I have learned not to bother with no-carbohydrate diets or extreme nutritional strategies. It is much better to go for a balanced approach which you can make your long-term routine.
If you’ve been dabbling in the fitness world in the last few years, you might have heard of macros. Short for “macronutrients”, this term refers to protein, carbohydrate, and dietary fat.
Tracking macros is a common approach to losing fat, gaining muscle, or simply maintaining weight. Some people track all three macros; others only track calories; and others still track a combination of both.
All of these methods can be effective, so your choice will depend on your personal preferences and fitness goals.
But how do macros work? What’s the difference between macro- and calorie-tracking? And how do you set your own macros to get the best results?
Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions.
What are macros and what do they have to do with calories?
Protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fat can be found in variable quantities within food and drinks.
Although many foods tend to be considered a primary source of a single macronutrient, they usually contain two or even all three of them in differing quantities: for example, chicken breast is considered a source of protein, but it does have trace amounts of dietary fat, too.
The three macros play a variety of important roles in the body, which you can learn more about in this article series.
All of them also yield energy, measured in calories:
For instance, in a tablespoon of peanut butter (15 gr) with 8 gr of fat and 90 calories, 72 calories derive from fat. In 100 gr of chicken breast with 110 calories and 25 gr of protein, 100 calories derive from protein.
In other words, you need three times the same amount of carbs or protein to get the same calories that dietary fat packs into a much smaller portion. This is why dietary fat is known as the most “calorie-dense” macronutrient.
Due to this relationship between calories and macros, you can choose different ways to track:
Whichever option you choose, at the end of the day you’ll still be tracking your total energy intake, which is the main regulator of how much body fat you store or lose.
Coaching primarily “general population clients” (or gen pop), people who care about their fitness but aren’t professional athletes, I’ve found that prioritising calories and a protein target seems to offer the best results-to-stress ratio, provided you’re mindful of certain considerations about carbs and fat, which I’ll cover in the next section.
This doesn’t mean you can’t get results from tracking all of your macros or only your calories.
However, keeping track of three macronutrients can become very labour-intensive. On the other hand, only counting calories could result in paying less attention to your food quality, which is important for health, training performance, and body composition goals.
In my experience, the “calories and protein method” provides a good middle ground between the two ends of the spectrum.
However, if you track with an app like MyFitnessPal, you’ll notice that sometimes the calories and macros of a certain food entry don’t match.
A common reason for this is that many of these entries are user-generated, so it’s possible that whoever created them, made mistakes or had access to incomplete nutritional information.
I always recommend my clients to double check nutritional labels (if they have one) or to do a quick Google search if they’re unsure of the caloric content or macronutrient composition of a certain food.
You don’t want your weight loss to stall for weeks, even though you think you’re nailing everything, just because the “salmon fillet” entry you’ve been using every day only has 100 calories, coming from 25 gr of protein, when the average fillet usually contains 200 calories from a combination of protein and fat…
Another reason for the difference between calories and macros is that both are often rounded up or down (and neither is a fully accurate unit of measurement to begin with). So there can and probably will be a minor difference between your calories and macros at all times, but you don’t have to worry about it.
Staying consistent with the tracking method you choose, is your priority to get the best results: if you always track your food in the same way, it’s easy to make changes and bust out of a plateau. If you keep hopping from one tracking method to another, your tweaks will be best guesses.
What should your macros look like?
Once you figure out your daily calorie budget based on your current goals, set your daily protein target first.
When you lift weights regularly, aim for a minimum of 1.6 gr of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (or 0.8 gr per pound of bodyweight) in order to build muscle mass – or, if you’re dieting to get very lean, to maintain as much muscle mass as possible during this process.
You can eat more protein than this if you want. We don’t know yet if there’s an upper limit for safe protein consumption, but, when researching intakes as high as 3 gr per kilogram per day, we seem to have found them to be safe as long as you don’t have pre-existing kidney conditions.
Most people find protein really satiating, so a higher protein intake can be very helpful if you’re struggling with hunger during a fat loss diet.
On the other hand, if you’re at maintenance calories or you’re trying to gain weight in a surplus, and you often feel too full, then sticking with just 1.6 gr per kilogram may be a more appropriate choice.
Here’s a common question I get from my clients about calorie- and macro-tracking: “What if I’m out of calories and still need to hit my protein target?”
Think about it this way: If you’re trying to gain or lose weight, your priority is your total caloric intake, which determines these changes. I wrote a three-part article series on this here.
If you undershoot protein for one day, muscle won’t fall off of your body overnight.
So stick to your calories and aim to do better the next day.
Carbs and dietary fat
As I mentioned in the previous section, you don’t need to track all three macros religiously. However, to get the most performance- and health-related benefits from your diet, it’s useful to have at least some awareness of your carbohydrate to fat ratio.
I suggest keeping your dietary fat within a range of 0.5 to 1.5 gr per kilogram per day (0.3 to 0.7 gr per pound).
After setting protein and fat, the remaining calories will come from carbohydrate.
The reason for the suggested dietary fat range is two-fold:
On one hand, we need a minimum intake of dietary fat for our general wellbeing, for example to maintain healthy sex hormone levels.
On the other hand, carbs are the main source of fuel for resistance training and are therefore paramount to keep your performance as high as possible and to recover from your sessions. Training provides the stimulus for muscle maintenance and growth, and recovery is necessary for these processes to take place.
Fortunately, most calorie-tracking apps provide a complete breakdown of your calories, macros, and sometimes even micronutrients. So, even if you only track protein and calories, you can take a look at this breakdown at the end of the day and course-correct with ease if you find out you’re over- or under-consuming dietary fat.
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A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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