Ever wondered how to count macros? Fitness and nutrition expert Beth Wright gives us the deets on some things to consider before jumping in.
So the buzz around counting macros and flexible dieting (or, if it fits your macros, “IIFYM”) may have been around for a while, but is it the way for you? You might be asking yourself – what are the benefits, what does it actually involve and where do you start? In this guide, I’m going to explain how to count macros and things you need to think about before you start.
Is counting macros for me?
Here are some reasons why you might want to consider taking this approach even for a short while and leave the more traditional approach of counting only calories and the latest fad diets behind.
Macro nutrients fall into four main categories and are essentially where we get our calories from: protein and carbs are approximately four calories per gram, alcohol (yes, this is also a macro) is seven, and fats are nine.
If weight loss is your goal, the first step is to make sure you are eating less calories than your body needs – it’s all about energy balance after all! Traditional diets might restrict calories, food types, alcohol, and sometimes even dictate the time you should be eating. Counting macros means tracking your daily protein, carbohydrate, and fat intake whilst not focusing so much on specific foods or counting calories. This method means no foods are banned, but it focuses on ensuring you hit your daily macro targets. This often results in people naturally selecting more whole and less processed foods, so that they can feel less like they are on a ‘diet’.
Still not convinced? In addition, there is overwhelming evidence that shows counting macros and taking a more flexible approach to weight loss can lead to better results, more compliance, and less weight regain. If you are someone who has been used to diets that restrict foods, you may find this approach more liberating and, ultimately, brings greater long term results!
There’s no one way to achieve a specific goal – in my opinion it’s about picking the one that works best for you (and that you will stick to!).
Here are my thoughts on why it’s worth counting your macros at some point in your life and how to go about it!
1. Identify what your goal is
It’s important to determine what your goal is. Is it weight loss, muscle growth, to address specific health concerns, or to just be healthier and learn more about the foods you eat?
If fat loss is your goal, then protein is particularly important as it protects your body from breaking down lean muscle mass when in a caloric deficit. Also, protein improves satiety, keeps you fuller for longer, and has a thermic effect. This means that when you eat protein, 20-25 percent of the calories you take in from protein are used to digest the food – I like to think of this as eating at a discount – #winning!
Looking to build muscle? Protein contains the essential amino acids needed to build muscle, hence it should be your first priority. Moreover, you will need adequate amounts of fats and carbs to provide the body with enough energy to exercise and the necessary training stimulus to adapt and build muscle.
If you have a specific health concern, e.g. diabetes where carbs need to be monitored to determine insulin dosage, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) which is often managed more effectively with lower carbs, you might want to keep reduce your carbohydrate intake and focus on more protein and fats.
Good sources of protein include: all meat and fish (regularly rotate different sources to get a full and diverse range of nutrients), eggs and dairy, lentils and legumes, nuts and seeds.
Check out our guide to the best butchers in Hong Kong for a meat-based protein fix!
2. Calculating your macros: factors to consider
Once you have identified your goal, this will help you calculate your macro requirements.
For my clients, I always set the protein target first as this is the most important macro for body composition goals. This is determined by looking at a number of factors including weight, sex, age, activity levels and, of course, your goal. If fat loss and/or muscle growth are top priority, then keep protein high. A good starting point would be two grams per kilogram bodyweight. There really is no downside to ensuring you consume a good amount of quality protein everyday.
Both fats and carbs can be used as an energy source, so I like to tip the balance in favour of the one my clients feel best on. Some people naturally feel better on fats and some better on carbs. The only caveat being if you have any health issues that might be worsened by either a higher carb or higher fat intake. This is why it’s so important to recognise that every individual is different and should be assessed individually with a personalised nutrition plan – what works for me might be completely different for you.
Fats are essential for healthy hormone balance, so I focus on making sure my clients hit a daily minimum. Usually 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight is a good place to start.
Good sources of healthy fats include: avocados, nuts and seeds, extra virgin olive oil, oily fish like salmon and mackerel, dark chocolate (yes, you heard right – the raw, high-percent cacao version!)
3. How to track your macros
Counting macros can be overwhelming to start with, but it doesn’t need to be, especially in today’s digital age! Download one of the apps such as My Fitness Pal or MyMacros+ and be prepared to invest a few weeks of learning to weigh and track your food accurately. After a month, you should be able to eyeball food without using scales or even the app, and you will find choosing foods much more intuitive. Make sure to buy some food scales to accurately weigh and measure the food you eat for the initial stages. I like to think of this as an investment in your education for long term success.
4. How to choose the right foods
When calories are less important and your goals are determined primarily by proteins, fats, and carbs, you will instinctively start to choose more natural or less processed foods which contain higher amounts of your desired macros. The apps will help with this and your knowledge will grow with every food item you input; over time, you will find that you naturally lean towards healthier choices. It won’t take long before you realise that the doughnut you just ate doesn’t go far towards meeting your protein targets (although it’s delicious – and sometimes also necessary.)
Fact: we actually don’t need carbs or alcohol to survive, although in my humble opinion, life would be pretty dull without either!
5. Don’t be too rigid!
Remember the reason you started this… And that one of the key benefits is to become more aware of the foods you eat and to be more in tune with your body. Think of your macros as targets rather than absolute numbers. With my clients, I generally set a minimum amount of protein and in most cases let them take a flexible approach with fats and carbs. So go with how you feel and enjoy the flexibility it brings. No food is off limits – it just has to fit your macros!
Macros are just one piece of the puzzle. Look to incorporate a variety of foods to ensure a variety of vitamins and minerals. Don’t forget physical exercise, having a good sleep routine, and finding ways to manage any life and work stress. Health is so much more than just one thing.