Counting Macros the Right Way
In the United States alone 27.4 million people use Fitbit, 19.1 million use My Fitness Pal and 14.9 million use S Health.
Wow, that is a LOT of tracking.
But how much of that is accurate, especially when it comes to nutrition? In talking to the average person who tracks their food with an app, I find a few key areas most people do not understand. Here they are in no particular order:
1. Not understanding the difference between cooked vs raw. I.e measuring your chicken raw and entering is as cooked is NOT accurate
2. Mixing measuring modalities. If you sometimes weigh your chicken and sometimes measure it by your palm, it is NOT accurate.
3. Choosing entries from other users, especially if you are not extremely familar with the calories/macros of foods, is probably NOT accurate
Those are three really big ways to screw up counting macros but lucky you, I have an easy fix and I'll tell you how to do it in this blog.
Here's the thing with counting macros: if you are going to do it, you need to do it all the way. Very experienced users or coaches have enough knowledge on when to use estimates, choose not to log something or make informed decisions on the fly. For most people though, this is a recipe for error. If you can't tell me how many grams of fat per ounce cooked salmon has, how many grams of protein per ounce raw chicken has or how many grams of carbs are in a cup of rice, you shouldn't be making advanced calls.
Instead, you need to stick to the plan and only when you can ramble off the calories and macros of common foods you eat should you get more flexibile with how you track. If you don't know how to use a nail gun stick the hammer for now. It's safer for everyone, trust me.
Nailing Macros in a Few Easy Steps
Choose the right program
I used My Fitness Pal for years and was constantly annoyed by the shear number of inaccurate entries for common foods, even ones from seemingly credible sources. If you insist on using MFP I highly recommend searching for entries through the USDA database which are vetted and measured in accurate amounts like grams and ounces. I highly prefer Cronometer though for accuracy and ease of use. I have yet to come across a program as great as this.
How to search
1. Enter the food
2. Select the mode in which you measured and are eating it (so usually cooked). If you are eating 4oz of chicken cooked, do NOT select an entry for 4oz of raw chicken, these are not the same at all.
3. Select the measurement. For almost all foods besides those measured well by volume (like liquids, oats, dry grains, rice etc) choose to weigh in ounces or grams.
You're eating a cup of rice, 4oz of roasted broccoli and 5oz of 93/7 lean ground beef.
A. Search for "rice, cooked" and select 1 cup. Be careful of choosing rice from a specific product or establishment as that may be part of a recipe and include things like added fats or other ingredients which will change the calorie and macro content.
B. Search for "broccoli, cooked" and select 4oz. You'll probably see entries for broccoli steamed, broccoli stir fried etc. Remember that in quality apps like Cronometer, when it says "x food, cooked" it is referring to that food cooked without added fat or calories so you know you're getting an accurate reading.
C. Search for "ground beef, 93% lean, cooked" and select 5oz. Again, make sure this is the right leanness, you might inadvertently select fattier meat if you don't pay attention. Plus it needs to be measured cooked and selected as ground so you are getting the right macros.
Once you find entries that are accurate, they will be saved in your "typical foods" and you can select them from that list rather than searching for them every single time. A huge mistake is selecting a totally different source each time which opens the door for error. Find your solid and accurate sources, then stick with them.
If you are eating so many different foods from various places that it becomes impossible to accurately log them all, it probably means you're eating out too much or have no nutrition p;lan at all. Eating similar foods as your staples is a great way to create consistency you don't have to think about.
How to tra ck
Whatever your daily calorie and macro totals are (that's for another post), you'll see how each food entry affects your remaining numbers. Obviously veggies, fruit, lean meats and fibrous starches will use up less calories than oils, granola, fatty meat, full fat cheese and alcohol do. So merely counting encourages better food choices. And if you are eating mostly whole foods, that probably rings true all the time with the rare exception. This is because low calorie foods like veggies and fruit also contain nearly all the phytonutrients, vitamins, fiber and some minerals we need. And leaner cuts of meat use up less of our calories just like higher fiber starches vs lower fiber starches do. And fibrous sources of fat contribute some nutrients as well such as avocado vs coconut oil not to mention encouraging more omega-3 and unsaturated fat intake.
Center each meal around protein and veggies. As discussed above it is a great place to start from.
Plan how big of a meal calorie and macro wise will impact the rest of your day. If you are eating 1,800 calories per day and breakfast was 900 because you went to Denny's, be prepared to eat LIGHT the rest of the day. Likewise, if you are supposed to eat 200g protein per day but at 4PM you've only had 40g, be prepared to either fall short or cram it all in at night. If your daily fat is 65g and you've already eaten 45g by 11am, you're probably got to choose leaner meals. This is good feedback because it also encourages planning and refining of food choices.
Choose a meal/snack plan that works for you. Have a base plan for x amount of meals and snacks that you can follow most days. This helps you plan how big your meals should be calorie and macro wise so it all falls even. If you snack a lot, your meals need to be smaller and vice versa. If too many snacks means not eating enough protein, eat more whole meals instead. Eventually you find a good mix of meals and snacks that not only you can stick to but falls in line with how your calorie and macros break down. A practical example of someone who likes a big dinner to eat lighter first thing in the day, that works for them. Some people don't like to snack so they get to eat larger, less-frequent meals. As long as the calories and macros are adhered to, you can make it work for you.
Please please please center your food around whole foods. The real trap of flexible dieting like this (weighing and measuring) is you could technically hit your calories and macros by drinking protein shakes and candy bars. But that isn't good for health or muscle mass. This system works the best and still allows an insane amount of freedom when you eat whole foods. Then you can eat great things like steak, sushi, burritos etc but you don't have to trade eating low nutrient dense foods, high trans fats or strange disordered behavior like relying on rice cakes, powders and bars to survive. Real food means real life, and it encourages healthy behavior.
Consider adding a fiber goal. 12-15g fiber per 1000 calories ia a great range. It ties right in with the above about encouraging good food habits. Unless you are a sicko and want to survive on your protein powder and candy bars by hitting your fiber goal through Benefiber, setting a fiber goal encourages more whole foods and quality foods. This is because veggies and fruit tend to be highest fiber sources for people followed by lower carb-density starches and nutrient rich fats.
When all of these habits also support the system as a whole, it helps all the gears spin correctly. So instead of staring at the machine wondering how it all works, you practice turning those gears through habits on a daily basis and that teaches you exactly how the machine works. Once you know how the machine works, you don't need to focus on the individual gears unless there's a problem. Once you've got your machine up and running, it just needs some routine maintenance.
Note: I don't expect any person to log food forever, the ideal should be that after a while you can maintain, lose or gain weight without needing to track. Whatever your goal is, education through weighing and measuring can actually be the thing that frees you from having to follow "diets". You know that feeling you get spending foreign money in a foreign country? You buy a shirt to take back home as a souvenir but you can't quite tell if you're being over-charged. Or given the correct change. Or how their denominations compare to ours in the States. You know you're getting a product and you know you're exchanging money but anything past that and you're a bit in the dark.
That's exactly what fad diets and gimmicky nutrition programs do to the uninformed. You don't even know enough to know when you're being swindled. So the best thing to do is educate yourself: in thhe case of traveling it would be learning the language or monetary conversion rate. But unless you GET an education, you'll always be in the dark. For the uneducated person looking to learn how to eat a normal, healthy diet, weighing and measuring is like taking a class. Through repetition and seeing the numbers change based on food choices is hugely influrential. You don't even need a coach to tell you that eating fattier cuts of meat will rack up calories: you can see that yourself after you've chosen 85/15 ground beef a few times in a row. If you feel completely lost with nutrition, try out counting your macros and calories.
Recapping the steps
- Choose the right program/app
- Search for and select the correct food sources and cooked vs raw entries
- Use your frequent saved foods to save time and enhance consistency in tracking
- Consider this an education and what tracking teaches you, how choices affect your daily totals and what kind of meal/snack breakdown works for you
- Plan to learn enough so that you don't need to track forever