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How to Track Your Macros

 

There are many ways of managing energy balance, pretty much every dietary intervention works on the basic principle of controlling the Calories in portion of 24-hour energy balance. A diet that cuts out entire food groups like plant-based, that cuts out meat and fish. Carnivore, that cuts out fruits and vegetables. Keto and low carb which cut out carbohydrate foods, intermittent fasting that cuts out all food for periods of time and so on. They all do one thing, they reduce the amount of Calories you consume. But, in health and fitness you will often hear phrases like: 'eat a balanced diet' or 'everything in moderation'. But what do those statements really mean?

This blog sets out to give you one method of creating a 'balanced' approach to eating. It is only one methods and that means that it may suit some people but not suit others. This will depend on a number of factors like, your relationship with food, your understanding of the composition of food, your time availability, your compulsive desire to put the effort in and so on. 

What is this method? It's the macronutrient diet often referred to simply as 'tracking macros'.

Pros and Cons

Tracking macros is by far the most accurate way of managing the food and, consequently, the Calories you consume. But like every form of diet control, it has its pros and cons. Yes, it's the most accurate way of tracking your diet, but it can also be extremely time-consuming and feel very restrictive. Some people are very conscientious and like to meticulously manage every detail in their life. These are the kinds of people who love making spreadsheets and lists, who spend a long time checking, double and even triple checking their work, trying to nail every detail. These people will likely feel empowered by weighing and recording everything they eat. In fact, to some it has the effect of 'gamifying their diet, giving them targets to hit and comparisons to make. 

But other people who are less conscientious can be made to feel anxious and restricted by such meticulous attention to detail. These people are most likely more creative and open minded, probably enjoy freestyling or improvising their work, rather than planning every fine detail and either cannot or will not follow a recipe and, instead, just cook whatever is at hand. If this sounds like you then tracking macros might not work for you, you'll likely rebel against it and end up self-sabotaging.

 

Calories

Personally, I rarely prescribe a macronutrient diet because it just isn't necessary for most people. If you are trying to manage your body composition in some way, it's a good idea to track Calories for a week or two to get a feel for the energy value of the foods you eat. I usually have clients tracking Calories and protein for a while and then have them transition to a more intuitive or mindful way of eating. But there is one population who benefit from a macro diet and that is sporting populations, people with very specific performance goals. Athletes may need to be stricter with this approach due to the increased importance of eating adequate Calories, protein, carbs and also the need for nutrient timing to improve performance and recovery.

But most people have no idea how to track Calories or macros and apps like MyFitnessPal, although good for tracking when you know what you're doing, don't teach you how to do it correctly. First of all, never use percentages. That's too changeable. Your macros should be set using grams per kilogram of bodyweight, not a percentage of energy intake. Also, there are two different styles of macro diet. More on that in a bit, but first.... you need to work out your Calories. I wrote this blog a while back that explains the basics but here's a recap.

Start by working out your Calories. A basic equation like this is an adequate starting point, but you will need to tweak this over the coming weeks:

Your bodyweight in KG multiplied by 24 for a male or 22 for a female.

Example a 75kg: 75 x 24 = 1,800. This is the resting metabolic rate, all the Calories needed to perform the most basic physical functions.

Add a physical activity multiplier:

Activity Level

PAR

Example

 Sedentary:

 x1.1-1.3

 

Little exercise, low step count. Desk job

 

 Moderate:

 x1.5-1.6

 

2-4 workouts per week, 8k+ steps. Active work

 

 Active:

 x1.7-1.9

 

5 workouts per week, 12k+ steps. Manual labour

 

 Very active:

 x2+      .

 

Athlete.

 

 

Example 1,800 x1.5 = 2,700kcals per day for maintenance. This is an estimate and it will take a couple of weeks to tweak this until it's about right. Alternatively, if you are experienced with tracking, eat to maintenance for a week, total up your Calories and then divide by 7 to get a daily average. Of course, you may choose to have high and low Calorie days based on training volumes on those days, but that's another post for another day.

 

Macros

 Setting macros, as I said, needs to be done using grams per kg of body mass because it's more consistent. Ranges are as follows:

  • Protein 1.6-2.2g/kg (the higher amounts are more for bodybuilders)
  • Fats: 0.5-1.5g/kg or at least 20% of total Calories
  • Carbs: 3-5g/kg or 5-10g/kg for athletes. Or remainder of Calories.

As mentioned above there are two ways to work out your macros. One is ideal for body composition and one is ideal for sports performance. The difference being the prioritisation of carbohydrates for athletes.

Body Comp:

Calories  - Protein – Fats – Carbs. 

This prioritises protein for the maintenance of lean body mass and ensures a healthy balance of fatty acids to maintain hormone health and satiety. Carbs are the least important macronutrient for body composition, but still play a role in exercise performance and recovery.

Macros are set using grams per kg of body weight. If you are overweight and dieting down then use your target weight as a rough surrogate when setting protein.

Body Composition Example:

Adisa is a 95kg woman aiming to lose 15kg of body fat. She currently does three full body strength sessions per week and averages around 8k steps per day.  Her maintenance Calories are 2,970 but as she is aiming to lose fat, she is reducing that by about 20%. Therefore, her macros will look like this:

Kcals: 2,370

Pro 1.6 x target weight (80kg): 128g (512kcals)

Fats 0.8g/kg: 64g (576kcals)

Carbs (remaining kcals) 2,370 – 1,088 = 1,282kcals /4 = 320g

Adisa likes her carbs so she chose a moderate fat intake to allow for more flexibility in her diet. You might choose something different.

Adisa’s macros are: P: 128 F: 64 C: 320

Sports:

Calories – Protein – Carbs – fats.

Here, protein is still the priority and protein always remains consistent day-in-day-out. But now we place an emphasis on carbs because exercise burns glycogen and with low carbohydrate diets it's much harder to perform at even moderate levels of intensity. 

Sports Example:

Lorenzo is an 85kg triathlete who trains for 12-15 hours per week. His macros look like this.

Kcals*: 4,000

Protein 1.8 x 85 = 153g (612kcals)

Carbs 8 x 85 = 510g (2,040kcals)

Fats remaining kcals: 4,000 – 2,652 = 1,348 /9 = 149g

Lorenzo’s macros are: P: 153 C: 510 F: 149

*arbitrary number

Both individuals should aim for at least 30-40g of fibre as part of their carbs, which should be easy if they are eating a mostly whole foods diet and the majority of their carbs come from starches like wholegrains and root veg.

This is a basic starting point; you will need to weigh and track your food and aim to be within around 10g either side of each macro and 200kcals either side of target Calories.

Athletes may need to use some timing principles to enhance performance and recovery. As a general rule, save some carbs for before and during sessions and aim to eat a protein meal within an hour of training. For more on the concept of metabolic flexibility read this blog

Like I said right at the start, strict macro tracking is one method you might use. It’s the most accurate approach but is also quite restrictive and time consuming. Adherence is the most important thing so if you struggle to adhere you will need to use a different, simpler approach. It's also really important to understand the composition of food because most people have no idea what 153g of protein looks like in terms of food and meals on a plate. You will need to pay attention to the info you insert in your app and you will need to read food labels. This means that you have to take it on yourself to pay attention. Most people can't be arsed with this, so tracking macros would be a bad idea for them.

It’s worth noting that when tested almost everyone overestimates their activity and underestimates their Calorie intake. If you don’t get the results, you want and there are no medical reasons that might affect your metabolism, the chances are that you have either done your maths wrong or are misreporting your food and activity. It takes practice. Or, stop pissing in the wind and hire a coach who can help you to get it right, yes, even if you are an athlete and you're saving for a new Apple watch, a coach will be a far worthier investment.

 

Coach Troy

 

References:

  1. Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2014;11:7. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-7.
  2. Kreider et al (2010) ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations
  3. Aragon, A.A., Schoenfeld, B.J., Wildman, R. et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 16 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y
  4. Potgieter S.  A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American College of Sport Nutrition, the International Olympic Committee and the International Society for Sports Nutrition. S Afr J Clin Nutr 2013;26(1):6-16

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