I want you to hit the numbers as close as possible. Doing so has a learning curve, you’ll see. But being far below any given nutrient means you didn’t get all the nutrients we were aiming for! Overeating is definitely a common problem, especially in our country. Counting macros may mean you eat less than you were before. But less than what you should be eating is not the point. Eating the right amount of the right things is the point!
This food or supplement is “healthy.” Does it count? Do all the macros count?
No matter what the food, you should count/track all of the macros. A protein shake has calories, so it counts. It may have some fat and carbs in addition to the protein, so count them all. Again, a tracking app makes this super easy.
Does it matter what time of day I eat my macros?
In terms of weight loss, no. For the sake of balanced energy and satiety, I do suggest spreading your macros fairly evenly throughout the day. 25-30% of your daily carbs being used up in your first meal can give you a needed boost for the day, though. Sugar or caffeine may keep you awake and fatty foods may give you heartburn at night, but you’re still alive (and need fuel) as you sleep (crazy, right?) so no food at all after a certain hour is just dumb, in my opinion.
Will I use the same calorie and macro numbers forever?
Probably not. Remember that your daily caloric intake number and macro-nutrient breakdown are calculated based off of your body, your level of activity, and your goals. Therefore, as your body, activity levels, and goals change, so will your numbers! When a client purchases Nutritional Counseling from me (or gets it because they purchased a Personal Training Package), I give them new numbers as we progress and as we use different strategies, too.
My food tracker told me that I can eat 200 more calories because I logged 200 calories of exercise. Should I do that?
Again, remember that I calculated your numbers based off of your level of activity. So, generally speaking, no. I typically tell my clients to log their exercise (it’s great for staying on track) but not in their food tracker. The way that myfitnesspal and other trackers use that information can be misleading. If you’re given a 1800 calorie number per day because that is what was calculated as appropriate for someone of your size with your goals who exercises 2-3times a week, for example, then it just doesn’t make sense to eat 2000 calories because you did one of those (already accounted for) workouts. Especially because many people think “oh wow, I have room for this cupcake today that I didn’t have room for yesterday because my tracker says I still have 200 calories left!” Are you in a better position to have the cupcake because you worked out? Sure. But I think you can see how this can quickly go south. However, if you go over on your calories on any given day, especially with something like a protein shake or fruits and veggies, let it be your workout day!!
This seems obsessive. Can I just count calories and still make progress?
You can. You can certainly lose weight by consuming fewer calories than you burn. That’s why fad diets work. Whether it is due to a tiny number of calories allowed or an avoidance of a certain nutrient (like carbs), cutting overall calories will yield weight loss. Here’s why those approaches rarely stick… your body wants a balance of macro nutrients and it wants enough of them to be fueled. Big surprise! If you want to have muscles, energy, lasting weight loss and health, than balancing your macros is essential, and counting them is the best path to that balance!
If you’re not ready to make the leap into counting macros, for whatever reason, you can still make some progress without counting a single thing. Rather than saying to heck with it all, the non-tracker should focus on the major nutrition rules I listed at the beginning and try to apply what you’ve learned about macro and micro-nutrients when you look at nutrition labels.