Macros: you hear them talked about all the time, but what exactly are they?
Whether it’s tracking macros, food being referred to as macro-friendly, hearing “if it fits your macros,” or any of the other thousands of references to “macros,” it can surely feel confusing.
But I promise you, it is quite simple.
The basics: what exactly are macros?
Macros is shorthand for macronutrients.
Macronutrients refers to the fat, carbohydrates, and protein in food.
Why only these 3 things and not other stuff like sodium, cholesterol, or fiber?
The 3 macronutrients all have a caloric value, which is why we count them.
- 1g of carbohydrates contains 4 calories.
- 1g of protein also contains 4 calories.
- 1g of fat contains 9 calories.
Technically speaking, alcohol is the 4th macronutrient, and has 7 calories per gram, but it’s not widely discussed as a macronutrient because it’s not essential in our lives.
We’re going to ignore alcohol completely here since it’s not a staple in our diets, but just note that alcohol does indeed also have calories.
No matter which way you slice it, the caloric values listed above are ALWAYS true. Foods that are high in fat, such as nuts or avocado, are also high in calories, because fat has a high caloric value.
Food cannot have 20 grams of protein and only 50 calories, because 20g of protein will ALWAYS contain 80 calories (20g x 4 calories = 80 calories). That’s why 100 calories of fruit will look different than 100 calories of candy.
People that say “all calories are not created equal” are incorrect. They ARE all equal, since it’s just a unit of measurement… The caloric value is identical in this example: 100 calories. But their macronutrients are different. An apple might be 25g of carbs, and the dark chocolate might be 10g of fat and 2.5g of carbs.
A calorie can’t be different from another calorie, but where it comes from can be different.
To keep it simple: tracking macros is a more advanced way of counting calories.
Why would you want to track your macros?
Let’s be clear about what “tracking macros” is: it’s simply one tool of many to help you achieve your goals.
By no means is tracking something you need to do, and it very well may not be the best route for you. In fact, there are many cases in which I actually recommend NOT tracking macros.
Personally, I have found it to be incredibly useful in not only helping me reach my goals but also in establishing a solid understanding of nutrition as a whole.
Tracking macros for weight loss (or weight gain)
Tracking macros can be a very effective tool when it comes to weight loss.
We know that calories are the driving factor for weight loss, and if you are in a caloric deficit, you’ll lose weight. But restricting your calories without much thought about what you are eating may not prove to be the best route for you to take.
Setting macro targets for yourself helps to make those goals much, much easier. For example, when you set a protein target for yourself, you’ll make sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet to keep you feeling full & satisfied, and preserve as much muscle as possible while losing bodyfat.
If you’re reading this and wondering how in the world you can possibly know how much of each macronutrient you should be eating, I’ve got you covered! Go check out my calorie & macro calculator to get my recommendations for you.
Tracking macros will help you build a base knowledge about nutrition
For me, the best part about tracking macros was how much knowledge it gave me about nutrition.
I tracked my calories & macros for many years, and I’ve now gotten to the point where I no longer feel the need to track my macros. By doing it for so many years, I’m able to eyeball my portions and focus on simply eating mindfully throughout the day while still hitting my goals.
While I don’t know if I’m exactly hitting a protein target of 150g, I know how to prioritize protein in my meals and snacks to keep me close every single day. When I go out to eat, I’m able to choose a dish that I know will best help me hit my goals (but let’s be clear, more often than not I’m not worrying about that when I go out to eat because I just want to enjoy myself!), and that’s something that I never would have been able to do in the past.
Most importantly, tracking macros for so long helped me to truly understand that no food is ever off-limits.
I have a ton of macro comparisons on my blog that showcase exactly that.
When you break food down into macros, it really helps you to see food for what it really is. On the surface, you might assume that ordering a salad is a better choice for you than ordering a sandwich.
But when you break the food down into macros and compare the two, sometimes you’ll find that the salad is not necessarily the better option! That is why I’m so thankful for macros.
It truly helped me establish a really positive relationship with food.
Do you need to track macros?
Tracking macros and counting calories are incredibly useful skills to have. No matter what your goals are, being able to track macros is a great way to help you stay on track. But there is a very fine line between knowing how to track macros of a meal, and NEEDING to track macros of every meal.
I post fast food & restaurant nutrition guides fairly often. Every time I do, I get some push back from people that say something along the lines of “who cares about the calories, just enjoy the food.”
The thing is, some people DO care about the calories.
And you are allowed to care- there is absolutely nothing wrong with ordering fast food and wanting to track the calories & macros of that meal.
But it does become an issue when we put our lives on hold in order to be able to track those macros. If you can’t enjoy a family party because you’re too preoccupied with the fact that you have no idea what is in the food, it becomes an issue.
Or if you’re asked out on a date and decline because the restaurant doesn’t have nutritional information available, that’s an issue. Needing to know the macros in every single meal damages our relationship with food. It’s one thing to be educated, but it’s another thing to be totally consumed.
Counting calories, tracking macros, weighing food… they’re all tools to help you stay on track, but they’re not meant to be a full-time job. We need to be able to take a break. I want to help you learn how to track calories & macros, not force you to do so.
You’re allowed to track your macros. But remember that you don’t HAVE TO track your macros. That’s the beauty of this whole dieting thing- there are no rules!
Tracking macros can be a very useful and effective tool, but it’s not the only tool.
How do you track your macros?
Once you calculate your macronutrient requirements (you can use my free calculator for that) it’s time to get started actually tracking your macros.
Tracking macros means, quite literally, tracking (or logging) the macronutrients of everything you eat.
If you eat a protein bar, you’d log the 230 calories, 8g fat, 23g carbs, and 20g protein.
You do this for all the food you eat, trying to get as close as possible to the targets you set for yourself. You can physically look at every nutrition label and write down everything you eat, but that is a time-consuming nightmare. Instead, I recommend you utilize one of the many food tracking apps out there.
MyFitnessPal seems to be the most widely used app, so I’m going to dive into that one a bit more, but note that there are many alternatives with similar functionality that you can use. Once you download the app, you can input your own caloric and macronutrient goals.
Do not use the app to calculate these numbers for you– they tend to be wildly inaccurate.
Once you input your numbers based on your own calculations, you’re ready to start logging your intake. As you eat throughout the day, you’ll log the food you eat. Logging is as simple as pressing the “Add Food” link under the meal of your choosing.
If you’re logging breakfast, you’d go to breakfast and click “Add Food.” Note that by the time you are reading this, the app may have changed slightly, or you may be using a different app entirely, so the process might be slightly different. Nonetheless, once you find the way to “add food,” it’s a very straightforward process.
Here, you have 3 options:
- Scan a barcode
- Search for a food
- Input it manually
Scanning a barcode: Most food should come up effortlessly if you scan the barcode. I always go this route when I can, but it’s important to double-check once you do! Occasionally, a different food entirely will pop up, so you want to double-check before you log it as part of your day.
Searching for food: Sometimes your food isn’t going to have a barcode, like if you’re logging vegetables or meat. In this case, the search is going to be your friend! The only issue with searching the database is that ANYONE can add food, so the results can be all over the place. If you’re searching for a whole food that doesn’t have a specific brand, search for “USDA ____”.
If you want to find boneless skinless chicken breast, search for “USDA boneless skinless chicken breast.” Once you find and select the food, you can change the measurement/amount to what you have eaten. If the chicken comes up as a 3oz serving, you can click on the 3oz and switch over to grams if you want to log the exact weight in grams.
If for some reason the food doesn’t allow you to toggle to the measurement you need, go back and select a different USDA option.
Inputting manually: Maybe you’ve baked some goodies based on a high-protein recipe you found here on my blog, and you don’t want to break that recipe up into individual ingredients to log.
If you know the calories & macros of the recipe, you can input them manually as a quick add for the day.
If you do want to log all of the ingredients, the app gives you the option to create a recipe as well. At any point in the day, you can easily see the breakdown of your macros to see where you are at! Remember, you don’t have to use a food tracking app, but with all of these features, it’s going to make your life significantly easier. There is one major downfall that trips up a lot of people with these apps, however…
Do NOT add back in calories from exercise.
MyFitnessPal allows you to input your exercise, and it can sync up with your phone, watch, or fitness tracker to log your calories burned throughout the day.
When you do this, it “rewards” you the extra calories you’ve burned to eat in your day. If your goal is 2,000 calories and you have already eaten 2,000 calories, and you also burned 500 calories through cardio, the app will “reward” you with an extra 500 calories to eat that day.
On the surface, this might sound great, but it can be detrimental to your progress.
Exercise is not always going to burn the same amount of calories, but we don’t want to concern ourselves with the specific calories burned every day- we like to keep things easy. If you set your own calories to be in a calorie deficit, adding back in those 500 calories can be the difference between being in a deficit and being in a surplus. Ignore those exercise calories the app recommends.
If you burn more calories through exercise one day, that’s a great bonus, but it shouldn’t change your approach. We did all that complicated math for a reason, don’t let it go to waste.
If the goal is reverse dieting and/or bulking, you may find yourself worrying that the calories burned from exercise means you’re not eating enough to reach your goals. Since we take our activity levels into account when we calculate our maintenance level, it shouldn’t be an issue!
But if you find that you’re not making the progress you’d like, rather than worry about specific calories burned through exercise, simply bump up your daily calorie target a bit.