Macros, Explained: Here's Why You Should Be Prioritizing Nutrients Over Calories

Nicole Loher is a triathlete, Adidas ambassador, and all-around fitness guru, all while balancing a badass day job in the fashion industry (and several side gigs to boot). Needless to say, she's an inspiration in the art of hustling—and she's totally game to share her knowledge. Follow her column Part-Time Athlete for her expert advice on everything from establishing a training regimen to finding early-morning gym motivation.

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When people find out I train for two-plus hours a day, the first question is usually “HOW?!” The next is “How much do you eat?” followed by “You probably eat whatever you want, right?” My answer, always, is yes and no. In my last post, I explored how I learned how much I should be consuming every day to keep up with my lifestyle. Today, I’m going to share with you what macro-counting, or flexible dieting, is, as well as how to get started and a few words from the pros.

What are macros, and how do I calculate them?

I have to be honest when I say nothing has given me the same results as counting my macros has. I’ve felt a sense of balance in what I eat (e.g. no more chicken and broccoli diets), I no longer question if I’m eating enough because this method takes into account all the activity I’m doing throughout the week, and as an added bonus, my abs have never been so visible.

So what the f*ck is counting macros? Simply put, counting macros, or flexible dieting, is the counting and tracking of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) to achieve a body-composition goal. The easiest way to do this is by:

1. calculating your TDEE (see my last post!).

2. calculating your macronutrient breakdowns into ratios to help you reach your desired goals (more on this in a minute).

3. tracking your food intake with an app, like MyFitnessPal, and trying to meet your TDEE and macro allotments each day.

Since we’ve already explained how to calculate your TDEE, let’s jump into how to calculate your macronutrient ratios. The traditional breakdown of flexible dieting macronutrient allocation is 40/40/20, meaning 40% of your caloric intake is carbohydrates, 40% of your caloric intake is protein, and 20% of your caloric intake is fat. From my experience, this is a great place to start.

I’m going to stop right here because I know what you’re thinking: This is a lot of work. But to root this in reality, I’ll show you how simple it is up until this point: Say your TDEE is 1600. If you’re following the percentage breakdown above, 40% of your calories dedicated to carbs would be 640 calories, 40% of your calories dedicated to protein would be 640 calories, and 20% of your calories dedicated to fat would be 320 calories. Easy enough, right?

How do I apply this logic to my food intake?

When counting macros, you need to understand that one gram of protein is equal to four calories, one gram of carbohydrate is equal to four calories, and one gram of fat is equal to nine calories. To round out the example above armed with this information, 160 grams of your diet will be carbs, 160 grams of your diet will be protein, and 35 grams of your diet would be fat (i.e. 640 calories divided by four is 160; 320 calories divided by nine is 35).

The last part of tracking comes in with measuring your food. We tend to generally underestimate our caloric intake, so I suggest purchasing a food scale and downloading MyFitnessPal for this. If you want a banana, peel it and weight it using your scale. When you go to log your banana on MyFitnessPal, you’ll be able to accurately track its macronutrient breakdown and pull from the remainder of your macros for the week.

How do I know if it's working?

I checked in with Ben Lauder Dykes, a personal trainer who is leading the way in spotlighting what’s real in the health world versus what may seem real on Instagram. With any amount of caloric surplus, or “if you are eating too much, you will gain weight," he says. “We will see this on the scale. If you don’t weigh yourself (totally fine if you don’t!), then your clothes will start to feel tight and, unfortunately, it is unlikely that this is from gaining muscle. Gaining muscle is a very slow process, but gaining fat isn’t!”

"Eating too much will start to affect your training, too, especially body-weight exercises and things that require continuous movement,” he adds. “If you are doing something regularly, then you will definitely be getting better at them. So if pull-ups, push-ups, and burpees are suddenly becoming difficult or if running or spinning out of the saddle feels harder to do and recover from, it’s definitely a sign you’re eating too much. You could also tell from your appetite and the amount of times you are hungry. Even when you are eating enough, there is likely going to be one point in each day where you feel hungry. If you’re not experiencing that, you are likely eating too much.”

As for knowing if you’re eating too little? This can have dangerous effects. For starters, “you will lose weight, which, again, we would see on the scales,” says Lauder Dykes. “We might see a decrease in training performance due to poor recovery in between sessions. You may experience more or longer periods of muscle soreness or also experience a lack of energy performance in your workout.”

You’ll also feel the impact on your appetite. “It is normal to feel hungry maybe one to two times a day, but if you are feeling hungry more than that or all the time and if it takes a very large amount of food for you to feel satiated, then that is your body signaling that you need to consume more nutrients and fuel to meet your energy requirements,” says Lauder Dykes.

Bottom line: The most important thing I learned from Lauder Dykes, and why I like following him, is it all comes down to your goals. Counting macros is one method among all fitness fads. You must cut through the clutter and test to choose what’s best for you. As Lauder Dykes has told me, “The amount someone should eat is going to vary from person to person based on their current body composition, activity levels, and, most importantly, their goals."

Have you tried counting macros? I’d love to hear how it’s going. Until then, be well.