From counting calories to trying new, more intense workouts, there are a wide range of methods for losing or maintaining a healthy weight. Often, the most common problem with focusing only on calories is that it does not take into account the actual foods you eat, instead stripping them down to mere caloric intake, which can be misleading your actual needs.
Not all calories are created equal, and concentrating only on calories can keep you from reaching your goals by reducing your muscle mass or leaving you completely unsatisfied with every meal.
The key to balancing weight loss and overall health is counting your macros. For the uninitiated, that can seem difficult or confusing, but with our help, you should have no problem calculating your macros quickly and easily.
What are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients, often shortened to just “macros,” are the basic components of any diet that you generally need to survive and thrive. Getting the right proportions of your macros can be more effective and satisfying than simply limiting your daily calories. The three main macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Protein: Building Blocks for Muscle and Tissue
If you are a weightlifter, athlete, or anyone entrenched in the world of fitness, you are already probably focusing on protein. Protein is best known as the macro that contributes to muscle mass, though it is also necessary to the health of all tissues throughout your body, including your hair, bones, organs and enzymes. The main source of proteins are meat and dairy, but they can also be found in legumes and grains.
Proteins are made of smaller elements called amino acids. While your body can generally create most amino acids on its own, there are nine that it can’t synthesize, meaning that you need to get them from your diet. These nine amino acids are called essential amino acids. Thankfully, the nine amino acids are easy to obtain from meat sources. For vegans and vegetarians, getting the full nine amino acids requires eating a larger variety of legumes and grains or supplementation.
Each gram of protein contains 4 calories.
Carbohydrates: Cellular Energy
Over the years, the public perception of carbohydrates has fluctuated, going from good to bad to potentially acceptable. Carbohydrates are technically the only macronutrient that you can survive without, but for many of us, that would be highly unpleasant. Aside from being the component of most tasty things, carbohydrates are the most accessible source of energy (i.e., calories) for your body. Carbohydrates can be broken down into glucose, which powers your brain, or glycogen, which is used by your liver and muscles.
Carbs can generally be divided into two forms: simple and complex. These refer to the length of the molecules that compose carbs. Simple carbs feature shorter molecule chains, making them simpler for your body to break down. Larger molecular chains take longer to break down, which makes them more complex. Simple carbohydrates and generally considered sugars, while complex carbohydrates are considered starches. These sugars cause spikes in your insulin levels, whereas complex carbs provide a more steady insulin levels, resulting in a more long term energy.
One gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories.
Fats: Necessary and Misunderstood
Fats have something of a bad reputation. Part of that may come from the name itself (though fats as a macronutrient do not necessarily equate to fat around your midsection) or that fats are the most calorically dense macronutrient. Part of it may come from the fact that science still is not entirely sure how fats work.
However, you need fats to survive, and they are not something that your body can make on its own. These are scientifically known as essential fatty acids and include cholesterol and triglycerides. Fatty acids perform a wide range of functions, from storing energy to protecting vital organs to insulating your joints and muscles. Fats also act as messengers to help proteins build muscle and perform their own functions. Fats are even necessary to your metabolism, triggering the chemical reactions that control immune functions and the growth and reproduction of cells. Along with stocking energy, fats also store certain vitamins and nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble and stored in fatty tissues and the liver.
You will find a wide array of different fats on food labels. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are two essential fatty acids. They provide energy and are a vital part of cellular membranes. Omega 3 fatty acids in particular have been found to possess powerful anti-inflammatory effects and higher amounts of it may potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular issues.
Of course, not all fats are created equal. Trans fats are the main type of fatty acid to look out for. Trans fats are found in packaged foods and certain brands of margarine. They can be both naturally occurring and artificial. Artificial trans fats add hydrogen to vegetable oil to make them more solid at room temperature. Trans fats have been shown to lower your good cholesterol while raising your bad cholesterol. They also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart problems.
If they are knowingly bad, why are they even used in foods? Simply put, they make things taste good and give products a longer shelf life. For companies, trans fats are easy to produce and last a long time. However, you should avoid them at all costs.
One gram of fat contains 9 calories.
Calculating Your Macros
Now that you understand what macronutrients are, you can more effectively lose weight and gain lean muscle while maintaining good health overall. Here are some easy steps to calculating how many of each macronutrient to eat per day.
- Calculate your daily calorie requirements.
The amount of calories you need varies from person to person based on a wide range of factors, including:
- Activity levels
- Personal fitness goals
- Muscle composition
There are a few ways to calculate your own calorie requirements. For the hands on approach, keep a food diary that lists out what you eat and drink each day and how many calories you get from each item over the course of one week. Assuming you are not gaining or losing any weight, this should give you a pretty good idea of your calorie requirements. This method may require tweaking and adjustments as most people tend to overestimate how many calories they need. For an easier, more exact method, use a simple calorie calculator.
Losing weight relies on creating a calorie deficit. The general rule of thumb is to reduce your average daily caloric intake by 500 calories to lose about a pound per week. If you want to put on weight the healthy way, you can go the other way and add 500 calories to your daily total.
- Divide your macronutrients.
Once you have calculated your personal calorie requirements, it is a matter of doing the math to figure out your macronutrient targets. There are countless ways to figure out how many of each macronutrient you actually need. The simplest methods involve a simple percentage split. The most common of these is a 40/40/20 split: 40 percent of your calories from protein, 40 percent of your calories from carbohydrates, 20 percent of your calories from fats.
From there, it’s a mater of doing the math. Say your total daily calorie goal is 2,500. Forty percent of 2,500 is 1,000 calories. As one gram of protein contains 4 calories, you need 250 grams of protein each day. Doing the math for the other two gets you 250 grams of carbs each day and about 56 grams of fats.
Other percentage splits include an even 33 percent between all three macronutrients or a 40/30/30 split. For most weightlifters and athletes, you will probably focus on protein more than carbohydrates and fats. Aside from contributing to muscle mass, improving metabolism and speeding up your recovery after workouts, protein will help you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer.
- Customize your protein, fat, and carb intake.
If you want to create a more custom macro targets or in lieu of starting with percentages, you may consider starting with your protein needs first. Research and general rule of thumb suggest that you should get about 1 gram of protein a day for every pound of body weight. For example, if your weight goal is 150 pounds, you should ideally eat 150 grams of protein per day. From there, you can calculate the calories from protein (in this example, 600 calories), subtract it from your total daily calories and decide how much of the remainder to split between carbs and fats.
In terms of fats, you can certainly lose weight by trying to eat as close to none as possible, but it is also not particularly healthy or necessary. You need your fats. Just make sure you do not overload on them. About 0.3 grams of fats per pound of body weight should be enough for most people.
Carbohydrates can be difficult macro to balance properly. They are a great source of energy, but if you do not use the energy they provide, carbohydrates get stored in your body as fat. Allot the remaining number of calories to carbohydrates. It’s important to find what number of carbs work for you. Everyone’s body reacts differently to carbs so don’t be afraid to experiment a little. When calculating how many carbs you need to consume, be sure to factor in not only your workouts but also your professional life. Someone working behind a desk all day will require less carbs than someone working in construction.
- Make adjustments.
You probably will not get perfect results right out of the gate, but you should be close. Getting the results you want often requires some adjustments, recalibration and patience. Some common problems that you may experience when counting macros:
- You are not losing weight. Even if you are sticking to your target macros, you still may not be losing weight. This is usually caused by two things: you are not tracking your macros accurately or you’ve overestimated the amount of calories you need. For the former, make sure you are sticking to the weight of your food in grams, not by volume. If you are tracking your macros properly, try to reduce your daily calories and macros by 5 to 10 percent.
- You are hungry. If you are getting the right balance of macros, you should generally be satisfied, even with a reduced calorie intake. First, consider if you are actually physically hungry or psychologically hungry. Psychological or emotional hunger may be used as a form of stress relief or simply be a distraction when you are bored. If psychological hunger is a problem, consider trying intermittent fasting to train your body to go longer periods without food. If you are definitely suffering from physiological hunger, make sure that you are getting enough protein. Often when people cut out carbs they also cut fiber which can make you feel fuller. Try looking for carbs with higher fiber content to keep your carbs the same but remain satisfied longer. Your daily calories may be too low, in which case you should consider increasing them by about 10 percent. It also takes your body some time to adjust to your new diet. Wait to see if your hunger goes away after the second week of the new diet.
- You are not gaining weight. If you are trying to make gains but just seem to be staying the same weight or worse, losing weight, you may just need to eat more. Your metabolism may actually be faster than you thought, or your hobbies may lead to more calorie burn than you anticipated. Try to increase your total daily caloric intake by 5 to 10 percent.
Apps to Help You Count and Track
While you can keep track of your macros with a simple pen and paper, mobile apps make it much more convenient, which just makes it easier for you to stick to your plan. Some apps you should consider downloading:
- MyFitnessPal – If you have ever started a diet, you are probably already familiar with this app. MyFitnessPal allows you to log your meals from a massive database of foods. MyFitnessPal only allows you to set a caloric goal, but you can see your macros in the nutrition tab.
- My Macros+ – Created by a fitness professional, My Macros+ is a comprehensive app that allows you to track each macronutrient and save different macronutrient targets for intermittent fasting and cheat days.
- Nutritionist – Perfect for true diet and fitness newbies, Nutritionist offers tips and tricks to help you along your journey while providing an easy interface for tracking your food and macros every day.
- Lose It! – Specifically tailored to help you lose weight, Lose It! gives you a daily food budget based on your target weight, height, gender and desired pace. You can then keep a food diary and calculate calories lost from workouts.
- MealLogger – MealLogger mixes food diary with photo food journal, allowing you to upload and share photos of meals with friends. MealLogger also connects you directly with a health professional who can provide guidance and tips to help you with your diet.
What Types of Food to Eat
A lot of experts say that you can eat essentially anything you want as long as you are counting your macros, including ice cream, sweets and junk food. While that may work for some people, your best bet is to stick with healthy foods that are rich in micronutrients (meaning vitamins and minerals). Eating whatever you want can often have a snowballing effect. You may eat a donut in the morning and just assume that the rest of your day is ruined. This can eventually create negative associations with “dirty foods,” which isn’t necessarily right or healthy either. It also requires much more discipline not to binge if you don’t set parameters.
Allow yourself one free meal a week. This allows you to enjoy the moment with friends, family and loved ones without ruining your diet plan. If possible, try to make it the last meal of the day so that you can truly enjoy the food and the moment. It won’t bear on your conscience because it’s at the end of the day, so you won’t have to worry about ruining your diet for the whole day. Head to bed and get back on your nutrition plan tomorrow.
Eat lean sources of protein, like fish and poultry. In terms of carbs, try to maintain a diet of only complex carbs. During your diet, you should naturally find yourself gravitating toward complex carbs as they do keep you satisfied for longer.
Most importantly, try to find meals that you enjoy. Dieting can be a slog if you are only eating bland food. Use plenty of spices like ginger, cayenne pepper, turmeric and basil, which all add depths of flavor and offer a variety of health benefits at the same time. There are plenty of recipes out there that are tasty while still sticking with a healthy macronutrient balance. If you have tried counting calories or other diet trends to no avail, give calculating your macros a try. They may be the solution you have been waiting for to start seeing the results you’re aiming for.