Grenade Nutritionist, Alex Beaumont, has written a beginner's guide to counting macros in food for weight loss, looking at what macros are, how to calculate them and the best ways to track them.
The most common question I get asked when people find out what I do is, "What should my macros be?" The answer is the same for every single person: "It depends".
Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all split but, you can use the tips below to take the stress and confusion away from counting macros, whether it's for fat loss, muscle gain, or performance.
What are Macros in Food?
Macronutrients or 'Macros' are a group of nutrients found in food that give us energy. The three macronutrients are; Protein, Carbohydrates & Fat. No matter what training plan, lifestyle or diet you have, all three are essential in our diets for a healthy, happy life.
What Macros Do I Need?
Ok, let's start from the top with protein. Most of us are aware of protein and its importance in the diet. Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of all tissues in your body, including muscles, nails, hair, and more! Without adequate amounts, your tissues will not grow correctly and this can cause health complications. Added to this, protein rich foods are very satiating and can help to fill you up, which is crucial when keeping to a calorie-controlled diet. You can read more about why protein is important here.
Next, we're moving onto fat. Since the 60's people have blamed fat found in foods for the fat around the middle, causing a mass shift in food labels, culture and diets. In excess, too much fat will of course make you put on weight, however, fat is essential in the diet and shouldn't be feared.
Fat can help improve blood cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation, and is vital in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K). People who decide to purposefully increase their dietary fat will also likely find their hunger levels are reduced, consequently stopping unnecessary snacking. As I mentioned earlier, too much fat can be detrimental and munching on nothing but bacon, avocados, and butter washed down with a bulletproof coffee is not going to help reach your goals.
Carbohydrates are not the enemy. How many times have you heard the saying “No Carbs before Marbs”? Made famous by a ‘not so scientific’ reality TV show, the saying suggests cutting out carbohydrates is the key to a shredded lifestyle. Unfortunately, this isn’t how the body works, and if you cut carbs out of your diet you will start to notice cravings, headaches and a huge lack of energy (doesn’t sound ideal for a lean lifestyle, right?).
Any exercise between 30 seconds and a few hours will use carbohydrates as its main fuel source. If you’re stuck on portion control, aim to use this “handy” guide for preparing meals:
Limiting Calories (looking to lose body fat) – 1 cupped handful of carbs
Increasing Calories (looking to gain muscle mass)– 2 cupped handful of carbs
Read more about why carbohydrates are a vital part of your diet in our blog the benefits of carbohydrates.
How To Calculate Macros?
As I said right at the start, working out your macronutrients depends. It depends on several factors, including your age, height, weight, activity level, goals, and arguably the most important factor, what you like to eat!
The first thing you need to work out is how many calories you need per day. This will depend on your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which is how many calories your body needs to stay alive (and it's probably more than you think).
Once you have this number, multiply this by the appropriate activity factor below and that is your maintenance calorie intake per day.
The final piece of the calorie puzzle is your goal. If you are looking to lose body fat, aim to consume 500 calories below your maintenance calories intake. Likewise, if you are aiming to build muscle mass, aim to consume an extra 500 calories on top of your maintenance.
Next up, protein. Government guidelines suggest a minimum of 0.75g of protein for each kilogram you weigh, although nutrition experts have suggested this is on the lower end, especially if you are active and take part in regular exercise. Recommendations of between 1.4-1.6g of protein per kilogram of body weight is widely accepted and some studies suggest upping it to 2.2g per kg, which would equate to 176g of protein per day for an 80kg man. I would recommend between 1.4-2g per kg, with the higher end being those that take part in intense physical activity or are looking to increase lean muscle mass/reduce body fat. All you need to do is multiply your body weight in KG by a number in that range, for example:
75kg (bodyweight) x 1.6 = 120g of protein per day
Once you have both your total calorie intake & your target grams of protein for the day, all that’s left is your carbohydrates and fat. Now, this is where it becomes more of a sliding scale rather than a set recommendation. If you like foods rich in carbohydrates like bread, pasta and rice then have more of these so you don’t feel so restricted. Likewise, if you prefer a smoked salmon and avocado brunch then allow more fat and less carbohydrates that day.
You should think of this as a guide and not a bible. If you are training 3 x a week, you should increase carbohydrates around these workouts. Likewise, if you have got a few rest days lined up then higher carbohydrate intake isn’t as necessary, so opt for higher fat foods with protein to keep you feeling full, while your activity levels are lower.
How To Track Macros?
If you are just starting out, weighing out every meal you consume is both difficult and unnecessary. It's important to understand the nutritional profile of the foods you eat, but a more sustainable starting point would be to understand the foods you eat first, then work towards understanding specific macronutrients after.
Depending on how tech savvy you are, there are a few dependable tactics to use:
My Fitness Pal – A really handy app that lets you input your macronutrient target and track through a huge database of foods and products so that you have to do as little work as possible. You can even scan the barcodes with your phone!
Snap ‘n’ Send – A group of nutritionists working with elite sports teams have developed an idea of using your phone camera to track your food intake. All you need to do is take a picture of everything you eat throughout the day, and when you get a spare 20 minutes use a portion guide app or book like “Carbs & Cals” to work out your daily intake. If you are really productive, do it as you go! Unfortunately for the non-elite sportsmen & women amongst us, the ‘send’ part of this only works if you have a willing macro counting buddy to work it out for you.
Food Journal – Finally, and my go-to for tracking my food intake, is the trusty pen and paper. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was right when he said “the pen is mightier than the sword” not that it has much relevance to macro tracking.
The attraction for me is that you can do it in any way that suits you. I draw each meal I eat in a journal and write the macros on the plate so I can visualise and analyse my food habits. Other ways could include writing down all macros in a table or scribbling down what you ate so you can work it out later.
All of these techniques have their place and it really boils down to what works for you. The apps mentioned are all available on the App store and they make life easier for those on the move with little time. A little notepad to keep track is the simplest and most straight forward way to track for you. In addition, we post macros to all our tasty recipes on our blog. You can check out this delicious Chilli Prawn Pasta recipe here.
A Summary of Macronutrients
(1) All macronutrients are needed for a happy and healthy life – balance is key and a wide-ranging diet will always trump a restricted one
(2) Working out your macros should be done in the following order:
(3) Find out the best way for you, no one way is perfect & a patient trial and error method will benefit you in the long run rather than a strict protocol
(4) Finally, enjoy your food. I can’t stress this enough that food should be enjoyed & not feared – find a way that works for you and don’t obsess over the numbers!