The best way to learn about the food you are consuming is to track macros, AKA macronutrients.
This method of tracking what you eat is becoming increasingly popular in the fitness industry, particularly as there is increased awareness of the benefits of consuming adequate protein, carbohydrates and fat to improve health, exercise performance, and optimize recovery.
However, as with most things in the fitness and nutrition industry, it can be tricky to know how best to implement this strategy.
This short guide details how to track macros step by step. So, if you’re a beginner, see this as an introduction to getting started with your macro-tracking journey!
What are Macros?
'Macros', or “macronutrients”, is essentially the composition of the food we eat. There are three macronutrients you are likely to have heard of:
Examples: Meat, fish, dairy, eggs, beans, pulses, tofu
Examples: Bread, pasta, rice, sweets, sugar
Examples: Oils, butter, avocado, nuts, dairy
Each of these macros plays key roles in daily function and overall health. They are vital for maintaining lean muscle, burning fat, and staying healthy, but they also play a significant role in supporting energy, mood, appetite, and overall exercise and performance.
Carbohydrates and fat are your energy sources in the form of sugar (glucose) and fatty acids. Carbohydrates provide you with a quick release of energy, meaning this nutrient is our body’s preferred energy source during exercise. Whereas fat provides us with a slower release of energy, as well as assisting with hormone production and nutrient absorption.
Protein is the nutrient working around the clock to maintain, repair, and create our whole body’s structure – including almost all cells in the body, most notably muscle cells.
It’s crucial to consume a balance of all three of these macronutrients to support all bodily functions and maintain good health.
Though, it’s even more beneficial to have a level of understanding of macronutrients that enables you to adjust and track your intake to optimize your performance, recovery, and body composition.
Let’s look a bit closer at the benefits of tracking macronutrients!
What is the Difference Between Tracking Macros and Tracking Calories?
The difference between tracking macros and tracking calories is simply this:
When you’re tracking calories, you’re simply tracking the quantity of food you eat by recording your energy (calorie) intake, regardless of the food sources.
Tracking macros is essentially tracking calories, but you’re more closely tracking the quality of your food sources, not just the energy they provide.
Most diet plans work by reducing calorie intake, which is the best approach to fat loss as we need to be consuming less calories than we burn (calorie deficit) in order to lose fat.
So, on a solely calorie-controlled diet, you may not consider the sources of food you’re eating, or how best to adjust this intake to best support your goals.
When tracking macronutrients, this allows you to focus more on the quality of food you’re consuming so you can best optimize your diet so that you’re fuelling your body with the right sources of food.
If you’re also concerned about calorie intake, don’t forget that when you calculate your macro intake, this would be based on your ideal calorie intake. Each macro has a caloric value:
- Protein: 4kcal per gram
- Carbohydrates: 4kcal per gram
- Fat: 9kcal per gram
So, tracking macronutrient intake would also include tracking your energy intake, as the amount of each macronutrient you’d be recommended to consume would be split based on your calorie allowance – more on this soon!
By now you may be sold on tracking macros, so let’s take a closer look at how to get started!
Tracking Macros Step 1: Calculating Your Macronutrients
The best way to calculate your macronutrient intake is to use an online calculator or formula.
These methods take into account your age, height, weight, activity levels, sex, and training goals in order to estimate your ideal calorie and macronutrient intake.
These calculations would give you a recommended macronutrient intake largely based on your body composition and training goals, while staying in line with your ideal energy intake.
This would be based on noted recommendations from research. There are nutrient recommendations for all populations to ensure you’re consuming adequate food and nutrients, or not consuming too much of certain nutrients.
For example, nutrition literature has noted the following protein recommendations:
- Sedentary: 0.8g per kg bodyweight
- Regular physical activity: 1.0-1.2g per kg bodyweight
- Endurance athlete: 1.2-1.4g per kg bodyweight
- Strength/speed/power athlete: 1.2-2.0g per kg bodyweight
For example, an 80kg endurance athlete would need 96-112g of protein per day.
Then, carbohydrates and fat would be set at a ratio that suits you and your goals best.
For example, if your training mostly consists of high-intensity exercise on top of an active job, you may be recommended to consume more carbohydrates than someone who is a marathon runner and requires more fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrates.
However, many people adopt a “macronutrient split”. This is where an individual may calculate their ideal calorie intake, then split the calories 40% protein, 40% carbohydrate, and 20% fat – which is the most common recommendation.
Though, the best approach we recommend is using an online calculator, ensuring the protein recommendation aligns with what the literature states (above), and then make adjustments to your fat and carbohydrate intake based on how you feel, how you’re performing, and how your goals are progressing.
If you need a little extra guidance, try these example splits based on your goal:
- High carbohydrate for athletes and bodybuilders:
Protein 25-35%, carbohydrates 40-60%, fat 15-25%
- Moderate carbohydrates for weight maintenance:
Protein 25-35%, carbohydrates 30-50%, fat 25-35%
- Lower carbohydrate and higher fat and protein for fat loss:
Protein 40-50%, carbohydrates 10-30%, fat 30-40%
Now that you know how to calculate and split your macronutrients, you may be wondering where to start with tracking them!
Tracking Macros Step 2: Setting Up a Tracking Log
The next step after calculating your macronutrient intake is to set up your tracking method.
This can be a physical journal where you write down your food intake, or digitally using an excel spreadsheet, or better yet, an app which automatically calculates your macronutrient intake when you log food items into the diary.
We highly recommend downloading an app on your phone which would allow you to log food items either manually or by scanning the packaging barcode. This would be the easiest and most convenient option for tracking macronutrient intake.
However, keeping a journal would also be beneficial if you want to track more details such as the place, time, feelings, training, among many other things.
Tracking can be a tricky and tedious daily task, so it’s important to be patient at first to allow yourself to adjust to the new habit. It’s also very difficult to be 100% accurate, so allow the marginal errors here and there, it’s normal!
Tracking Macros Step 3: Weighing and Logging Food Intake
For the best tracking results, it’s best to get a digital food scale so you can weigh out your food portions accurately.
Unfortunately, eyeballing your portion sizes would only result in major errors and lack of accuracy, so it’s key to get some scales to properly measure out your food and record the weight in your journal or app.
Over time, a scale would allow you to recognize correct serving sizes and the calories of this serving, which would be useful to know in the long-term.
Try to weigh all foods so you can accurately log them into your diary and get the correct calorie and macronutrient amount.
Tracking Macros: Take-Home Message
Some aspects of tracking macros may seem complex and time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be!
There are many other daily strategies you can implement which would make the process easier, such as meal planning, preparing meals and snacks in advance, and using an app for ease of tracking and reducing the guesswork.
If you’re concerned about accuracy, unfortunately tracking calories or macros will never be a 100% accurate process even if you use the best app and the best digital scales.
However, if you’re as accurate and consistent as you can be, you will still see results!
Tracking macros is a great approach to allow you dietary flexibility while optimizing your training, recovery, and overall health by ensuring you’re consuming the correct amount of nutrients to support your personal goals!