Macros 101

How many calories should you eat for your goals? How much protein should you eat for your goals?

Most branded diets rely on emphasizing variables of low importance, hailing things like reducing carbs, using strict meal timing, and eliminating entire food groups as your dietary saviors. While these variables are not inherently bad, they also aren’t inherently good, or even inherently necessary to focus on.

There are only a few variables that are absolutely essential to making progress toward your ideal body composition. 

What are macros, anyway?

The term “macros” is short for “macronutrients.” The three macros are protein, carbs, and fats. These essential nutrients make up the calories in your food (4, 4, and 9 calories per gram, respectively). 

(Alcohol is also a macronutrient containing 7 calories per gram, but is not usually included because it’s non-essential and is technically a carbohydrate)

Why are macros important?

You will often hear the verbs “counting” or “tracking” associated with macros. Is this reminiscent of “counting calories,” or “tracking calories?” It’s actually the same idea!

At the most basic level of tracking macros, there is one king which reigns supreme: calories

Over the years, counting calories has been praised and demonized, often by the same people! This counting approach is sound, but it can become obsessive and restrictive if it’s not framed correctly. We already know that total daily calorie intake will determine whether your body fat increases, decreases, or stays the same over time. Calories are units of energy – if you eat more than your body can use, it will store them as fat. If you eat less than your body needs, it will pull from your energy stores of fat. If you eat the equivalent amount of calories to the amount that your body uses, you will maintain your body fat level.

Following the royalty analogy, protein would represent the queen. Eating enough protein is important to make sure that your body decides to get rid of fat instead of hard-earned muscle. Muscle mass is very “calorically expensive” to maintain  and your body is looking for every reason to get rid of it. Dietary protein acts on the defensive end to keep muscle from wasting away (atrophy), and working out acts on the offensive end to promote growth (hypertrophy).

In theory, you could lose body fat by eating in a caloric deficit (calories in < calories out) that consists entirely of junk foods. If you ate the right number of calories’ worth of sugar, butter, chocolate, donuts, etc., you could still lose body fat. 

However, you definitely wouldn’t feel very good while eating this way. Additionally, you would lose a substantial amount of muscle mass and therefore strength by doing this because you would not be consuming enough protein – the queen of body composition. Because of decreased muscle mass, your metabolism would significantly decrease, which would make it even more difficult to decrease your body fat! All of these factors would lead to poor workout performance as well.

The way to reconcile eating the correct number of calories for our goals without sacrificing feeling well and hard-earned muscle mass is by looking at what “types” of calories we are eating. There are three “types” (or sources) of calories:

Protein, carbs, and fat – our three macros.

How can I figure out my macros?

This is an easy one! Check out the “How to Calculate Your Macros” section on page 12! Use those calculations as a starting point. The real proof will be in how your body responds to consistently reaching and adjusting  your macros targets!

You’ll notice that there is no given calculation for determining how many grams of carbs of fat you should eat for your goals. This is because the proportion of carbs and fats in your diet matters very, very little for most of us when it comes to body composition or workout performance. As long as you reach your daily protein target, you can fill in the rest of your daily calorie target with whatever carb/fat sources that you prefer!

Anyone who has even lost body fat on any one of the million diets out there has done so because it helped them achieve a caloric deficit. 

This is to say that some people enjoy high fat/low carb diet plans. Some do well with a high carb/low fat strategy. Others do fine changing it up day by day, as long as they consistently reach their calorie/protein targets. This is the flexible aspect of counting macros, which can help you “afford” your favorite foods even while losing body fat (or whatever your goal is!).

What do I do with my macros?

Knowing your target macros is a great start, but knowledge without action is of no value here! There are two main ends of the macros-tracking spectrum that offer a wide variety of strategies in between.

First, you can pre-plan all of your meals for the day or week, based off of your macros. This sort of planning is easiest when using an app such as MyFitnessPal. The main benefit here is that you don’t have to spend daily time and effort in logging your foods because you have essentially already written out your grocery list and meal plan. The potential downside here is that this strategy leaves little wiggle room for unexpected meals, hunger, or social events.

Second, you could swing the macros pendulum the other way and not plan anything in advance. You can track your food/meals throughout the day also using an app such as MyFitnessPal. The main benefit here is that it offers the ultimate in food-choice flexibility. You can track as you eat, and you can simply stop eating once you’ve reached your targets. The potential downside with this approach is that you may reach your calorie goal early in the day, and potentially without having reached your protein goal.

I generally prefer to meet somewhere in the middle of these two extremes of rigidity and flexibility. I set out a general plan based on the foods that I typically eat, and leave some room for anything that may come up.

My best tip here is actually already a built-in feature of tracking macros: practice. Practicing toward accuracy and consistency will help train your eye to estimate the macros/calories in any given meal without having to rely so heavily on an app such as MyFitnessPal. Tracking your macros for the rest of your life is probably not necessary for your goal set. I still use this app daily during times of pursuing a specific body composition goal, but the eventual goal is to get better at visually and intuitively estimating the macros profile of any given meal.

If you can apply yourself to learning this skill now, you may be on your way toward a leaner, stronger, healthier self in less time than you think! I typically give my clients the 90 day challenge: track your macros for 90 consecutive days, followed by a few weeks of “testing” your new intuitive eating skills! If your body continues in your intended direction, great! If your body makes unexpected changes, you may not be as accurate as you think – keep tracking!  

How to Calculate your Macros

1. Calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

This number is an estimation of the number of calories required to run all of your necessary bodily functions while at rest.

If you know your body fat percentage:
370 + (21.6 x Lean Body Mass (kg))

* LBM = Fat Free Mass – Fat Mass
* kg = lb/2.2

If you don’t know your body fat percentage:
(10 x WT (kg)) + (6.25 x HT (cm)) – (5 x age (years)) + S)

* S = 5 (male), -161 (female)
* cm = in/2.54

2. Calculate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)

This number is an estimation of the number of calories you burn on an average day 

BMR x Activity Multiplier = TDEE

Activity Multipliers:

1.2 = Sedentary (no/sporadic exercise)
1.375 = Lightly Active (light exercise 1-3 days/week) 
1.55 = Moderately Active (moderate exercise 6-7 days/week)
1.725 = Heavily Active (hard exercise 7 days/week)
1.9 = Extremely Active (hard exercise 2+ times/day)

3. Apply your TDEE to whichever formula below best represents your top priority fitness goal.

If your goal is FAT LOSS…
TDEE x .75 = Daily Calorie Target (25% Deficit)

Protein General Recommendation = 1 gram/lb of LBM

* If LBM is unknown, general protein recommendation is 20-30% of daily calories from protein; (Calories x .2-.3) / 4 = daily protein grams

If your goal is MAINTENANCE…
TDEE x 1 = Daily Calorie Target (Maintenance)

Protein General Recommendation = 1 gram/lb of LBM

* If LBM is unknown, general protein recommendation is 20-30% of daily calories from protein; (Calories x .2-.3) / 4 = daily protein grams

If your goal is MUSCLE BUILDING…

TDEE x 1.1 = Daily Calorie Target (10% Surplus)

Protein General Recommendation = 1 gram/lb of LBM

* If LBM is unknown, general protein recommendation is 20-30% of daily calories from protein; (Calories x .2-.3) / 4 = daily protein grams

These basic guidelines will help most people with most goals. Special circumstances will require special recommendations, such as reverse dieting and time-sensitive goals

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