Don't feel overwhelmed; counting macros is as easy as playing a game of Tetris with a little math thrown in. If you don't even know what macros are in the first place, they are the energy-giving components of your diet: fat, carbs & protein.
*Insert obligatory snide remark about alcohol also being a macro. Use your imagination. Just know I don't advocate using whiskey to "hit your macros."*
When structuring an effective diet, you should always been keenly aware of how much energy you will be taking in over the course of a week that will be permissive to your goals. This is always my primary consideration when it comes to programming diets for my clients. When you know this calorie total, you can cycle your calories & allot more energy to days where you train in order to benefit performance.
When you come to the point of knowing how many calories you'll be taking in each day, you can effectively prescribe macronutrients in the context of this "energy allowance." There are other factors that determine effective macro targets, such as body weight, body composition & dietary preferences, but I can't give specific recommendations in a blog post, so let's just focus on the counting aspect for the time being.
For reference, each gram of protein or carbohydrate is worth roughly 4 calories, while each gram of fat is worth roughly 9 calories. All this means in that fat is more dense in energy on a gram per gram basis; it says nothing about how "inherently fattening" dietary fat is. This is where a lot of people get the idea that fat is evil, but before I go on a rant... I digress.
Simple arithmetic can show you exactly how the amount of fat, carbs & protein you eat translates to calories, and how this can fill up your "allowance" across a given day.
As a brief side note: prescribing macro targets isn't the only way to go about creating an effective diet. Some people can succeed greatly on what's known as an Ad Libitum (as much as you'd like) style of dieting, provided that they're strict with their food selection, are in tune with their hunger cues & have a lot of experience with dieting. Unfortunately, not many people fit that description, which is why macro prescriptions are the most practically effective way to deliver most anyone to their physique goals in an optimal manner.
A another brief side note: if maximal progress is your real goal, then this allowance should be split up across the day in a specific number of meals that you can eat at roughly the same time each day. This has major implications for your Circadian Rhythm (no, I'm not done preaching about that yet). You should also take care to split your allowance effectively, specifically around your workouts, in order to get the best results. But both of those topics are beyond the scope of this post, so again... I digress.
Before we get any further, let me be clear: you should be spending this allowance on whole, unprocessed foods, and starting the building process of each meal with a protein source & a vegetable. The benefits of consuming whole foods vs. processed foods is undeniable. By eating protein-rich, fibrous foods, you can theoretically boost your metabolism by 15%. In this post, I said having more muscle was like "Free Cardio." The same can be said about eating whole foods.
The benefits don't stop there: whole foods are infinitely more satiating. Eat 200 calories worth of broccoli and compare that to how you feel by drinking the same amount of calories from soda and tell me I'm wrong. Whole foods can also boost your protein synthesis more effectively than even the most "advanced" protein powder on the market.
*Pushes up nerdy looking glasses with index finger*
As stated in the 6th Edition of Advanced Nutrition & Human Metabolism, "...nitrogen assimilation following ingestion of protein-containing foods is superior to that following ingestion of free amino acids." Greater net nitrogen accumulation is a proxy (stand-in) for muscle growth.
All of that sounds well & good, but where's the "fun" in this type of diet?
The idea that you won't derive any pleasure from a diet chock full of whole foods is wrong, because you can basically deliberately program your dietary preferences & what foods you enjoy based on your food choices. The most effective way to get rid of a food craving is to starve it. The most effective way to create a new craving is to continually feed it.
Your appetite & enjoyment of specific foods adjusts to your food choices within a matter of days. This is why many people who try a low carb diet for a few weeks can try to go back to their regular diet for a day and find something as mundane as an orange to be incredibly sweet. Use this to your advantage.
Back to the point of actually counting macros: There are two ways to find out how much a food "costs" in the fat, carb & protein department (fiber too, but fiber also doesn't contribute any calories, so there isn't a cap on this value. Just make sure you're getting more than 38 grams per day if you're a male or more than 25 grams per day if you're a female):
In order to know precisely how many servings of a certain food you're using, and therefore the accurate amount of each macronutrient you're about to eat, you're going to need to invest in some measuring equipment. A few measuring spoons/cups & a digital scale should do the trick, as you're going to want to weigh most foods in order to get the most accurate results.
Another added bonus for foods with nutrition panels: these foods often also have barcodes on them; one of the greatest features of the popular macro tracking app My Fitness Pal is the ability to scan barcodes to automatically add macros to meals in seconds. This is another nifty tool I use with all of my clients, although any type of physical tracking (pen & paper, apps, spreadsheets, etc.) will all help to hold you accountable and serve as tangible reminders of your actions. If you're on MFP, friend me! (joeflah13)
Just make sure the data that pops up on the screen matches what's on your fact panel. You'd be surprised how often they don't match. Also, make sure that you're selecting the right number of servings that reflect what you're using at a given meal.
2. Nutrition Databases: These are what you use when a food doesn't have a fact panel. You can use Google or My Fitness Pal itself to search for nutrition info, but I prefer the USDA Food Database for the highest level of accuracy. You can do a food search on that site for nearly everything in existence, so it makes finding the nutrition facts for things like fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds & meats very convenient.
Below is an example of what you'd find if you searched "bananas." Note how it lists the values for the edible portion of the food, so you'd be weighing this food after it's already peeled. Also note that you can input custom values to calculate the macros automatically; if you wanted to know the macros in 300 grams of bananas instead of just 100 grams, you'd type the number "3" in the box above "Value Per 100 g" and it would give you everything you need:
Once you know where to look, you know where to find the puzzle pieces. The macro totals for each meal will dictate how many of those pieces you can use to fit together & create the full puzzle.
My Fitness Pal will try to set macro goals for you; you don't have to listen to it. You can one-up the automated data by using a macro calculator (like this one) or hiring a coach.
"Could you show me an example?"
As an example, say one of my meals looks like this:
25 grams of fat, 35 grams of carbs & 40 grams of protein.
Since the nutrition panel for eggs is already on this page, I can decide to use four eggs as my protein source. That equates to 16 g fat & 24 g protein with no carbs or fiber. This is assuming you hard boil your eggs (which takes 10 minutes and they last for up to 5 days).
The next step would be to find a vegetable to make sure I'm working toward my fiber goal. My go-to option here is the steamer vegetable bags that cost roughly a dollar and take 5-8 minutes to cook. By now, I know the nutrition fact panel of my steamer broccoli by heart:
4 servings per bag, with 0 g fat, 4 g total carbs, 2 g fiber & 2 g protein per serving.
First, since I eat the whole bag (and recommend you do the same, it's honestly not that much food in those small bags), you multiply all of the "per serving" values by 4:
4 g total carbs x 4 = 16 g total carbs.
2 g fiber x 4 = 8 g fiber.
2 g protein x 4 = 8 g protein.
One last step: subtract the fiber from total carbs to get net carbs (the number I prescribe you is net carbs, not total).
16 g total - 8 g fiber = 8 g net carbs.
Now we add those totals to our meal: so far, 4 eggs + steamed broccoli = 16 g fat, 8 g net carb, 8 g fiber, 32 g protein.
I often pair cheddar cheese (the real stuff, not the rubbery Kraft Singles) with eggs, so I'll do the same here. I've also memorized the nutrition label for the cheese I always get, Kerry Gold Aged Cheddar (it's grass-fed, and it's awesome):
1 serving of cheddar cheese (28 grams) = 9 g fat, 0 g total carbs, 7 g protein.
Here's where a scale comes in handy.
After the cheese, we're up to 25 g fat, 8 g net carb, 8 g fiber & 37 g protein. No fat remaining, with 27 g of net carbs & 3 grams of protein to account for. Going in this order, protein to fiber to fat to carbs, mirrors the priorities of your diet & ensures you have the most important pieces in place first.
Over time, you're going to become more accustomed to projecting what foods will fill the rest of your macros. Case in point: 27 g net carbs & 3 g protein are very similar to what you would find in fruit. Since the database search for bananas is already on this page as well, let's use bananas. We simply need to figure out how many grams of bananas = 27 g net carbs.
On the USDA Database, total carbs are listed as "carbohydrate, by difference." So you have to remove fiber on your own here, too. That means for every 100 g of bananas you have, there are 20 grams of net carbs & 3 grams of fiber (reference the above photo, and yes, I'm rounding up to the nearest whole number).
Just a little bit more simple math tells us what we need to know: if 100 g of bananas = 20 g net carbs, then 5 g of bananas = 1 g net carbs. All I did to find that was divide each value by 20, the lowest common denominator. We need 27 g net carbs to fill out our meal; an equivalent amount of bananas would therefore be 5 x 27 = 135 g bananas. Now we put 1.35 in the "Value Per 100 g" calculator on the USDA Database & get our total macros:
0 g fat, 27 g net carbs, 4 g fiber & 2 g protein.
Voila. When you add this to the rest of the meal, we've nearly nailed every single macro target. We came a single gram short on protein, which you can easily make up at your next meal. We also picked up 12 grams of fiber in this meal.
You simply repeat this process for every meal. This is why a short rotation of "go-to" whole foods is much easier on a practical level as well as a physiological level; you commit the macros to memory and can manipulate them with ease across meals.
I also want you guys to notice something about the meal itself: it's not "flashy." It doesn't have a "theme." It's not a "gourmet dish." And that's perfectly okay. Huge meals & secret family recipes are great for large get-togethers once in a while, but they make day-to-day life much harder if your true goal is improving your body & your health. You relieve the burden of having to prep full meals for hours at a time & having no clue what's in the dish (often in regards to both ingredients & macros).
Speaking of "meal prep," this doesn't have to be a huge undertaking. I personally batch-cook a few pounds of meat the same day I go shopping & divide the portions up into containers so I have protein sources handy for each meal. Steamer bags of vegetables cook in under 10 minutes. Fresh fruit, nuts & full-day dairy require no cooking time. And it takes all of 12 minutes to hard boil a dozen eggs & have them for the week. When you play your cards right, you'll be spending less than 30 minutes in the kitchen a day. So when someone tells you "bro, my meal prep takes forever," they're clearly doing it wrong.
By measuring & tracking macros, you're adding another element of control to your life. You're making a conscious choice to improve yourself on your fitness journey; have your actions support that.
- Use My Fitness Pal for quick & easy tracking (be aware that this app also doesn't subtract fiber from total carbs, & the database info is often wrong).
- Use the bar code scanner & the USDA Database to find your true macros per meal.
- Using a scale is going to give you the most precision.
- Filling your macros is as simple as a game of Tetris.
- Prepping food for the week can take as little as 30 minutes a day.
The techniques, strategies, and suggestions expressed in this website are intended to be used for educational and entertainment purposes only. The author is not rendering medical advice of any kind, nor is this website intended to replace medical advice, nor to diagnose, prescribe or treat any disease, condition, illness or injury.