There has been some buzz, and INCREDIBLE results, around the idea of counting macronutrients or #macros for weight loss or to gain lean muscle. Actually, if you do a quick google search for macros, you might find that the search results pop up with terms like “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM), “flexible dieting”, or “macro counting” with pictures of some very ripped guys and gals. So what are macros and why is it important for you to know about them?
Macronutrients are simply the three building blocks of our diet: carbohydrate, protein, and fat. These are the three types of calories, or energy, contained in all food (we can talk about calories from alcohol another day). In the fitness world, people refer to these building blocks as "macros". When you look at a nutrition label and see calories of protein or fat, you're looking at that food's macros. Comparatively, micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (plant nutrients) in our food. These are equally important to consider for good health and living optimally. For now let’s focus on how adjusting your macros can help you get SHREDDED! (Toned, lean, ripped, whatever you prefer).
The lovely world of sports science has been able to give us very specific formulas to calculate how many grams of protein, carbs, and fat we need based on how active we are and what our goals might be. The optimal macronutrient amounts will be different for someone trying to lose weight than for someone trying to gain muscle, for example. This goes beyond just counting calories.
Nutrition science has now given us a way to know the types of calories that help us get leaner, have better health, become stronger, and recover faster. Additionally, we can know when the best time is to eat those calories. In other words, nutrient density, quality, and timing can be manipulated in our favor. In fact, if you have ever been on myfitnesspal and put in your goal and activity level, you might have noticed that the app generates macronutrient and calorie recommendations for you. The same is true for IIFYM (a web-based macro calculator). Listed below are the same formulas that these websites and apps use to create macro plans for their clients.
We need to know how many total calories to take in before we can decide on what ratio of protein, carbs, and fat those calories should be. Don’t worry, we are getting to YOUR numbers in a second.
The energy/calories we need is based on our:
1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
2. Thermic Effect of Feeding (TEF)
3. Exercise Activity
4. Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
No need to get overwhelmed here. Basically, this is the amount of energy our bodies need to function and move, plus the energy it takes to digest food. Yes, it takes some calories to digest calories. Protein requires the most work to assimilate, which is why one might get “meat sweats” after eating a big hunk of steak! However, don’t run out and eat only protein thinking it will make you burn enough calories to be skinnier, as it is not that big of an effect.
Step 1: Determine Calorie Needs
I know, ew, Math!
Example 1: A 140lb, moderately active woman interested in fat loss would begin by taking in 1680 (140 lb x 12) and 1960 (140lb x 14) kcal/calories per day.
For the record, kcal or kilocalorie is the appropriate abbreviation here, but we use cal or calories on the labels in the U.S., so that is what I will use to keep things familiar.
Example 2: A 190 lb, moderately active man interested in muscle mass gain would begin by taking in between 3420 (190lb x 18) and 3800 (190lb x 20) calories per day.
Step 2: Determine Macronutrient Split
Once we know how many total calories we need in a day, we can start to break down that number into percentages of protein, carbs, and fat. Again, this is based on how much we move, our weight, our gender, our age, our goals, and of course genetics or body-type.
Before you get too excited here, these are just general somatotype or body type recommendations. You might fall somewhere in the middle and that is just fine. Or you might just be looking to get healthier, in which case you're good to go with the middle block. You can use these percentages as a base for a trial period of one month. If you start moving in the direction of your goal and feel good, you’re golden. If you’re low energy or not seeing any results, then you can change the percentages slightly and try again. Increase or decrease by 5% and see how you feel. Since everyone's bodies are so unique (which is a big part of why cookie-cutter diets don't work for everyone), it's a great idea to treat this as an experiment!
So let’s put this together in an our example from before:
Example 1: 140lb moderately active woman
Step 1: Determine body type and goals: she is naturally broad and thick and wants to lose fat.
Step 2: Calculate her specific energy/calorie needs: 1680 and 1960 cals/day (average = 1750 cals/day).
Step 3: Identify macro ratio from the chart above: 35% protein, 25% carbohydrate, 40% fat.
Step 4: Convert to grams of macros from percentages:
- 35% of 1750 cals/day = 612 cals should come from protein
- 25% of 1750 cals/day = 437 cals should come from carbs
- 40% of 1750 cals/day = 700 cals should come from fat
Translated in grams this looks like:
-153 g of protein(612 calories/4 calories per gram of protein)
-109 g of carbs (437/4 calories per gram of carbohydrates)
- 77g of fat (700/9 calories per gram of fat)
So there you have it! Macros! This woman will need to eat the following macros per day to get to her weight loss goal:
153 g of protein
109 g of carbs
77 g of fat
Yes, there are calculators for this, but be careful that the macro splits provided are for YOUR body-type and goal.
The PROS of Counting Macros
- You know the specific amounts of protein, carbs, and fat for your goal, making the process of getting to your goal potentially faster and more efficient than simply guessing.
- You will likely have better recovery from your workouts and energy throughout your day (if you’re eating foods that are also high in micronutrients. This is a post for another day).
- You get to see your body change in ways you never thought possible potentially resulting in more instagram followers from the awesome pictures of your quads and abs you’ll be posting (As an aside, I’m in the process of writing another blog post on how “comparison kills the spirit” in regards to social media).
- It gives you more freedom and flexibility to choose the foods that you LIKE to eat, instead of a fixed meal plan
The CONS of Counting Macros
- It requires time, effort and energy for meal prep, planning, weighing, and measuring to be done perfectly
- You will still need to record your food intake in an app or website like myfitnesspal to know your macro count
- It encourages eating foods with labels (often the least healthy for us) because the grams of protein, carbs, and fat are easy to find. Side note: you can find all your produce and bulk goods in myfitnesspal, I promise.
- It doesn’t focus on the quality of foods, which could potentially lead to worse health (Twinkie diet, anyone?)
- Knowing your macros doesn't mean you know when to eat them (i.e.- Should I have carbs or protein after my workout? How many grams of each? What about for each meal?)
- It fails to address one’s habits around eating, like listening to natural hunger cues, and the relationship one has with food
All in all, macro counting can be a great method for getting to your body composition goal. For those that want to give it a shot and need some more assistance, please feel free to connect with me!
So, Is there another way to get fit, lean, and healthy without counting macros?
After trying out the macro counting/flexible dieting with some of my very willing and ambitious clients, and of course with myself first, I realized that it wasn't for everyone. Additionally, it was tough to try to teach nutrition in this way because it didn't address individual behaviors, patterns, or emotions. The idea of counting macros made my already BUSY, working professionals even more stressed out to have to weigh out their food and log their numbers in an app. And most of them didn’t last with the process. It was just too unrealistic and while I appreciated that it was more specific than calorie counting, it still required the adherence of logging food. Boo! Was this sustainable for the long-term? Not really.
After sifting through different coaching methods, I found and tested a curriculum that actually worked for changing people’s body composition without overwhelming them. And because of the slow, steady changes, my clients started to feel better, become healthier, and feel more in control of their eating. The refreshing part was that this method of changing one habit at a time didn’t require counting calories, measuring ounces, or following some crazy meal plan with supplements.
Why I love habit-based coaching and how it can help you get leaner…
One of the biggest cons about only counting macros and calories is that it doesn’t address the fact that we are talking about a real person, with real emotions, and really ingrained habits. Research has consistently shown that our habits dictate our actions, and not just with eating. We are essentially a product of our habits, both good and bad. Additionally, macro counting doesn’t address our emotions around eating and dealing with everyday stresses that affect our body composition, nor does it change our habits. Tell me to eat 50 more grams of protein and steamed broccoli and log it in an app after a long, stressful day when all I want is to mow down a bag of cookies. Yeah, right! There has to be a better approach.
Long-term weight loss and living healthier is about changing the deep-seated habits that have been learned over years. This takes some effort, but it can be done, with one, small habit at a time, practiced consistently.
In my first group that used habit-based coaching, I was hoping for wide-spread change, but wasn't sure what to expect.
After 11 weeks, the average weight loss was around 8 pounds, with 10 being the biggest loss. The average inches lost were 5, with one person losing 22 inches!
And the feedback brought tears to my eyes:
"I am more conscious about what I am eating and being more aware helps me to be more in control. At the end of most days prior to a few months ago I was eating fast food at least once a day and my habits felt out of control and almost compulsive. I am planning better, having healthy food around the house, and even when I don’t have a great option I am making reasonable choices. I am also eating less processed food than I have in years." — E.G.
“Over the last few weeks:
-I’ve lost weight
-I have more energy
-My core is starting to feel stronger
-I’m making healthier choices and exercising more frequently".
“Precision Nutrition dives deeper than anything I’ve tried before by looking at what behavior drives our food decisions. It has empowered me to be more mindful in my eating. Additionally, Kali’s experience as a personal trainer and individualized exercises combined with her continual feedback have already enabled me to feel stronger and see results." — A.F.
While I have had success in the past helping people to achieve their fitness goals, the process often lacked the structure and support that daily nutritional coaching provides. This system that clients will get to experience now, works better than I could have imagined and I am so excited to help more people reach their health and fitness goals.
If you’re ready to change your health and your life, I’m here to help! The next group of coaching clients is starting January 9, 2017. If you’re interested, I highly suggest saving a spot on the pre-sale list. I am only going to take a small number of people to be able to continue to give the highest level of coaching and attention to each person. As always, feel free to connect with me if you have any questions!
Best in Health,
Berardi, J., & Andrews, R. (2015). The essentials of sport and exercise nutrition: Certification Manual (2nd ed.). Precision Nutrition, Inc.