With the right balance of macros, you can optimize your weight, body composition, performance, and health.
So, if this is your first time learning about macro tracking, I’m going to start from the basics.
By the end of this guide, you’ll have a step-by-step process to follow to feel confident tracking your macros, regardless of your fitness goal.
- The energy in food (calories) comes from three main macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat. Alcohol also provides calories and is sometimes called the fourth macronutrient. So, tracking macros indirectly tracks calorie intake as well.
- Tracking macros is ideal for those who are data-driven and willing to put in the work to track their intake consistently. But, it may not be the right approach for individuals with disordered eating tendencies and a negative relationship with food.
- Success in macro tracking comes from consistency, patience, and making small changes over time. It’s important to measure outputs such as weight, measurements, performance, mood, and energy to evaluate progress.
What Are Macros?
There are three main macronutrients that provide energy in the form of calories: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
Your body needs macronutrients in larger quantities because each nutrient has essential functions in the body.
- Learn my story of tracking my macros for 1000 days
Protein molecules are made up of “building blocks” called amino acids that are joined together in chains. These building blocks form the structure of our body’s tissues (most notably muscle tissue, but also organs, bones, skin, hair, and connective tissue).
Protein also plays an important role in helping you retain the muscle that you currently have and to build additional muscle mass. Additionally, protein is the most satiating nutrient because it is able to delay hunger better than the other macronutrients.
So, if you’re not getting enough protein you are more likely to lose muscle mass, fail to grow more muscle, and feel hungrier (more on how much protein you should be eating later).
Some examples of high-protein foods are:
- Greek Yogurt
Each gram of protein provides approximately 4 calories.
- Related Article: How Long Does Macro Tracking Take To Work?
Carbohydrates are molecules of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that provide energy to fuel both physical activity like workouts, as well as bodily functions that keep us alive. Carbohydrates also come in different forms: simple or complex.
Simple carbohydrates (sugars) are absorbed directly into the bloodstream and provide energy very quickly, which are ideal for pre and post-workout meals when you need energy more quickly.
Complex carbohydrates (starches) have longer chains of molecules that take longer to digest and provide energy more slowly over time, which is ideal when you want to stay full longer.
Fiber is also a form of carbohydrate but it usually cannot be broken down by the body so it does not provide calories. Consuming enough fiber is important because it adds bulk to your stool to help with digestion.
Some examples of carbohydrates are:
Whether simple or complex, each gram of carbohydrate provides approximately 4 calories.
Dietary fats (the fats that we eat) are molecules made up of essential fatty acids. Depending on how the molecules are arranged, the fats can be trans fats, saturated fats, or unsaturated fats (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated).
Getting enough dietary fat is important for cognitive function, hormonal health, and other body processes; but, too much fat, especially trans fat and saturated fat, is a leading risk factor for heart disease.
I recommend getting most of your fat from unsaturated fat, some from saturated, and little to no trans fats (more on how much total fat to eat later).
Some examples of dietary fats are:
- Nuts & Seeds
Each gram of fat provides approximately 9 calories.
Alcohol is sometimes called the “fourth macronutrient” because it provides caloric energy to your body, but it does not provide protein, carbs, or fat.
Alcohol is a toxin, and your body will prioritize metabolizing it first to get rid of it.
You can learn the details about alcohol and tracking macros in my other article How To Track Alcohol Macros: The Do’s and Don’ts.
4 Benefits of Macro Tracking
Tracking macros also indirectly tracks calories (the most important factor for weight changes), because macronutrients provide the calories we consume.
The balance of calories consumed compared to the calories we expend (“energy balance”) will determine whether we gain, lose, or maintain our weight:
- If you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in, then you will lose weight.
- If you’re consuming more calories than you’re burning, then you will gain weight.
- If you’re consuming the same amount of calories as you’re burning, then you will maintain your weight.
So, tracking macros and being more aware of your consumption can help you reach your weight goals more easily.
- Related Article: Bodybuilding Meal Plan For Beginners: How To Start + Examples
2. Body Composition
While calories matter most for changes in bodyweight, macronutrient breakdown (the ratio of carbs to fats to protein) matters more for body composition.
Body composition refers to how much of your body is made up of lean mass (i.e. muscle) versus fat mass.
Most people actually care more about body composition than they do about body weight.
This is because if they look lean (lower body fat percentage) with visible muscle definition (hello abs), then that is preferable to weighing less but having a higher body fat percentage with no visible muscles.
- Related Article: 20+ Bodybuilding Foods For Bulking (That Are Still Healthy)
Macronutrients are also crucial for optimizing physical performance in training or sport. It’s very important to get the right amount of each macronutrient to support the demands of the activity.
Macro tracking ensures that athletes get enough protein to repair and grow muscle tissue for strength, enough carbs to fuel for and recover from their workouts, and the right amount of fat to support bodily functions without bogging them down.
Think of protein and carbs as your “performance nutrients” and fat as your “rest and digest” nutrient.
Protein and carbs should be prioritized around your workouts, whereas fats should be prioritized at other times during the day.
Finally, tracking macros can help people learn about what combinations of foods make them feel their best in terms of energy, digestion, mood, and cravings.
All of these elements contribute to overall wellness, and the right balance will optimize immune function to reduce getting sick.
Who Should Track Macros?
Tracking macros is a great approach for people who are ready to handle the complexity of weighing and measuring everything they eat.
Tracking macros is very hands-on and can be time-consuming initially, so it’s best for those who are willing to put in the work and learn as they go.
Who Should Not Track Macros?
Tracking macros is not recommended for individuals with a history of disordered eating or a poor relationship with food.
Also, anyone with obsessive and/or compulsive tendencies may find that the amount of detail and emphasis on numbers in macro tracking can make these tendencies even worse.
“Anyone with a previous or current eating disorder, or can become obsessive or compulsive about these aspects of nutrition, probably shouldn’t be tracking.”– Dr. Marc Morris
Additionally, tracking macros shouldn’t be the first step for those who are just starting to learn about nutrition. There are key skills that need to be mastered before diving head-first into tracking.
Learning how to shop for, prepare and cook lean protein sources, whole grains and starchy vegetables, and fruit are key skills to get in place before adding a layer of complexity with tracking macros.
I recommend having these basic building blocks in place first, otherwise tracking macros can become just about the quantity of food in the diet, rather than the quality.
Dietitian Mary Sabat explains:
“While counting macros can be an effective way to gauge intake and ensure that one is getting the right balance of (macro)nutrients, it does not guarantee that the food being eaten is actually healthy and good for one’s body.”
How To Start Tracking Macros
Step 1: Select A Tracking App
You’ll want to select a tracking app that focuses on macronutrients (rather than just calories) and has a reliable database of foods so that you know the information is accurate.
Some of our favorite macro-tracking apps include:
- MacroFactor: Best For Individuals With No Coach (click to read our review)
- Cronometer: Best For Those Working With a Coach (click to read our review)
Step 2: Get A Digital Food Scale
To track your intake more accurately, you’ll need to know exactly how much you are eating and drinking; the best way to do that is to use a digital food scale to weigh your food.
Weighing food (in grams or ounces) is generally more reliable than using a measuring cup (but you’ll want to get some measuring cups and spoons, too).
Step 3: Track What You Normally Eat & Drink
Before you even start trying to hit macro targets, begin by learning how to record what you normally eat and drink.
Most nutrition apps allow you to search for foods or use a barcode scanner so that you can easily get the nutrition information for packaged food.
When tracking packaged foods, pay attention to the serving size on the package and use your food scale to measure your actual portion size. You don’t have to adhere to the serving size listed on the label, but you will use that for reference when logging your intake.
For foods that do not have a nutrition label (like many fruits and vegetables), measure your serving and then type the food name in the search box on the app.
Get in the habit of tracking everything you eat and drink and wait until you have at least 1-2 weeks of consistent data before you try to make changes. It’s hard to get where you want to go if you don’t know where you are starting.
Step 4: Evaluate Your Calorie Intake
Once you have at least 1-2 weeks of consistent data, then you are able to evaluate your trends and use that information to determine how to make changes to get you to your goal.
First, you’ll want to evaluate how many calories you’ve averaged and how this calorie intake has affected your body weight.
If your current calorie intake doesn’t align with your goal then you will want to adjust your intake up or down by 10-20%.
If you’ve been maintaining your weight at 2000 calories but would like to optimize your body composition and/or improve sports performance, you might need to adjust your ratio of macronutrients (how many calories are coming from protein vs carbs vs fats).
Step 5: Set Your Macro Targets
Once you’ve adjusted your calorie intake to reflect your goals, you can start calculating your macronutrient targets.
My recommendation is for ~30% of calories from protein.
At 2000 calories, this would be 600 calories, which is 150 grams of protein (since each gram provides 4 calories).
However, if your current intake is only 50 grams of protein, then it may not be reasonable to triple your intake to 150 grams overnight. Be patient and work your way up to a higher intake gradually.
- Related Article: Can You Gain Muscle Without Counting Macros?
Next, my recommendation is for ~40% of calories from carbohydrates.
At 2000 calories, this would be 800 calories, which is 200 grams of carbs (since each gram provides 4 calories).
Again, this target might be a long way from your current intake, so make incremental changes as needed to reach the desired target.
The remaining calories (30%) come from fat.
At 2000 calories, this would be 600 calories, which is 67 grams of fat (each gram of fat provides 9 calories).
Take your time to make moderate changes to your intake until you reach your desired macronutrient targets. Then, get at least 1-2 weeks of hitting your targets.
Dr. Marc Morris agrees, stating that:
“First-time dieters set macronutrients based on what is ‘optimal’ vs. where they are currently at and where they should go. This makes the initial adjustments too hard to stick to at first and results suffer”.
He recommends “making small objective changes in numbers towards ‘optimal,’ while getting results, gives time for the right habits and actions to catch up.”
- Related Article: What Happens If I Don’t Hit My Macros? Should I Worry?
Step 6: Measure The Outputs
When you’ve been able to hit your desired targets for at least 1-2 weeks, you’ll want to compare this “input” data (calories and macronutrients you’ve been putting into your body) to the “output” data that shows what your body has been responding to the change in calories and macros.
Consider the following measures:
- Weight: try to weigh yourself daily at the same time, in the same conditions (i.e. first thing in the morning, naked). The daily numbers will fluctuate, but you can use them to calculate a weekly average weight (sum of the seven days, divided by seven) and compare the weekly average weights over time.
- Body fat percentage: while most devices (other than a DEXA) aren’t very accurate, they can give you at least an idea of trends over time. Many smart scales will record an estimate for body fat along with weight during your daily weigh-ins.
- Measurements: take key circumference measurements (such as chest, waist, and hips at a minimum) every 1-2 weeks
- Performance: how are your workouts going? Keep a log to see if weights lifted are increasing, either in the number of reps or amount lifted, and whether running/cardio workouts are getting faster/easier.
- Mood & energy: keep notes on your mood & energy. If your goal is to lose weight, you might be seeing a lower number on the scales, but if you’re miserable and have no energy, it can be a sign that your calorie intake is too low.
You can record these indicators in a notebook or spreadsheet, and some apps like Cronometer actually have features to record them all.
Step 7: Assess & Adjust
Based on the outputs (described in Step 6, above) compared to your goals, you can use this information to assess your progress and adjust your macros as necessary.
This is outcome-based decision making, which is the most accurate way to make adjustments to your intake.
Although online macro calculators can come in handy, your own body is the best measuring device to let you know what is working and what is not.
There are a lot of factors to consider, so I highly recommend reaching out to a nutrition coach, even for a one-time consultation, if you need additional guidance and support.
My Top Five Tips For Tracking Macros Successfully
If you really want to get the most out of tracking macros, here are my top five tips for success:
Tip #1: Track Everything
Record all the foods you eat (and beverages you drink), not just when you’re “eating clean” or “being good.” You need the data to match what is actually going on in your life to help you get results.
Like Dietitian Brianna Grande says:
“Use macro tracking as information rather than assigning foods as good or bad”
It can be very helpful to notice when and why you eat certain foods.
Tracking helps you learn, and learning gives you options and opportunities to try new things.
Tip #2: Be Consistent
Be consistent with when you track, what you track (everything), and how you track.
- When: track your food intake before or right after consuming a meal to accurately track the amount eaten. Dietary recall (remembering what and how much you ate) is notoriously inaccurate, even if it’s only been a few hours.
- What: track almost everything – BUT, like Greg Nuckols, the found of MacroFactor says:
“Make sure that tracking it will have a tangible benefit for you”
He explains that:
“If it doesn’t, you can easily find yourself in a position where you’re stressed about hitting 20 different targets, when only 3-4 of them actually move the needle.”
This might mean tracking total calories and protein intake, and nothing else (not worrying about carb, fat, or fiber totals). At the end of the day, you have to do what’s most realistic for you.
- How: when there is more than one way to track a food (cooked vs. raw), pick the same method consistently. This might mean always weighing and logging meat cooked, or always weighing and logging pasta or rice dry, before cooking. Pick whatever will be easiest, and stay consistent.
Tip #3: Guessing Is Better Than Nothing
When you’re trying to track everything, don’t get so hung up on precise measurements. If it’s causing you to feel overwhelmed to the point that you want to give up, then it’s not worth being that precise.
For example, you’re not going to be able to weigh or measure the food at a restaurant or at a friend’s house. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to log it. Find an entry in the database that looks “close enough” and move on.
Even if you were off by 700 calories with your estimate, this is only a 100-calorie difference in the weekly average. That’s way better than not being able to calculate a weekly average at all because you’re missing so many meals.
- What Happens If You Go Over Your Fat Macros?
- What Happens If You Go Over Your Carb Macros?
- What Happens If You Go Over Your Protein Macros?
Tip #4: Know Your Single Macro Foods
Once you’ve got the hang of tracking your macros, actually hitting your targets can feel like an art form. To help you master this magic, learn your single macro foods.
These are foods that provide the majority of their calories from a single macronutrient and can help you hit your targets when you only have a certain number of grams left for just protein, carbs, or fat.
Tip #5: Let Go Of Perfection
When it comes to tracking macros, like many other fitness goals, it’s better to be consistently good than to be occasionally great.
This means being okay with not hitting your target macros perfectly every day, and being okay with having to “eyeball” (guess) portion sizes without worrying about bringing your food scale with you everywhere.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of tracking your macros consistently, THEN you can focus more energy on hitting your targets more closely, more often.
- To learn more about how to do that, check out my article: How To Hit Your Macros: Top 12 Tips From A Nutrition Coach.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I Have To Track Macros Forever?
No, you do not have to track macros forever to make and maintain progress.
Macro tracking is a great opportunity to learn what foods contain what macronutrients and what foods in what amounts make you feel your best. This sets the foundation for more intuitive approaches in the future.
“You will not track macros for the rest of your life; the goal is to eventually get to a point where you use your ‘internal guides’ like intuitive and mindful eating for self-regulation.” –Brianna Grande, Registered Dietitian
What Are The Limitations Of Macro Tracking?
Macro tracking is not magic and macro tracking alone will not allow you to achieve your goals if you’re not eating nutritious foods in the correct amounts, and combining good nutrition with physical activity.
When macro tracking first came out, it was very popular to include many less nutritious (“junk”) foods as long as they “fit your macros.”
While it can really help some people to learn how to include these types of foods in a moderate way, it’s easy to go overboard.
Can I Track Macros Alone Without A Nutrition Coach?
Yes, you can track macros alone without a nutrition coach, just like you can learn to play piano without a teacher. However, keep in mind that you will reach your goals more quickly with a coach because of the knowledge, support, and accountability they provide, compared to the trial and error of going it alone.
“Many people are unsure of what their personal macro balance should be to reach their goals and also what foods to eat to achieve those macros.”
What To Learn Next
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.
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