Figuring out how to eat for your goals is hard. We aren't going to lie about that. But that doesn't mean it's impossible, or that you can't learn how. This article, which is the second installment in our Calories and Macros Series (read the first one here if you haven't already), will teach you how to read nutrition labels, calculate macros, and use apps like MyFitnessPal.
At the end of the day, when it comes to hitting your goals long-term, we need to focus on finding a nutrition plan/diet that fits your lifestyle, and not the other way around. Sure, quick and aggressive plans can work, but they will always lead to results that only last for a short time and rebound even more aggressively.
Introducing, Flexible Dieting with Macro Counting.
The goal of Flexible Dieting is to be exactly that, flexible. When going this route, you’ll be taking care of your body by eating whole foods while still including the fun foods; foods that may not necessarily work towards your goals or health, but are ok to eat in moderation. This gives us more freedom, allows us to still feel free by indulging in our favorite foods at social events, and avoids the common burnout seen when we are forced to eliminate whole food groups (like in the keto diet).
Eating Like An Adult
A common mistake that people make when getting into Flexible Dieting is thinking that the macros are the ONLY thing that matters. And while the macros and the amount of calories we are eating plays a huge role, it would be irresponsible of us to leave it at that.
The quality of the food is also an important factor when eating for our goals. And when we think quality, we think Whole Foods. Whole Foods are foods that have been processed or refined as little as possible, as opposed to Processed Foods.
It’s important to note again that there are no Good Foods or Bad Foods. There are just foods that work toward our goals more so than others, and Whole Foods sit on the side of the spectrum that does just that.
So then what does “eating like an adult” mean? As our Adult Card says, it’s up to us to do the things we need to in order to hit our goals, like eating a diet that consists mainly of whole foods. But at times, it’s also the ‘adult move’ to know when to add in more fun foods to keep our sanity and social lives from crumbling.
We recommend eating 80-90% whole foods, and 10-20% fun foods. The stricter you are, the more efficiently you’ll get to where you want to be. But remember, the chance of burnout increases as you become more and more strict. Do your due diligence and find the balance that works best for you.
Counting Calories vs Counting Macros
A common question we get from members when introducing them to tracking their macros is “If a calorie deficit is what matters, then can I only focus on counting my calories instead of my macros?”
The answer is simple. Both counting your calories and counting your macros will work for weight loss by putting you in the caloric deficit we talked about in this post. However, when it comes to how your body looks (aka Body Composition), counting calories will bring different results than when you’re counting macros.
To break it down, when you count your macros, you are still counting your calories. But when you are only counting your calories, you aren’t paying attention to how those calories are distributed among your protein, carbs and fats.
For example, say you were to only count your calories for your goal of losing 40lbs. You were hoping that by losing that weight, you’d obtain a look that most would define as ‘toned’ or ‘ripped’. However, since you only counted calories, and didn’t pay attention to macros (especially how much protein you were eating), you lost significant muscle mass in the process. This results in a look that some people call ‘skinny fat’, where you aren’t overweight, but you aren’t ‘toned’ either.
“Holy Sh*t This Seems Like a Lot”
It’s totally normal if this feels overwhelming. Remember, that the goal isn’t to be perfect at tracking macros by tomorrow, but to start implementing it as soon as possible so that you can hit roadblocks, fail a bit, and overcome all of that.
If you feel like it’s a lot right now, then we recommend starting by counting your calories while counting your protein. If you are hitting a certain calorie amount and also hitting a certain protein amount, then the rest of the calories that aren’t used from protein can be distributed to your carbs and fats however you like. Then, once you get the hang of that, you can sharpen your skills by also setting carb and fat goals and hitting those.
We choose to focus on protein first for good reasons. When it comes to losing body fat or gaining muscle mass, protein is the most important macro to track. Most people don’t eat enough protein daily to begin with, so bringing our attention here can typically lead to some big wins early on. On top of that, the benefits of eating more protein includes:
- Staying fuller for longer, which in turn, helps reduce hunger and makes eating less calories easier
- Helping the body recover and repair from hard workouts
- Increases the amount of calories burned in a day since it has the highest thermic effect of foods
Again, we suggest focusing on just your protein and calories if you’re feeling overwhelmed. However, we want to remind you that quality carbs and fats are still important. A lack of quality carbs will affect your performance in the gym, and a lack of quality fats can throw off your hormones. Both of those will have negative effects on your progress.
Reading Nutrition Labels
As technology advances, so does its ability to help us count our calories and macros. Most of the time, all it takes is a scan of the barcode and everything is auto-populated on whatever app we are using to track.
However, understanding nutrition labels and knowing how to read them is still an invaluable skill that you should know.
Here are the important things to pay attention to when looking at a nutrition label:
- Serving Size: Most packaged foods have more than 1 serving size. Serving size is how big each serving is. It could be the whole container, 180 grams, 1/2 cup, 4 ounces, or 30 mL. When using your food scale to weigh portions, it’s important to use the right units of measurement. It will typically always have the weight included in either ounces or grams, even if the serving is a physical measurement like a 1/2 cup. Weighing the portion in ounces or grams assures accuracy when tracking.
- Servings per container: How many total servings there are in a package. The amount of servings per container can vary.
- Calories: How many calories there are per serving. In the example above, there are 200 calories per serving, and 5 servings. This equals out to 1,000 calories for the whole package.
- Protein: how many grams are in each serving. In the example above, there are 29 grams per serving, and 5 serving. This comes to 145 grams of protein for the whole container. This is a great amount of protein for a food item that is 1,000 calories.
One nutrient that we haven’t discussed yet but still think is worth noting is Fiber. Besides keeping you fuller longer, fiber also helps with digestive health. We recommended shooting for around 30g of fiber a day, which shouldn’t be hard if you’re sticking to 80-90% whole foods.
How to Calculate Your Macros
All of the info you’ve learned up to now is great and all, but how the hell do you actual calculate how much you should be eating? And how do you know how much of each macronutrient to eat?
1) Determine your Maintenance Calorie Intake (also know as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE)
The first step to properly setting up your macros/calories is to know how much you would need to eat in order to maintain your current weight. This tells us our starting point before either adding or subtracting calories depending on your goal.
There are three ways this can be done:
- Using an online calculator. While the numbers you get from this are estimated and not 100% accurate, we recommend going this route if you don’t plan on using an app like MacroFactor which does it for you. It works great as a starting point to help you figure out where you need to be. Once it gives you the caloric amount, eat that much for 2-3 weeks and track your weight anywhere from 3x/week to daily. If your average weekly weight is stable, then you know you’ve found your maintenance calories!
- Track everything you eat for 1-2 weeks, and we mean everything. Every ounce of coffee creamer. Every random handful of pretzels. Everything. Log your morning weight after going to the bathroom and before eating or drinking anything. Adjust your calorie intake up or down until your weight steadies for 1-2 weeks. While being the most accurate way of calculating your macros, it’s also the most intense and requires the most patience.
- Multiply your activity level by your bodyweight.
- For Sedentary people (desk job, work from home, less than 3,000 steps a day) multiply your bodyweight by 12.
- For Light Activity people (mostly standing like teacher or host, 3,000-8,000 steps a day) multiply your bodyweight by 13.
- For Active People (mostly standing and moving like nurses and servers, 8,000-12,000 steps a day) multiply your bodyweight by 14.
- For Very Active People (physical jobs or hard labor, 12,000-15,000 steps a day) multiply your bodyweight by 15.
- Using MacroFactor (use code STOKED for 2 weeks free!). We really dig MacroFactor because it does the work for you when it comes to figuring out how much you need to eat, and when you need to adjust your calories/macros to keep making progress. This is HUGE because it can be really hard to know exactly when you should drop/add more calories and when you should change up your macros. MacroFactor knows by calculating your daily expenditure based on your daily weigh-ins, the food you’re entering daily, and your goal (end goal AND how quickly you want to get there).
2) Set Your Calorie Goal
Assuming you chose either option 1,2, or 3 from above, the next step is calculating your calorie goal based off of your Maintenance Calories.
For Fat Loss: Subtract 200-500 calories from your Maintenance Calories. If you’re shooting for 1lbs/week, go with subtracting 500 calories. Just know that you will probably need to adjust this at some point as you keep losing weight.
Generally speaking, the more you weigh, the more weight you can lose per week. The lighter you get, the less you will lose per week. In order to keep your hormone levels at bay, retain muscle, keep a healthy metabolism, and overall not feel like hot garbage, you want to stay in the range of .5lbs to 1lbs per week. If at the start of your journey it seems like you’re losing way more (5lbs a week for instance), don’t worry. You may see a big drop when you control your calories at first, mainly due to water weight, but that shouldn’t continue.
For Muscle Gain: Start by adding 100-200 to your Maintenance Calories and start there. Adding too much at once can result in more fat gain than muscle gain so we want to focus on going slow and steady. Weigh in daily, find your weekly average each week, and add another 100-200 calories if you begin stalling for 2 or so weeks.
3) Macro Ratio
Now that we’ve set how many calories you’ll be eating, it’s time to break down those calories into your macros. Before we get into it, just know that everyone responds to different ratios differently. This can take some trial and error to see what works best for you.
To review, each macronutrient are made up of calories, and when we add them up, they should equal your daily caloric intake. Both protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram, and fats have 9 calories per gram.
Protein: Research shows that .8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is the best range. To start, it may be easiest to just do 1g of protein for every pound of body weight. So if you weigh 160lbs, then 160g of protein should be your daily goal. If you have trouble hitting that, you can then lower it to .8g per pound, or in this example. 128g daily.
Let’s assume we are going with 1g per pound (160g daily) and that we calculated our total calories for the day to be 1900 from using one of our examples above. We already know that every gram of protein is 4 calories, so let’s calculate the total amount of calories coming from protein for the day.
160 (grams of protein) x 4 (calories per gram) = 640 calories.
Fat: For fat, anywhere from .3-.4 grams per pound of body weight is good. Using the higher end here, we would take .4 and multiply by our example’s body weight of 160 for a total of 64g of fat a day. Let’s now calculate how many calories are coming from fat every day. Remember, fat is 9 calories per gram.
64 (grams of fat) x 9 (calories per gram) = 576 calories.
Carbs: It’s time to fill our remaining calories for the day with our carbs. We already know that we have a total of 1216 calories accounted for between our protein and fat (640+576), and that our daily calorie goal is 1900. 1900 minus 1216 leaves us with 684 calories. So how many grams is that? A quick refresher, carbs have 4 calories per gram - just like protein.
684 (calories left over) ÷ 4 (grams per calorie) = 171 grams of carbs a day.
When all is said and done, our total daily macros are 160g protein, 64g fat, and 171g carbs.
Time to track it!
There are a lot of tracking apps out there, so your mileage may vary. The one I’ll be using in this example is MyFitnessPal Premium, however, I personally use MacroFactor. As I discussed, MacroFactor does the work of calculating and updating your calories/macros for you. All you need to do is track and weigh in daily. I like this because I don’t have to decide when to add/subtract more calories based on my goal. However, if you choose to use MyFitnessPal (I suggest paying for the premium if so), here’s how to set the calories/macros we just calculated in the app.
- Open your app and select ‘MORE’
- Select GOALS
- Select CALORIES, CARBS, PROTEIN, AND FAT GOALS
- Click on any of the macros (the numbers highlighted in blue)
- Adjust the macros to reflect the numbers you calculated. If you can’t get the exact amount to equal the calories, toggle it by a few grams on one of the macros so it evens out. Chances are, you aren’t hitting the exact amount to the tee every day, so being a few grams off won’t slow you down.
- Start Tracking your food in the DIARY.
- Remember, at some point, you will have to readjust calories/macros. Only do so after weeks of a plateau, not just one or two days.
There it is! If you have any questions, be sure to talk to a coach during one of your sessions. Do your best to set this up on your own, and if you find that you’re having trouble then we will help you out!
A big thanks to the Healthy Consultant for the inspiration on this article!