By Lindsay Wilson
What are macros? Macronutrients are our major sources of energy and tracking them is the premier tool for physique focused fat loss.
Imagine you’re walking around a foreign city you’ve never been to before. Your enjoying the sights but are a little lost. This was fine for the last couple of hours but you need to meet a friend at a hotel in 20 minutes. And their phone is dead.
Here are your options. You can just keep walking around and hope you see a sign. Brave the local language and ask for directions. Or pay for some data on your phone and fire up google maps?
What are macros?
Macros are the google maps of weight loss. They might cost you a little, but you’ll sure as hell get what you pay for. And once you’ve used the app to navigate a few times you’ll start to know the route.
Tracking is particularly useful at two times, when your starting a new diet or stuck on a weight loss plateau. Doing it all the time can be counterproductive for a lot of people, but its an immensely powerful option to have in your tool kit.
In this fourth section of The Fat Loss Framework we are going to learn about macronutrients. We’ll look at what macros are, whether you should track them, and look at how the world’s leading fat loss experts, natural bodybuilders, track and adjust their macros in order to achieve incredibly low body fat percentages.
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the body’s major energy sources. There daily intake is measured in grams (micronutrients are measure in milligrams). Protein, fat and carbohydrates are the main macros of interest for weight loss, while fibre and alcohol can also provide us with energy.
The different macronutrients provide a different number of calories of energy per gram. For counting purposes the key one’s to remember are 4 kcal/gram for protein, 4 kcal/gram for carbohydrate and 9 kcal/gram for fat. These are the general factors used for food labelling and are how people set their macros.
In the graph below we take a slightly more technical look at these ‘Atwater factors’.
For the purpose of counting your macros the general factors shown in black are fine. These are also how food labels are calculated.
I’ve included a little bit more info just to show you that some energy is burned up extracting energy from different macros. Protein in particular has a high ‘thermic effect’, because about 20% of its metabolizable energy is lost while being broken down by the body. If we were getting super technical we could also look at how the specific Atwater factors vary between foods, but that’s really just hair splitting for nutrition geeks.
Here are some basics on the three main macros of interest:
Protein: Protein is the body’s building blocks. Their are eight essential amino acids (which the body can’t make enough of) that need to be supplied by diet and a further twelve that the body can sort out for itself. Protein is the central macronutrient for most physique focussed athletes losing fat as it is the most filling macro, is muscle sparing and has a high thermic effect.
Fat: Fat helps maintain hormonal health an acts as the bodies main energy store. It aids the absorptions of vitamins and minerals, is used for hormone and membrane production and is essential for human life in the form of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Although dietary fat is readily stored in adipose tissue (body fat) our total fat balance only increases in a caloric surplus. As moderate fat intake is a sensible part of a healthy diet.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the bodies preferred source of energy for brain function and intense exercise. Technically carbohydrates are not essential for human life, as the body can make glucose or switch to using ketones in their absence, but they are the preferred fuel source for serious athletes. Carbohydrate needs vary greatly between people depending on their exercise regime, insulin sensitivity and leanness. Lowered carbohydrate diets can be a useful tool certain populations.
Bottom line: protein, fat and carbs are the key macros
Which foods contain different macros?
Understanding which foods are rich in different macronutrients is an important learning curve for anyone interested in counting their macros. Although you can technically hit your macros using all sorts of mixed foods macro trackers tend to gravitate towards foods rich in protein, fat or carbs as this simplifies meal prep.
In the graph below I’ve listed five protein rich, fat rich and carb rich foods. In each category you can see what percentage of total calories comes from that macronutrient.
Having a list of go to protein, fat and carb sources you like can be super useful in terms shopping, planning meals or making up your macros. Also if you get the bulk of your macros in from voluminous whole foods you can often squeeze in some delicious ‘junk’ without ending up too hungry. This is standard trick among flexible dieters to make the diet more enjoyable and improve long term adherence.
Bottom line: foods rich in protein, fat or carbs can simplify counting
What are the macro ratios of popular diets?
Humans are incredibly flexible in there ability to survive on diets of different macronutrient ratios. Inuits thrived on diets very high fats while Kitavans did much the same on a primarily carb diet. Similar differences can be seen in traditional diets, Okinawans and Sardinians, showing that healthy diets may be more about food quality than any particular macro split.
But if you want to understand the vast array of different diets around then macro ratios are a pretty good place to start. In the graph below I’ve compared some rough estimates for the macro splits of different diet approaches.
When most people talk about diet ratios they tend to be defined by where they sit on the carbohydrate spectrum. In these example the Ketogenic, Atkins and Low Carb diets are classified as low carb (<20%). Paleo, Mediterranean and Zone are in the moderate carb group (20-50%). The typical American, Vegetarian and Ornish diet are high carb diet (50%).
Interestingly if you graphed global food supply it would be way off the the right, at 63% carbohydrate, 26% fat and 11% protein. I’d guess this would moderate once adjusted for food loses, but its quite clear that poorer countries eat carbohydrates rich diets and as they get richer tend to consumer more protein and fat in particular.
One of the strangest things about the world of online nutrition is just how vocal many people are about the superiority of a particular macronutrient ratio or approach. This is particularly odd given that when you look across the literature of controlled lab experiments macro distribution tends to have little effect on fat loss, with total caloric intake being the main driver.
What I commonly see is that people are quite evangelical about what worked for them. Many people have a much better time controlling calories using a low carb approach, which brings them success, and a certain low carb bias. Other people feel much better on higher carbs, needing the energy to support there exercise regime, making them more pro carb.
The important think for each of us to remember is that is our job to fill the fuel tank. Moreover we are the only ones who can tell how the engine is running. There is no perfect macro ratio or intake, but with patient experiment you can gravitate towards a range that works for you.
Bottom line: people can thrive on low, moderate or high carb diets
Should you be counting macros?
Now this is a hell of a good question!! And like virtually ever good question in fitness the answer is . . . . it depends.
Counting macros is just a tool, and you only know which tool to chose when you know the job. So let’s consider a few different ‘jobs’.
Getting shredded: If your goal is to get ripped you should count macros. By ripped I mean men chasing a muscular physique below 10% bodyfat, or women looking to go below 20%. Achieving this type of leanness requires a level of patience and consistency in your food intake that is easiest to achieve by tracking macros. This is self evident in the reality that the virtually the whole spectrum of physique athletes track their macros.
Getting lean: If your goal is to get lean then I’d suggest trying some periodic macro counting, without get too obsessive about it. In terms of lean I mean men in the 10-15% body fat range and women at 20-25% bodyfat (an incredibly healthy bodyfat level). The reason I’d suggest trying part time tracking is that you can learn a huge amount about food and your body from periodic tracking, without letting it impact on your social life.
Getting healthy: If your goal is to get healthy then I’d only consider tracking in short burst to learn about food. For healthy I’m talking 15-20% bodyfat for men and 25-30% for women, a very healthy range for people with active lifestyles. For this type of goal you want to chose the lowest stress and most sustainable approach possible. Tracking the occasional meal or day will help you learn how to make better food choices, without acquiring some of the odd behaviours associated with hitting specific targets.
Tracking macros is powerful tool. Not only does it allow you to control your caloric deficit to ensure fat loss, but it handles you macros in a way that can promote better partitioning of nutrients, superior muscle maintenance and better hormonal health. That’s why virtually all bodybuilders do it. In fact its such a powerful tool I think it’s insane that it is currently the preserve of the 1% of the population obsessive enough to track all their food.
As someone who completed an extremely quantitative economics degree I can’t help think the ‘should you count your macros’ fits well in a cost benefit analysis.
Stay with me here 😉 This will make more sense in a picture.
This graph is a what I call a Beginner’s Progression for Macro Counting (also called Flexible Dieting).
On the left hand side we have five levels for when you could track your food, and on the right hand side five levels for what nutrients to track.
What you want to do is work out how high you can go on each side before the costs of tracking (inconvenience and stress) exceed its benefits in terms of getting in shape. For a complete beginner just counting the calories in a meal might be a great start. In contrast an in contest bodybuilder will go straight to level five on both sides because getting on stage means more to them that any of the inconvenience of tracking .
Personally, I do most of my fat loss about half way up this pyramid. I’m generally prepared to track breakfast and lunch during the week, but really don’t want macros to enter my mind when I’m making dinner for my wife and kids. This relaxed approach works great for me as I have no desire to get ripped.
For the vast majority of the population interested in losing fat, I think periodic macro counting has huge potential. You see consistently tracking breakfasts, or daytimes, will fundamentally change the way you think about food. And it will do it without you needing to pull out MyFitnessPal when you’re out to dinner with friends.
Bottom line: macro counting is a powerful skill worth learning
How do you track macros?
One of the reasons I like periodic macro tracking is that you will learn far more from counting properly for a week than you will from doing it halfheartedly for a month. If your ‘macro tracking’ involves mounded tablespoons of peanut butter and not logging Starbuck’s lattes you might as well not bother. You’re just kidding yourself.
So what do I mean by properly? I mean with a digital food scale, weighing ingredients and logging everything that goes in your mouth. This will very quickly teach you how much 30g of protein is in chicken breast, how you can add 15g of fat from cheese, what 50g carbs looks like in terms of rice, and why you don’t need to weigh that spinach.
And its just like riding a bike. Once you’ve learnt to balance, then steer, then pedal you can forget about balancing, steering, pedalling and simply enjoy the ride. You will have learnt how to fuel your body with your eyeballs instead of a food scale, a skill you’ll have for life.
Here’s how you can get it done:
1. Gather your tools
You’ll need a digital food scale and an tracking app to input your meals. I only really know MyFitnesspal, but I believe Lose It!, Cron-o-meter or SparkPeople can also do the job.
And then you’ll need some food 😉 To begin with it will be easiest to use whole foods that you can weight before they are cooked (eggs, oats, meat, veggies, fruit, rice etc).
You can also track food that you buy at restaurants and on the run. If you are aiming for accuracy, like tracking maintenance for a week, you can assume that massed produced foods (from supermarkets) will be pretty accurate while restaurants meals a likely to be all over the place. So perhaps skip them briefly if you are trying to work out maintenence.
If you also intending to track your bodyweight you’ll need a digital bodyweight scale on a hard surface where you can way yourself each morning. Although this should be avoided if you have an unhealthy relationship with the scale and can’t deal with water weight fluctuations.
2. Focus on process
A trap that people often fall into when tracking their macros is trying to know if their macros are ‘right’, when what you really need to ask is if they are working. And before you can assess if they are working you need to be consistent. So you need to find a process that works for you.
For this I’d suggest aiming for the path of least resistance. Here are some options for hitting a full day’s macros:
- the even split: split your macros evenly into 4 meals (3 or 5 can work too) and then plan meals to fit those macros
- the meal plan: use your app to plan a full days food that hits your number and fits your lifestyle
- intermittent fast: some people find appetite control superior with a morning fast and afternoon feeding window
- track as you go: entering food as you go is an advanced style but super flexible skill to have
As a general rule you want to find a process that allows you to hit track numbers consistently with as little stress as possible.
3. Learn from ‘mistakes’
No one ever learnt to ride a bike without falling off it. And missing your macros is not a ‘failure’. Its an opportunity to learn.
If you miss your macros every time someone brings home a tub of ice cream, eat ice cream when your out. If you are always starving at the end of the day shift more food to the evening. If you find yourself eating tuna at midnight, eat more protein at breakfast and lunch. If your office if full of tempting cookies, find a substitute snack that fits your budget.
And no matter what the fall looks like, just get back on the bike!!
The average American eats a million calories a year. Do you really think an extra 5,000 on thanksgiving is any match for someone that learns how to keep themselves full on 10 kcal/lbs a day? Just call the blow out a ‘refeed’, hit a couple of days of decent numbers and watch all that water weight disappear.
Bottom line: tracking macros is a skill that requires practice
How do you set macros for fat loss?
Even if you only intend to use macro counting for the tracking breakfast, or the odd meal here and there, it is useful to understand how the pros do it. In this section I’m going to describe how the leading coaches in the natural body-building community set macros for fat loss.
It’s really not complicated. They just start with the totally calorie allotment, then set protein, then fat and finally carbs. For people who are new to macro math I’ve put it into a waterfall chart that explains how these four steps come together.
This graph shows calories, protein, fat and carbs all in terms of calories per day, so we can see how it gets divided up. Let’s run through this example in order.
1: Set calories
A competitor who is starting their cut will have been tracking maintenance for weeks before starting. In this case lets say our 200 lbs male is maintaining at 3,100 calories a day. Trying to jump start fat loss he sets calories to average 2,600 calories a day, and adds a little cardio. The aim is to get things moving around 2lbs a week (some of which will be water) without taking calories too low. He will try to maintain 1% per week to begin with knowing this will likely slow to 0.5% (or less) a week as he leans out.
2: Set protein
Protein is a structural macronutrient, so it is set relative to bodyweight rather that as a percentage. A common range for physique athletes is 0.8-1.4 g/lbs (1.8-3.1 g/kg). That’s grams of protein per pound each day. In this example our 200 lbs male gets 220 grams each day (1.1 g/lbs). Bodybuilders typically eat a lot of protein to protect muscle and stay full, and are much more likely to cut carbs or fats in adjustments before they sacrifice protein.
3: Set fat
Fat can be set relative to bodyweight or as a percentage of calories. Some typical ranges are 0.25-0.5 g/lbs (0.6-1.1 g/kg). In this example we go for 0.4 g/lbs yielding a fat target of 80 grams of fat a day. As the caloric allotment gets tight fat intake will likely take some hits, but its ideal to start out higher where possible for hormonal health and fullness.
4: Set carbs
The remainder of the calories are filled with carbs. In this example that is 2,400 – 200*4 – 70*9 which we round to 240 grams a day. Carb allotments are by far the most variable among competitors. People with high energy expenditures, and great insulin sensitivity, can often cut on hundreds of grams of carbs a day. Many may instead end up with just one hundred grams a day, and some even do best with a ketogenic approach (<50 g a day plus high fat).
Bottom line: bodybuilders set calories, protein, fat then carbs
How do you adjust your macros?
If you are still reading at this point there is a good chance you are interested in physique focused fat loss, so lets talk about adjustments!
Adjustments are considered as much an art form as a science. They are about knowing when to be patient, when to dig, when to take a break or when to reverse someone out of a bad situation. That’s why many competitors outsource them to a coach that provides objectivity, experience and external accountability.
Although most of us will never be consistent enough to make incremental changes to our macros, learning about how the pros do it can be a real eye opener for those of us engaging in more recreational fat loss.
The following graph is illustration one of the very few natural bodybuilder preparations that has been documented as a formal study.
In this preparation, as with many top bodybuilders, the adjustments to macros were surprisingly subtle:
When rate of weight loss slowed, a 5 to 10g reduction in daily fat or carbohydrate intake was implemented to maintain weight loss.
This type of gradual 50 calorie cutting is only possible with remarkable adherence. In this case hitting all macros with 5 g each day. For less elite trainees a good rule of thumb for a downward adjustment is to cut 25 grams of carbs, or 10 grams of fat. This kind of small 100 calorie adjustment forces you to be patient, ride out water weight fluctuations and avoid the race to the bottom that can ruin adherence.
Although the macros in this case study look reasonably high you’ll note that by the end of this prep the contestant was completing over 10 hours of exercise a week off a just 2,000 calories a day. And just in case you are tempted to look at these macros and assume they might work for you I’ve got a little graph to remind why you should never ‘borrow’ someone else’s macros.
Here is where 3DMJ athletes bottomed out in their various preps.
Once again we see huge variation. One of the women dug all the way down to 1,000 calories to get the job done. Whereas a couple of the men got stage lean on a remarkable 3,000 calories a day. Also note the vast majority of variation between individuals comes from the carbohydrate intake, and that the relatively low fat intake reflects part of the 3DMJ approach.
Bottom line: small macro adjustments are used by elite bodybuilders
Macros are our primary energy sources and if you have physique related fitness goals you should seriously consider tracking them. Of course even if you are just aiming to get lean or healthy rather than ripped a brief period of accurate tracking can be hugely educational.
Next up will look at whether calories burned walking matter for fat loss.