What it Means to Count Macros (And Why You're Probably Doing it Wrong!)

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Photography by David Lemon Photography

So, one topic I get asked about all the time is MACROS. Specifically, what they are and how you can calculate them. 

So, let's break it down...

Your macros are your macro-nutrients, most specifically, your daily requirement of: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. The specific amount that you need each day is relative to a variety of factors, including, but of course, not limited to: body composition goals, sport, daily activity level, gender, and current nutritional status. There is not one specific daily amount that is adequate for everyone. So, just to be clear, let me repeat: You and your bestie likely do NOT have the same calorie needs so you should not be on the same macros.

There are a variety of ways to calculate your daily calories needs, but most nutritional professionals will use some combination of the Harris-Benedict equation, which takes your age, weight and height into consideration and multiplies by your activity level (if you'd like to try this calculator, you can try a basic version here!).  From there, we can adjust your daily fat, protein and carbohydrate ratios to best suit you. (Of course, I love helping people reach their nutritional goals, so you can always contact me about a nutrition plan here.) 

But, like I said above, and have talked about in previous blog posts - "Why Diets Fail Pt. 1" & "Why Diets Fail Part 2", many diets fail because it's simply not that easy to just plug in some numbers and spit out exactly what you should eat each day. But what if it was? Well, here are some reasons why you might be sabotaging your own progress. 

Over-estimating/under-estimating calories  AKA "eyeballing" is bad!

This is probably the #1, without fail, reason that people have issues with tracking their macros. It is almost impossible to be precise and accurate with your macros without a food scale. They don't have to be expensive, Amazon has some great food scale options, but it is going to be an absolute lifesaver. Let me tell you why - you cannot eyeball quantities. There are some foods, such as raw spinach, cucumbers, or celery, that have little to no caloric value. For these types of entries, you might be okay. But what about three ounces of meat? Do you know what that looks like? Or, do you know the difference between 80/20 ground beef and 90/10?

One of the most misleading issues when it comes to macros is that even the nutrition labels are wrong. (If you're clueless when it comes to nutrition labels, read my post on "How to Understand a Food Label.") This is something that I find happens frequently in foods that are measured in tablespoons or cups (example: peanut butter or mixed nuts). Take, for instance, the Trader Joe's Grapefruit Marmalade below. The label states that one tablespoon is 15g and has 35 calories. If I measure out a perfect tablespoon and weighed it on my food scale, I get 17g. That doesn't sound like a big difference, but that is about 15% more that I had in one serving than I thought I was having! It might not sound like much, but the more frequently it happens, the more you are overeating, without even thinking about it! The differences are even more glaring when you look at foods whose serving size is "1 bagel" or "1 bar." Many times, these foods have a specified weight in grams as well. The next time you eat a bagel, place it on the food scale and compare the weight that you get with the recommended serving size in grams. Make sure you are accounting for that in your tracker! 

Pro tip: If you're confused about how to weigh certain foods (example: peanut butter), here's how I do it. If I'm adding it to something, I will place the bowl on the food scale and clear it to zero. That way, I know exactly how much is coming into the bowl. However, with peanut butter, a lot gets stuck to the spoon and then your finger in the process of transferring from the jar to the recipe. So, you can always place the peanut butter jar on the scale and set it to zero. Then, when you scoop out your serving, it will make the scale's reading negative. Which means it accounts for everything on the spoon. So, lick that thing clean! 

So, to sum up - Weigh your food.

Stop Using Generic Entries (Such as "1 cheeseburger" or "1 medium banana")

So, you've opened up your food tracker, but you're at a restaurant. You have a cheeseburger and fries in front of you. You don't have your food scale. You start to scroll through the items, and can't find one that fits. For a variety of reasons, you're already setting yourself up to inaccurately record this meal. I find that subconsciously, we always seek to pick the "least harmful" cheeseburger in the list. This one is 700 calories, but this one is 500? You're right, it isn't that big, so it can't be that many calories, right? Wrong. Many times that dinner in front of you is exactly as bad as you don't want to believe it is. 

Another reason that you won't track it accurately is that it's impossible, much like we just mentioned above, to accurately estimate the meal. In the cheeseburger example, is that a half-pound burger or a quarter-pounder? Is that the raw weight or the cooked weight? What about the content of the meat: what is the fat percentage? Are these pre-frozen patties and, therefore, uniform? Or was the cook feeling slightly generous today? And don't even get me started on additional sauces and toppings. Many times, especially with salads, the food tracker entries do not include the dressing. But, if you're selecting a generic entry, you might think that the salad you are eating does include the dressing. Again, a big no-no. 

So maybe you think that my restaurant cheeseburger example is a little extreme. The same can be said for foods as innocuous as the "medium banana." Again, when I pull up food tracker entries for banana, there are a thousand different entries! And, for that matter, how do I know if someone measured this with, or without, the skin! I mean, you don't eat the skin, so why would you measure it with? 

Not Understanding How to Read a Nutritional Label

Okay, this one might sound like a no-brainer, but you would be amazed at how many people don't know how to read a nutritional label! And, the FDA recently changed the parameters for nutrition labels, so as of July 26, 2018, the labels will look a bit different anyway! I wrote a whole post about how to read a nutritional label, so you can check it out - "How to Understand a Food Label."

But, make sure that you are not just blindly looking at the calories. Pay attention to the serving size and compare it to what your food scale says. The "total servings" is also always an estimation of the average content of the packaging. So even if the package lists four servings, make sure that you are weighing out the individual servings. You might find that your package even has extra. 

Do You Know to Measure Raw vs. Cooked?

Ahh, this is another good one. Did you know that the nutritional information on the chicken label is for the raw weight? No? Well, you're not alone. You've also been measuring your macros all wrong. If you've been measuring your chicken/beef/meat after you've finished cooking, you're eating on average 25% more calories than you thought that you were. Again, this is an estimation, so don't simply subtract 25% from your food's weight. The amount lost in the cooking process will depend on how much fat was in the meat, as well as how long or intensely you cooked it (medium rare vs. well done steak, for instance). 

Pro tip: When cooking ground meats (if you use the same brand), you can create your own personal entry for cooked meat (since when do you ever eat raw beef?). If you cook one pound of raw beef, measure the cooked weight when it is finished and divide to find the lost weight. Ex: If you had 100g of raw meat, and it weighted 75g cooked, you could adjust your macros for the loss of 25%. That way, when you bulk prepare this beef again (assuming you cooked it the same way), you would already know the ratio cooked. Save yourself some time! 

When do I Use Bulk recipes vs. sizing individual portions?

When I meal prep with clients, I usually suggest that they bulk prepare food individually, so that they can mix and match throughout the week to create meals that they won't be bored with. But, sometimes, this is easier said than done! Or, if you're baking or creating a recipe with multiple ingredients, it becomes very hard to keep things separate.

So, again. Do not use a generic recipe.  In your fitness tracker, create a recipe from scratch, adding each individual ingredient. Record the entire recipe in grams, not servings, so that you can adjust the recipe in the future. This helps me the most because if I know the entire recipe is 10 calories per gram, etc, I have the freedom to cut myself as much (or as little!) of a serving as I want. It also allows you the flexibility to not feel pigeon-holed into having a meal-sized portion if you didn't want to! 

Do you have any tips for counting your macros? Leave them below!


What It Means to Count Macros & Why You're Probably Doing it Wrong