A Guide to Tracking Macros
How many times have you been reading a thread on a Keto forum and noticed that everyone seems to be talking about their “macros?” They toss around percentages and talk of amino acids when describing meal plans. If you are only just getting started learning about the Keto diet you have no doubt heard a lot of talk about “macros.” Many Keto followers (I’m guilty of this too) have a tendency to throw the lingo around, forgetting that new readers don’t exactly know what I’m going on about. The main tenet of the Keto diet, or nearly any diet for that matter, requires that followers track their macronutrients, or macros. In this case “macros” does not refer to a special camera lens and has nothing to do with computer programming. In this case it refers to the three main sources of nutrients that make up our food. With this guide you will be able to not only understand them but sling that lingo around with the best of them. Even without a meal restricting program like the Keto diet, it can be useful to track your macros just to ensure that you are getting a healthy balance of these three integral components. I recommend that you try tracking your macros for a few days before starting on the Keto diet in order to get an idea of what your starting point is and exactly how much you are currently relying on carbohydrates daily. Chances are, if you’re like I was, at this point carbohydrates make up over 50% of your daily calorie intake. Don’t worry, even the most ardent bread lover can make the change.
What are macros?
The word “macronutrient” (macros) refers to the three main nutrient and calorie sources, the building blocks of the food that you eat, which are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. This is opposed to “micronutrients” which are the minerals that are are also essential for the body but only in small quantities.
Carbohydrates have an approximate caloric content of 4 cal per gram. Although carbohydrates make up a very large part of the average diet, there is very little of them that is actually essential to the body’s health. We eat them and crave them because they are an energy source that is very easy for our bodies to break down, which often results in overeating. Unlike proteins and fats, carbohydrates do not contain anything the body cannot produce on its own. This is why it is possible to severely reduce carbohydrate intake to the levels recommended by the Keto diet without damaging your body by depriving it of essential nutrients as you would if you cut out protein or fat. When tracking macronutrients for the Keto diet specifically, it is recommended that you also track fiber in order to calculate your “Net Carbs.” Because fiber is hard for your digestive system to break down (why it’s the #1 food we eat to go #2) it is generally not counted in your daily carbohydrate intake. When tallying up your daily carbs simply subtract those carbs that came from fiber and there you will have your net carb intake!
Somewhat surprisingly, proteins also have an approximate caloric content of 4 cal per gram even though they are often very dense in comparison to most carbohydrate heavy foods. It is very important when starting any diet to eat a sufficient amount of protein because it is essential in the formation of bones, skin, hair, cartilage and muscle. Animal-based sources of protein also contain high amounts certain amino acids that are essential to your body but that you cannot formulate on your own. These are: leucine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine, and histidine. If you are vegetarian in addition to going Keto, it will likely take a little extra effort in order to make sure you are consuming sufficient amounts of each.
Unlike the other two macronutrients fat has an approximate caloric ratio of 9 cal per gram. Because of this it will take about half as much fat to get the same amount of calories are you would from carbohydrates or protein. Although we adults no longer need fat in our diets for proper brain development, there is still use for the fat we consume every day. Polyunsaturated fats are another essential component of our diets that human bodies cannot naturally produce. In moderate amounts we need to consume fat for muscle movement, proper nutrient absorption, cell regeneration and for proper brain function. Furthermore, fats are satiating in a way that carbohydrates are not so they may reduce feelings of hunger throughout your day.
How do I figure out where to set my macronutrient goals?
In order to know where to set your macro goals you first need to have an idea of what ratio of these three building blocks you want to make up your normal diet. Most on the keto diet maintain their caloric intake to be approximately 70% fat, 20-25% protein, and 5-10% carbohydrates. This will likely depend on your personal goals regarding weight loss and muscle building. If your goal is only to lose fat while maintaining your pre-existing musculature then the percentage of your daily calories from protein should be lower than if you are also engaging in a muscle building routine. It is also important that you are consuming adequate amounts of the nine essential amino acids from proteins as well as fatty acids from the fats and lipids in your diet.
The first step to setting your macronutrient goals is to calculate your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, which is the minimum amount of calories you need to consume every day in order to maintain all vital functions, not including movement. While you can do this by hand there are many online resources for this (some of which are listed below). Weight should be measured in pounds and height in inches.
For men: BMR = 66 + (6.2 x WEIGHT) + (12.7 x HEIGHT) – (6.76 x AGE)
For women: BMR = 655.1 + (4.35 x WEIGHT) + (4.7 x HEIGHT) – (4.7 x AGE)
Your next step is to determine your Total Energy Expenditure (TEE). In order to determine the calorie amount of energy you expend daily you should multiply the number that corresponds with your TEE by your BMR. Total Energy Expenditure is separated into 3 levels: sedentary or lightly active (1.53), active or moderately active (1.76), and vigorously active (2.25).
For example, a 25 year old woman who weighs 160 lb, is 65 in. tall, and works in an office with no exercise will have an equation that looks as follows:
TEE = 1.53 x (655.1 + (4.35 x 160) + (4.7 x 65) – (4.7 x 25)) = 2,354.8 cal
To then calculate you the amount of each macronutrient you should be consuming each day, calculate the percentage of your daily calories you want to come from this macro. If your goal is to consume 20% of your daily calories through protein then multiply your TEE by 0.20. In the case of the previous example it would be:
% calories from protein = 2355 x 0.2 = 470.9 calories
We know that each gram of protein contains 4 calories so from here we can calculate the amount of protein by weight which you should consume or.
Grams protein = 470.9 cal / 4 = 117.7 g protein
You can use this method again for carbohydrates (4 cal per gram) and fat (9 cal per gram).
Examples of online resources to help you determine your macro goals:
How do I keep track of my macronutrients?
A quick Google search will reveal multiple ways of tracking macronutrients but unless you are ordering from a pre-made meal plan, you have likely been stumped at some point as to how to accurately track your macros day-to-day. To this point there are ton of apps dedicated to meal and calorie tracking right on your phone or computer. Some even let you compare progress with your friends (I’m not sure how I feel about that personally, don’t get too competitive). The most popular app/website, MyFitnessPal, has thousands of food items, brand name ready meals and even restaurant dishes already available for you to choose from with their entire nutrition information pre-loaded. However, a common pitfall comes from our inability to correctly recognize our own portions. Until you have retrained yourself to truly recognize what makes up a single portion of ice cream it can be very helpful to purchase a food scale and cook the majority of your meals at home. This way you can accurately calculate macronutrient composition of your meals by hand. Whether you choose to track your macros on the computer, through your phone, or with pen and paper in a notebook the most important part of tracking macronutrients is being honest. You will not meet your goals if you are not counting the candy bar you had after lunch or incorrectly assuming that the steak you ate was really only 6 oz. In addition to tracking your macros it can also be beneficial to track certain micronutrients like sodium, potassium, and magnesium which many people fall short in when following the keto diet.
Examples of online resources to help you track your macros and calories:
- MyFitnessPal – Freemium option, preexisting food database, cannot track net carbs, although you can manually.
- Cron-O-meter – Costs approximately $3, vetted food database, can track net carbs.