Cutting, bulking, improving diet adequacy, or trying to achieve specific health goals? Tracking your macros properly will get you there.
If done properly, it can be one of the most useful and successful ways to achieve your goals. Because you don’t have to cut out food groups (ie. Keto) or meals (ie. Intermittent fasting) to achieve your goals. You get to eat the foods that you enjoy and simply adjust the portion in order to achieve body composition goals.
Though it appears simple, research shows that almost no one can do it accurately.
“Macros” is an abbreviation of the word macronutrients.
Macronutrients are large molecules (hence the name macro) that provide the body with the essential energy it needs to grow and survive. This energy is more commonly referred to as its units of measure – kilojoules (kj) and calories (kcal). To understand how to convert kilojoules to calories, here’s a little guide. Each of the macros plays a different role inside of the body and provides a different amount of energy, these are as follows:
- Fat – 9kcal or 37kj / gram
- Protein – 4kcal or 17kj / gram
- Carbohydrate – 4kcal or 16kj / gram
Alcohol, Fibre and Sugar Alcohols also provide the body energy, though they aren’t usually considered in “macro tracking”, but they do add to total calorie intake.
- Alcohol – 7kcal or 27kj / gram
- Fibre – 2kcal or 8kj / gram
- Sugar Alcohol – 1-3kcal or 6-12kj / gram
Different foods will have different quantities of these macronutrients, one’s total macronutrient intake at the end of the day will add up to their total calorie intake.
People may choose to track their macros or total calories in order to optimise body composition, exercise performance, health outcomes, understanding of what’s in food, and more.
But contrary to popular belief, tracking macros is way easier said than done.
Should I Track Macros or Just Calories?
A common question that is asked is “what’s more important – hitting calories or macros?”. As mentioned above, the total energy that each macronutrient provides will add up to make the total calorie intake for that day.
Therefore, if you track macros, you will incidentally be tracking total calorie intake as well, assisting in achieving body composition outcomes. However, if you just track calories, body composition outcomes will be less optimal. I’ll explain more on this shortly.
If you’re new to tracking macros and looking to change your body composition there is an order of nutrition priority, this is as follows:
The total calories will influence energy storage and weight changes, hence it’s the most important factor when trying to change body composition.
The macronutrients are the second most important factor, as they can influence where the energy is pulled from or stored. What I mean by that is, if you consume an adequate amount of protein whilst in a deficit, you can ensure that the majority of energy is pulled from fat, leaving muscle intact. On the contrary, if you’re trying to gain muscle and, in a surplus, consuming adequate amounts of protein will ensure a large portion of energy will be stored inside of the muscle.
So, to answer the above question it would depend on how much effort you’re willing to put in to optimise your results. Below I’ll list the different tracking options for optimising body composition, in order of least effort to most effort. The closer you are to option 3, the more likely you’ll achieve your optimal body composition goals.
- Track total calories
- Track total calories and protein
- Track Macros
This is actually much more complex than what I’ve described here, but that’s the crux of it.
How to Calculate Your Calorie and Macro Requirements
To track your macros, you must first understand your energy expenditure and body composition goals.
By using an evidence-based calorie calculator you can calculate your estimated energy requirements, based on average energy expenditure.
From here, you can manipulate your calorie targets based on your goals. I’ve listed the 3 possible goals, and linked the appropriate guidelines to help you achieve those goals:
Now that you have your total energy requirements, you can break them down into macro requirements. You can either do this using percentage or gram units. I usually recommend using grams, because there are certain recommended gram targets for protein and fat intake. These are below:
- Sedentary individuals not prioritising muscle gain: 0.8-1.5g/kg BW/day (theoretically there is no specific number. 0.8g/kg BW/day is roughly the RDI, but there are arguments that people benefit from higher amounts).
- Lifters trying to maximise muscle gain: 1.6-2.2g/kg BW/day.
- Exceptionally lean lifters or those in a large calorie deficit: 2.3-3.1g/kg BW/day.
- The minimum fat requirement is >0.5g/kg BW/day. Going below this can negatively affect hormones.
When looking at changing body composition, it was shown in the pyramid above that total calories are the most important factor. So below I’ve highlighted how much of a surplus or deficit you may like to be in based on your goals. Once you’ve hit your minimal protein and fat requirements, you can make up the rest of your total calories with fat, carbs, or protein as desired.
Depending on how long you’ve been resistance training will influence your ability to gain muscle. The longer you’ve been resistance training, the more difficult it is to gain muscle and vice-versa #newbiegains. I’ve listed a general guide below:
The best-sized surplus is where you can gain muscle efficiently while keeping fat gain minimal (or at a level that you are happy with).
The more potential you have to gain muscle, the larger the surplus can be. The less able you are to gain muscle, the smaller the surplus should be.
- Beginner: 1-2kg muscle gain/ month = 250-500kcal surplus/ day
- Intermediate: 0.5-1kg muscle gain/ month = 125-250kcal surplus/ day
- Advanced: 0.2-0.5kg muscle/ month = 50-125kcal surplus/ day
1kg of body fat holds 7,700kcal. Therefore, the extremeness of your deficit depends on how quickly you’d like to lose the fat.
- 1kg fat loss/ week = 1,100kcal deficit/ day
- 0.5kg fat loss/ week = 550kcal deficit/ day
- 0.25kg fat loss/ week = 275kcal deficit/ day
Tools You’ll Need to Track
There are several calorie-tracking tools, websites, and apps out there these days.
We’ve found that using an app is more practical and convenient, considering you take it with you everywhere and it’ll save all your data in one spot. The most popular apps are:
This way you’ll be able to set up your total calorie and macronutrient requirements/ goal. Then as you add your food intake, the calories and macros will be calculated automatically and a percentage of how much you’ve consumed in accordance with your goal will be highlighted.
General Steps for Beginners
Now that you have your tools and you’re all set up, it’s time to start tracking.
- 1) Download your desired app – Several of the most common are listed above.
- Here I’m going to demonstrate using MyFitnessPal (MFP).
- P.S. You don’t need premium or any paid apps, the basic apps should have everything you need.
- 2) Set up an account – This is where you put in some personal details and the app will usually recommend calorie/ macro targets. But, from experience working with clients, we haven’t found these values to be very accurate/ useful.
- So, I recommend using this free calorie calculator to calculate your requirements. Then adjust your nutrition targets, by:
- Clicking “More” on the bottom right-hand side of the screen
- Then “Goals”
- Then “Calorie, Carbs, Protein and Fats Goals” and adjust accordingly.
- Your new calorie targets will appear at the top of your “diary” screen
- 3) Now, you can start inputting the food that you consume
- Under each meal you can click “add food”, then either search up the food you’re going to eat or scan the barcode (I recommend scanning).
If you’re searching for a food item, MFP has a green tick for items that the company has approved as accurate data. Anything that doesn’t have this green tick, I wouldn’t recommend using, unless the data aligns with that on the nutrition label on the food.
**Disclaimer, some products may not come up when scanning or searching. You may wish to enter the details manually so that your app saves the product for future use.
- 4) Once you have the food item on the screen, you’ll need to adjust the quantity that you’re going to consume and what unit measure to use.
- 5) Then click add (tick in top right hand corner).
- You can repeat steps 3-5 as many times as you’d like to.
- The app will keep a history of all the foods that you eat, so technically you only have to enter them once.
Essentially, that’s the basics. There are heaps of other features, below is a quick video that might help you understand further.
Things People Often Miss That Can Make a Big Difference
If you genuinely want to change your goals, you’re going to want to track them properly. Below are several tips that can improve the accuracy of your tracking.
Guessing the Weight
A common mistake I see is people guessing the weight of the food after they’ve eaten it. Unless you’re Einstein this is basically impossible and will lead to extremely inaccurate values at the end of the day.
The total calorie and macro value are based on how much of the food is consumed, therefore, it’s important to know the weight of the food.
There are two ways that you can identify the weight with:
- Reading the packet
- Weighing with kitchen scales
If you’re going to consume the entire packet, using the weight on the packet is probably the easiest option.
If it’s a food like pasta or meat that has several serves in it, then you have 3 options:
- If you’re meal-prepping the entire packet of pasta for yourself over a couple of meals, then you can roughly distribute it, knowing that it will add up at the end of the week.
- If you’re sharing a 4-serve packet of pasta with 4 people and you all consume relatively equal quantities, then you can add 1 serve of the pasta to your calorie tracking app (knowing that it will be roughly that amount).
- The most specific option is utilising kitchen scales and weighing your portion before it’s cooked, then add the to your app.
Entering Generic foods
Different brands will have different nutritional values for their products. This is especially true with the more processing a food undergoes. Therefore, I recommend if searching for a product search for the brand with it. Or otherwise, just scan the barcode to avoid this error.
Ignoring The Weekend
Many people will track religiously throughout the week, then completely ignore the weekend.
That is still 2 out of the 7 days a week.
If you’re in a 500kcal deficit/ day throughout the week, then ~1000kcal surplus on Saturday and Sunday only leaves you in a 500kcal deficit total at the end of the week. That’s not very much.
If you’re going to commit to tracking your macros, try to be as accurate as you can 7 days/ week for a couple of weeks, then take a break. Keep alternating that process until you achieve your goals.
Weighing Cooked Food Instead of Raw
Weighing food while it’s still raw is the most accurate way of measuring it. This is because when you cook food the weight changes, but the nutrient profile doesn’t.
Boiling rice will roughly double its weight because it has absorbed water and grilling chicken will roughly halve its weight because it’s lost water. However, the nutrient profiles haven’t changed. Therefore, if you use its cooked weight then it’s an inaccurate measure of the nutrients you’re consuming.
There is a tool on MFP that allows you to account for the cooked weight, however, everyone cooks food differently so this would also skew your results.
Overlooking “Little things”
Ever just had a:
- Bite of your kid’s sandwich.
- A “mini” Freddo frog.
- Untracked amount of cheese on your Bolognese.
These things add up, and unfortunately are a common culprit for why people struggle to accurately track macros.
I know it sounds extreme, but ideally, you’re tracking everything that goes in your mouth. If you’re going to have these things, you will need to track them.
Forgetting Cooking Oil and Butter
Cooking oil and butter can actually make a big difference. As discussed at the start every gram of fat has 9kcal, cooking oils and butter are predominantly fat. Therefore, by adding “just a dash of oil”, which might be roughly 20mL adds an extra 143kcal just in that meal.
Tracking and Not Finishing the Meal
This is an obvious one, but if you track your calories and macros for an entire meal, then only eat 75% of it technically you’ve only eaten 75% of the calories and macros. Which would mean inaccurate tracking at the end of the day.
Don’t Track Your Exercise
When you calculate your energy requirements at the start, they should be based on your energy expenditure:
- Resting Metabolic Rate
- Thermic Effect of Food
- Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
- Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
Therefore, if you’re maintaining roughly the same exercise regime then you shouldn’t need to account for more energy output because it’s already been done for you.
In addition, if your account for exercise then your calorie tracking app will estimate (big emphasis on the estimate) the amount of energy you’ve burnt then add that back to your energy requirements.
For example, if you go for a 10km run, then put this into MFP, then MFP may estimate that you’ve burnt 300kcal. It will accommodate for the energy you’ve burnt and take your energy requirements for that day from 2000kcal to 2300kcal.
Validity to Tracking Macros
There are 2 issues with macro tracking via phone applications.
The first is the apps themselves. They either:
- Don’t include all food products or brands relevant to the country.
- Don’t include all relevant measures related to the food product or country.
- Have the ability for random people to input random data about food items and their nutrition profiles.
- Scan a product barcode, but relay inaccurate details to the app.
- Plus, I’m sure there are many more.
The second issue is that people underreport. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, a meta-analysis showed that people underreport total energy and macronutrient consumption from 20-80%. That’s a lot.
People forget to report fat, alcohol, discretionary food and beverages unless prompted otherwise.
Roughly half of the errors though are due people to estimating quantities as opposed to weighing them out beforehand. People tend to use the app “suggested portion” instead of their actual portion size.
It’s proposed that people underreport due to two reasons 1) social acceptability or 2) convenience.
It’s pretty clear to see that underreporting is where tracking macros can fall apart. I’ve personally heard time and time again that “I’ve been tracking macros and in a calorie deficit for X months and can’t lose weight”. Based on the data above it’s easy to assume that people most likely aren’t seeing their desired results due to underreporting.
Therefore, even though it’s extremely tedious, honing in on the accuracy of macro tracking will most likely help you can achieve your goals sooner. Below I’ll step through how to improve accuracy.
If you’re going to track your macros, you may as well do it properly. Do it properly for a short period of time (6-8weeks), then take a break (2-4week), and alternate that process until you achieve your goals.
To summarise that tips to make it easier:
- Choose your preferred app (I usually recommend MFP)
- Calculate your requirements using a calorie calculator
- Set these targets on the app
- Scan or Search up products (with the green tick)
- Weigh the amount go food your having using raw weight
- Input those measurements into your app
- Once you’ve reached your desired targets for that day – you’re done!
** Make sure you include ALL food that enters your mouth – Monday through to Sunday.
** TIP: Use the recipe section for foods you eat often, this will make it way easier.