Macros 101 (what, why, how)
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
Within the last decade the practice of tracking macros has been on the rise, and for good reason. Tracking allows the dieter to get relatively precise with the makeup of their diet while experiencing more food flexibility than a rigid diet or meal plan. This article will break down the what, why, and how of tracking.
Tracking macros is recording your intake with the goal of consuming a certain amount of each macronutrient, the nutrients our body needs in large amounts: carbohydrates (carbs), protein, and fats. Each of these macronutrients provides our body with calories. Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram Protein: 4 calories per gram Fats: 9 calories per gram Why We know calories in/calories out (CICO) matters. When the amount of calories we consume is greater than those that we burn, we gain weight. When the amount of calories we consume is less than those that we burn, we lose weight. When calories in and calories out are equal, we maintain. So we could just track our food intake and total calories to reach our targeted intake. However, when all we look at is calories, we negate where these calories are coming from. By getting precise about how much of each macro we are consuming, we are able to not only manage our total caloric intake but also help achieve more specific goals like optimal performance, body composition, or health. How Even if this is not your first time tracking, I suggest starting with a week or two of tracking your current intake. Tracking your current intake also enlightens you to how much you are eating on average, where your macros are coming from, and what your current macro ratio looks like. If this is your first time tracking this serves several additional purposes. It teaches you how to track, gets you in the habit of tracking, and since we are not making any changes to your diet, it lowers the bar for starting. Now that you have tracked for a week or two, you have your current average intake. From here we can set your first macro targets. It may be beneficial to start with your current intake as your calorie goal for now. This way you can start tracking without the added stress of a deficit and changing your entire diet. Over time you will be better able to change your intake to fit your goals (back to CICO) and will be better able to determine the macro ratio you respond best to and prefer. When you are just starting out, keep it simple and go off the research. As arguably the most important macro for body composition change, we start with protein. Next, we calculate fat to ensure sufficient fat intake. Lastly, we calculate carbs based on the remaining intake. Protein: The simplest way to set your protein goal is to aim for 1g per lb of body weight, however it has been found 1.4 grams per kg of body weight is sufficient. This might seem like a lot but this is our long term goal, we can work our way up.
BW in lbs x 1 = grams of protein Or (BW in lbs/2.2) x 1.4= grams of protein
Fat: For most individuals 15-35% of daily calories from fat is suggested.
Total calories x percentage of calories from fat = calories from fat Calories from fat/9 calories per gram of fat = grams of fat
Carbs: From whatever calories remain after setting protein and fat goals, we calculate grams of carbs. The formula would be:
Total calories - calories from protein - calories from fat = calories from carbs calories from carbs/4 calories per gram of carbs = grams of carbs
Let’s take a look at an example of a 150 lb athlete with a caloric intake of 2000 calories and who chose to intake 1 gram per bw of protein and 25% of calories from fat.
Protein: 150 grams Fat: 2000 x .25 = 500 calories 500/9 ~ 56 grams (remember, there are 9 calories per gram of fat) Carbs: 2000 - (150 x 4) - (56 x 9) = 900 900/4= 225 grams of carbs
Therefore this athlete’s initial targets would be: 150 grams of protein, 56 grams of fat, and 225 grams of carbs. Application Now that you have your targets, go track and hit these targets, the end. Just kidding. In a perfect world, yes, that is what we would love to do. Yet, setting that expectation when you have never tracked before is unrealistic and can lead to frustration, feeling discouraged, and lower likelihood you’ll stick with it long enough to reap the benefits. Rather, use the following suggestions to take a tiered approach based on what feels best for you. Pre-Track and Build Your Own “Meal Plan” Whether you are using an app or pen and paper, sit down and pre track your meals for the next few days. Engineer it to meet your macro goals. “Plug and play” until your serving sizes and food choices line up with your targets. This is beyond helpful and failing to plan ahead is detrimental to your chances of hitting your macro target(s). Start Where You Are Rather than change your intake amount or even the foods you eat, start by using your average intake as your total calorie goal. You can always change this as you get better at tracking and you are ready to attempt a deficit or surplus. Start With One Macro At a Time Set out to hit your protein goal first and let your carbs and fats land wherever they land. After a few days (or weeks) and you are able to hit your protein goal within about 10 grams, add in your fat goal until you are ready to track all three macros. Set Realistic Targets If your average intake is way different than your target, work on increasing your intake gradually. This usually applies to protein or fat for most people. For example, if your average protein intake is 60 grams and your suggested target is 160 grams. That might be difficult. Start by aiming for 100 grams, then 120, and keep working your way up until you get there! Since you started by tracking your protein, it should be easier to focus on building this up. Be Patient Learn from every day. On the days you are under your target, look back and see what you could have added or increased. On the days you are over, look where your macros came from and how you can adjust in the future. This is a change to your lifestyle and just like any change, it is not going to happen overnight. References: 1. Conlin, L., Aguilar, D., Rogers, G., & Campbell, B. (2021). Flexible vs. rigid dieting in resistance-trained individuals seeking to optimize their physiques: A randomized controlled trial. Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-021-00452-2 2. Helms, E., Aragon, A., & Fitschen, P. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition, 11(1).https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20 3. Jäger, R., Kerksick, C., Campbell, B., Cribb, P., Wells, S., & Skwiat, T. et al. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Protein and exercise. Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8