In years past, diet programs and personal trainers liked recommending that people track their nutrition by counting calories.
We have a better way: counting macros.
But while counting macros may seem like sports nutrition’s newest golden wonder, it's remarkably simple. It just means tracking your daily intake of the three major macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
“Counting calories will ultimately help you lose or gain weight, but when you want to fine tune your diet and focus on specific goals, it's important to know where the calories are coming from,” says Alix Turoff, R.D., a nutritionist at Top Balance Nutrition in New York.
Furthermore, counting macros is a hugely important method of adjusting your nutrition to account for your physique goals.
Besides calories in versus calories out, “elements like training style, volume, consistency, and the types of foods you eat—protein, especially—play a big role in determining body composition,” agrees Brian St. Pierre, R.D., C.S.C.S., director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition.
Why counting macros is better than counting calories
“Counting macros also accounts for calories, with the added advantage that you can see how your body responds to different macronutrients within the same total number of calories—more protein, less protein, more carbs, less carbs, more fats, less fats,” St. Pierre says. “You can see what helps you look, feel, and perform your best.”
Furthermore, counting macros helps you get to know your food. Why does a handful of nuts keep you fuller for longer than a handful of mini popcorn? If you just count calories, you’ll know that you can have a bigger handful of popcorn compared to almonds within the same caloric limit. If you know the macro breakdown, though, you’ll see it’s because nuts are filled with healthy fats and a balance of carbs and protein, rather than solely fast-burning carbs.
Why macros aren’t the only answer
There is one concern about counting macros: Because it can be so easy to focus solely on fat, carbs, and protein, counting macros' style makes it easy to overlook other important areas of nutrition, like micronutrients (e.g., vitamins and minerals).
Marc Perry, C.S.C.S., founder and CEO of the weight-loss program BuiltLean, offers a pretty easy fix to the “micro” problem: Focus on counting macros, but also on eating produce, particularly vegetables. “As long as at least 75% of your diet is from whole, unprocessed foods in their natural states, you’re going to have a high-quality diet,” he adds.
How to determine your macro breakdown
There is no “best” macronutrient breakdown. If you ask five different people for an ideal macro breakdown, they’ll give you five different answers, Perry points out.
The standard, U.S. government recommendation is for your daily diet to consist of 50% carbs, 30% fat, 20% protein. However, we all know building muscle and trimming fat requires more protein, so your typical fit-guy breakdown would look more like 30–40% carbs, 30–40% fat, and 30–40% protein.
For guys trying to build or maintain muscle and keep body fat in check, Perry recommends anchoring your protein first in that range, then fine-tuning carbs and fat from there. Why? Protein is what controls hunger. If, say, 40% of your daily calories come from protein, you’re less likely to be hungry no matter your overall calorie count, he explains. Plus, focusing on high protein versus lower carbs is what helps make low-carb diets so effective for weight loss, a study in Physiology & Behavior found.
Then, test out different breakdowns over the course of several weeks. “One day, try a diet that’s 40/20/40 carb, fat, protein; then 20/40/40, and see how you feel,” Perry says. “Which leaves you feeling fuller with more energy? This alone can be quite a useful question, because some people function better with higher carb intake, others with higher fat.”
How to plan your nutrition according to your macro needs
Once you figure out what macro breakdown works for you, there are a few ways to go about meal planning, based on your overall caloric goals. If you’re the type of guy who likes consistency and reliability, pick the same breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks that add up to your ideal daily breakdown and ideal daily calorie total—then eat, sleep, repeat.
But if that level of monotony will drive you crazy, Perry offers an alternative: Pick three options for each meal and snack, put them in a spreadsheet, and mix and match every day. “Your individual meal macros don’t matter as much as your overall day’s worth, so if you pick salmon with greens for lunch, you want a dinner that’s lighter on fats and heavier on carbs,” he explains.
(Note: Unless you’re an endurance athlete, Perry says you don’t need to worry about pre- and post-workout carb timing right now. The average person will have plenty of glycogen in their muscles to fuel them through a workout, no matter their most recent meal.)
St. Pierre offers a slightly more sane way of tracking. He suggests aiming for:
- Six to eight cupped handfuls of quality carbs (starch and fruit)
- Six to eight fist-size portions of vegetables
- Six to eight palm-size portions of protein
- Six to eight thumb-size portions of healthy fats
“This gives you a fairly even macro intake of roughly 40% carbs, 30% fat, and 30% protein, with about 2,300 to 3,000 calories,” he says. From here, you can adjust things up or down to meet your needs, goals, and results: For weight loss, remove a few cupped hands of carbs and/or thumbs of fat; to try a lower carb diet, swap a bunch of hand-size portions of carbs for thumb-size portions of fat.
How to track your macros
OK: You’ve figured out your daily caloric intake and your macro breakdown—but how the hell do you know how much you’re eating of what?
You could track your macros by hand, pulling the gram breakdown from the nutrition label, or Googling “avocado nutrition facts,” which will bring up a digital nutrition label to the right side of the screen, Turoff offers. (Just be sure you pay attention to serving size in your tracking, she adds.)
But the method more likely to save your sanity: Log all your food into an app like Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal or Lose It!, both of which allow you to set custom macro goals. “The app will pull up all the macronutrients and calories as you enter meals and, when you look back at the end of the day, it’ll tell you your proportion of carbs to fat to protein,” Turoff says.