Counting Macros 101: How to Track Food Intake
Authored by Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC
How to Track Your Macros: The Basics
Macronutrients, colloquially referred to as “macros” in the fitness world, are the energy-containing constituents of food and beverages that we consume. These include protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Technically, water and alcohol are also macronutrients despite the former providing no energy and the latter being nonessential.
The prefix “macro-” in the context of nutrition means we require relatively large amounts of these nutrients for proper health and function. On the contrary, micronutrients are nutrients that we only need in small quantities, such as vitamins and minerals. Hence, most people consume hundreds of grams of macronutrients daily and only a few milligrams or micrograms of the essential vitamins and minerals.
While both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential, macros play the most prominent role in weight loss and weight gain since they are the nutrients that determine your energy balance. As you may already know, energy balance (i.e. calories in vs. calories out) dictates changes in body weight and body fat .
Therefore, if you track your macros, you inherently count the number of calories you're eating. But what does counting macros entail? This guide will teach you all you need to know for proper macro counting and how it can help you reach your fitness goals.
How Many Calories Per Gram of Carbs, Fat, and Protein?
If you're new to the world of fitness and counting macros, the first thing to know is that carbs, fat, and protein all provide energy (i.e. calories). To reiterate, the balance between how many calories you consume and your total daily energy expenditure regulates body weight.
So, how many calories do carbohydrates, fat, and protein provide? Let's take a look:
- Protein contains four calories per gram
- Carbs contain four calories per gram
- Fat contains nine calories per gram
When you consume these macronutrients, the body metabolizes them using a range of digestive enzymes that split the chemical bonds within these nutrients apart. As the chemical bonds are separated, energy (read: calories) is released, which fuels the fundamental biological processes that maintain homeostasis .
For example, when you ingest 10 grams of carbs, the body derives a cumulative 40 calories once the carbs have been fully metabolized. A myriad of factors alters the rate at which nutrients are metabolized, but in general, a complete meal providing 500 calories will take several hours to fully assimilate .
Now that you have a better grasp of where the calories come from, let's get started with how to count macros!
Best Strategies for Counting Macros and Total Calorie Intake Per Day
Moderating and counting macros is a vital component of any weight-loss or muscle-building plan. Thanks to modern technology, it’s easier than ever to track your macros and keep tabs on how many calories you consume.
Simply log what you eat in a food-tracking app like MyFitnessPal or MyMacros+, and voila! You get a clear sense of calories in vs. calories out by entering your food intake throughout the day. Even better, you can log your activity level to see how many calories you're burning.
If you're new to counting macros with an app, don't fret — it's very straightforward.
Tracking Your Macros with an App
The first thing you need to know is that measuring portion sizes is the most precise way to count macros with a food-tracking app. Most foods are sold by weight, not volume. Thus, having a food scale will make the process a lot easier and more accurate.
For example, a typical portion of chicken breast is 4 ounces, which equates to roughly 113 grams. Over time, weighing the foods you eat will eventually allow you to eyeball portion sizes and make the macro-counting process a breeze.
Some foods you don't need to weigh, like Oreo cookies or a bag of chips. Instead, just follow the label portion size. If you eat five Oreos or a 1-oz bag of potato chips for a snack, enter that amount in a food-tracking app and it will tell you the macros and calories.
Liquids are generally sold by volume, so no need to weigh them. Just use a measuring cup if needed and log how much you drink (e.g. 12 fl. oz of skim milk for breakfast). You really only need to keep track of liquids you consume that contain calories, but knowing how much water you drink is useful as well.
Another key step is learning to read food labels so you understand what constitutes a normal portion (see label below).
Notice in the protein powder label above how 1 scoop (read: serving) is equal to 32.96 grams. Each serving provides 28 grams of protein, 1 gram of carbs, and 0 grams of fat. Now, let's say you measure out 43 grams of protein powder for your post-workout shake. How many grams of carbs, fat, and protein does that come out to?
Well, this is where the magic of a food-tracking app comes into play. By entering the portion size into the app and the macros per serving, it will automatically compute the macros for any amount that you eat. Virtually every consumer food product and many dietary supplements are already available in food-tracking app databases. Only on rare occasions will you have to enter the nutrition facts manually.
How to Count Macros Manually
Using an app to count macros is the ideal method, especially in the long-term. But if you'd rather track macros the old-fashioned way, there are two approaches: a food journal or spreadsheet software.
Counting macros by writing everything you eat down in a physical journal is obviously more time-consuming than using a food-tracking app since you have to tally up all the totals manually (or with a calculator). Using spreadsheet software can streamline the process if you're tech-savvy and understand how to use formulas for more efficient macro tracking.
Ultimately, it doesn't make much difference how you count macros so long as you keep track of them consistently.
How to Calculate Macros
There are no cookie-cutter "best macros" to follow. The amount of protein, carbs, and fat you should consume depends on how active you are and your health goals. However, it's safe to say that most people do best on a diet that has a balance of all macronutrients.
If you're adamant about following a very-low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet or the carnivore diet, that's fine. Just know that your macros will be skewed accordingly.
Optimal Protein Intake
Dietary protein is nature's predominant source of amino acids. In the body, proteins and amino acids are involved in a number of essential physiological processes such as turnover of organ tissue, neurotransmitter production, immune response, transport of nutrients and hormones throughout the body, and many others . Therefore, consuming adequate protein is critical not only for reaching your weight-loss goals but also for overall health.
Common sources of protein include:
- Legumes and soy
- Protein powder
The current recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.36 g per pound per day . However, the RDA is the amount of protein required to support healthy tissue turnover in sedentary adults. It is not the same as the amount necessary to optimize muscle repair and growth in a resistance-trained athlete or active individual trying to lose weight.
If you're a regular gym-goer with 160 lbs of lean body mass, chances are 60 to 70 grams of protein per day (i.e. the RDA) is not gonna cut it if you want to build muscle. In fact, a recent literature review on nutrition for natural bodybuilders recommends a daily protein intake of 1.0 – 1.4 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass when preparing for a contest .
Further research has shown that individuals consuming 1.2 – 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily in conjunction with regular resistance training for an entire year experienced no adverse health effects or negative changes in biomarkers . There is currently no strong evidence that a high-protein diet is harmful for otherwise healthy adults.
Still, it's not wise to go overboard on protein. Eating superfluous amounts of protein will cut into the number of calories left for carbohydrates and fat. Your eating plan should include enough protein to help preserve muscle tissue in a calorie deficit or build muscle in a calorie surplus. This appears to be between 0.8 – 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight for most active individuals.
Good Fats vs. Bad Fats
Like protein, fat is an essential macronutrient that plays numerous roles in the body, including:
- Making up a large portion of cell membranes and myelin sheath around nerves
- Long-term energy storage
- Insulating the body
- Thermogenesis (heat production)
- Hormone synthesis (particularly steroid hormones and adipokines like leptin)
- Helping the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins
Contrary to conventional wisdom in the mid-to-late 20th century, low-fat diets are not necessarily ideal for weight loss. While fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient at nine calories per gram, it's also highly satiating. As such, eating 10 grams of fat will generally be more filling than eating 20-25 grams of sugar.
It's important to consume a variety of saturated and unsaturated fats every day from food sources such as:
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
- Fatty fish (e.g. salmon)
- Grass-fed meat
- Egg yolks
Monounsaturated fatty acids in avocado, almonds, and olive oil are typically considered "healthy fats" since they have demonstrable benefits on cardiovascular function . However, you still need saturated fats from foods like coconut, animal meat, and butter, as well as polyunsaturated fats found in fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, peanuts, and walnuts. The main fats to avoid are the synthetic trans-fats commonly found in fried foods and vegetable shortening; these are notorious for clogging arteries and increasing cholesterol levels over time .
While your fat macros will vary according to your specific diet plan, a minimum fat intake of 20-30% of calories is advised to support proper endocrine function and overall well-being . In general, fat intake below 15% of calories is very low and shouldn't be followed regularly.
Carbohydrates: Not "Essential," But Still Important
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for muscle cells when lifting weights and during other high-intensity workouts, like running sprints. The carbohydrates in food are categorized as either complex carbs (e.g. starch) or simple carbs (e.g. table sugar, dextrose, and fructose).
Common sources of complex carbs include:
- Green vegetables
Simple carbs are found in sugary foods and drinks, like fruit juice, ice cream, and candy.
When you count macros, you don't have to be too picky about the exact types of carbs you're eating, but complex carbs should make up the majority (i.e. 85% or more) of your carb intake. The main thing is to avoid excessive amounts of added sugars.
Carbs are stored in muscle as glycogen, which is used for energy during workouts. Moreover, carbs help spare muscle tissue and reduce amino-acid oxidation during exercise .
Thus, a very-low-carb diet, like the ketogenic diet, isn't necessarily ideal for preserving lean body mass when calorie intake is low. This is not to say that eating hundreds of grams of carbs per day is better; there is a balance to find when it comes to how many carbs you should eat.
As an easy approach to calculate carb intake, let carbohydrates make up the remainder of your calorie goal once protein and fat are accounted for. Since carbs are the "least" essential macronutrient, it makes sense to leave them as diet "fillers," so to speak.
For example, if you consume 2,000 calories per day with 800 calories from protein and 600 calories from fat, then you will "fill in" the remaining 600 calories from carbs. Since carbs contain four calories per gram, that comes out to 150 grams of carbs per day.
Fiber Counts Towards Your Macros!
Fibers are digestion-resistant carbohydrates that are fermented to short-chain fatty acids by bacteria in the large intestine. As such, fibers only contain about 2 calories per gram since they are not fully digested by our innate digestive enzymes .
For those trying to lose weight, fiber is a godsend to increase satiety even when calorie intake is low. Therefore, consuming ample amounts of fiber will make your weight-loss plan quite a bit more bearable during the latter stages.
If you're a male looking to get very lean, as in under 8% body fat, you will inevitably face periods of hunger due to chronic calorie restriction. Being strategic about your fiber intake and other filling foods is critical to help stave off hunger pains. However, don't get too carried away as excessive fiber in the diet will likely create gastrointestinal distress and bloating.
As a rule of thumb, aim for about 10–15 g of fiber per 1,000 calories in the diet. If you're adamant about following a very-low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet or carnivore diet, chances are your fiber intake will be quite a bit lower than a more moderate approach. The compensatory increase in fat, however, generally makes up for the satiating effects of fiber.
Should You Track Macros?
You might be wondering if tracking macros is necessary. Well, it depends. Many people don't count macros and they do just fine. There's no reason you can't reach your fitness goals without counting macros. If you are capable of eating "intuitively" without detriment to your body composition and well-being, by all means, do it.
For others, counting macros is definitely helpful. If you're struggling to lose weight and pack on muscle mass, your best bet is to start tracking macros. You don’t want to play the guessing game or just assume that you’re eating the right amount without concrete proof.
All the time spent in the kitchen and gym starts to add up if you're willing to take 5 to 10 minutes a day logging your food intake.
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