Beginner’s Guide to Tracking Macros

Tracking macros for the first time can be overwhelming. This might be your first time using a food scale, downloading an app like MyFitnessPal, or thinking about how to structure a meal that will keep you on target. The good news is that the longer you stick with it, the easier tracking macros will get. There is a learning curve with tracking macros, so be patient with yourself! Below, I provide you with some tips to get you started.

The Basics

Macros, or macronutrients, are the nutrients your body needs in large quantities to function properly. Each macronutrient provides a different amount of energy, which can be measured in calories. The three macronutrients your body needs are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Alcohol is also (sort of) a macronutrient. Your body does not need alcohol to function (although wouldn’t that be fun), but alcohol does provide your body with calories. Protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories/gram, fat provides 9 calories/gram, and alcohol provides 7 calories/gram. Most foods provide a combination of two or three macronutrients. For example, eggs are largely made up of fat and protein, while oats are mostly made up of carbohydrates with some protein.

Each macronutrient serves multiple functions in the body. Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy and are important for performance. Fats are important for hormonal health, vitamin absorption, and more. Protein provides the building blocks for muscle and other tissue. Each macronutrient is important. The amount of each that your body needs will depend on your size, muscle mass, goals, lifestyle, and more. There is so much more to learn about macros, but these basics should help you get started! To calculate your own macros, watch this video!

Start Slow

You don’t need to start with a carbohydrate, fat, protein, and fiber target. That can be incredibly overwhelming and the truth is that you can make a lot of progress without tracking everything. If you are new to macro and calorie counting, I recommend starting off by tracking just calories and protein. If you have a fat loss, muscle building, or performance goal, protein intake and consuming the appropriate amount of calories will be most important for making progress. A good rule of thumb for protein intake is 0.7-1g of protein/pound of body weight. If you are obese, you can use your goal weight to calculate protein intake instead. If you aren’t eating much protein now, try adding in 10g of protein/day on top of what you are eating now and slowly increase that number.

As you become more comfortable with tracking your calories and protein, you can start paying attention to other numbers, like fats, carbohydrates, and fiber intake. You might notice that you perform better in the gym with a higher carbohydrate intake, or that you feel more satiated when you eat a higher fat diet. You can play around with these numbers and see what works best for you. If you ever feel overwhelmed, you can go back to just tracking calories and protein.

Weigh Your Food Whenever Possible

If you’re going to take the time and effort to track your macros, you should make sure you’re tracking accurately. Using measuring cups or “eyeballing” it leaves too much room for error. For the most accuracy, use a food scale when tracking your macros. You can get a food scale at Amazon, Target, or Walmart and they are fairly inexpensive. I recommend getting a food scale that is made of plastic instead of glass, that way you can travel with it easily!

If you can’t weigh every meal out on your food scale, don’t sweat it! Whatever you can do is significantly better than nothing. Weigh your food whenever you can and you’ll get much better at estimating portion sizes during times when you cannot weigh your food, like at restaurants or family gatherings. 

Pre-Track Your Food

It can be difficult to hit your macros without planning. Before you know it, it’s the end of the day and you’re left with 1g fat, 8g carbs, and 30g protein to eat with no foods in your refrigerator or pantry that match up. Instead of tracking as you go during the day, track everything you plan on eating that day ahead of time, either that morning or the night before. This way, you can plan out portion sizes that fit into your macro targets ahead of time and aren’t left stressed at night when you’ve either eaten all of your macros before 5pm or are left with an overwhelming amount of macros at 10pm. As you continue to track your macros, you will find it easier to meet your targets and can be a little more flexible. In the beginning, the more structure, the better.

Be Smart with Meals Out

The truth is that it’s a lot easier to hit your macros when you’re cooking your own food. You know exactly what ingredients you used, what portions you used, and generally have more control over the situation. Depending on your goals and timeline, it might make sense to limit your meals out to once or twice per week. That being said, it is definitely possible to eat meals out and still make progress. If you know where you are going ahead of time, scope out the menu before you go. This will allow you to think about which meals align best with your goals ahead of time and choose accordingly.

If you are dining at a chain restaurant, you will likely be able to find the nutrition information on MyFitnessPal or on the restaurant’s website. If you are dining at a local restaurant, I recommend finding a similar chain restaurant on MyFitnessPal and logging your meal as if you are eating there. For example, if you are eating at a local Mexican restaurant and order a burrito, you could log a burrito from Chipotle. If you are eating at a burger restaurant, you could log a similar burger from Five Guys or McDonalds. The numbers won’t be perfect, but something is better than nothing!

Be Patient with Yourself

Tracking macros is a new skill that you are developing. This can be challenging, and we all mess up. Rather than beating yourself up for falling off track, think of it as a learning experience. Think about what went wrong and how you could do better next time. It’s also important to remember that you don’t necessarily have to track macros forever. Tracking macros can help you learn more about how you’re eating and how your body is responding. These are valuable tools that you can use long after you reach your goal or stop tracking. No matter what experience you have with tracking macros, I guarantee that you will learn something valuable about yourself and the food choices you make.


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