A geek’s guide to tracking macros like a pro
Depending on who you talk to, tracking macros can be the most natural thing in the world, or totally foreign. It’s certainly not for everyone long term, but I believe anyone can benefit from at least two weeks of it, as long as they’re doing it accurately. And this is where we get to a key point right at the offset; what is the best way to do it? How do you do it accurately? That’s what this article is about.
The “Best” Way
The “best” way is not intended to be the thing you do for the rest of your life. The point of this is not to make you feel like you’re never going to make progress without tracking everything down to the last microscopic detail, it’s to build awareness. There are many ways to ballpark or estimate your energy intake based on rules of thumb or heuristics, but if you don’t have a really solid starting point, your estimation will always be flawed.
You can see this in the literature too.
Relying on an estimation of what you eat is often way off from what you actually ate in reality. It’s not uncommon for 40% of energy intake to go unaccounted for, and when measured in a metabolic ward, people claim that snacks between meals basically never happened. Even registered dieticians forget, make mistakes, and estimate wrong!
Estimation is not your friend. Not yet. One day it can be, one day you might not even need, or want to think about this. I certainly hope so, but for now, we’re going to measure and track everything down to the last detail. Being OCD now means we can be liberal later. Before we talk about how to, let’s just go through why.
Who Is This Article For?
“Surely this is easy? Surely in the era of IIFYM, you don’t actually have to write an article on how to do this?”
If you’ve never tracked macros before, this article is for you.
If you’ve ever found yourself doing any of the things below
- Claimed to eat 1,000 kcal’s a day without losing weight without being ridiculously shredded or tiny
- Posted a picture of 40g of sweet potato on Facebook with the comment “my plan says to eat 40g of carbs, but this looks a little bit small. Is this right?”
- Stay up at night wondering whether you weigh a chicken breast raw or cooked
- Think a banana the size of your middle finger, and a banana the size of a truncheon have the same amount of calories
- Add generic meals to myfitnesspal like “cheese sandwich”
-then this article is for you too.
Calories, Macros, And Maths
A calorie as a measurement of energy really is just a calorie. Kilocalories to be exact, each one containing 4184 Joules. In that respect, they’re not dissimilar to how many watts of energy it takes to power your lightbulb. The energy we eat, measured in kcal’s is largely made up of three macronutrients.
Macronutrients, or macros refer to the protein, fat, and carbohydrates contained in the food you eat. The word macro points to the fact that you need large amounts of these nutrients in your diet to provide the bulk of your energy needs. It also turns out that protein, carbs, and fat have differing amounts of energy per gram.
It’s fairly common knowledge that:
- Protein = 4kcal/1g
- Carbohydrates = 4kcal/1g
- Fat = 9kcal/1g
With that in mind, a “typical” energy requirement of 2,475kcal involving 150g protein, 75g fat, and 300g of carbohydrate would look like this:
- 150g protein x4 = 600kcal
- 75g fat x9 = 675kcal
- 300g carbohydrate x4 = 1,200kcal
- Total = 2,475kcal
Simple enough. What’s less simple is that to know how many grams of protein are contained in any food, you have to work out the molecular weight of each amino acid less the molecular weight of water. For fat, you have to exclude the waxes and the phosphate content of any phospholipids, and then analyse the fat as fatty acids. After you’ve done that, you can then work out the total carbohydrate.
Happily, you’ll never, ever, have to do any of that yourself. All you need to know are the macronutrients your food contains, and the total amount of food you’re eating. That’s pretty simple, once you address one common grey area.
The F Word
Let’s pause a moment and talk about carbohydrate contained in the food you’re tracking.
Total carbohydrate refers to a foods carbohydrate content minus the protein, fat, water, and ash in there. Total carbs include both digestible carbohydrate, and fibre.
Available Vs. Total
Available carbs are the carbohydrates that can be digested normally in the body. As mentioned above, every gram of available carbohydrate contains 4kcal energy.
What’s The Deal With Fibre
Fibre refers to carbohydrates such as cellulose, hemicellulose, pectin, lignin, resistant starch etc, that are not broken down by human digestive enzymes. These are all found in plants and are something you should definitely get enough of in your diet.
Does Fibre Contain Energy?
Some fibre is digested by the micro-organisms that live in your large intestine in a process called fermentation. One of the products of this fermentation is short-chain fatty acids, which do indeed contain energy that is subsequently used by the body. Each gram of fibre, fermented in the gut, is thought to contain roughly 1.5 to 2kcal of energy per gram.
Should I Count Fibre?
Luckily, the food databases we’ll be using have already done the hard work for us in estimating the amount of energy in the food we’re eating by taking into account both the available carbohydrates and the fibre.
My usual tip is just to not worry about it. You might look at the number of macronutrients you’ve hit, and wonder why the calories don’t quite add up to as much as you think, but this is just because you’re counting total carbs but the database is accounting for the fibre in some of the food you’ve eaten as having less energy.
To illustrate what I mean, instead of 300g of carbs adding up to 1,200kcal, if you’ve also eaten 38g of fibre, 300g of carbs in your app might add up to 1,124kcal. Not really that much difference.
The One Exception
If you’re on a ketogenic diet, for any exciting reason of your own, you now need to consider available carbs and fibre a little more closely. This is because fibre will not effect your glucose levels, but available, normally digestible carbs will. Therefore, if your goal is to stay under a certain amount of available carbohydrates throughout the day to keep yourself in ketosis, you need to account for the total carbs minus the fibre, and then also consider the energy content of both.
And they said low-carbing was easy.
It’s worth mentioning that alcohol, my personal favourite of all the macronutrients, also has energy:
- 1g alcohol = 7kcal
You can track this in exactly the same way.
Now we know all about the protein, fat, carbs, fibre, and alcohol, we can crack on and actually start tracking stuff. First off, let’s cover what tools you actually need.
Tools Of The Trade
Here’s what a ninja tracker needs:
- Food scale
- Reliable food database
“What that’s it? No cups, no spoons? What gives?”
Weight Vs. Volume
Whilst we’re being OCD about things, it’s worth measuring correctly.
One man’s cup is not the same as another man’s cup. I know for damn sure my hungry tablespoon is not the same as my non-hungry tablespoon. Inaccuracy adds up. Using the cold digital reality that is the food scale, leaves nothing to chance. The time for ballparking, estimating, and heuristics lies ahead; but if you’re not sure whether that drizzle was a teaspoon worth of olive oil or indeed 150kcal, the food scale will tell you.
Once you know, you know.
Weigh things for now, and weigh them in grams. If the macros in your food are calculated per 100g, and you’ve eaten 60g of it, multiplying the food by 0.6 will give you the macros. If you’ve eaten 150g of the food, multiplying it by 1.5 gives you the answer. Forget ounces and portions, which do nothing but confuse. Speaking of confusion, let’s have a quick look at one common problem that the novice macro tracker seems to run into.
The Peanut Butter Problem
An often baffling conundrum is what to do with a jar of peanut butter.
“How do I take the jar’s luxurious peanut bounty out without mis-counting? Do I put a bowl on the scale and spoon it into there? What about what’s left on the spoon? Oh my god now I’ve got to take it out of the bowl and put it into my sandwich, how many grams have I left in the bowl?!!! Fuck it, I’m just going to add an extra spoonful in as insurance”etc etc.
The answer to this painful problem is simple. #
It goes like this:
- You put the jar/bowl or whatever vessel contains the peanut butter on the scale
- You switch the scale on
- The scale reads zero
- You take out the things
- The scale reads minus however many grams of the things you just took out i.e. -20g
- You keep going until you have taken the right amount of grams out.
Feel free to lick the spoon. You’ve already measured it.
This is how I recommend measuring anything that comes from a jar.
Did the peanut butter solution make sense? Because I see people do all sorts of wacky things here, so let me make this clear.
If you put something on a food scale and switch it on, the scale will read zero. Need to add something to a pan? Put the pan on the scale, switch it on and notice that it indeed, reads zero. Add the stuff to it.
Need to take something out of a bowl? Put the bowl on the scale, switch the scale on an notice again that it says zero, take the stuff out. If you take 100g of something out of a zeroed scale, it’ll read – 100g.
I realise that this sounds ludicrously simple, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve spoken to people who’ve been jumping through all kinds of mathematical hoops just to add 50g of oatmeal straight to a pan.
Ok, back to the schedule.
Which Food Database?
The quick answer is where possible, use the USDA Nutrient Database. There are two reasons why.
- It’s the most accurate and standardised
- Popular apps allow you to add foods to their databases yourself. People get things wrong.
Most apps on the market made for tracking your food will pull from the USDA anyway, but a quick tip is to just put in the food you’re looking for with USDA written after it to bring up the right thing. The first time you try to look up a food in an app can be overwhelming if you don’t know which one to pick and they all look different; choosing the USDA keeps it easy.
An exception to this would be if you’re buying a ready made food from the supermarket. In which case, use the numbers provided on the back of the packet. Trying to search for a generic food item like Pizza is a waste of time. Note down its macros, or use the barcode scanner on your app to do hard work for you.
Before we get into how you might track macros over a typical day, here are a few frequently asked questions.
Do I Weigh Food Raw Or Cooked?
If it’s not a ready cooked, pre-packaged food, weigh it raw. How you prepare the food will dictate how much water it loses or gains during the cooking process. Since we’re being accurate for now, we’ll be measuring things raw to account for that.
Do I Have To Weigh All The Ingredients Separately?
Yep. Sorry about that. Making a lasagne and then searching for “one portion lasagne” will bring up a million different results, none of which will match what you’re about to eat.
A way round this is to create recipes with standardised ingredients. That way you weigh it all once, and then divide it up afterwards. In that case, a portion = the cooked weight of the food / the number of portions you’re going to eat.
Isn’t That Massively Time Consuming?
This is where meal planning comes to the rescue. If you know what you’re going to eat ahead of time, and you know what the meals contain, then life will be much easier than weighing out a tonne of random ingredients every time you want to eat something.
You’ve got some macros, you’re armed with your phone and a food scale, and you’re ready to go. What the hell do you do now?
You have two choices – either make a plan for the day or start tracking as you go. There are plusses and minuses for both, and in the end, you’re likely to use a combination. Let’s start with planning.
Meal Planning 101
Planning your meals upfront is a great way to go if you’re just starting out. Knowing exactly what you’re going to eat the day before helps to limit decision fatigue and any stress that could possibly be caused by the idea that you’ve got to track everything you eat for the day with no idea where to start. With a few simple guidelines, you can be up and running in no time.
The first thing to consider is protein. As you can see in this article, while it isn’t really important where you end up eating your carbs and fat during the day, protein timing and distribution, at least as far as muscle gain goes, is still worth considering. For that reason, start with protein.
To go back to our example of 150g protein, 75g fat, and 300g carbs from earlier, the first thing we need to do is divide the protein up between meals. In this example, maybe you’re eating 4 meals, divided equally that’s 37.5g per meal. But let’s say you’ve heard that eating a bit more protein before the nightly fast might help with muscle growth, you might eat 30g in the first 3 meals, and save 45g for the last meal of the day to take advantage of some potential pre-bed gains.
After you’ve got a rough idea of your protein amount and how it’s distributed, you simply fill each meal out with carbs, and then fat. A good idea is to think about where you’re the hungriest during the day and eat more food there. If you wake up starving, you can consider a decent chunk of your calories going into breakfast. If you’re hungry last thing at night, eat a bigger meal then. This isn’t rocket science, although there is one little wrinkle.
You will soon notice that different protein sources have different amounts of tag along fat and carbohydrate. The same goes with predominantly carbohydrate and fat rich foods too. It isn’t the case that a food you’d normally consider as being just carbs, like bread, for instance, will only contain carbs. The amount of protein and fat in different starches will vary greatly. This means that if you’ve divided up your protein into neat 30g amounts and then added other foods, you’ve now gone way over what you originally thought was your target protein amount.
Even if, in the scheme of things, hitting macronutrients bang on is pretty insignificant when compared to your overall energy balance, it can be a good idea to get them close while you’re learning. It just takes a bit of practice. Try undershooting your protein amounts by about 5 grams and then seeing where you are once you’ve added the other foods in.
The preferred method for many an advocate of “if it fits your macros” style eaters is just tracking as you go. It’s about as simple as it sounds, and the benefits are that you can pretty flexible as long as the total amount adds up at the end of the day. If you hate the idea of any kind of “plan”, and you don’t find this stressful at all, then this is probably the method for you. The fact that most popular apps have a barcode scanner makes tracking on the go pretty easy to do if you’re out and about and are buying predominately pre-made, packaged foods.
If again, you’re interested in maximising muscle gains, it’ll still pay to be mindful of how much protein you eat per meal. You might do well to have a minimum amount in mind that hits your leucine threshold, but you don’t have to be a geek if you don’t want to. However, if you want to be good at this way of doing things, it does take a bit of practice to make sure that a couple of common mistakes don’t occur.
If you’ve spent more than five minutes on any kind of Facebook group aimed at lifting, tracking macros, and generally getting shredded, you’ve likely seen the following types of posts:
“What do you do if you’ve hit all of your macros and it’s only 11 am?”
“What do you eat if you have 50g of fat, and 10g of carb macros left?”
The answer to both of these endlessly popular questions lies in better planning. If you find yourself in a situation like either of the above, create a meal plan and stick to that for a few days. Consistency trumps flexibility when it comes to hitting your targets. In truth, most people are likely to eat the same thing for at least a couple of meals a day, so if you’ve already got that consistency, winging it for the rest of your meals will be relatively easy.
You now know why tracking macros for a least a couple of weeks is a good idea, what kilocalories and macros actually refer to, and how to go about tracking your diet consistently. As you progress on whatever fitness journey you’re on, you can liberalise, simplify, and stop tracking altogether. For now, though, a period of being slightly OCD will likely benefit you in the long run.
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