Whether you want to lose body fat, gain muscle, or improve the overall quality of your diet, it helps to track your macros. "Calorie counting" has been popular for decades as a tool to help manage weight. Still, for those looking to optimize body composition, performance, and overall health, only counting how many calories you eat each day may not be enough. The reason for this is that calorie counting doesn't take into effect how much you are eating of each macronutrient. So, while calorie counting may be a step in the right direction towards improving your performance and physique, macro tracking is a better option as it gives more specific guidelines as to how much you should eat of each type of macronutrient. In this guide, we’ll explain:
- What are Macros in Food?
- How to Determine Calorie Needs?
- How to Track Macros? Plus, more…
What Are Macronutrients?Macronutrients are chemical compounds consumed in large quantities that supply our bodies with energy. <1> The four main classes of macronutrients found in food are:
CarbohydrateCarbohydrates can seem like a four-letter word in certain circles these days, but the truth is that carbohydrates (as glucose) are the primary energy source for our cells. Following ingestion, carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars (such as fructose, galactose, and glucose) and transported into the bloodstream, where they can either be used immediately by our cells for energy or stored as glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate) in either skeletal muscle tissue or the liver. Carbohydrates are primarily found in plant foods (bananas, potatoes, spinach, etc.); however, they can also appear in some animal products, such as whole milk, yogurt, and cheese. Every gram of carbohydrate contains four calories.
ProteinProtein is comprised of chains of amino acids held together by peptide bonds. These amino acids serve as the “building blocks” our bodies use to repair and build tissues (including skeletal muscle), create enzymes, synthesize neurotransmitters, and produce hormones, such as insulin. Protein also plays a crucial role in cell signaling and immune function. The current RDI (recommended daily intake) for protein is 0.8g/kg of body weight; however, this amount is far below what is recommended for physically active people that engage in resistance training. Current research indicates that the amount of daily protein needed to support the demands of those training to build muscle and lose fat is between 1.6-2.2g/kg of body weight (~1 gram per pound of bodyweight). <2,3> Consuming this amount ensures your body has enough “raw material” (amino acids) to repair muscle damage brought on by intense training as well as support the synthesis of new muscle protein. Every gram of protein contains four calories.
FatFat is the most calorically dense macronutrient. Similar to carbohydrate, fat, too, has been unfairly demonized over the previous decades. Your body needs fat to synthesize hormones, absorb nutrients (such as Vitamins A, D, E, & K), and maintain core temperature. <4> There are four types of fats:
- Monounsaturated Fat
- Polyunsaturated Fat
- Saturated Fat
- Trans Fat
AlcoholThe fourth and final macronutrient is alcohol. By and large, alcohol will make up very little (if any) of your daily energy intake, at least it should if you’re looking to maximize health, performance, body composition, and longevity. The reason for this is that alcohol is toxic to your tissues and organs, particularly the liver and brain. <6> Due to its toxicity, the body prioritizes its metabolization and elimination, which means it focuses first on breaking down and getting rid of alcohol before anything else you eat. Furthermore, compared to carbohydrates, protein, and fat, alcohol serves no physiological benefit to the body (aside from helping you to "loosen up"). As such, you would be well served to limit your alcohol consumption. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to completely abstain from alcohol, though you can if you should so choose as you will not be doing your body any harm by abstaining. But, you can enjoy alcohol in moderation (1-2 drinks per day) based on the current body of research. <6> FYI, the CDC defines a “standard” drink as:
- One 12-ounce beer with 5% alcohol content
- One 8-ounce malt liquor at 7% alcohol content
- One 5-ounce glass of wine at 12% alcohol content
- 5 ounces of hard liquor (bourbon, whiskey, vodka, etc.), which has 40% alcohol by volume (~80 proof)
How Do You Count Macronutrients?
Determine Your Current Calorie NeedsBefore you can begin counting your macronutrients, it helps to know what your daily calorie needs are. You can estimate this by calculating your total daily energy expenditure, which is an approximation of how many calories you burn per day, including exercise. To determine how many calories you need to lose weight or build muscle, click here.
Track Your MacrosTracking macros is quite simple. It all boils down to logging ("recording") what foods you eat each day, as well as how much of those foods you eat. You can do this by recording the foods you eat on a website or smartphone app. You could also go “old school” and write them down on paper, too. By and large, the most convenient way to track macros for most people these days is using an app specifically designed to track macros such as MyFitnessPal, Lose It! or My Macros +. These apps are user-friendly and also feature a barcode scanner that automatically puts in the macronutrients and total calories from a serving of whatever food you scan. Besides a macro tracking app, you’ll also want to purchase a digital food scale to help you track your macros. Food scales are very affordable, with some costing as little as $20. Having a food scale allows you to track how much of each food you eat more accurately. If you’re using a macro tracking app like MyFitnessPal, as you log your meals, it will keep track of your macro intake as well as how many total calories you are consuming each day so that you know whether or not you are consuming enough total calories and macronutrients each day or not. Finally, realize that it’s OK if you do not hit your macronutrient targets each day precisely. Nutrition facts panels have some tolerance and are not 100%. As such, do not “freak” if you’re over or under your macros by a few grams each day. You can still achieve your performance and physique goals.
What Macronutrient Ratio Works Best for Your Lifestyle?Despite what you may read on the blogosphere or hear on various podcast outlets, no one macronutrient ratio is right for all individuals ad infinitum. The macronutrient ratio that works best for you depends on several factors, including (but not limited to your):
- Physical Activity Levels
- Pre-existing Medical Conditions
- Carbohydrate: 45-60%
- Fat: 20-35%
- Protein: Remainder
How Do You Track Macros and Calorie Intake?Before you start tracking your macros and calorie intake, it helps to have a rough idea of how many calories you need to eat each day to maintain your weight. For example, let’s say that you weigh 130 lbs. and have already calculated your TDEE, which is estimated to be 2400 calories per day. Now, we need to go about setting your macronutrient goals for the day. First, we start with protein as it is the most important macronutrient when it comes to determining body composition. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll set it at 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. This means that you should aim to consume 130 grams of protein per day (give or take a few grams either way). The next macronutrient we set is fat. Fat is usually set between 0.3-0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight. Assuming you prefer to eat a higher percentage of your calories from carbohydrates, we'll set fat to 0.4 grams per pound. This gives: Fat macro: 130 lb. * 0.4g/lb. = 52 grams of fat To determine your carbohydrate macronutrient needs for the day, you subtract your protein and fat macros from your total daily calorie needs. First, we need to convert protein and fat macros to calories.
- Protein Calories: 130g * 4 calories/gram = 520 Calories
- Fat Calories: 52g * 9 calories/gram = 468 Calories
- Remaining Calories After Subtracting Protein and Fat: 2400 - 520 - 468
- Calories for Carbs = 1412
- Carb Macros: 1412 calories / 4cal/g = 353 grams of carbohydrate
- Protein: 130 grams
- Carbohydrate: 353 grams
- Fat: 52 grams
TakeawayTracking macros is an easy way to make sure you are eating in accordance with your performance, physique, and health goals. There are several high-quality macro tracking apps available to help you log your daily food choices. Before you start tracking your macros, it helps to know how many calories you need to eat each day, and then divide those calories across the three main macronutrients (protein, carb, and fat). One of the most significant benefits of tracking macros is that you can decide which foods you want to eat to satisfy your carbohydrate, fat, and protein targets. You no longer have to follow cookie-cutter diet plans that have you eating nothing but brown rice, chicken, tilapia, and broccoli. Finally, realize that it is OK if you are off of your macro goals by a few grams each day. You can still achieve your desired performance and physique results.
- Prentice, A. (2005). Macronutrients as sources of food energy. Public Health Nutrition, 8(7a), 932-939. doi:10.1079/PHN2005779
- Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 15, 10 (2018) doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
- Aragon, A.A., Schoenfeld, B.J., Wildman, R. et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 16 (2017) doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y
- Carreiro AL, Dhillon J, Gordon S, et al. The Macronutrients, Appetite, and Energy Intake. Annu Rev Nutr. 2016;36:73–103. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-121415-112624
- Iqbal MP. Trans fatty acids - A risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Pak J Med Sci. 2014;30(1):194–197. doi:10.12669/pjms.301.4525
- Rusyn I, Bataller R. Alcohol and toxicity. J Hepatol. 2013;59(2):387–388. doi:10.1016/j.jhep.2013.01.035
- Mul JD, Stanford KI, Hirshman MF, Goodyear LJ. Exercise and Regulation of Carbohydrate Metabolism. Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2015;135:17–37. doi:10.1016/bs.pmbts.2015.07.020
- "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines." Home of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion - Health.gov, health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/