How to count macros as a beginner
I’ve never been big on fad diets. And increasingly, medical experts and healthcare professionals argue that diet culture leads to unhealthy body image and that most diets are unsustainable long term. But the trend of “macro counting” feels less like a diet and more like a body hack. It’s something I looked into when simply asking one of my most fit friends how he stayed so in shape. After leveraging an app to count my macros (carbs, fats, and proteins) for three weeks, I did feel and look noticeably fitter, but what I appreciated most is how I had better insight into what was in my food and how it affected how I felt day-to-day.
What is macro counting?
Macro counting is the act of counting the macronutrients you consume. This includes carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and involves staying under a certain calorie threshold. The act of macro counting can be used to lose weight or put on muscle mass, depending on your goals. Everyone’s macro ratios will be slightly different depending on their goals and daily exercise habits, but the ratios are typically around 30% protein, 25% fats, and 45% carbohydrates.
How do you do it?
Like virtually everything, technology has made it incredibly easy to count your macros. A couple of the most popular apps on the market (which do charge a small fee) are MyFitnessPal and LifeSum. When you input anything you eat (and you need to input everything), it automatically tallies your macros. I used MyFitnessPal, which also synced to my AppleWatch to monitor calories burned from exercise to adjust my daily total. The app also tracks nutrients like fiber, sugar, and sodium, which I found super interesting and helpful.
Entering something like an apple or three eggs is intuitive and easy. Even packaged food isn’t hard so long as it’s a brand name (or generic from a major grocery chain). Simply scan the UPC on the food’s packaging, and it populates it into the app. What’s tricky is entering exact portion sizes. This is much easier if you have a food scale.
What I learned from three weeks of macro counting
First, I learned something I already knew: eating out is much less healthy than cooking. Whenever I went to a restaurant or ordered delivery, I dreaded plugging every ingredient into the app, and I cringed to see how much fat or sodium was in what I ordered. Baking salmon with rice and some vegetables was not only easy to enter, but I could manipulate the portions to get the macros I needed: more rice if I needed more carbs, a little bit of butter if I was under for my daily fat intake.
A related learning that I already knew was that processed foods are bad for you, too! Even 100 calorie snack packs (which make it difficult to consume just one) are typically loaded with fats.
Beyond tracking my macros and counting my calories, I learned that I feel best when I monitor specific nutrients. I was noticeably lethargic on days when my sodium intake was off the charts. On days when I didn’t get enough fiber (38 grams daily, for males), I was more likely to have stomach issues than on a day when I hit my threshold.
How my body changed
After a few weeks of tracking my macros, the most noticeable physical difference was that I gained more muscle mass. This is because I actively sought to increase my protein intake. It certainly wasn’t easy. Historically, I’ve worked out, had a protein shake, and called it a day. There were days when I followed the macro plan suggested to me and had to consume two protein shakes, a protein-rich entree like salmon, and several eggs just to hit my goal.
Most of how my body changed was that it felt better when I stuck to my plan. Like I said, tracking and adhering to a recommended fiber intake helped regulate an upset stomach. Watching my fat and sodium intake (an issue for me) also gave me more energy.
Will I keep doing it?
Maybe, but not every day. When macro counting is fun, it feels like putting together a puzzle. If you’re way under on fats for the day, you can order a whole pizza for dinner. On the other hand, if you have an out-of-control brunch, it’s steamed vegetables.
I appreciate how I had a great idea of what was going into my body and how it made me feel. Still, it’s a time-consuming habit (especially if you’re social) with the possibility of leading to compulsions if you take it too seriously.
I plan to continue to track my macros for periods of time and certainly when I’m trying to mitigate a specific issue with my body. Even if you don’t have a specific diet or fitness goal, it’s fascinating to really experience the mantra, “You are what you eat.”
Khalid El Khatib is a Brooklyn-based writer and marketer who tweets too much.