Macronutrients are nutrients that make up food and supply our bodies with energy (calories). There are 4 types of macronutrients: Protein, Fat, Carbohydrate and Alcohol (Yip, alcohol is a source of energy and not just a source of embarrassing stories/sore heads).
Protein contains 4 calories (kcal) per gram of weight. Fat is 9kcal per gram, carbohydrate is 4kcal per gram and alcohol is 7kcal per gram.
Why would you want to count macros?
The number one reason that anyone counts their macros is results. Counting your macronutrients will give you optimum results if done properly. Mathematically, dieting is going in a calorie deficit and remaining there. If you know exactly what you are putting into your body in terms of numbers it is merely a case of adjusting per results. Most people you see with six pack abs have counted their macros to get there. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of dieting. If you are not seeing fat loss and you are following your macros to a tee you can simply lower them to start fat loss again (this is a bit of an over simplification but in most cases is correct).
Another benefit of macro counting is that you can eat almost anything. Do you have a craving for chocolate or any of your other favourite foods? Right now mine is peanut butter, straight out the jar, get in my belly, yum yum. Just fit it into your macros for the day and you are all good. However, this doesn’t mean that healthy eating should be discarded like that banana peel after you slowly strip it off and devour her beautiful yellow body…ok is my love of fruit getting a bit weird now? You also need to take into consideration things like satiety, fiber and micronutrients. Compare 200kcal of melon to 200kcal of chocolate and you will see how non-filling chocolate can be. And when on a diet sometimes just not being hungry is more important than fitting in some of Willy Wonkas crazy popping candy to your diet. But the beauty is, you can fit in most foods and this gives you a lot of freedom. No more beating yourself up because you had desert and didn’t ‘eat clean, bro’.
200kcal of melon is 553 grams 200kcal of cadbury's chocolate is 39 grams
Downsides to counting
There are of course some down sides to counting macros. There is a learning curve involved in the process. Nothing worth doing is easy I guess. However, hopefully with this article I can take all the guesswork and initial mistakes away reducing your learning curve considerably.
It takes time to count your macros. Not as much as some people think but, especially at first, you will have to spend time weighing, calculating, inputing foods and planning your meals out ahead of time. For some this is just not worth it. I’m not going to argue with you either way. See the above benefits and you can decide.
For some people counting macros can also create an unhealthy relationship with food. Hitting the macro target becomes of utmost importance and all other aspects of healthy eating get thrown by the way side.
This is why it is a good idea to not only have a rigid number of grams of each macro to hit by the end of the day but also have a fiber intake that should be monitored. You should also be mindful of other aspects of healthy eating such as balancing the types of fat you eat and getting plenty of vegetables and fruit in your diet. I'm back to the micronutrients again. But this is an article on counting your macronutrients so I will shut up with the micros.
Using ranges with your macronutrients is also a good idea. I normally recommend minimums with protein and fat and maximum with carbs. As long as you hit your minimum amount of protein and fat and the calories are met, the exact amount of each macro is not important. This allows a lot more freedom with your meals and will not affect your results at all. It is important to remember that counting is not perfect and doesn’t have to be. A lot of it is estimations so if you slip up one day and miss-count by 50kcal it is not the end of the world.
Calculating your macros
In this article I won’t talk about how to calculate the actual macros that you need personally. This can be done simply or made more complicated. For my clients I give macros based on many factors and split them over the day depending on activity level and recovery time. For a best estimate I would advise you contact a coach if you do not have any experience in this area.
Sources of each macronutrient
So what are good sources of each macro? Here is just a basic list to give you an idea: Protein- All meat, poultry and fish, dairy foods such as milk and cheese, eggs, protein supplements such as whey and casein.
Fat- All of your fatty fish, red meat, dairy, nuts, olives, avocados, dark chocolate.
Note that most foods will contain two or three of each macronutrient and you should count all when adding up your totals.
What you need to get started?
A good set of digital weighing scales is a must. They have to be accurate to the gram. These will be your friend from now on. You will also need a way of keeping track of the food that you are eating. You could use old-fashioned pen and paper but this will take a lot of time and I recommend using one of the many apps that are now available to track your food intake. My favourites are MyMacros+ and MyFitnessPal. There are many others, so you can try them out and see what you find easiest. I would not recommend using the stored foods in any of the apps and would advise you enter your own customised database of foods. Again this can be time consuming at first but once you have most of the foods you eat regularly stored it will only be a case of adding a new food every now and then. You will be surprised how much we all stick to the same foods, week in, week out.
I advise when possible to plan your meals the day before. This allows you to organise your food and stops you grabbing food on the go or being left with making do with whatever food is sitting in the fridge while you try to beat the rush hour traffic to work and then trying to fit it into your macros. You can always change what you have planned if needs be at any time.
Personally I keep my macro numbers stored on my iPad notes and flip between the App I use to count and the note when planning my meals. I take 5-10min during lunch to quickly plan the next day’s meals.
How to count
You can take macro counting to many different levels. You can count protein and calories only. Some like to count all foods except vegetables. Of course counting everything is going to be the most accurate. I would recommend you weigh everything uncooked, so meat should be weighed raw and rice dry for example. However, weighing veg and fruit, etc can be time consuming and may stop some people from eating a variety of foods. Personally, I use a combination of some short cuts for efficiency.
Short cuts to make you more efficient
I will peel and weigh one banana from a bunch (oh yeah, she likes that…sorry). If it weighs 150g and it looks about the same size as the others in the bunch I have bought then I count them all as 150g and don’t weigh any others. You can do this with all fruit and some veg. For rice I know that when I cook it in my steamer it increases to three times the weight of when dry. I no longer need to weigh out the dry rice but can just cook a big batch for my wife and me and weigh out mine once it is cooked. The same goes for recipes you regularly make. Instead of weighing out each individual ingredient each time you cook it, do it once. Weigh the final product and you can then put your own recipe in your App as a food of its own. The next time you cook that recipe all you need to weigh is the final amount that you will have to eat. You can also give yourself a set number of calories for leafy green vegetables every day instead of weighing them. You will find that simplifying things a bit using these methods will not affect your results if you are consistent.
Breaking down macros further
There is also the matter of counting each type of fat you consume, your sodium intake, sugar intake and fiber. I would recommend counting all types of fat for one week to check that you are eating a balance of fatty acids. When you are happy that you are you don’t need to track it any more. If you are not consuming a lot of processed foods then sugar and sodium will not generally be a concern so I would opt not to count them. See my article on eating fruit on a diet for more information on the effect of consuming sugar. Fiber should definitely be counted and I will cover it in more detail next.
Fiber can be defined as dietary fiber, which refers to nondigestible (by human digestive enzymes) carbohydrates and lignin contained in plants and functional fiber, which consists of nondigestible carbohydrates that have been isolated, extracted, or manufactured (1). These can then be further defined into soluble and insoluble fibers. Many foods contain a mixture of both fibers with one being dominant. Soluble fibers generally slow down gastric emptying with insoluble fibers doing the opposite, so a mixture of both is recommended in the diet. If you eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables you will be getting both types of fiber in your diet. Getting a decent amount of fiber in your diet is highly recommended as it has many benefits, not only for your health. Some of these include: Making you feel full (priceless when cutting), decreasing blood cholesterol and helping you do a nice big poo!
But the question that is relevant to this article is ‘Do you need to count fiber in your macros?’ Fiber can provide calories but it depends on the type. Many fibers are fermentable in the digestive tract. These produce short-chain fatty acids that can be used as energy for the body. The average is about 1.5-2kcal per gram. However this information is generally not needed as the calories from fiber is already deducted in the http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods database I recommend using.
One type of fiber that cannot be used by us humans is resistant starch. It is found in many foods but can also be formed during food processing. For example, when you cook and cool potatoes the amount of resistant starch increases. I mention it here, as you may want to consider this as an increase in resistant starch means a decrease in calories.
How much fiber?
The National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition Board recommends an adult male takes in 38g of fiber per day and an adult female 25g per day. I would recommend that you track your fiber intake for a week to make sure you’re a hitting at least those recommendations and then forget about it as long as you do not make drastic changes to your diet.
Should you count oils used when cooking? Short answer, yes. If you are deep frying something this then becomes a bit more complicated as you will not be eating all of the oil that you cooked with. In this case your best bet is to re-weigh the oil you used after cooking to see how much was absorbed by your food and count that. Just watch out for hot oil!
*Quick tip on counting fats and oils. Put your bottle of oil (block of butter, jar of peanut butter/nutella (or anything that comes in a bottle or jar really)) on to your weighing scales, zero your scales, remove what you will use and put the bottle back on the scales. This tells you how much you have used.
Alcohol itself has 7kcal per gram. You can use the databases mentioned above to find your favourite drink and include it into your macros. I recommend deducting your alcoholic drinks from your total fat grams for the day as drinking alcohol promotes fatty acid storage. If you plan on binge drinking check this article out to help minimise the damage to your physique.
Eating out can be the downfall of many macro counters. Some menus may have calories included but most won’t. Trying to estimate is hard as you do not have any idea of the added butter, sugar and other ingredients in a lot of recipes. You could always opt for the salad with no dressing but is that realistic when you are in that new steakhouse for your friends birthday? I don’t think so.
With that in mind my best advice is simply not to eat out very often. Sorry. I’m not saying give up your social life but realise that everything worth having requires at least some sacrifice. So minimise eating out as much as possible without giving up your life. When you do eat out I would recommend giving yourself a good buffer of calories to cover your expected intake, say 30% more than you would expect to be in the meal you have eaten. This should keep you safe. Enjoy not having to cook and get back on to your plan from the next meal.
Do supplements have calories? This of course depends on the supplement. You should always check the label for calories that are in any supplements you take. However some supplements are labelled and even marketed as zero calorie but do in fact have to be counted towards your daily intake. BCAA’s are often labelled as containing no calories but should in fact be counted the same as regular protein, 4kcal per gram. This is due to the law around counting amino acids as food.
When it comes to counting your macros consistency is key. If you decide not to count your leafy vegetables as it is too much hassle then keep with this method every day. The same goes for any other short cuts you take. If you are consistent, you can measure your progress and adjust when needed.
Some people love counting everything and thrive on it but others can become OCD and it creates stress in their lives. No matter what it is a good idea to have periods of no counting to help combat this and remember not to be ruled by estimated numbers.
Good luck and I hope this helps you towards your goals.
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