Hi! I asked Colin to do another article for us about calculating macros. Just in case you don’t already log food, I use an app called Cronometer. (I’m not sponsored by them or anything like that. ) I used to use the BodyBugg app to track, so when that went away, I searched until I found one that had a simple interface and would show macros easily. I also needed an app that allowed me to use my desktop as well as my mobile devices.
I hope you like Colin’s post! Please leave your questions in the comments and he’ll answer them. Or if you’d rather talk with him privately about your situation, his contact info is at the end of this article.
One of the more common questions I get from people looking to start tracking macros is, well, just how the heck do you know what your macros should be!? It’s a fantastic question really, just because you’re willing to track doesn’t mean you know what to do. There isn’t exactly a guide out there that shows you exactly how to do it. Sure there’s websites with macro calculators, there’s TDEE calculators and every kind of calculator you can think of. There’s only one problem though, they’re just calculators! They don’t know anything about YOU.
We can look at calculators all day long but they are just math equations. They don’t know anything about you, your genetics, your past habits, your current habits, most importantly your dieting history. As I’ve written about before this is arguably the biggest variable in how much some should be eating and why so many people find it so difficult to lose. There’s just no way any online calculator could know your maintenance calories without know A LOT more about you. So what should you do? I’m glad you asked.
The very first step is simply to start tracking. DO NOT change the way you eat. Whatever you’ve been doing continue to do it. If you would have gone back for seconds, go back for seconds. If you would have skipped eating all day, skip eating all day. If you would have taken down an entire bag of Double Stufs do yo thang! Just track it. I know you’re anxious to start making a difference but this phase is critical. Take a week (two weeks would be even better,) don’t change your eating habits, but track it, track it ALL. It’s critical to be honest during this phase, because you’re getting a look into the REAL state of your metabolism. If you’ve been maintaining your weight eating a certain way and now you know how much that is, boom, you have a rough idea of your maintenance calories. NOW you have a better idea how you can proceed.
Not only does this experience help you see how much you’re actually eating (most people are surprised by how much or even how little they eat) but it also starts to show you what’s in the food you eat. How many carbs, how much fat, how much protein. You start to get a better picture. I can’t tell you how many people tell me they prefer carbs but when they actually track their intake find out they eat A LOT of fat. That’s honestly one of the best parts about tracking macros. It TEACHES you so much about food, nutrition, and your body. Everyone wants to be able to eat intuitively, but how can you be intuitive if you don’t know what’s in the food you eat? You must learn first.
Anyway, now that you have a rough estimation of how many calories you’re eating we have two things we need to do. First is determine if you’re even in a position to go into a fat loss phase. The second is to start calculating your macros. What do I mean IF you’re in a position to go into a fat loss phase? Well if you’re maintaining your weight on a very low amount of calories it wouldn’t make sense to try and lose weight. Think about it. If you’re maintaining weight on 1200 calories, what are you going to do to lose? Eat 900 calories? What about when your plateau on that? 800? 600? At what point can you not possibly do it anymore? If you’re not in a good position to lose? It’s time to start looking into reverse dieting to improve your metabolism and put you in a position to succeed.
Anyway as far as calculating your macros (you’ll want to do this no matter what phase you go into) I actually recommend you take a week eating about the same amount of calories you did before but with more structured macro targets. This way not only do you get a little practice with macros first but you’ll get an even better understand of where you’re at metabolically. Think of it as an opportunity to make your fat loss an even better success.
Now that you know your total calories, and keeping in mind 1 gram of protein has 4 calories, 1 gram of carbs have 4 calories and 1 gram of fat has 9 calories. I recommend you start with a protein target of anywhere between .8 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. If you have a lot of weight to lose, you can use lean body mass to calculate this instead of total body weight. Protein is easily the most difficult macro for most people to hit, but also the most important because it’s A) responsible for building and maintaining muscle mass B) by far the most thermogenic macro (your body burns about 30% of protein just processing it vs about 6% for carbs and 2% for fat) and C) it’s also by far the most satiating macro meaning when calories get low more protein will help you feel less hungry. From there you want to set your fats. Choose somewhere between 20%-30% of your calories from fat, I usually suggest right around 25% (rarely will I want someone under 20% ever.) If you prefer more fat aim to the higher end, if you prefer more carbs aim for the lower end. From there the rest of your calories come from carbs.
To try and help this make more sense I’ll show you an example. Say you are 160 lbs and you’re going to eat 2000 calories daily (random number, easy math.)
- If you eat 1 gram per pound of body weight that would be 160 grams of protein. Since 1 gram of protein has 4 calories you’re getting 160 x 4 = 640 calories from protein.
- Say you choose 27% of your calories to come from fat. 27% of 2000 would be 540 calories. 540/9 = 60 grams of fat.
- Since you have 540 calories from fat and 640 coming from protein we know we have 820 calories left to get to 2000 and it’s all coming from carbs. 820/4 = 205 grams of carbs daily.
- So your daily macro target is 160 protein, 205 carb, 60 fat.
This doesn’t mean you have to hit those numbers exactly and you can have higher/lower days to get to a weekly average, but it’s a starting point. Understand that it DOES NOT require perfection, and I typically recommend you just try to stay within a certain range. In a more serious phase you may try to stay within 5 grams of everything, just starting out you may aim to stay within 10 or even 20 or interchange some carb and fat calories. The point is don’t get stuck trying to be perfect, just get in the ballpark and understand you can’t bank on success every day, use weekly averages to help balance life.
Now if you’ve kept your calories the same for a week or even if you decide to jump right into a fat loss phase, it’s time to reduce your calories so you can start burning fat. I usually recommend dropping calories from anywhere between about 300-700 calories from your maintenance calories depending on how much I know about someone. If you have a longer more extreme history of dieting? You probably need to be on the more aggressive side. Almost no history of dieting? The lower end will probably be a good starting point. The trick is you need to make a significant enough drop to elicit a response, but not so much that you have no room for adjustments down the road.
See your body WILL adapt to whatever you do so you don’t want to drop your calories too low too fast or you’ll have no room to adjust when this happens. But if you don’t make a significant enough of a change your body probably won’t respond and you won’t see much fat loss. No matter what you do at this point it’s all about monitoring and adjusting. Everything we do is based on a calculated guess but being consistent and tracking will always tell us if it’s working or not. If your body doesn’t respond you have to drop calories more (and/or increase expenditure.) If you start losing weight too fast you can add some calories back in. I usually don’t want to see much more of an average of about 1 – 1.5% of total bodyweight per week because beyond that you’re likely sacrificing muscle to see more weight loss. Remember, not all weight loss is created equal! Understand this is just an average and that weight loss is never linear and progress comes in many forms way beyond just scale weight. I’ve seen people lose 6 inches in their waist before ever losing a single pound. So take progress pics and measurements too! Pay attention to how your clothes are fitting, compliments from people you know, how you FEEL, etc.
Oh I almost forgot. One more thing regarding protein. If you haven’t been eating much protein jumping up to high protein will feel almost impossible and quite frankly you’ll probably feel pretty crumby even if you did so it can be a good idea to start lower and work your way up over time. If you’ve eating 50 grams a day and now you want to eat 150 grams a day, well, good luck. It would probably be a better idea to set a more realistic goal like maybe 80 grams and then look to increase 5-10 grams every week (substituting carbs for protein.) But please don’t get me wrong, prioritize protein! It’s extremely important.
So there you have it, my recommendations for starting with macros. It’s not an exact science and there’s no “best” way to do things, this is just a rough starting guide. Each individual is different and needs to be treated different based on preferences, genetics, history, etc. But if you want to learn and get better, there’s no better way. Just like anything it will take time to understand. You’ll get frustrated at first. You’ll have to put in work. But if you take the time to lay the foundation now you’ll be setting yourself up for a lifetime of success.
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Colin DeWaay holds a personal training certification with the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He’s the owner of Colin DeWaay Training LLC, an online strength and nutrition consulting business that fully customizes training and nutrition programs for those interested in general fitness all the way up to advanced powerlifting programs. He specializes in helping people with a history of yoyo dieting create a more sustainable healthy lifestyle, improving metabolism through reverse dieting if necessary, and helping make binges a thing of the past by creating a healthy relationship with food utilizing flexible dieting. His goal is not to produce quick results, but to help produce realistic, sustainable results that last.