Want to know a word I absolutely loathe? DIET. But let me clarify… I don’t mind the old age definition of this word which is the foods that a person habitually eats. What I loathe is the new age definition of diet: a special course of food to which one restricts oneself in order to lose weight. You’ve got the Keto Diet, the Whole30 Diet, the HCG Diet, the Low-Carb Diet, the Weight Watchers Diet, Intermittent Fasting, Liquid Diets… the list goes on, and on, and on. If you’re interested in learning more about any of those diets or utilizing the word “diet” in general, unfortunately I’m not your girl.
Over the course of the past 2.5 years, I’ve been on a journey to quit dieting and stop cutting out food groups for short periods of time in order to lose weight. In college, I would drive myself crazy trying to eliminate processed foods or sweets, and I would have major regrets anytime I cheated my “diet”. I’ve now shifted my focus in an effort to live a life that is FULL. I want to be filled with knowledge surrounding what I’m putting into my body. I want to be full of foods that will give me energy and a clear mind, but sometimes I also want to be full of sushi, pizza, and wine. And after many years of trial and error, the ONLY thing I’ve found that allows me to live my life to the fullest in all of the above ways has been COUNTING + TRACKING MY MACROS.
Don’t get me wrong. Making this switch mentally and physically was NOT easy and it did NOT happen overnight. But it’s been an exhilarating yet alarming process in the best way possible. Knowledge is power, right? Well let me warn you. When it comes to macros, knowledge is bittersweet. If you’ve never counted macros before, it might flabbergast you to find out what some of your favorite foods consist of. But it’s that exact knowledge you need in order to aid you in making healthier decisions. It will allow you to pick and choose when treating yourself is worth it. Ignorance is bliss, and being ignorant of what you’re feeding yourself is, in my opinion, the demise of most “dieters”.
I’ve shared many macro-related topics over the last 8+ months on my blog and Instagram platforms such as: macro-friendly recipes, my favorite healthy snacks, and full days of eating with macro breakdowns. And without fail, I get the same questions each time: What Are Macros?, How Do You Count Macros?, and How Do You Know What Your Macro Count Should Be? So today is the day I’m answering your burning questions by sharing a full, comprehensive Step by Step Guide: How to Count/Track Your Macros.
Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist, dietitian, or anything of the sort. Everything I am sharing in this post is based on personal recreational research, trial and error, and some of it is based on personal experiences and opinions. I am solely sharing this information in hopes of helping you to either grow your knowledge, or kickstart your macro-counting journey.
What You’ll Need:
Before your macro-counting journey begins, there are a few items that will make this process SO much easier. Here’s what I personally utilize as an aid in being more prepared and precise when counting my macros:
- Food Scale – Please don’t let this scare you. I know the thought of using a food scale can seem obsessive, but this might be THE most important item in this entire process. Most people have such a skewed view of what a true portion/serving looks like, and having a food scale eliminates the guess work from counting your macros. It’s an easy item to tuck away in a kitchen drawer or leave on top of your counter. And I promise it’s not as daunting as it seems!
- Meal Prep Containers – Meal prepping is NOT a requirement for counting your macros. However, I do think it makes it a heck-of-a-lot easier if you have prepped meals ready to grab and go to track on a daily basis (especially in the beginning stages). I would personally much rather spend 60 minutes in the kitchen on Sunday afternoons than to spend 15+ minutes each day prepping my meals.
- Fitness Tracking App – I’ll dive a little deeper into this one below, but the only way to be as precise as possible in tracking your macros is to use a tracking system. I’ve tried a few different platforms, but I always seem to go back to the MyFitnessPal app to track my macros and meals each day. It’s FREE, user-friendly, and has almost every food you can possibly imagine pre-loaded into the app! I’ll talk more about the app and how to use it below.
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What Are Macros + Why Do They Matter?
In order to count your macros, you have to know WHAT a macro is and WHY they’re important:
Let’s go back to basics! If you’re anything like me, you grew up thinking calories were the be-all end-all. I really had no clue that foods contained anything other than calories. WRONG. “Macro” is short for the word “macronutrient”, and macronutrients are what all foods are made up of. There are THREE main types of macros: Carbohydrates, Fats, and Proteins. Each category contains both “healthy” and “unhealthy” food choices, and each also contains a specific calorie count per gram:
- Carbohydrates: “Carbs” consist of foods that are starchy, sugary, and high in fiber. It is widely recommended that carbs comprise 40-60% of your daily calorie intake. Carb Examples: grains, potatoes, fruits/vegetables, beans, dairy, sweets. 1 Gram of Carbs = 4 Calories
- Fats: While fats are vital to our functionality, they’re also the highest in calorie per gram. It is widely recommended that fats comprise 20-35% of your daily calorie intake. Fat Examples: butter, steak, oils, cheese, avocado, nuts. 1 Gram of Fat = 9 Calories
- Proteins: As I’m sure you are aware, proteins are the building blocks to our bodies. It is widely recommended that proteins comprise 25-35% of your daily calorie intake. Protein Examples: meats, eggs, beans, cheese, milk, nuts, yogurt. 1 Gram of Protein = 4 Calories
CALORIES PER GRAM EXAMPLE: If you look at a protein bar’s nutrition label and it has 8 grams of fat (8g x 9 calories per gram = 72), 20 grams of carbs (20g x 4 calories per gram = 80), and 16 grams of protein (16g x 4 calories per gram = 64), you can assume the item would total ~215 calories.
To keep it short and simple, counting macros can help you make smarter and healthier choices. It also helps provide you with the knowledge of what you’re putting into your body and how those foods can help you or harm you. For example, when you’re craving a ChikFilA cookie and you realize that ONE cookie contains 16g fat, 49g carbs, and only 4g protein, you may decide the taste of the cookie isn’t worth the amount of room it will take up in your daily macro allotment.
How Do I Know What My Goals Should Be?
The question I get asked most often when I share a Full Day of Eating on Instagram is this: HOW did you calculate your goals? This one is tricky. There are MANY different macro calculators that may yield different results. As crazy as that seems, the reasoning is that the formula for personalized macros is based on PERSONAL factors: How much do you exercise? How active is your job? How quickly do you want to lose weight? It’s almost impossible to tangibly measure the answers to those questions, so my recommendation is to use a calculator solely as a starting place. Once you’ve tested out those numbers, adjust them accordingly based on whether or not you‘re achieving your desired results. In order to know your starting place, I’ve listed two options below: a free calculator AND a personalized macro consultation in case you want something more precise and personalized!
- Follow THIS LINK to utilize the free macro calculator I’ve used for several years. This calculator asks for your age, gender, height/weight, activity level, and fitness goals in order to provide a list of recommended macronutrients for you to consume. You can also adjust the results to either a balanced, low fat, low carb, or high protein diet.
- Follow THIS LINK to purchase a Personalized Macro Consultation from my friend Madeline (@madeline_moves). This option requires you to fill out a detailed questionnaire to help ensure accuracy and progress towards your individual goals. Madeline then provides you with a custom macro count that will fit your needs and align with your fitness goals. She also provides you with a full resource manual with a plethora of information surrounding macros and how to track them. I think this is absolutely worth the money, and I highly recommend this option!
How Do I Count / Track Macros?
Alright, now that you know WHAT a macro is, WHY they’re important, and WHAT your daily allotments look like, it’s time to tackle the HOW.
In all honesty, the HOW is fairly simple: USE AN APP! I use the MyFitnessPal app to track my daily consumption of ALL foods. Let this serve as a notice: Everything you eat counts towards your macros. If you eat it, you track it. If you chew it, you track it. 1 Lifesaver mint has 15 calories and 3 grams of carbs. If you eat 5 mints, that’s 75 calories and 15 grams of carbs. 1 package of ChikFilA Sauce has 140 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 7 grams of carbs. So let this serve as a notice: Don’t forget to track the “little” things that you think don’t matter.
Once you have the app, you can setup your macro allotments as follows:
- On the bottom menu, select MORE
- Under Nutrition Goals, select Calorie, Carbs, Protein and Fat Goals
- Type in your calorie allotment from the macro calculator and adjust the Carbs, Protein, and Fat percentage scales to meet your allotments:
- If you are using the free version, it will be nearly impossible to get these to exactly line up with your allotments from the calculator. You can either purchase the upgraded app version OR you can select a ratio that aligns as close to your numbers as possible.
Once your macro allotments are registered into the app, you can start tracking your food consumption. There are two ways to track your macros: 1) Pre-Log Food or 2) Log As You Go. Both options work, however, when you’re first starting out on this journey I recommend you pre-log your meals. This will help to alleviate you from having to guess what foods fit within your goals on the spot, and it will also help aid you in learning what foods contain what specific macro count. Here’s how to enter your foods:
- On the app, click the the Diary tab from the bottom menu.
- Click the “Add Food” button below the appropriate meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snacks).
- You can then either type in a food name, enter the macro information manually, OR you can scan the barcode of the item from the package itself.
- Adjust the serving size accordingly
- When you’re either making a meal or having a snack, you’ll need to know HOW MUCH of each food you’re planning on consuming. Utilize the nutrition label on the package for this step. For example, Kendall and I love these Habanero Almonds (see below). The nutrition label states that one serving is 28 nuts. If I eat 14 nuts, then I’ll enter 1/2 serving into my app. If I eat 42 nuts, I’ll enter 1.5 servings into my app. The app will automatically adjust the calories and macros based on how many servings you input.
- Measuring a serving gets a little bit more tricky when the serving size states “X grams” or “X ounces“. THIS IS WHERE YOUR FOOD SCALE COMES INTO PLAY! If you’re eating grilled chicken, you’ll see on the package that one serving = 4 ounces. In order to know how much chicken = 4 ounces, just place your dish on the scale, zero the scale out, and add your chicken until the scale hits 4 ounces. Of course, sometimes you’ll eat less than a serving and sometimes you’ll eat more than a serving. Don’t feel locked down to what the package suggests – just use it as a rule of thumb! I’m sharing more about measuring your foods using a food scale on my Instagram stories today, so be sure to tune in HERE.
- Click the check mark
As you continue to add foods throughout the day, it’s important to keep track of what macros you’re consuming and how they’re fitting into your daily allotments. At any time, you can click the top bar on the Diary screen where it says “Calories Remaining”. This Nutrition Screen will show you a breakdown of how many grams of each macro you have consumed vs. how many you have left to consume.
Overall, it’s a learning process and a game of Tetris. For example, if you check your numbers and you’re lacking protein and fats but you’re overdoing it on carbs, you know you need to eat something high-protein and high-fat but low-carb. Along the way, you’ll learn that EGGS are a great source of both protein and fats, but they are low in carbs. In order to assist you in this learning process, I created a list in the Q&A below of healthier options for each macronutrient so you can plug them into your daily food consumption depending on where you’re lacking!
Q&A: Your Questions Answered!
HOW DO YOU TRACK YOUR MACROS AT A RESTAURANT? / WHAT IF YOU’RE NOT THE ONE COOKING THE MEAL?
At the beginning of my macro-counting journey, eating at restaurants terrified me. It stressed me out to not know what to enter into my app for that meal. If there’s anything you take away from this post, it’s this: ONE MEAL WILL NOT RUIN YOU. If you’re out to dinner or your mom’s making your favorite childhood meal, eat it. Enjoy it.
Most restaurants do have their nutrition information listed on their websites (Cheddar’s, Chili’s, Chop House, Olive Garden). Before I go to a restaurant, I check to see if they have an online guide so I can pre-select a meal that aligns with my goals. This doesn’t mean I order a piece of grilled chicken and broccoli. But looking at this list helps me steer clear of dishes that are dangerously macro-heavy.
When the nutritional information isn’t available, I try to breakdown each component of my meal and add an estimated weight of each item to my app. If I order a chicken Caesar salad, I’ll track romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese, croutons, Caesar dressing, and chicken. If I order a steak, I add the steak and I also track the butter that I’m more than certain the chef used when cooking that steak. My suggestion is to overshoot instead of undershoot. Restaurants typically provide you with a MUCH larger portion than a normal serving size. But if this process is too intense for you, you can always type the name of the dish itself into MyFitnessPal to see if there are any comparable dishes that another user has entered. Just be sure to look at the macros – sometimes user-loaded dishes only contain a calorie count and the macros are listed as 0!
HOW MUCH TIME DOES THIS ADD TO YOUR DAILY MEAL PLANNING / PREPPING?
I’m not going to lie – when I first started this transition, it was pretty darn time consuming. I had to kind of turn it into a hobby in order to grow a passion for it and enjoy spending time on it. Originally, I’d say I spent several hours every week either planning out my meals, meal prepping, or entering my daily macro consumption. After around the 2 month mark, I really started getting the hang of it. And now, I usually spend about 1 hour a week meal prepping lunches and then about 10 minutes per day tracking my foods in total.
HOW FAR IN ADVANCE DO YOU PLAN YOUR MEALS?
I typically write out my meals for the following week on Fridays. I place a grocery order for delivery on Sunday mornings, then I meal prep on Sunday afternoons or evenings. When I first started counting macros, I would plan my meals the week before down to a T (breakfast, lunch, dinners, snacks each day).
WHAT ARE SOME HEALTHY SOURCES OF EACH MACRO TYPE?
Healthy Foods High in Protein:
- Chicken, Tuna, Shrimp, White Fish, Ground Turkey, Turkey Bacon, Pork, Egg Whites (low fat, low carb)
- Steak, Ground Beef, Salmon, Whole Eggs, Nuts, Cottage Cheese (low carb, high fat)
- Black Beans (low fat, high carb)
- Greek Yogurt (depends on the kind, but you can find some that are low carb – I love the Two Good brand
- Milk (depends on the kind, but as you go from skim up to whole milk, the more carbs/sugars you’ll intake)
Healthy Foods High in Carbs:
- Whole Fruits/Vegetables – fruits are high in sugars, so I like to stick to more vegetables than fruits!
- Whole Grans – oats, rice, quinoa, etc.
- Potatoes – of course, these turn unhealthy as soon as you fry them in a pot of oil
On the flip side, some unhealthy carb sources are sugary drinks (canned sodas), candy, chocolate, french fries, sweet snacks, potato chips, white bread, and fruit juices.
Healthy Foods High in Fats:
As a reminder, fats are 9 calories per gram. It’s extremely easy to meet your fat goals naturally each day without having to force them into your daily food intake. You also need to be sure to track the not-so-healthy fats such as olive oil, butter, etc. But here are some healthy options for reference:
- Whole Eggs
HOW DO YOU HIT YOUR PROTEIN GOAL WITHOUT SUPPLEMENTING WITH PROTEIN BARS / SHAKES?
Your protein goals will more than likely be around 1 gram per pound you weigh. When you first start tracking macros, it can be difficult to hit those goals. Personally, I love a good protein bar – my favorite kinds linked HERE and HERE. I also like to supplement with protein shakes – favorite linked HERE. But I understand when people say they either don’t like the taste of these supplements OR they want to steer clear of them. Here are some helpful tips for hitting your goals WITHOUT consuming those “foods”:
- Eat your protein first – when you eat a piece of salmon + corn on the cob, eat the salmon first. If you do this, you’re less likely to fill up on carbs/fat and leave protein leftover.
- Replace carb-filled foods with high-protein options. For example, instead of eating cereal (high carb and no protein), eat scrambled eggs!
- Snack on Greek yogurt or beef jerky
- Increase your protein servings – increase your chicken serving at lunch and/or dinner from 4 ounces to 5-6 ounces.
- If you eat eggs, add egg whites in with your whole egg. Egg whites are high in protein, but they don’t have the high-fat content an egg yolk has.
HOW DO YOU TRACK MEALS IN THE MFP APP?
If you make the same multi-ingredient snack every day or you have a set of recipe you love, you can utilize the “Meals” and “Recipes” feature. This allows you to easily add multiple ingredients to one Meal/Recipe and save them to the app. Then when you make that meal/recipe in the future, you won’t have to manually enter each ingredient.
ARE CALORIES STILL IMPORTANT?
Yes. But also no. Macros are what calories are made of. So when you hit your macro goals, you’ll be hitting your calorie goal. Therefore, YES calories are important but NO you don’t have to worry about tracking them. They’re tracked naturally by your macro-tracking!
If you’ve read all of this (bless your soul), and you’re interested in starting you own journey to counting your macros, please remember that THIS IS A TRIAL AND ERROR PROCESS. You will not be perfect on your first day or even your first week. And it’s okay if you go over or under your macros goals. Slowly but surely you’ll start to understand the process, and it’ll one day become a mindless task!