While I enjoyed that article and I feel that it was sound in quality, it was styled to be an extremely introductory primer to the concept of counting your macros, and it did not go into finite detail.
Many of my articles are like this with no problems, but counting your macros, like any other form of measuring, is a technical process, and since I had so many readers, I feel that it’s obvious this is a topic that many people are interested.
So, with that in mind, here is “Counting Your Macros 2.0: The Last Guide You’ll Ever Need for Measuring Food.” Where we will explore food measurement in fine detail, introduce the best tools and methods you can use, suggest habits for disciplined practice, and even outline macro-counting for popular diets or purposes, such as the ketogenic diet or a bulking plan for athletics.
If not for the interest that has been shown to my Blog, I’d never have tackled this subject, so consider this particular work to be a labor of love. My gift to you, my friends.
What is “Counting Your Macros?”
First of all, let’s define what “counting your macros,” actually means. Many of you have probably heard of it, but even if you’re completely new to it, this should explain things well.
Food contains energy, typically measured in units of kilocalories, or kcal, though labels will often refer to kilocalories as being, simply, calories. Well, the caloric content of food (the amount of kcal it contains) is measured using a device known as a bomb calorimeter (shown in the image below.)
The food is inside a container which is surrounded by water within another container, the food is heated until it burns completely through, and the raise in temperature of the water is measured to determine the calories in the food.
There are other methods to determine the calorie content of food, but as of today, most are fairly rudimentary.
The issue is that the human body does not operate like a bomb calorimeter, and while the digestive system is efficient at extracting energy from food, the type of food we eat can have significant effects on how it is used by our physiology.
This is where the concept of macro-counting comes in. Rather than simply eating based on a calories-per-day system, macro-counting involves measuring how much of each macro-nutrient you consume. These macro-nutrients are:
- Protein: Used primarily in tissue repair and muscle building. Protein is broken down into its building blocks: amino acids, which are then used to create new tissue in the body. Protein can also be converted into glucose in the liver in a process known as gluconeogenesis,
- Carbohydrates: Primarily used for energy in the form of glucose. Also most people’s source of starch and fiber, depending on the specific foods eaten. Once believed to be the most important part of your diet, it is becoming more common to instead get energy from fats, as over-consumption of carbs may be the prime culprit behind diseases related to poor sugar handling such as diabetes and heart problems, as well as obesity.
- Fats: Until recently, fats have been demonized for about half a century with little evidence. While there are unhealthy fats, it seems that processed food, especially sugar, is more to blame for obesity and diseases like diabetes. At the end of the day, fat is the building block for hormones that control our metabolism, and high fat, low carb diets such as the ketogenic diet have shown great ability to facilitate weight-loss, fight cancer, and improve health.
If you were to eat purely based on calories, you would be completely ignoring the fact that your body uses different macro-nutrients for different purposes. Bodybuilders have known for years that you need to pay attention to your macros, and the effectiveness of this system has caused it to transition from being a tool of athletes to becoming a powerful nutrition tool for all.
Counting macros means paying attention to the ratio of each macro-nutrient you consume throughout the day, allowing you to adhere to diets like Keto which require, say, 70% of your food to be from fats and less than 20% from carbs.
It also allows you to treat your diet like a science lab. You can tweak your ratios to discover where you feel best, etc.
To be clear, this guide is centered around teaching you to log your food, including your calories. Many people who count their macros ignore their calories, which is fine, but this guide is designed to be the full deal. We will be doing both.
Tools You’ll Need
So we know what macro-counting is. Great, but how do we do it? After all, even though most foods show how many calories they contain on the box, it’s not like the nutrition label mentions the macros (other than sugar.)
Dieting, like many things in life, is all about discipline and self-management. Well, in the words of the famous businessman Peter Drucker, “what gets measured, gets managed.”
Here’s the truth, you need some gear. However, this is actually what makes counting macros one of my favorite dieting tools. Dieting, like many things in life, is all about discipline and self-management. Well, in the words of the famous businessman Peter Drucker, “what gets measured, gets managed.”
Once you’re experienced with counting your macros, you may be able to continue doing so without using a scale or a device to measure your food, but you absolutely must start with a precise instrument. Thankfully, food scales are cheap.
For example, here’s a small, electric food scale on amazon for $10.
You’ll also want a container of some kind that you can put all your food in when measuring it. A simple tupperware will suffice. We’ll get into habits more later, but for at least some period of time, you’ll be taking this tupperware and scale with you everywhere, and using them to measure everything you eat. Don’t worry, this is only temporary.
I recommend getting a set of containers so that you always have a clean one on hand. Here’s a simple set available on Amazon, though you can surely get these almost anywhere.
You’ll also need somewhere to record your food consumption. Now, there are a ton, and I mean a TON of options here, from apps to journals, and you really are free to search and find your own personal favorites. However, for the sake of a starting place, here are some apps I like or have heard good things about.
What I love about Mymacros is that it is specifically oriented towards counting your macros. Most food tracking apps let you track calories, and weight (grams) but leave it up to you to figure out your macro ratios.
Developed by Professional Body Builder Jason Leowy, My Macros actually calculates your ratios for you, and displays how your ratios look as you add in data.
It also boasts an impressive database of over 5,000,000 foods you can check to find out what you’re eating. Available for iPhone, android, tablet and online, this app is a great resource for counting macros. It is not free, but at $3.00 on the app store, I think the price is well worth it.
2. Azumio Argus
Okay, this app is pretty dang impressive. Argus allows you to not only track your nutrition in minute detail, but also serves as a hub for all your fitness and health data, including such information as your hydration status and your sleep patterns, this app is a biohacker’s dream.
The premium version costs $30 a year, but the free edition is still amazing. If you deeply enjoy quantifying your life, this is the app for you, especially if you’re also working on other health and fitness goals. The advanced version can even guess how many calories you are consuming based on a picture of your food.
I don’t use my fitness pal personally, but there is a reason this app has almost become a household name. This app, like the name implies, is a fitness tracker where you can record data about your workouts and about your nutrition.
While it doesn’t have as many tools as Argus or My Macros, My Fitness Pal shines in having one of the largest nutrition databases ever. With over 2 billion different foods to search, you can find almost anything in this app. If you just ate something obscure and can’t find the nutrition facts elsewhere, this is the place to look.
You can also just go old school, and record your food consumption in a journal. I’ve always enjoyed writing rather than using an app, and a simple notebook can be as powerful a tool as anything else. The only issue here is that you’ll have to go online to find out how many calories un-labeled food contains.
If you follow the recommendations in this guide, most of your food should be unlabeled, so having a database like those provided in the recommended apps is doubly important.
Where to Start
Itis my belief that counting your macros and logging your nutrition is actually one of the most simple things on the planet. It’s figuring out why you’re doing it in the first place that is the hard part.
Counting your macros is not going to do anything special for you, and technically all it is, is writing down what you eat, and using math to figure out how much protein, fat, and carbs you eat in relation to each other.
Whoop-dee-doo, now what?
At the end of the day, macro-counting is a tool, and without a goal or an end result in mind, that is all it will be.
So figure out WHY you’re counting your macros, first.
You may be interested in counting your macros in order to adhere to a specific diet, such as the Keto or Atkins diets, which both require you to eat above a certain amount of fats during the day and under a certain amount of carbs.
If a diet of this type is your goal, then you’ve got your work cut out for you. Simply learn the ratios of fat, carbs, and protein you’re supposed to eat for said diet, measure all your food, and calculate the ratios to make sure you’re adhering.
If, however, you are trying to use macro-counting to improve your health and diet in other ways, we’ve gotta learn exactly how you should go about it.
If you feel hungry all the time, you need more food. This is probably due to you having a genetically faster metabolism than others.
Regardless, we’re going to start by finding your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Your BMR is an estimate of the energy you burn on a daily basis, and this will help us determine the calories you need to consume on a given day. There are several ways to calculate a BMR, but the most efficient is to use an online calculator. Personally, I like the calculator over at https://tdeecalculator.net/ but there are others.
These calculators will give you an estimate of the calories you burn on an average day, at rest. For example, I weigh 205lbs, am 23 years old, and am currently doing light activity 6 days a week. My recommended calories is around 3000 because I’m moderately active, but my BMR, when not active, is closer to 2000.
Remember though, these are just estimates, and a ton of other factors can influence your BMR that do not factor into these calculators, such as genetics, exercise, and environmental temperature.
In general, however, the actual number of calories burnt by the BMR averages around 2000–2100 calories per day for women and 2700–2900 per day for men, but the total day’s energy expenditure can dramatically increase this number, with very active people burning up to 6000–8000 calories per day.
Activity level is the main thing you need to be aware of. If your general activity level changes, you should factor that in:
-Sedentary = BMR X 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
-Lightly active = BMR X 1.375 (light exercise/sports 1–3 days/wk)
-Moderately active = BMR X 1.55 (moderate exercise/sports 3–5 days/wk)
-Very active = BMR X 1.725 (hard exercise/sports 6–7 days/wk)
-Extremely active = BMR X 1.9 (hard daily exercise/sports & physical job or 2X day training, i.e marathon, contest etc.)
This may feel overwhelming, and if you feel that way, don’t worry. Just use an online calculator to get a basic BMR to aim for on a daily basis. If weightloss is your goal, eat slightly less than your BMR. If you exercise or are trying to put on weight, eat more than your BMR. Remember, it is better to manage the kinds of foods you eat for weightloss than to manage your calories.
Pay attention to how you feel: Even if you are hitting your BMR, if you feel hungry all the time, you need more food. This is probably due to you having a genetically faster metabolism than others.
Finally, before we start measuring, we need to decide on the macro ratios we’re aiming for.
Popular Dietary Macro Ratios:
- The Ketogenic Diet: Designed for addressing blood sugar problems, weight loss, and cancer, this diet is one of the more extreme yet effective options out there. Macro ratios for the Ketogenic Diet are: Fat: 60%-75% (sometimes more), Protein: 15% to 30%, Carbs: 5%-10%
- Low Carb: Used by many as a way to cycle off from keto, or as their general diet, low carb involves getting most of your energy from fats but still allows for carbs. An example of a low-carb macro ratio would be: Fat: 40%, Protein: 30%, Carbs: 30%
- Muscle Building: Muscle building is a common goal of many athletes as well as those with high metabolisms. It might seem like a good problem to have, but there are many people who are skinny as a rail, and have a hard time putting on weight in the form of muscle or fat. Muscle building typically involves higher protein and carbs, combined with intense exercise. Ratios often look something like: Fat: 25%, Protein 15%-25%, Carbs 50%-60%. Another note on muscle building, you most be consuming a calorie surplus, meaning more calories than you burn per day. This is especially true of “hard gainers” or people with particular issues gaining weight.
You can also try flexible dieting and start with something like low carb, and then tweak your macros to see if you start feeling better when you consume more fat, carbs or proteins.
Measuring: Determining Your Ratios & Calories
So, we’ve got our kitchen scale and our tupperwares. We have a handy app to tell us how many calories are in our food and to log what we eat. We know our BMR and have a set calorie goal for the day.
Most importantly, we are ready to make changes to our diet based on how we feel, and to be diligent in our records.
Time to get to work.
For one month, I want you to record everything you eat: the ratios of macro-nutrients (protein, to fat, to carbs.) as well as your calories per day. To do this, you are going to measure all your food on a food scale, and plug in the grams to a database like myfitnesspal to find out how many calories you ate.
To determine your macro-nutrients, you’ll need to record the grams of each. Don’t know what kind of macro-nutrient is in your food? No problem. In general, meat is protein, fats are oils and butters, and carbs are everything else.
Some meats contain high amounts of fat, such as chuck roasts or ribeye, so you’ll want to look them up online to determine how much. Don’t get too strict with meat though. In general, just treat all meat like it’s protein.
At the end of the day you should have recorded your
- Total calories of protein
- Total calories of fat
- Total calories of carbs
- Total calories of food eaten
Using this information, calculating a macro ratio is easy. Let’s say you ate 2000kcal of food, and 500kcal of it was protein. To find the macro ratio of protein, you simply divide 500kcal by 2000kcal, then multiply the result by 100. This value is the percentage of protein you ate.
.25×100=25, therefore 25% of your calorie intake was protein.
It’s just about finding a percentage, and all that takes is some basic math. Do this same formula for fat, and carbs, and voila, you’ve got your ratios. Now, to set an action plan and create some good habits.
Now, just to make things clear, you’ll be measuring your food on a scale and getting the weight in grams. Then, you’ll use a database or an app to find out how many calories are in the food you measured. Once you know this, you’ll record it, and then you can figure out your macro ratios.
Tips, Tricks, and Habits to Make It Easy & Keep You Involved
Now to take all this complicated stuff, and make it simple. If your habits aren’t simple, they will be easier to forget, and when you have to record and do math for your food, this can get tedious. So, here are some habits to keep you involved.
- Eat Better Quality Food
Look, honestly, I don’t log my food. But Keenan, you said in this very article that macro-counting is one of your favorite nutrition tools! True, it is, but not because I think it’s terribly important to log your food.
The main reason I like macro counting is because it can really help you eat better quality food, which is a lot more important than how much you eat. When you’re recording everything you eat, this is a great opportunity to throw away the junk, and stick to whole foods that are more natural and better for you.
Of course, the flip side is also true, and many people use macro-counting as an excuse to eat low quality food. They justify themselves by falsely believing that as long as they “fit their macros” they will hit their health and nutrition goals.
I’ve said it once before, and I’ll say it again, there is nothing inherently special about food logging or counting your macros. What is special is how you leverage it to improve your nutrition. Just measuring and sticking to your macros will do very little if you decide to get all your protein from protein powder, your fats from rancid vegetable oils, and your carbs from candy.
I’d rather you eat a whole food diet and not pay any attention to calories than a logged diet of junk.
2. Plan Your Meals Ahead Of Time:
Don’t wing it. You’re supposed to record everything you eat, and everything can get a lot bigger when you just go about your day without a plan. Every time you pick up a snack on a whim, you’ve got to log it. Plus, you have to predict for your next meal in order to make sure you’re sticking to your ratios.
A far better way to do this is to plan your meals ahead of time. Even if you have no idea how your planned meals will turn out to affect your ratios, it is better to have a plan and then make adjustments than to attempt to do all your nutrition math on the fly.
Plan out 3 meals for your first day, and try to include carbs, fats, and protein that you guess will fit your macros. When you get around to making these meals, record them in your app or journal using your food scale, and then see what your ratios really are.
If you’re off your ratios, adjust tomorrow.
Eventually, when you know exactly how your meals fit your ratios, you can upgrade this plan by doing meal prep. Meal prep is a popular habit of athletes, where they prepare a whole week’s worth of meals and then they don’t have to cook during the week.
3. Adjust based on how you feel:
Unless you’re doing a strict plan like keto, you should be adjusting your calories and macros every few days to see how your body responds. If you’re hungry all of the time, try increasing your fat and carbs, and mess around with increasing one or the other.
In general, higher fat-based diets seem to be the most satiating and healthy, as long as your food is natural, but some people genuinely do better with higher carbs (especially athletes.)
If you’re feeling achey and getting injured, increase your protein. Your body is intuitive, and it wants to guide you to your optimal nutrition. Counting your macros is just a tool to keep you aware of exactly how your diet is changing, and whether you are actually doing enough to make changes based on your diet.
4. Be obsessed, for a month:
Remember, I told you earlier we’d be logging our food for a month, so make sure you do it diligently. Get obsessed, and aim to make your friends think you’re crazy. I’m only somewhat joking. One of my favorite athletes is Katrin Davidsdottir, the second woman to win the crossfit games 2 times in a row.
What I love about Katrin is that she is one of the most disciplined athletes I have ever heard of, and her nutrition is no exception.
Even at the crossfit games, eating the food provided at the banquet, Katrin had a portable food scale and measured out all her macros using the food served at the restaurant.
I’ve found that when you get this obsessed and consistent, it actually makes things easier. For example, if you measure all your meals at home, but you only guess your meals at restaurants, it is all too easy to just stop measuring altogether.
There’s an excuse available. After all, you don’t really know what you’re eating at restaurants and that might be messing up your whole diet.
I’m only asking you to log your food for a month, so for one month, I want you to be like Katrin. Take your food scale with you everywhere. I don’t care if you’re going to a 3 course meal at a black-tie event, I want you measuring and logging all of it.
This will not only make you even better at managing your diet when the month is over, but I think it will actually make it easier for you to get through the month without compromise.
5. Quit logging
Yep, you heard me right. I want you to stop logging your food after a month.
Why? Because the real value of logging your food is not that it keeps you strict to your calories. Remember, most of your goal numbers are based on estimates anyway, and your needs will change with your biology.
No, the real value of counting macros and calories is the increase in your dietary intuition. After a month of logging your food, you should have a better idea of what you’re eating on a daily basis, as well as how your body feels when you make macro-nutrient related changes.
Furthermore, a month is a realistic, attainable goal for anyone. If you set out to count your macros for a year, you might quit in a week, but if you set out to log your food for a month, and then you’re done forever, I bet you might just do it.
Once this month is complete, you’ll be much more in tune with what your body needs and how to tweak your macros and calories without ever recording anything. Furthermore, if you ever decide to jump into a strict diet, you’ll already know how to begin counting your macros again.
Of course, if you particularly enjoy counting your macros, be my guest to continue. For most of us, however, the real value here is that it will teach you to eat better on your own.
- $10 Electric Food Scale on Amazon https://amzn.to/2V3qly7
- Tupperware Food Containers on Amazon https://amzn.to/2EjIxhp
- My Macros nutrition tracking app https://getmymacros.com/
- Azumio Argus advanced health, nutrition, and fitness tracker https://www.azumio.com/s/argus/index.html
- My Fitness Pal nutrition and fitness tracker https://www.myfitnesspal.com/
- Online BMR calculator at https://tdeecalculator.net/
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