I think my most common question in regards to macros is, “How do you start?!” And there really is no simple answer to this. There are lots of factors involved that must align in order for one to be successful with a flexible dieting lifestyle. But the following are some tips I have learned over the past few months that I hope may make macro counting seem less daunting! Before we proceed, if you are questioning, “What is a macro? What is flexible dieting?” then read my macro FAQs blog post first before continuing on.
1. Is macro counting right for me? First you must establish if counting macros is even right for you! Does worrying about everything you put in your mouth make you feel anxious? Do numbers and focusing on something like calorie counting make you feel restricted or obsessed? Does thinking about weighing out, tracking, and monitoring everything you eat make you uneasy? If the answer is YES to all of the above, then macro counting is probably not right for you at this time.
But, if you have been on a fitness journey for some time now and have learned a thing or two about nutrition and are maybe stuck in a plateau or ready to up your fitness game, then following a IIFYM plan may be right for you! If you are ready for a new challenge and want to take control and feel less restricted and guilty with your eating habits and have the drive and commitment to remain consistent with your diet, then read on 😉
2. Set a realistic goal. Before you can even determine what your macros are, you must first have a goal in mind. Now this goal MUST be realistic. An unrealistic goal is one like wanting to lose 20lbs in 14 days. Hate to break it to ya, not only is that pretty unrealistic, it is very unhealthy too. Now if you want to maintain and sustain a slow, practical weight loss/ gain regiment knowing that there really is no “finish line” in fitness, then congratulations! You already have the right mindset and approach knowing that lasting and effective change is slow and takes time. Even when you “get there” there will always be new obstacles to overcome and goals to achieve!
So when it comes to macro goals, your main goals must be either weight loss (when I say weight loss, what people really mean in fat loss), weight gain (put on all da muscles) or maintain your current weight. If your goal is weight loss, you must be in a calorie deficit. If your goal is weight gain, you must be in a calorie surplus. If you want to maintain, this is the most simple calculation.
3. How do I set my macros? Ok this is definitely the most challenging part because setting macros is quite an art. There is really not a right or wrong way of setting your macros and it takes time to learn your body and what works best for you. Because of this, I highly suggest seeking a macro coach to help you establish you macronutrient needs. I use a coach (who is helping me as a friend currently, not helping others at this time) but everything I have learned from her she learned from her coach as well. Why work with a coach? Well mostly for the accountability. And it is helpful to have someone work through the frustrations of trial and error when determining your balanced macro needs.
Now I understand not everyone can afford a macro coach and that is ok! There is a way to figure it out on your own but understand it will be more frustrating than having the accountability and someone to work through the challenges with. Many people tell me, “I tried this or that online calculator and they all give me different macros! Which one do I use??” Well I say not to use a macro calculator and figure it out on your own because macro calculators do not take individual metabolism, current/past diet history, potential hormone conditions, activity lifestyle, and many other factors into account. Two great resources that I personally use and have similar formulas is Nick Cheadle’s IIFYM Bible and Eric Helms The Muscle and Strength Pyramid Nutrition (this one is less straight forward and far more scientific)!
If you decide to go the route of figuring it out on your own, understand that there is no perfect ratio. I do better with higher carbs and lower fats whereas you may perform and feel better with more fat and less carbs. Every BODY truly is different with their needs and requirements. Finding it out on your own will not be 100% accurate. To find your macros, you must first find your maintenance and you can do this through the resources listed above or with the Mifflin St Jeor Equation:
10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) -161
*MUST multiply by activity factor 1.2 sedentary, 1.3 lightly active, 1.4-1.5 active
This will give you your maintenance calories. So in regards to macros, it does NOT give you your macronutrient needs and it is up to you to break it down (also why a coach is helpful 😉 )
I will use myself as an example here:
10 x 73 + 6.25 x 161 – 5 x 27 – 161 = 1440 x 1.2 = 1728 calories for maintenance. I used the sedentary factor because I work a desk job and get very little activity beyond my workouts. This honestly seems low to me (again remember this is not entirely accurate), so I probably would use the 1.3 factor and use 1872 calories for maintenance instead.
So now that you have your maintenance calorie goals, breaking down your macros is really based on personal preference. Protein is your most important macro (especially in a deficit, to learn more read my top 50 vegetarian protein sources blog post!). Find your protein macro first by multiplying your body weight by a factor of 1. If 1 gram of protein per pound is too much, you can go to a factor as low as .7 per pound.
Next find your fats. You can use a minimum of .35 grams per pound for fat.
Then technically, the rest of your calories can come from carbs.
Remember each gram of protein and carbs = 4 calories and each gram of fat = 9 calories. So for an example, say we have a 150 pound female targeting a 2000 calorie diet. Following the parameters above, she would need 150 grams protein (150 x 4 = 600 calories), 53 grams fat (150 x .35 = 53, 53 x9 = 477 calories), 2000 – 600 – 477 = 923 / 4 = 230 grams carbs.
This is just a VERY BASIC outline and remember, the example above is for MAINTENANCE MACROSonly. Personally, I find those example macros to be a bit unbalanced. I would probably eat more fat and have less carbs so another macro breakdown for the above example could be: 2000 calories, 150 grams protein, 67 grams fat, and 200 carbs. There really are so many ways macros can be broken down and why it is definitely not an easy task to setting macros and why following others people’s macro plans is of NO benefit to you because as you can see, they are very individualized.
The trickiest part comes in when deciding macros for a cut or bulk and why again I HIGHLY suggest using a coach. Again, the example above would help the girl maintain her weight. If you want to lose weight, you would have to eat less, and if you want to gain weight, you would have to eat more. But determining the macros for these different scenarios is no easy task and you do not want to cut or gain too quickly. It is a very slow and time consuming, trial and error process. You can play around with numbers and try to figure it out on your own, but my guess is it will leave you frustrated and unhappy with the process. A coach can certainly help streamline the process and make figuring the most appropriate macros for your current goals. I hope I proved a point that macros are tricky and figuring them out on your own is not for the faint of heart. It can leave you discouraged and frustrated so utilizing the help from a coach is definitely optimal if you can!
4. Download a tracking app. Ok, so now that we have our macros, how do we track them? I use the premium version of MyFitnessPal. I think it is $50 a year but well worth the investment because you can customize your profile to your specific needs. You do not have to buy the premium version, but I think it makes setting your personal goals more challenging and you have to pay more attention to your daily intake while MFP is screaming at you for eating too much “this or that” because their basic requirements for your needs is often way off. If you want to be serious about tracking, you must track in grams and I believe (not 100% certain because I have only ever had premium) the premium version is the only way to do so. There are tons of macro tracking apps available. I cannot suggest any others because I do not and have not tried any other apps. I have only used MFP and definitely suggest it as a great tool to use! *BONUS TIP: MFP often has incorrect entries. I have scanned in products where macros do not match and I have looked up macros where the suggested macros and calories do not match. So it is important to double check and make sure entries are listed correctly in MFP. You may have to override some things. You also can simply look up “carbs”, “fat”, and “protein”, so if an entry is incorrect and you don’t want to create a new food, you can just track the individual carbs, fats, and proteins for that item. I also do this if I am going out with friends but am unsure of what I am eating or what will be available. I will overestimate and save room for extra carbs and fats and just track it essentially as a placeholder for the day.
5. Do not worry about ratios. I often get questions asking about “my macro ratios” and I honestly couldn’t tell you my macro ratios because I am not concerned with my ratios. A ratio is simply a percentage and an immeasurable unit. A gram is very much measurable. So when tracking in MFP refrain from looking at the graphs and charts. Although visual aids are nice, you want to be more concerned with hitting your daily nutrient needs.
This is an example from my food diary from MFP. You want to look at the nutrients tab and aim to hit your daily goal within 5+/- grams.
This is the macros tab and you DO NOT want to focus here as percentages are not measurable and far less accurate way of monitoring your intake.
6. Do not track your workouts. MFP has a place to record and track your workouts. DO NOT TRACK YOUR WORKOUTS. Why? Because MFP will then adjust your daily calorie needs and “give you back” the calories you burned. Because you burned 500 calories does not mean you earned an extra 500 calories to eat. That is counter productive and sets you back in more of a maintenance mode and can be detrimental to you goals. If you want to track your activity, I suggest doing so elsewhere. If you use a polar watch (like I do) or fit bit, I would use those associated apps.
7. Planning is KEY! You must plan ahead to be both successful and compliant. If you wake up intending to “wing it” you may find yourself quickly eating too much fat and needing a ton of protein at the end of the day. When you get off like this, it can be easy to say “fuck it” and just not care the rest of the day. It can be hard to make up one macro when your other two have been met early on in the day and why it is best to plan ahead and evenly distribute your macros throughout the day. Macros work if you work it and consistency and compliance are both key. One day or meal off here and there is perfectly normal and expected, but many meals over time where you simply don’t plan ahead and say screw it will not be helping you achieve your goals. I plan my day the night before generally or first thing when I wake up. If it is the weekend and I know I have plans to go out, I plan for that first. If I am craving a treat, I make sure I plan ahead and track that first thing. Normally when I find things that fit my daily macro needs, I stick to those same foods for a few days because it is easier and I just know what I need. I eat foods I enjoy and don’t get bored eating the same things over and over again. But if you suffer from food boredom, planning is vital and it will be more cumbersome having to find new things to fit each day. That is also why I pretty much always stick to the same things haha!
8. Invest in a scale. One reason why I didn’t want to track macros was because I didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that I would have to weigh out all my food. But it honestly has been a game changer! How so? I have learned what a true portion size is and it has really helped me with portion control. Also why weigh and not measure? Because a serving of peanut butter is actually 34 grams. I you measure it in terms of 2 tablespoons, one measured out or “eyeballed” serving might be 56 grams of peanut butter instead of the recommended 34 grams so it is nearly doubled and peanut butter is not a low calorie food! See graphic below. To be truly consistent, weighing is an absolute must. It is a very small investment and totally worth the effort! I use a scale similar to this one.
9. BE FLEXIBLE! IIFYM tends to get a bad representation because some people see it as “eat all the junk you can because it still fits my macros”! And I will be honest, I have had this mentality before! But the point is to allow yourself to eat without restriction. To still eat foods you love AND still reach your goals. I always plan for a daily treat. I found when I was slipping with compliance, it was because I was restricting myself from foods I loved. Once I realized that eating treats daily was in fact ok, the consistency and compliancy stuck so much easier. Also there is no right or wrong way to approach flexible dieting. The best diet is the one you can stick to long term, and because this is often a lifestyle change, you must eat foods you enjoy because this is life and you gotta live a little! It makes dieting or being in a deficit much more enjoyable when you still plan for foods you love. Maybe you can’t have as much as you want or like, but still having a treat brings satisfaction and contentment to your day (at least is does for me! lol).
10. Go into it knowing you will mess up and won’t be perfect. Lastly, know it is OKAY to not be perfect. Tracking macros is tricky and definitely takes a lot of mistakes before you learn what works best for you. You will not get it right on the first try. You probably won’t get it right on the second or third or forth or fifth try either. It probably will take you at least a good 2-4 weeks to get the hang of it and know what foods help you reach your macro goals. It is not about being perfect though. It never is! It is about effort, consistency, and giving it your best try over and over again until you get the hang of it!
Warm hugs and positive vibes,