By now, I've NO doubt you've heard about "counting macros'. Macro diets have become incredibly trendy in recent years, yet surprisingly, as "popular" as they've become, I still find a lot of people are very confused about exactly WHAT a "macro diet" is, and what's more, they're unaware as to what exactly a macronutrient is, and how is differs from a micronutrient, a calorie, and so on.
Our bodies are intricate and complex and require a host of nutritional needs in order to function optimally. The composition of our diet is essential to meeting these needs and so it’s important to understand the two different types of nutrients that NUTRITION can be split into: macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
A macronutrient is a substance required in large amounts. The body needs MORE of these, then it does of micronutrients, which are substances required in small amounts.
There are THREE macronutrients: Fats, Carbohydrate, and Protein and each one contributes uniquely to your overall health and wellbeing.
Fats are an essential part of a healthy diet. They help improve brain development, overall cell functioning, protect the body’s organs and even help you absorb vitamins found in foods. Examples of foods that contain large amounts of fat would be nuts like almonds and walnuts, seeds such as pumpkin or sunflower, and items like coconut oil, olive oil, olives, and avocados.
Fats contain 9 calories per gram.
Protein is essential for repairing and regenerating body tissues and cells, a healthy functioning immune system and manufacturing hormones. This wouldn’t be possible without amino acids, which are found in protein rich foods. In total there are 20 types of amino acids, 9 of which are considered ‘essential" because they cannot be manufactured by the body. They must be obtained through nutrition. Protein can be found in some plant based foods like beans or legumes, and seeds (hemp, chia, flax). It's more densely found in many animal sources like fish, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, bison, dairy, etc.
Proteins contain 4 calories per gram.
Carbohydrates are comprised of small chains of sugar which the digestive body breaks down into glucose to use as the body’s primarily energy source. Some examples would be grains such as oatmeal and rice, fruits like apples or berries, beans and legumes, starchy tubers like potatoes or sweet potatoes, and squashes like acorn and butternut.
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram.
Micronutrients are not needed in the same quantities as macros, however are still equally as important. Micronutrients work in tandem with macronutrients to keep the body functioning and are crucial in order to maintain energy levels, metabolism, cellular function, and physical and mental wellbeing. Examples of micronutrients include calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, sodium, zinc, vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K, as well as biotin, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin and thiamin.
So what is a macro diet?
A macro tracking diet is a data driven method of eating which requires you to log your food each day to ensure that you hit daily predetermined macronutrient targets.
Based on your goals, you'd determine how many grams of protein, carbohydrate and fat you'd want to eat each day. In order to make sure you meet those requirements, you need to log or track (in other words count) your daily macronutrient intake. This is very similar to logging and tracking calories, except you are focused on logging and tracking macronutrients.
The easiest way to do this is with an app, such as My Fitness Pal, My Macros+, Fitocracy Macros, and Nutritionist. If you don’t have a smartphone, don’t panic! My Fitness Pal (MFP) has a web version. In some ways, I think the web version is actually easier to use than the mobile. Because you create an account to login, you MFP data will sync, so you can use your phone or computer, depending on what is more convenient at the time. By logging your food daily you can modify what you are eating to make sure you’re not eating too much or too little and to ensure you hit the required amount of each macronutrient you have determined that you need.
How to Log Your Food
Especially if you’re just starting out, you absolutely need to measure your food. Most of the apps I mentioned have searchable databases with almost everything in it, but you do need to be careful. Using "broadly defined food amounts" such as “1 boneless, skinless chicken thigh serving” leave a HUGE margin of error. Some foods are easy. For example if you’re eating a commercially-produced granola bar, just go ahead and input one bar and don’t stress. And with some apps you can simply scan the barcode on the product and proceed from there.
But, like I said, with foods that don't have a barcode, you need to get specific. My advice is to weigh items like fruits, vegetables, meats, chips, pretzels, etc. I also advise weighing irregularly shaped things like nuts and other items that don’t fit well into measuring cups. I really recommend using a kitchen scale that weighs in grams, because grams is a universal measurement, and once you familiarize yourself with it, it becomes FAR more simple to calculate ALL foods in one unit of measurement than to try to balance cups, ounces, miligrams, etc.
One ounce = 28 grams, and grams are a much finer scale, which also allows you to be much more accurate. Logging "one medium banana" well- one medium banana can mean a myriad of things. Logging "1 cup of banana", well is it s HEAPING cup or a LEVEL cup? Makes a big difference. However logging "28 grams of banana" is PRECISE.
Measuring can work well for liquids and some foods that are easy to measure in measuring cups. Things that you can easily level like peanut butter, almond butter, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc can be measured. Measuring also works well for some grains like oatmeal, rice and small pasta.
Also be sure that when you log your food you log the correct STATE of the food. For example "chicken breast" is searchable in COOKED and UNCOOKED amounts. If you're weighing your chicken breast cooked make sure you log it correspondingly.
What about recipes? Well, I do know MFP has a cool feature that lets you input a recipe’s ingredients and the number of servings. You can even import a recipe from the web!
Let’s be honest – most of us eat the same things pretty frequently. So I would suggest just typing in your favorite recipes once so that you can access them quickly in the future. I’m sure other programs have similar features, I’m just not personally familiar with them. Alternatively you can MANUALLY calculate out the calories and macronutrients in the recipe and then create a custom food in some apps, and save that food for future use.
So, what if you’re eating out at a restaurant and can’t whip out your kitchen scale? Here are my tips for tracking your food while dining out:
1. Do your very best to estimate and count, when applicable.Go with what the menu says for weights on burgers, steaks, etc. It may not be 100% accurate, but it’s better than nothing. If you're CLOSE ENOUGH, that's GOOD ENOUGH.
2. You can also politely explain to your waiter/waitress what you’re doing, and ask if they could see how many ounces of meat your dish has, how many cups of rice, etc. Even though the kitchen probably did not weigh your exact piece of chicken, restaurants have recipes and portion standards as part of their quality and cost control procedures. Especially if you’re in a nicer restaurant, the cooks should know exactly how much rice/pasta/etc they plated. They may not tell you, but if you ask nicely they probably will. And some restaurants can even provide ingredient lists and caloric information upon request. The country is becoming more health conscious so this is NOT as "strange" as you may think. Trust me! I've asked numerous times over the years and have been pleasantly surprised at the responses of the establishments.
My last big food logging tip is consider logging your food before you even put it in your mouth. For example I log my food each morning for the coming day, while I'm having my morning coffee. This allows me to input what I am planning to eat and so I can see how it fits into my goals for the day. I also like that this allows me to adjust. For example sometimes I'll see that I need to forego a particular item or only eat part of a serving in order to meet my daily macros. On the flipside sometimes I might log my food and discover I have leftover macros which means I can have extra (yay!). But in my opinion it's better to log before you eat because it allows you to find out if a specific item will blow your fat budget for the day. If you don't log until AFTER you eat it, well, damage done.
Logging your food is certainly not the only nutritional strategy that creates success, but I have found it is one of the best. It allows for flexibility and unilimited dietary variety which are crucial components of establishing sustainable eating habits, but it also offers the precision and structure needed to help ensure your body composition, healthy and fitness goals are met.