This is Part 2 of ‘How to track your macros’. If you haven’t read Part 1 and aren’t familiar with macronutrients and the concept of flexible dieting, I would suggest you go back and read that first. This post gives some general recommendations for setting a calorie goal and macro breakdown for weight loss, as well as some of my experiences with flexible dieting and whether or not it might work for you.
What numbers should I use?
If you’re new to tracking your macros and have no idea how much you *should* be eating, you can use an online calculator to determine your maintenance calories and then increase or decrease from there, based your goals. The first step is to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories you expend at rest to maintain your current body weight. I’ve included the Harris Benedict Equation below which calculates your BMR and factors in your activity level to determine your maintenance calories. You can also go here http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/ to use the online calculator.
Women: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in lbs) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age)
Men: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in lbs) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age)
Yes, it should say ‘66’ for men and ‘655’ for women. Once you’ve determined your BMR number, using the chart below, multiply your BMR by the number that most closely corresponds to your current activity level. Be honest.
Sedentary – little to no exercise: BMR x 1.2
Lightly Active – light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week: BMR x 1.375
Moderately Active – moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week: BMR x 1.55
Very Active – hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/week: BMR x 1.725
Extra Active – very hard exercise/sports + physical job or 2x/day training: BMR x 1.9
We’ll use Lisa as an example and input her information into the above equation. Lisa is a 32 year old female who weighs 165 lbs and is 5 ft. 6 inches tall.
Lisa’s BMR (rounded): 655 + (718) + (316) – (150) = 1,539 calories
Lisa goes to the gym a few times per week and does low-intensity exercise classes so she would probably best fit in the ‘lightly active’ category. Based on this information, we are able to calculate her maintenance calories.
Lisa’s maintenance calories: 1539 x 1.375 = 2,116 calories
Losing or Gaining Weight:
How you then modify these numbers depends on your goals. If you’re looking to lose weight, you have to decrease the number of calories you’re eating. If you want to gain weight, you have to increase them. The ‘rule of thumb’ for 1 lb of weight loss per week is reducing total calories by 3,500, which works out to be an average reduction of 500 cal/day. Same principle for gaining weight but with increasing calories.
So let’s apply this to Lisa: because her maintenance calories for her current 165 lb weight are ~2,116, she would have to reduce this to ~1,616 calories to lose 1 lb/week.
So will this work for me?:
That depends. While determining your dieting calories using this approach may work perfectly for you, it also may not. This calculation is very general as it was created to work for the ‘average person’. Differences in genetics, sex, thyroid function, NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis – discussed below), hormones (e.g. cortisol, sex hormones), dieting history, and many other factors are not taken into account in this calculation and all play a role in metabolism and your ‘ability’ to lose weight.
Your metabolism is not static and changes in response to a number of factors. Eating more calories speeds up your metabolism and eating fewer calories slows it down. Your body really doesn’t care if you have a flat stomach. It’s designed to help you survive a possible famine if it senses food scarcity, not look hot in a swimsuit. As dieting is, in essence, controlled starvation, your body slows down your metabolism and holds onto whatever fat it can in an effort to keep you alive (this effect is even more pronounced in women because we create little humans. Hooray!). People very frequently go on diets that cut calories to a very low level, which is ultimately unsustainable, and then go ‘off the rails’ and eat a large surplus of calories. This often results in rapid fat regain as their metabolism is still dampened from dieting and not at its previous capacity. This also explains why most diets fail in the long-term. People often end up larger than they were before they started dieting and subsequent dieting attempts become more and more difficult. If you’re currently maintaining your weight on far fewer calories than what ‘should’ be your maintenance calories, it is highly unlikely that you’ll lose weight using the standard calculation.
You may also be someone with great metabolic capacity who can maintain your weight on more calories than the general calculation suggests. In this case, it’s also inadvisable to follow the dieting numbers generated for you because you’ll likely be creating a larger deficit than is necessary. You should always aim to keep as much food in your diet as possible when losing weight.
I always suggest that people track what they’re eating, assess the calories and macro breakdown of their current diet, and then modify from there. This is what your body has become accustomed to and using this approach enables you to use yourself as a gauge for what does/doesn’t work for you. When you accurately know your ‘starting point’, you can better strategize a plan of attack.
When dieting you should aim to create as small a deficit possible, while achieving slow and consistent weight loss (e.g. 1 lb/week). When weight loss stalls, as it eventually always does, reduce calories slightly and continue. Although the rule of thumb is dropping 3,500 cals/week or 500 cals/day, I very often find that people see results dropping only 300 cals/day, for example. The more food you can keep in your diet, the better. Make a small drop in calories, be consistent, and track both your weight and measurements. If you’re losing weight, stay at these calories/macros. Once you plateau, reduce slightly and continue.
As described above, you may also be in the situation where although you really want to lose fat, you discover you’re currently eating far below maintenance and very likely doing too much cardio (these tend to go hand in hand). I see this all the time, usually with people who have been dieting on and off for years. The unfortunate cycle that usually gets people into this situation goes something like this: go on restrictive diet and lose weight, go back to eating like before because the diet was unsustainable but now with a slowed metabolism, put on lost fat and then some, panic and cut calories again before metabolism has regained its previous capacity, repeat. If you’re in this situation, slowly and consistently eating more food, in a controlled manner, and devoting time to repairing your metabolism is a necessary first step. You can’t create a deficit and successfully lose weight if you’re already under-eating. The good news is, clients like this almost always maintain their weight and often even get leaner as they add calories back in. I’ll delve more into this topic in a future post as it deserves more time and attention and because it ties in well with discussions of the importance of not always trying to eat at a deficit.
Using exercise to create a larger deficit:
You can also increase your energy expenditure to create a larger deficit without cutting calories further. This way you’re able to keep more food in your diet while still losing weight. When people reduce their calorie consumption, the body uses a number of strategies to keep itself in its current, comfortable body fat range, and one of them is decreasing NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). NEAT is basically the cumulation of all of our daily activities where we’re moving around and expending energy but not intentionally ‘exercising’; activities like fidgeting in your seat, getting up to use the washroom, vacuuming the floors, etc. Our body reduces NEAT (unconsciously) as a compensatory mechanism in an attempt to offset our calorie reduction and maintain homeostasis, aka nullify our hard work. Not only do we tend to move less, we also burn fewer calories performing the same activities. This unfortunately also applies to steady-state cardio. Your body very quickly adapts to this energy expenditure and it becomes your new ‘baseline’, forcing you to do more and more to burn the same number of calories. The point I’m trying to make here is, if your weight loss stalls, assess your activity level and make some small changes there before slashing calories. Schedule in workouts, prioritize resistance exercise over cardio, and make a conscious effort to increase your NEAT – get up and move around, take the stairs, walk to the store instead of driving, etc.
The Macro Split:
Back to the numbers. Once you’ve determined your calorie goal, you must break that down to its constituent macronutrients. There is no hard and fast rule as to exactly how this should be done but here are some very basic guidelines:
Protein: The general rule is to eat 1 gram/lb body weight. If you have a lot of weight to lose, eating 1 gram/lb of your goal body weight may be a better strategy. This is a higher amount of protein than the general recommendation but there is a difference between the minimum amount that you need for basic bodily functions and what is a more ‘optimal’ amount, especially if you’re an active individual. Although you don’t technically ‘need’ this much protein, a higher protein intake helps to spare muscle tissue when dieting. When you’re in a deficit, you unfortunately lose a certain amount of muscle mass along with fat. Dieting slowly, creating as small a deficit as is necessary, and keeping protein intake high all help you maintain more of your hard-earned muscle. Additionally, protein is more satiating than carbohydrates and can help stabilize blood sugar levels.
Fat: Carbohydrates and fat are both used for energy by the body (protein to a lesser extent). Fat has been unfairly vilified in the past and it’s actually highly inadvisable to drop fat intake to very low levels. Fat plays many essential roles in our body including, but definitely not limited to, the production and function of hormones and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A,D,E,K). It is also more satiating than carbohydrates so eating a diet slightly higher in fat than carbohydrates can make it easier to manage hunger while eating at a caloric deficit. Guidelines for fat intake vary but some suggest 0.3-0.6 g/lb body weight, which is obviously a large range. I tend to lean toward the higher end of the range, especially for leaner individuals.
Carbohydrates: This is the one non-essential macronutrient. Although your body prefers to use carbohydrates (glucose) for fuel, it is also able to run on ketones when fasting or on a very low carbohydrate diet. This doesn’t mean you should cut them out completely, just that they’re technically not ‘essential’, unlike protein and fat which are. This will be the most variable macronutrient as it will likely increase the most when adding in calories and decrease the most when cutting calories. Intake also largely depends on activity level, with very active individuals requiring more carbohydrates than people who are more sedentary. As a general rule, once you have established your protein and fat intake, you can ‘fill in’ the remaining calories with carbohydrates.
Fibre: Along with hitting your protein, carbohydrate, and fat targets, you should always ensure you’re getting adequate fibre in your diet. Fibre feeds good gut bacteria, assists with elimination (laxation), increases satiety, helps control blood sugar levels, and assists with removal of cholesterol. The general recommendations are 25 g. for women and 38 g. for men/day.
Example: Our girl Lisa’s goal weight is 150 lbs. and after tracking she realized that she’s eating, on average, 2,100 cals/day. She determined that her dieting calories will be 1,700. Here’s one possible way she can make her macro split:
Protein: 150 g x 4 = 600 cals
Fat: 60 g x 9 = 540 cals
Carbs: 140 g x 4= 560 cals
= 1,700 calories
Should you track forever?
People are often surprised when I say that I don’t track my food. Does this make me hypocritical? I don’t think so. I tracked for a number of years and have gotten very good at estimating the macronutrient composition of foods. Macro tracking allowed me to view foods in terms of their protein/carb/fat composition and helped me develop the skills necessary to make intelligent food choices for how to fuel my body for my goals while maintaining a body composition I’m happy with. I’m also not actively ‘dieting’ which gives me more flexibility to maintain my body weight without having to ‘hit my macros’ exactly all the time. When your body is in a comfortable body fat set-point, it tends to resist changing, meaning you have a little more leeway for slightly over or under-eating and maintaining your size/shape. Tracking for several years has allowed me to develop dietary habits for what I eat and when I eat so it’s easy for me to stay consistent. You should be able to get more lenient with your flexible dieting the longer you do it. If you really enjoy tracking your food and it works well for you and your lifestyle, there is absolutely no reason to stop. However, the ultimate goal should be to develop the knowledge and skill set to eat fairly intuitively in a way that keeps you on track with your goals and works easily into your lifestyle. It’s something you can always go back to and use if your goals change or if you notice you’re becoming inconsistent with your food intake and want to implement more structure, without being overly restrictive.
My goal with clients is always to have them learn how to sustain their diet and results in a way that prioritizes their health and optimizes their metabolism (aka has them eating the maximum amount of food while maintaining a shape they’re happy with). My favorite ‘transformations’ aren’t always the biggest physical transformations, but the ones where the client has learned to stop fearing foods, learned to respect their body, and developed sustainable lifestyle behaviours . I don’t much care whether or not clients continue to track macros after we finish working together. What I DO care about is that they’re empowered through their new-found knowledge, understand their bodies, and can continue to work towards their goals without my ‘supervision’.
Is macro tracking right for you?:
Flexible dieting has been extremely beneficial for me because it worked easily into my lifestyle and I have the type of personality that lends itself very well to this style of eating. I’m of the opinion that there is no one ‘right way’ to do things and that you can accomplish your goals in a number of ways. In my experience, macro tracking will work well for you if;
- You don’t like to blindly follow a plan but instead want to understand and be able to quantify why something is or isn’t working for you.
- You’re a bit of a worrier and always wonder if you’re ‘cheating’ on your diet or if you can ‘afford’ to eat that dessert. When your numbers are right in front of you, you know whether or not you’re on track with your goals and can stop obsessing over it. I was able to add 100 grams of carbs (400 cals) to my diet and lean out slightly in the process because I was consistently under-eating previously; I had been limiting myself from eating certain things and not maximizing my ‘metabolic potential’.
- You think of foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and feel undue guilt when you eat certain foods.
- You don’t have time to prep every single meal or enjoy eating out (business lunches, social events, etc.) but still want to maintain structure in your diet and reach your goals.
- You’re in this for the long-haul and not looking for a quick fix. People have a tendency to try out diets for a short time and then self-sabotage without sticking it out long enough to see the results. Tracking allows you to develop a concrete plan with a timeline and actually stick to it. You can also play around with meal timing and spacing and figure out what works best for you.
Do I necessarily think that macro tracking is for everyone? No. If you’re already doing something that is working well and you’re happy, don’t try and fix what isn’t broken. If you have zero interest in devoting a bit of time and mental energy learning some basics about food and nutrition, weighing out food (at least initially), and probably doing some food preparation, this isn’t for you either. If you’re someone who will be extremely obsessive about hitting your macro targets exactly and meticulously planning out all of your meals, you may be better off slowly trying to improve your eating habits and eating as intuitively as possible. There isn’t one perfect approach. It’s all about finding something effective and sustainable that works for YOU.
If you can’t sustain your diet, you won’t sustain your results. While tracking your macros will not in itself help you to lose weight, it WILL help you become a more ‘informed dieter’; developing an understanding of what works for your body and a set of skills that will enable you to modify your diet to reach your goals.