A Brief History of Counting Macros and Calories
Counting macronutrients is a powerful strategy for transforming your physique and accomplishing your health and fitness goals. The practice has been around since the 1970’s and first took form as counting calories and protein intake by bodybuilders to give them an edge for competition. Nowadays, the practice is used by bodybuilders, powerlifters, professional athletes, student athletes, and the general population for athletic performance, attaining desired physique, and overall health and well-being. Tracking calories and macros gives you a no-nonsense, objective look at what you are consuming and what needs to change in order to reach your goals. Before we get into strategies, let’s discover what exactly macronutrients are and why they are important.
What are Macros?
The three macronutrients that make up macro counting are carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Proteins are the building blocks of muscle and life. Fats are stored energy and are also important for brain and nervous system function. Carbohydrates are used as primary sources of energy and converted into glucose and then glycogen so our muscles can use them appropriately when needed. People count macros to keep their calories in check and make strides toward their goals, namely weight loss, fat loss, and muscle gain. There are 2 main strategies for counting macros that are used by different populations at different times, which we will learn more about next.
Macro Counting Strategies
Strategy 1: Calories and protein. This is the strategy I implore most of my clients to use who are interested in counting macros. I have them focus on total calories (majority of them being in a deficit for weight loss) combined with getting adequate protein each day. This allows more flexibility while still progressing them to the ultimate goal, which is fat loss and muscle gain.
Strategy 2: Calorie + all nutrients. This strategy is a bit more complex but also allows for greater specificity with the type of weight people gain or lose. When you get super specific with the timing and amount of carbohydrates and fat you eat, alongside adequate protein, you can turn your body into a fat burning machine while maintaining and even gaining more muscle. This is more advanced and takes a lot more planning than just tracking calories and protein.
Whether you choose strategy 1 or 2, the common denominator is that you MUST keep track of what you are eating. And, honestly, whether you are counting macros and calories or not, keeping track of your food consumption is beneficial for so many reasons. It gives you an objective look at what you are eating and how that is linked to the progress you are (or aren’t) making on your health and fitness journey.
When it comes to tracking food, I recommend also keeping track of the subjective side of things. Recognizing how you felt before eating, how foods taste, how you feel after, your activity level, your cravings, and more gives you a very detailed understanding as to WHY you make the decisions you do, as well as HOW you can change your behaviors if that is your goal.
Back to tracking macros. When keeping track, there are a few things you must do each day. The first and most important thing is to see what your eating habits are. Do you eat more in the morning or evening? Do you eat more before or after workouts? Do you snack between meals? Do you drink calories? All of these things are important because it is much more difficult to change our eating habits than it is to change what we consume.
I have worked with people who practice fasting and only eat once or twice a day, and I have worked with folks who snack literally all day, every day. You can achieve your goals through either of these schedules and anything in the middle, so if you are new to tracking do yourself a favor and keep your routines the same when you start. Remember - with behavior change we must start small in order to sustain results.
Focus on Protein First
Once you have your routine and timing dialed in, that’s when you start to make mindful changes to the macro makeup of your meals. The most important thing to consider when it comes to planning your meals is being protein forward. Protein forward is a term coined by Dr. Gabrielle Lyon and it means you are prioritizing protein FIRST for each meal, and filling in the gaps with carbs and fats after making sure your protein goals are met. Again, proteins (and more specifically amino acids) are the building blocks of our muscles and life, so making sure we are getting enough is important. The amount will vary per person, and there are simple equations you can use to calculate the amount of protein to eat each day.
If your goal is to gain muscle (and subsequently lose body fat), you should be eating at LEAST 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight, every single day. This means if you are a 250 pound male, you need to eat a minimum of 175 grams of protein EACH DAY! Some experts recommend up to (and even more than) 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. Anywhere in the range of 0.7 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight seems to be the sweet spot, and there is not sufficient evidence to show a major difference between 0.7 and 1 g/bw. After we get protein dialed in, we focus on fats and carbohydrates.
Fats and Carbs are Important too
Fats can be thought of as long term energy for our bodies.. Although the right types of fats are extremely healthy, they are much more dense than carbohydrates and protein. Fats have 9 calories per gram, while carbs and protein have 4 calories per gram. That said, eating fat is important for our gut and brain health, so being strategic with fat consumption is crucial.
Lastly we have carbohydrates. Carbs are faster energy and come in the form of simple or complex carbs. Simple carbs break down quickly - think sugars - while complex carbs break down slowly. Being strategic with carbohydrate consumption is key. You have probably heard of low carb diets like keto, and they work because your body does not actually need carbohydrates to survive, and thus relies primarily on body fat for energy. However, carbohydrates are important for mental health and often contain valuable micronutrients, so incorporating carbs is important. The best time to eat carbohydrates is directly AFTER a workout. This helps with replenishing the muscles with glycogen and muscle recovery ASAP. There is one more nutrient that technically counts as a macro, and that is Alcohol.
Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram and is completely devoid of nutritional value. In fact, alcohol slows metabolism and forces your body to put on extra body fat. Check out this article I wrote about alcohol to learn more about how you can make it fit into a healthy lifestyle.
Now that we understand the macronutrients, how do we plan the amounts we will eat of each?
A Real World Example
Again, simple formulas make this practice super easy. One of the best things you can do to make a formula that works for you is understand your basal metabolic rate and how many calories you are going to aim for each day. I will use myself as an example:
Body weight: 230 pounds
Body Fat%: 19%
Basal metabolic rate: ~2000 calories per day
Add my activity (45+ minutes per day, intense exercise 3-4 days per week): ~3000 calories/day maintenance
Once we know our maintenance calories, we can create a calorie range to based our macros off of.
Michael maintenance: 2900-3100 calories/day
Protein: 150 g x 4 calories/gram = 600 calories
Carbs: 300 g x 4 calories/gram = 1200 calories/day
Fats: 80 g x 9 calories/gram = 720 calories/day
Total = 2520 cals/day - I will lose weight!
Once you have the numbers, create a range around them. This is probably THE most important piece of this process. When we approach counting calories/macros as ranges to hit rather than specific amounts, we allow ourselves grace in the process and remove the happenings of guilt and shame that can come from not hitting our goals. My examples of ranges are below.
Protein: 145-170 g
Carbs: 250-300 g
Fats: 65-85 g
Notice I made my range higher for protein and lower for carbohydrates and fats. This ensures I will prioritize protein daily to build and maintain muscle mass for the long run. Little things like this when it comes to strategy will go a long way in helping you achieve your health and fitness goals.
The Bottom Line
To sum all of this up…
- Focus on eating whole, real foods most of the time that are high in protein and fiber.
- To know where you are at and better understand your needs, you need to keep track of your food intake. Download my free Food Journaling Template to do just that.
- When counting macros, focus on protein first and fill in the gaps with carbs and fats
- Be mindful of how dense the foods you consume are - it’s easy to overeat without noticing it.
- Use ranges instead of exact amounts to make it easier psychologically.
I hope this guide is simple and helps make macro counting easy and joyful for you on your journey. Again, there is no one right way to do anything - experimentation is key to finding what works best for you. Have fun, eat well, and train hard.