If you’ve spent any amount of time in a gym, you’ve probably heard the word “macros” thrown around, and you may be wondering what it all means, what the fuss is about, and if tracking your macros is right for you. Well my dear, let’s dig right into it!
WHAT ARE MACROS?
“Macros” is short for macronutrients, meaning the three main building blocks of calories (read: food): protein, fat and carbohydrates. While calories are just the generalized amount of energy you consume, each macronutrient plays a very different and specific role within your body, and especially more so for athletes.
1g protein = 4 calories / 1g carbs = 4 calories / 1g fat = 9 calories
When you are tracking your macros (AKA Flexible Dieting), you are doing precisely that: tracking and counting every gram of protein, fat and carbs that you consume on a given day. Why would anyone go through this crazy tedious process of weighing, measuring, tracking and mathing every single thing they eat on a daily basis, you ask? Good question!
While it’s true that you may drop a few lbs on a consistent caloric deficit, you won’t have any control over where those lbs are actually getting pulled from (fat stores vs muscle stores) unless you are strategically manipulating your macro intake. More often than not, caloric deficit weight loss isn't simply body fat- it's usually muscle mass too (buh bye gainz). So, if you are an athlete and want to maintain or grow your lean muscle mass while dropping some body fat or your overall bodyweight, whether for a competition or your own personal goals, this is the only way to have precise control over your body composition.
Bodybuilders and Weightlifters have been using this system for ever ever for it’s precision of functionality and aesthetics alike: bodybuilders seek a very specific body composition for shows, and Weightlifters compete in weight classes, so they must be very in tune with their strength output to bodyweight ratio. In the last couple years, Flexible Dieting has also taken the CrossFit world by storm, and as Coach Greg Gassman once said (and I'm paraphrasing here), put two athletes side by side, equal in every single aspect, and the one who will win is the one who weighs and measures their food. Precision is Queen.
IS MACRO TRACKING FOR YOU?
Like any other nutritional template or guideline out there, I firmly believe that there is no one program that will work for everyone. Finding what works for you (and most importantly sticking to it!) is the name of the game, and there’s a real chance that Flexible Dieting might not be your cup of tea. But, it could be just what you need, and you’ll never know until you try! Here are a few situations where this might just be your jam:
IF YOU'RE A SEASONED INTERMEDIATE EXERCISER
If you’ve been CrossFitting, weight training or otherwise fitnessing at high intensity for a while now, you’ve probably gone through various stages of your own nutritional habits. If you are still finding yourself at a plateau, either on the bathroom scale or in your PRs/performance, tracking your macros can be the missing link to fine tune your nutrition further.
You may have noticed how new CrossFitters will hit PRs left and right, sometimes even by accident, as their newness to the sport leaves tons of opportunity for breakthroughs. If you’ve been doing this for a while though, your PRs become few and far between, with much more work needed to attain even the smallest improvement. The same is true for nutrition and bodyweight; often times those just beginning any health journey will likely see the most dramatic results as they shift to a new nutrition program and the pounds fly off, while those who have been carefully minding their nutrition for a long time can find that they need to work incredibly hard to make the scale budge a measly 5 pounds. If this latter person sounds like you, macros can be the game changer.
IF YOU'VE EVER WONDERED, "HOW MUCH PROTEIN SHOULD I BE EATING?"
Here’s the truth: even the people who think they are eating sufficient protein to perform well and hit their goals in the gym can be shocked to see how low their daily intake actually is when they weigh and measure. (And imagine where you are if you already suspect that you’re not getting enough protein!) The RDA is .4g of protein per pound of body weight, which is flat out NOT sufficient if you are doing CrossFit or any other type of high intensity exercise, trying to gain lean muscle mass, trying to lean out, or any combination thereof.
Getting the proper amount of protein of 1g per pound of body weight (yes, that’s right! Head to my post all about protein to read more!) on the daily can be straight up impossible to do without weighing, measuring and tracking. Once again, enter Flexible Dieting.
The same can be said for carbs and fat; people often have very little concept of not only what they should be consuming, but what they are currently consuming. Macro counting can straighten all of this out and give you an exact picture of what your daily intake should look like.
IF YOU'RE DEFINITELY NOT GIVING UP CHOCOLATE
If you wouldn’t touch the idea of a Whole30, sugar detox, or other elimination nutrition program with a ten foot pole, you may benefit from tracking macros. (Though for what it’s worth I do have to say that I think everyone -everyone- benefits by experimenting with a Whole30 or Paleo style elimination program at least once, to discover any food sensitivities, reset gut health, and lots more).
One of the most often cited flaws in Flexible Dieting is that food quality is simply not a consideration. The theory behind it being that your body will get exactly the same end product out of an organic sweet potato as it will from a handful of Skittles: glucose. (And while that may technically be true, there is of course more to health than that “end product” and/or your body fat percentage; micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber, nutrient bioavailability, digestive health, gut health, brain health, etc etc etc I do not have enough time for this list people you should know why an apple is better than a doughnut ok!)
Back to the point at hand: you can mathematically figure in treats for yourself so that you can enjoy that nightly piece of chocolate, or wine and dine yourself on a special night out, or whatever else your heart desires, so long as you are still hitting your prescribed carb, fat and protein number (just don’t overdo mmmkay?). If you know that going cold turkey just isn’t for you, this is a great way to practice proper serving sizes and allow yourself to enjoy treats in moderation, while still moving steadily towards your goals.
IF YOU'VE GOT A COMP ON THE HORIZON
If you’re training for a very specific purpose or goal like a competition, and have a bodyweight goal in mind, this can be the most efficient track to get you to where you need to be. Whether you’re competing in a Weightlifting meet and need to make weight, or you just want your body weight to be a little lighter so you can maneuver bodyweight movements like pull-ups or muscle ups a little easier, Flexible Dieting will allow you to drop your body weight while maintaining or building lean muscle mass.
THE CASES IN WHICH I'D BE CAUTIOUS TO RECOMMEND THIS ARE:
Anyone who is brand new to nutrition and/or fitness. I highly (highly!) recommend starting with the big nutrition guidelines first, understanding how various foods affect you personally and impact your workouts and energy (start here), making sure you’re getting enough sleep and managing stress well, soothing any autoimmune conditions, learning about quality of ingredients and servings sizes, etc etc. Study how food affects you, then dial in the details, and your success rate will quadruple. Promise.
Someone with a history of eating disorders. I’ve seen mixed reviews from people with a history of disordered eating and Flexible Dieting: some have seen huge success and find the regimented approach keeps them right on track with a no questions asked mindset, and I’ve seen others who find it throws them back into obsessive patterns, which can be dangerous territory. Please be careful with this and seek professional guidance if needed.
OK, LET'S DO THIS. BUT HOW?
As with anything else, there are a bazillion variables at play when setting your macros, and it should be noted that I am not attempting to set your macros for you here (you can find loads of free online calculators, though those will not be as precise as a coach), but just giving you the very generalized idea behind it all!
Your protein goal should be roughly 1g of protein for every pound of body weight. So a 140 lb woman would eat 140g of protein every single day. Aiming for about 20-30g of protein per meal, plus a post workout snack/shake and a couple high protein snacks will get you there easily. Remember that 130g chicken breast does not equal 130g pf protein- there are tons of online resources and apps to help you determine the correct macros for your serving size if it doesn't have a nutrition label.
Fat is your friend! It is so so important to health in myriad ways, but since it is the most energy dense macro at 9 cals per gram, it can be all too easy to overdo it without realizing it. Keeping your fat intake somewhere around .5g per pound of body weight is a good starting place, and remember to get that all from the best quality sources you can. Think avocado, grass fed butter, nuts, pasture raised beef, etc.
While it may be true that carbohydrates are the only macro we can technically live without, if you are CrossFitting, strength training or working out at high intensity, carbs are the fuel to your fire (any Broad City fans here?). While it may be true that your mostly sedentary cousin or neighbor lost 30 pounds a on a low carb diet, if you’re an athlete, your needs are very different, and you need to eat as such!
If you are not eating sufficient carbs, your body will pull from your muscle stores to get the energy needed for the task at hand (read: lose your gainz). So how much is right for you? Generally speaking, aim for 30% of your daily caloric intake to be from carbohydrates, but remember that your goals, training style and a million other factors will change this number.
WHAT IS A REFEED DAY?
The thing about our bodies is that they are endlessly and tirelessly adaptable. If you've been on a small caloric deficit and training hard in the gym, after a while your body will adapt to this regimen and stop burning fat. A refeed day is generally one day a week (though it can be two days a week or once every other week depending) where you eat way above your normal macros. Some people don't track at all, some people only adjust their carb number, but the goal is the same: to trick your body. The influx of calories triggers a lineup of hormones that get it out of it's "save for emergency" mode and back into fat burning mode.
You will need to buy a food scale, and apps like My Fitness Pal can be extremely helpful. Finding yourself a coach who can accurately prescribe a macro profile specific to you, your needs, your goals and your lifestyle is the best way to have success; Working Against Gravity and Renaissance Periodization are two of the current industry titans, and I'd be remiss to not mention that my friend The Girl with the Butter also offers a macro-based program! Krissy Mae Cagney is also well known for her Macro ebooks if you're interested in learning more.
Tracking macros is a lot of work, requires precision and patience and therefore might not be for everyone. And it is certainly not the only way to achieve your goals- there are tons of elite athletes who do not track their food, and I don't want to suggest that this is the only way to be a badass! But how will you know what works for you if you don’t give it a try?
Remember that the key part to ANY nutrition or fitness routine is consistency. Trying this (or anything else) loosely for two weeks will not get you results. Find what works for you and stick to it, and you’ll hit your goals in no time!
UPDATE: After publishing this post, I was invited to guest host an episode of "Is This Podcast Paleo" with Kristin of The Girl With the Butter, where we expanded on this and chatted about macros for the entire episode! Listen to the Podcast here.