Editor's note: Macronutrient counting can be a game-changer for your body composition. In this three-part series, Coach Eric will detail the theory and practice you need to reach the lean body goals you've always wanted. Check out Part 1 of the series here. See Part 2 of the series here. For more information, or to get a copy of his exclusive Macro Counting Calculator, contact us at crossfitalgiers.com.
By Coach Eric R. Palmer
In Part 3, we're getting down to the details of macro counting. Please go back and check out Parts 1 and 2 for the science behind why this protocol can work for anyone - even you!
There are many different types of diets and philosophies behind what you should put into your body and why. Macro counting can work with any diet. All that macro counting does is give you feedback on what you are putting in your body. If you only have a vague idea of how much food you’re consuming, or what types of macros, you’ll only vaguely know how well you’re sticking to a diet. Counting macros, and doing it consistently, gives you the information on what you’re eating and the precision to tailor it to best work for you.
Step 1 - TRACKING
Before beginning macro counting, the first thing you need to do is to determine how you’re going to track your macros. You can write it down with pen and paper in a journal, looking at the nutrition labels on packaged food and Googling nutritional information. I suggest finding a macro tracking app. Some that I, or friends of mine, have used and found success with are: MyFitnessPal, MyMacros+, MyPlate, Lose It!, and Carb Manager. The two main advantages to using an app are that your phone is nearly always close at hand and they have built-in libraries of common foods. Most, if not all, allow scanning of codes on packaged foods to automatically input macro (and other) nutritional information, and they all allow for entry of other, non-packaged foods via their food libraries. There is some sorting that needs to be done, as careful attention should be given that the entries you select are accurate and that they contain macronutrient information. Some entries only have calorie information, so attention should be paid that the information you select is accurate, especially at the beginning. As you continue to track your macros, you will likely find yourself coming back to the same entries and foods, which makes tracking easier with time but also places more emphasis on making sure the information is accurate the first time.
Setting Up Your Tracker - The RIGHT Way
Once you’ve decided which platform you want to use, set it up to track macros and calories. Disable any exercise tracking function, especially if you use the macro calculating formula that I am including at the end of this article. I have found the increases that the macro counting apps allow for exercise to be overly generous/generic and are better handled through a more specific approach. Without making any adjustments to your diet, the first thing to do when tracking macros is to track the food that you’re already eating, for at least a week, preferably two. It is VERY important to be honest about your tracking. If you feel guilty about the pint of ice cream you ate after dinner that’s one thing, but don’t neglect to enter it into the tracker – that totally defeats the purpose. Be honest with yourself and just track what you eat.
You’ll likely find that your days vary wildly in macro content, calorie content, and macro ratios. When I first did this, I know I found that my protein content would vary by more than 100 grams/day from one day to the next, and I could have four days around 2500 calories, then an eight thousand calorie day, then another couple days around 2500. I thought I was eating healthily and consistently, but once I really looked at the food I was putting into my body, I say a lot of variation and that the reality did not match my intent. It was an eye-opener that I really didn’t have a nutrition plan because it was so wild and irregular. Only once I knew what I was putting into my body to begin with could I start to think about how I wanted to change it.
The beauty of macro counting is that it works with everything. It is just a tool to let yourself know how well you’re sticking to whatever diet you’re trying to eat; it lets you know if what you want to do and what you’re actually doing are the same thing. It also gives you the precision to make changes to your diet and observe, over time if those changes had positive or negative outcomes.
Hitting Your Targets
When counting macros, generally you have four targets: Calories, grams of fat, grams of carbohydrate, and grams of protein. Different diets will have different targets. Based on the Energy Balance principle, the Calorie goal will be based on a goal weight and consider how much exercise you’re doing. Depending on the diet type, your fat goal may be quite high (Keto might have 60-80% of your calories from fat) or quite low (10-15% for a high-carb, low-fat diet); carbohydrates can range from 5% of total calories in a Keto diet to more than 50% in a high-carb diet); protein can contribute anywhere from 10-50% of your caloric intake.
Determine Your Calorie Goal
A good rule of thumb for determining a calorie intake goal is to follow the following procedure: First, determine your activity level between 10 (totally sedentary) to 14 (ultramarathoner/CF Games athlete). Most of us fall somewhere in between. If you attend CrossFit 2-3 times a week, you’re probably an 11. If you go 4 days a week and run another 2 or three times a week, a twelve. If you go 5 times a week and run/workout on your own 3 or 4 times a week, a thirteen. Once you’ve determined your activity level, multiply it by your GOAL bodyweight. So, if you go to CrossFit 3 times a week and want to weigh 150 pounds, your caloric intake would be 11 x 150 = 1650 calories/day.
Determine Your Protein Goal
If you're a member of CrossFit Algiers, we’re all interested in building strength and fitness, and in order to do so, we need protein. The bare minimum for protein intake should be about 0.36 x bodyweight (in lbs) in grams of protein per day. As CrossFitters, we should be aiming for something closer to 0.75-2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight in grams/day of protein. Generally (but not always) women are at the lower end and men more toward the middle of the scale to account for differences in lean body mass and fat mass between genders. Based on our previous example, let’s say we’re going to begin with 0.75 gram/per day per pound of bodyweight. So that means you would be eating 113 grams of protein/per day (which is 150 x 0.75).
Determine Your Carbohydrate Goal
A good starting point for carbohydrates for a non-keto diet is about 40% of your calories from carbs. Since carbs are 4 calories per gram, then math is pretty simple: Simply divide the total number of calories per day by ten to get the grams of carbohydrate per day. So, from our previous example, since we’re eating 1650 calories per day, 1650/10 = 165 grams of carbohydrate per day.
Determine Your Fat Goal
Now we must determine the amount of fat in the diet. So far, we have 1650 calories per day, 150 grams of protein per day, and 165 grams of carbohydrate per day. That means that we have 538 calories left to make up with fats (1650 calories – [113 x 4] – [165 x 4] = 538). At 9 calories/gram, that leaves us with 60 grams of fat per day.
This macro profile is generally set up for someone who is interested in losing weight and building strength, someone who is interested in gaining lean muscle mass slowly, or someone who is interested in maintaining a 150 pound bodyweight but still supporting strength gains. Different goals call for different macro and calorie profiles; if someone is looking to gain or lose weight quickly, some things might be a little different. But this is a good, solid starting point for a healthy macronutrient profile. For specialized and customized help, work with a certified nutrition coach - at CrossFit Algiers, preferably.
To summarize the steps for a base macro profile:
- Determine Activity Level between 10-14.
- Multiply Goal Weight by Activity Level to determine Daily Calories.
- Multiply Goal Weight by 0.75-1.0 (Typically 0.75 for women and 0.85 for men) to determine grams of protein per day.
- Divide Daily Calories by ten to determine grams of carbohydrate per day.
- Determine Calories from Protein and Calories from Carbohydrate by multiplying grams of protein per day by four and grams of carbohydrate per day by four, respectively.
- Determine grams of fat per day by subtracting Calories from Protein and Calories from Carbohydrate from Daily Calories and dividing the total by nine.
A typical beer or glass of wine is about equal to 40-50 grams of carbohydrate. Mixed drinks like margaritas or juice-based cocktails would also have the added carbohydrates from the mixers. When tracking macros, you’ll quickly see just how much of an impact drinking has on your nutrition.
Macro counting is a tool that you can use to inform you how you are doing with your diet and to give you feedback and keep you on track with your diet. It can be used with any diet.
Some people are intimidated by the time commitment of entering all their food into a macro counter. There are different ways to go about it, which work for different people. Personally, I enter food in as I eat it. There are always those few moments in any given day where you have downtime. For example, while waiting in line to order a smoothie, I’ll enter the food I’m about to order into my macro counter. Or while riding the elevator back up to the office. It’s pretty easy to find those moments throughout the day to steal a quick 15-30 second to input your food into your tracker. I’m able to tabulate my food as I go, and if I notice myself getting too far off track during the day, I can correct course and aim for more of whatever I’m missing or less of whatever macro I’ve eaten too much of early in the day. For others, they find it easier to plan out their food at the beginning of the day, enter it all in the morning, then make any adjustments that may occur during the day. These tend to be the sorts of people who meal prep. They already know what the menu for the day is, so it’s easy to just enter it all in the beginning. Whatever input method you choose, as will anything else, it becomes more efficient and less time consuming as you go and become more proficient.
Good luck, and let us know how your progress is going! And come check out the gym at CrossFit Algiers - nutrition is part of all our conversations.