Counting macros is one of the best ways to approach your nutrition.
I would even say it’s THE BEST way. It’s a flexible approach that doesn’t force you into eating the same boring foods day in and day out. It gives you the option to eat your favorite foods nearly every day.
And, most importantly, it’s a very effective way to reach your fitness goals, whether that’s losing fat or gaining muscle.
This complete guide will teach you everything you need to know about counting your macros. Let’s jump right into it!
Do You Even Macros?
Can I eat that pop tart before my workout? Def fam, as long as it fits your macros!
Do you even macro?
What are the macros in that pizza, bro?
You hear it all the time, but what does any of it mean? It’s merely light-hearted bro talk referring to the “art” of tracking macros, known formally as macronutrients – the building blocks of our food.
It’s these components that give us energy in the form of calories. The three most important ones are protein (my favorite), fats, and carbohydrates (also known as carbs). If you want to learn more about each one, check out this intro post.
Why Should You Count Your Macros?
You may be wondering why counting macros is so effective.
After all, aren’t calories all that matter for weight loss and muscle gain? Isn’t macro tracking for those neurotic bros at the gym who only care that there are enough mirrors for their Instagram photos?!
Not at all. Counting macros works for absolutely everyone. It’s a dieting hack that will help you unlock your body’s potential and achieve fantastic results.
Macros work because they prioritize which macronutrients you eat, vastly improving the quality of your food intake.
Let me give you an example. There are two ways you can lose weight:
Option 1: Cut whatever calories out of your diet, losing weight however your body sees fit. You will likely lose a lot of muscle because your body will hold on to what it needs to survive. It doesn’t need muscle. Kiss those sweat-stained hours in the gym goodbye.
Option 2: Strategically change your macros, which will help you shred fat while maintaining (and sometimes gaining) muscle mass. You’ll keep the muscle you’ve worked hard for, but lose all the fat you don’t want.
The same goes for gaining muscle. You can hop on the “see” food diet, stuffing your mouth with whatever you get your hands on, or you can use macros to help you gain as much muscle as possible while minimizing fat gain.
Counting Macros – Step By Step:
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here is how you can start counting and tracking your macros today:
Step 1: Get a Tracking Log
The first step to tracking your macros is to get a log where you can record what you put in your mouth on a daily basis. That’s the whole point, right?
You can be old school and use a notebook, but since you carry your phone around with you, it’s much easier to get a good macro tracking app. That’s what I use and recommend.
If you search “food tracker” or “macro calculator” on iTunes or Google Play, you’ll get a ton of hits. Some apps are simple, and some are bloated. Some come with a bunch of other features, and others are just great at macro counting. Some have databases of foods you can use, others do not.
I suggest you play around with a few of them and pick something that works for you. I don’t like apps that come with other “features” or “community”, and I don’t use those that have a user-entered database of foods (they are completely inaccurate).
What I do like is simplicity, so I use the OTR Macro App designed by Mike Vacanti. You can get it free for iPhone and Android. Give it a try, I know you’ll like it!
Step 2: Figure Out Your Daily Macros
To start counting, you need to know how many grams of protein, fats, and carbs you need to eat each day.
These will be your macro targets. Now as the day goes on, you will record how many grams of protein, fats, and carbs you ACTUALLY eat. The goal is to come as close to your macro targets as possible each and every day.
Depending on your workout program, you’ll typically have slightly different macro targets for your workout and off days. Make sure you’re using the right ones!
So where do you get your target macros? If you want to figure them out yourself, read this post, where I give some general guidelines based on your current fitness goals, this one if you’re trying to lose fat, or this one if you’re trying to gain muscle.
Alternatively, if you’re using the OTR app I linked above, it will calculate your macros for you based on your age, weight, height, body fat percentage and fitness goals.
And finally, if you want personalized macro targets to go with your custom workout program, hit me up right here.
Step 3: Learn to Read Nutrition Labels
Most foods you can buy have the good old nutrition label that’s been staring you in the face for years. Originating in 1990, it lists everything you need to count the macros you’re about to eat.
Fats, carbs, protein. It’s all there. Easy-peasy.
The nutrition label is your lay-up. It’s easy, but you still need practice reading it. Start with some foods you have around the house, and actually look at the label. Find another food and do the same. Practice this a couple of times.
I can see you roll your eyes from here – “Chris, I look at nutrition labels 247 times a day. I know what I’m doing.” Sure, but did you see that the bottle of Gatorade you drank has 2.5 servings in it? The misleading label claims that there are just 10g of sugar per serving, but tried to hide the fact that there are more than one serving per bottle!
What to Look For on a Nutrition Label
- Serving Size: Think of it as a multiplier for all the other numbers. If you’re eating all the servings, you need to multiply the other numbers by the serving size. If you want to eat just one serving, look at how big each one is.
- Total Fat: This is the total grams of fat per serving. Log this number.
- Total Carbohydrates: Same as fats – multiply by the serving size (if necessary) and write down in your log.
- Protein: The last one of the “big three” you need to record.
For the purpose of counting macros, the rest of the info on the label is useless. But, in case you’re wondering, here is what it means:
- Calories: We’re counting macros, so there is no need to worry about the calories. The macros will take care of that for you.
- Saturated Fat: The hero that we need, but society just doesn’t want it. Saturated fat gets a lot of bad press. The reality is that it has a lot of benefits to the human body. No need to track it, but don’t be scared by it!
- Fiber: Important? Yes. Does it need to be tracked? No. Eat lots of veggies, especially the dark leafy ones hipsters love, and you won’t have a problem with fiber.
- Sugar: Delicious. Otherwise, part of the total carbs.
- % Daily Value: Arbitrary values made to fit the mythical 2,000 calorie diet. These percentages are misguided information. Ignore completely.
Step 4. Get a Food Scale
Not all your food is going to have a nutrition label. At least I hope so. After all, you probably shouldn’t eat Snickers all day, delicious as that sounds.
For foods that don’t have a label (think veggies, meats, chicken, potatoes, etc.), a good food scale will be your best friend. Here is the one I use, and it works great.
Weighing your food is going to suck at first. You’ll probably find it tedious and a waste of time. I mean c’mon, who wants to weigh their food before cooking it?
The problem with NOT weighing your food is that you’ll likely overeat or under eat. It’s cool to think that you can “guestimate” how much 100g of chicken is, but chances are, you’ll be wrong.
Your food scale will help you get the exact portion sizes right.
Another benefit of weighing your food is that it will give you portion awareness over time. In a few weeks or months, you’ll know what 100g of steak looks like, or how small 2 ounces of cheese is.
So use the food scale. Don’t use measuring cups or tablespoons – humans are HORRIBLE at measuring by hand. Just weigh it. Empty out that drawer in the kitchen where you store all that random crap (let’s be honest, you’re never going to use that turkey baster), and put your shiny new food scale there.
Step 5. Track Foods Without Nutrition Labels
If the food doesn’t have a nutrition label, you’ll need to look up its nutrition information online and weigh it with the sale you just got.
Now, most of the foods you need to look up will be in the database of your app. Especially the easy stuff like fruits, veggies and most meats. For that rare time it’s not, a quick search online will give you all the info you need.
I use Nutrition Data and Calorie Count. These are the best sites in the business for getting accurate macro counts. Google has recently stepped up its game as well, so you can often just google a food to get its macros. Use this to look up veggies, produce, meat, chicken, and fish.
You’ll find all the info you need faster than you can sneak in those Tinder swipes.
Caught ya 😉
Quick note on meats – always weigh your meat raw. The listed nutrition facts are always raw unless stated otherwise. Plus, it’s just easier to weigh your meat before cooking.
Step 6. Figure Out How Much You Have Left To Eat
You know how much you CAN eat each day. You’re logging how much you ACTUALLY eat. The difference is how much you have LEFT to eat.
A good macro tracking app will show this to you automatically. You’ll know exactly how many grams of protein, fats, and carbs you will have left for the day.
Use this number to plan your meals later in the day. This is where the flexibility of macro tracking shines as clear as Excalibur.
Let’s say you wanted a couple of donuts for breakfast and you went for them. End of the world? Not really. Just count their macros and log them.
Now be conscious of what you eat the rest of your day to stay within your targets. It may mean that you’ll have to skip your brown rice with lunch or dinner. But donuts are life, so who’s complaining?!
Unless you break down and eat three pizzas, you can usually squeeze in a serving or two of your favorite indulgences even on a weight loss program.
Step 7. Put It All Together
To sum it all up, here is how each glorious day of counting macros should go:
1. Know what your macro targets are for that day (workout or non-workout).
2. Look at the nutrition label of everything you put in your mouth. If there isn’t one, find its nutrition information through your app or online.
3. Write down the number of grams of protein, carbs and fats you just ate.
4. Subtract what you ate from your target for the day to figure out what you still need to eat.
5. Get the body you always wanted.
Thermodynamics is a real thing. Losing and gaining weight is all about calories in vs. calories out. You can achieve a very average body just by counting calories. A professor did it eating Twinkies. Normal is fine, for some people.
But not for you. Ordinary people don’t slay dragons. Average Joes don’t get to rescue the princess. The time for average is over.
You have your macros, you downloaded a sleek macro app, you know how to read a nutrition label, the food scale is on its way from Amazon, and you were surprised to learn that Google could be useful for more than just cat pictures.