Wondering how to track macros? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Our step-by-step guide will walk you through everything you need to know to help you reach your various health goals.
Regardless of whether you like working out on the best treadmill in the privacy of your own home, or lacing up the best shoes for walking to hit the hiking trails, counting calories is one way of reaching your fitness and nutrition goals.
Sometimes, however, calorie counting might not be enough if you have specific targets that you’re looking to meet in a certain timeframe. Alongside the best protein powder for weight loss, tracking macronutrients is a great way to take your nutrition goals to the next step, helping you to build muscle mass and/or lose weight.
But, there’s no denying that it can be more than a little confusing when you first get started. To help, we spoke to registered dietician Farah D. Khan to get the lowdown on how to track macros and the benefits of doing so.
“Tracking macros can provide people with a better comprehension of the composition of your diet,” says Khan. “It can help you see if the choices you are making are providing adequate or excess fat/carbohydrate/protein, and in many cases, it can help individuals with specific goals such as fat loss and muscle gain make better food choices.”
Tracking your macros is fairly easy once you get the hang of it and there are lots of tools out there to help you get started. Here’s your guide on how to do it.
What are macros?
Macros are what are known as the three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate and fat. “These are the major energy providing nutrients in our diet,” Khan explains. “The foods we eat can be categorized as protein, carbohydrate or fats — though many foods will contain two or more macronutrients.”
Proteins — from both animal and plant sources — serve a variety of important roles in our body. They are critical for growth, maintenance and repair of body structures such as tissues, bone, muscle, tendons and ligaments. They are also used to synthesize hormones, antibodies and enzymes, as well as transporting nutrients in our body and maintaining fluid balance. Protein contains four calories per gram.
Carbohydrates are predominantly used for fuel by our body and they are our main source of energy for everyday tasks as well as exercise. Carbohydrates contain four calories per gram.
Fats can be used for fuel and also have other important biological functions such as modulation of inflammation, hormone production, insulation, growth, cognitive health and development. Fat contains nine calories per gram.
How to track your macros
Tracking your macros is basically a process of keeping track of how much protein, carbohydrate and fat you consume each day. Here’s what you should know about how to do it.
1. Calculate your calorie needs
Before you can start counting macros, you need to figure out your daily calorie goal. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (opens in new tab) suggests that calorie needs for adult women range from 1,600 to 2,000 per day, with men having an estimated daily calorie range of between 2,000 to 3,200.
Your specific needs will depend on your activity level, weight, age and various other factors too and it can be useful to make your calorie goal more personal to achieve your goals.
To do this, you should figure out your resting energy expenditure (REE) and non-resting energy expenditure (NREE).
REE means the number of calories you burn while resting and NREE refers to the calories burned during activity and digestion. Research published in the journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (opens in new tab) found that adding your REE and NREE together will give you the total number of calories you burn in a day.
The full equation you need to work out the calories you burn per day is a little complicated, so it’s best to use an online calculator (opens in new tab). But for your reference, this is the calculation:
Men: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
Women: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161
From there, multiply your result by an activity factor – a number that represents different levels of activity:
Sedentary: x 1.2 (limited exercise)
Lightly active: x 1.375 (light exercise less than three days per week)
Moderately active: x 1.55 (moderate exercise most days of the week)
Very active: x 1.725 (hard exercise every day)
Extra active: x 1.9 (strenuous exercise two or more times per day)
To figure out how many calories you should aim to eat in a day, either add or subtract calories from your daily expenditure total, depending on what you’re aiming to achieve. For example, if you want to lose weight, you should subtract a small amount from your total daily expenditure or if you’re looking to build muscle you should add calories to the total.
2. Figure out your goals
Once you know your calorie goal, you can figure out your macros goal. Before you start tracking your macros, it’s useful to know why you’re doing it, particularly if you have a specific goal in mind like muscle gain or weight loss, so you can split your macros accordingly.
Many people split their macros by dedicating 40% to carbohydrates, 40% to protein and 20% to fat, but this formula is mostly geared towards muscle gain. If you’re not interested in building muscle, your protein goal might be lower and your fat or carbohydrate goal higher — it’s about learning what these macronutrients do for your body and which ones you need to consume more or less of to reach your goals.
3. Decide how to track your macros
“Many individuals will use an app to log their daily intake, and the app will provide a breakdown of the macronutrients provided in each food, and the total amount of each macronutrient consumed in a day,” Khan explains.
Apps like MyFitnessPal and LifeSum allow you to easily track your macros each day. But if you’d prefer, you can also just make a note of the macros in the food you’re eating in a journal. You’ll usually be able to find the nutritional information for food on its packet or if you’re eating out, on the restaurant’s website or menu.
What are the pros and cons of tracking macros?
Tracking macros isn’t for everyone — after all, it takes dedication. But many people feel that it’s worth it to help them reach their fitness and nutrition goals. Here are the pros and cons of tracking macros, according to Khan’s expertise.
- It can be an effective tool to increase awareness and understanding of food choices and the overall composition of your diet.
- It can help you to understand how much you need to eat in a day to achieve your goals for protein, carbs and fats, particularly if you are active and have goals of building muscle, reducing body fat, and/or improving performance.
- It can help some athletes eat enough calories, carbohydrate and protein to support their training.
- It can be time-consuming and tedious. However, many apps have built in tools by which you can streamline entries, and repeat prior meals.
- It does not always foster more nutritious choices. In some cases, individuals may simply eat certain foods to achieve their ‘macro goal’ for protein or carbohydrates, without considering the nutritional value and contribution of that food. For example, you could achieve your carbohydrate goals by eating sweets but that does not ensure adequate micronutrient or fiber intake and it also increases the amount of added sugar in the diet.
- Macro tracking does not always coincide or support listening to one’s hunger and satiety signals. This is a tricky area because it is important for us to honor our hunger and satiety signals, but athletes often have high nutrient and calorie demands and need to eat for performance. Hunger and satiety signals are also often thrown off due to training and they most often need to fuel according to their needs versus just relying on their hunger and satiety.
- In some cases, macro tracking is not recommended, particularly if an individual has a history of an eating disorder or disordered eating habits. For these individuals, macro tracking can become a practice in restriction again. But this is not to say that macro tracking causes eating disorders. We have to look at the intention behind it. If the desire to track comes from a place of restriction, then tracking is not appropriate. If the desire to track comes from a place of objective inquiry in which an individual wants to understand and improve the composition of their diet, then it can be an effective tool.
Alice Porter is a freelance journalist covering lifestyle topics including health, fitness and wellness. She is particularly interested in women's health, strength training and fitness trends and writes for publications including Stylist Magazine, Refinery29, The Independent and Glamour Magazine. Like many other people, Alice's personal interest in combining HIIT training with strength work quickly turned into a CrossFit obsession and she trains at a box in south London. When she's not throwing weights around or attempting handstand push-ups, you can probably find her on long walks in nature, buried in a book or hopping on a flight to just about anywhere it will take her.
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