The secret is out.
Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of macro tracking by now. What started as a big thing in the ultra-shredded bodybuilding and health and fitness world has made its way into more mainstream circles. Even my 65-year-old aunt –who walks as her primary exercise– pulled out her phone recently over breakfast to input her eggs and rave about how how much better she looks and feels tracking macros.
The point is, you don’t have to be an elite athlete to benefit from an individualized nutrition plan! And using macros isn’t as scary, intimidating and cumbersome as some of you may think. You just need to know where to start.
Think of this as everything you wanted to know about macro counting but were too afraid to ask. It’s your cheat sheet to getting more energy, improving your gym performance and looking really damn good.
What is macro counting all about?
The macro approach takes the emphasis off of counting calories and prioritizes the proportion of proteins, fats and carbs (which are macronutrients) instead.
The premise is by eating the right ratio of these macros– depending on your age, sex, activity, body composition etc.– you’ll lose weight, build muscle or achieve whatever body/performance goal(s) you have.
Why you should try it
You’re probably undereating
Yes, seriously. Blame the mainstream media or years of the Paleo diet, but a stunning numbers of athletes don’t eat nearly enough food. (Particularly carbs.) Even if you’re not at a serious calorie deficit, your ratio is likely way off. Remember, good fat and bad fat is still heavily-caloric fat.
It takes out the guesswork
Do you know how much “enough protein” really is? Or what 50 grams of carbohydrates looks like versus 100 grams? Unless you have years of practice doing so, eyeballing portions can be really tough. And eating intuitively can be just as difficult. What if you didn’t ever write down your PRs, running times or WOD scores. How would you ever calculate how you were doing? You don’t know what your diet is like if you can’t write things down, at least for a few days, and analyze your food habits!
No food is off limits
Want donuts? Can’t live without a nightly dessert? Macros doesn’t eliminate any particular food (though you’ll obviously get more bang for your numbers by eating healthier.) Not feeling deprived all the time like some diets can be huge for mental state and overall satisfaction, i.e.. avoiding binging scenarios.
You’ll face some cold, hard truths
You’ll discover some crazy things early on when you start tracking. Like the fact that you were easily blowing your daily fat allotment by breakfast. Or that you had no idea that you were eating multiple servings of chips. Once you’re aware of these things you can change them. Knowledge is power.
You’ll see body composition changes faster (and keep them)
Getting your nutrition in check is a huge key to optimizing performance in the gym. Want to feel stronger, look better and have more energy? It all starts with your diet. Injured or let life get in the way of consistent training? Solid nutrition can help you still look really good even when training isn’t your No. 1 priority. You can’t out-train a bad diet!
How to get started
First things first, you can’t track without measuring. Get yourself a good, quality food scale like this one. You can be old school and get a notebook to write down your daily food logs or download My Fitness Pal to input it on your phone. The free version is fine to start, though if you can swing it, the paid version lets you customize goals for different days, eliminates ads and helps easily calculate and store macros for your recipes.
Next you need to figure out your individual macros, something referred to ass your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). This is where things can get a bit tricky, as there are tons and tons of free calculators online to help you do this and you may end up with five different sets of macro numbers.
For a more accurate approach, your best bet is to get with a nutrition coach–even if it’s just for two weeks or a month–to make sure you’re starting on the right path (and not eating 1000 calories more than you need to).
What coach (or service) you employ will depend on your budget and specific goals. We like Avatar Nutrition if you don’t have a lot to spend and are OK without constant, one-on-one help. After you enter some basic information about yourself, the system will generate your daily macro numbers for you and it will keep you on track by making adjustments to those numbers based off your weekly weigh-ins.
A lot of high-level athletes we have profiled have had success with Renaissance Periodization, which offers customized one-on-one coaching to keep you accountable. They also offer a cheaper template option (though that doesn’t have as much flexibility). Other popular nutrition options that work with macros are Working Against Gravity, Black Iron Nutrition and In3Nutrition. There are tons of others. Take some time, research a few and find one that best fits your individual needs.
(**This can be overwhelming, we know. For further guidance on calculating your individual macros or recommendations on nutrition coaches, shoot us an email at email@example.com)
How is this better than calorie counting or the Paleo diet?
Counting calories can be a good way to lose or gain weight, however if you’re an athlete (which you are if you make it a priority to CrossFit or strength train regularly) counting calories is not the most efficient way to go. Consuming an adequate amount of protein (to build muscle) and carbs (to fuel your workouts) isn’t something you can monitor if you just count calories. In a nutshell, macro tracking is more precise as it is based on your individual health needs.
It’s tough for athletes to get enough carbohydrates on the Paleo diet, which is pretty important for athletes trying to fuel their performance. The Paleo diet is also typically much higher in fat, which can prevent you from achieving a leaner body composition. You can still eat all the foods you’d typically eat on the Paleo diet while tracking your macros, only this time with set amounts of how much macronutrient (fat, protein, carbs) to eat.
Is this just a way to eat a lot of junk food?
Definitely not. One of the main criticisms against macro tracking is also one of its benefits: the flexibility. Yes, some people choose to fill their macros with cupcakes, pizza, ice cream and nothing else. But it is only a matter of time before their performance in the gym tanks or their physical health takes a nosedive from eating nothing but low quality foods. Don’t be that person.
If you’re serious about your performance and health –and getting to eat the most food for your macros– you’re still eating high quality foods most of the time. It’s all about balance and finding what works for you. Some people choose to eat 80% high-quality foods and 20% “treats” while others like to stick to a 90-10 ratio.
This is way too much food. I’m going to get fat!!
Yes, you may feel like it’s too much food at first. But give it a few months and then you’ll be wondering how you went so long on what you thought was “enough food”. Particularly if you’ve been undereating, making the change to macros and hitting your numbers can be tough at first. It will definitely take your body a few weeks to adjust to this new way of eating, which is why it’s important to be patient and increase your intake slowly.
Work your way up to your target macro numbers by increasing say 100 calories or so each week. That will allow your metabolism time to get used to the volume of food without having to process it all at once and feel sluggish. Once your body adjusts, it will figure out how to burn that food efficiently, making you a lean, mean, fighting machine. The bottom line is you need to eat to perform. If you’re patient and trust the process, you will see results.
I worked with Company X and didn’t get the change I wanted. Does that mean macro tracking isn’t for me?
Absolutely not. Everyone’s body is different, you may just need a bit more time to see the changes you want to see. If you have a history of disordered eating or eating at a very low intake (under 1000), it may take even longer to see results.
Some people really need the attention and accountability of having a one-on-one nutrition coach. Others prefer to be a little more relaxed with things. Nutrition is incredibly personal when it comes down to it so don’t be afraid to try something new. (But give it a few months before you make a change. After all, your current body didn’t get here overnight, either.)
It May Not Be For You If…
Counting everything you eat becomes an obsession
You lay awake at night tossing and turning because you aren’t sure if that cup of white rice you ate was really one cup or maybe a little more. You triple check the number of grapes you’re about to eat. You no longer attend social events or go out to eat because you’re afraid you won’t be able to track things.
You can’t focus on the big picture
Working with a nutrition coach means you have to have some level of trust. It also means you need to chill out and let them do their job. It’s awesome to want to learn as much as you can. It’s not awesome to spend hours online researching diets and want to jump to a new set of macro numbers each week if you don’t see immediate results.
You just decided you want to start moving and make better food choices
If you’ve come from a sedentary background and just realized McDonalds isn’t “clean eating”, or have had a history of food issues, you may not want to dive in immediately to macros. People who benefit most tracking their macros already know how to train and eat properly (even if they don’t stick to it all the time).
If you want to get healthier, terrific. Start small by hydrating, getting quality sleep and start to get in daily activity. Once you start to transition to a healthier lifestyle and it’s not quite so overwhelming you can start to think about making the move to macros.
You just want to be healthy and don’t have any body composition goals
Maybe you aren’t interested in fitting into a certain weight class in lifting Or you’re totally OK with the way your body looks now and enjoy CrossFit for the community aspect and the chance to move around some. There’s nothing wrong with that!
Macro tracking is not for everybody. But it can help you reach a wide range of goals inside and outside of the gym. So, if you want to lean out, add muscle, lose the baby weight, get an enviable core, or recover better it’s definitely a doable plan of action that can get you there.
Still on the fence? We talk more about whether or not you should track macros here.
Want an extra edge? Look into nutrient timing.
Still have questions? Overwhelmed? Confused? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.