If you’ve heard me talk about “tracking your macros” and want to get started right away – this one’s for you.
step 1. download a tracking app & start logging your current eats.
First, download an app that you understand and/or are familiar with! My favorite tracking app is Cronometer. It has a large food library and the ability to scan barcodes, which makes it easy to find macronutrient information. The app also does not accept user submissions so the food entries are typically more accurate than apps that do allow users to submit food entries (like My Fitness Pal). While I personally love Cronometer, the best app for you is going to be the one you use consistently – it comes quickly to you and feels intuitive to use.
Next, start logging your current daily intake without changing anything about your eating pattern. Track your meals, snacks, and beverages, as well as those little bites, pieces, licks and tastes! Resist the urge to change your typical eats because this stage is just about establishing a logging routine and learning about your normal eating habits.
Spoiler: if you can’t commit to this step for at least a week, you’re probably not ready to track macros because you don’t have the bandwidth in your life to accommodate the detail and energy it requires. There might be a better time for you to focus on this, so hang in there and wait for a calmer sea
step 2. pay attention to the macronutrient breakdown of your meals, but ignore calories.
You’ve got a few days of data in your food diary. Take a look at the breakdown of your protein, fat, and carbohydrates in your meals and at the end of the day. Ask yourself some questions:
- Do my meals have some protein, fat, and carbohydrates? Are my meals disproportionately higher in one or two macros compared to the others?
- Do I average about the same amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates day to day, or is there really no pattern to how much I eat of each?
- Where (i.e. which foods) do I get most of my protein from? Where do I get most of my fat from? Where do I get most of my carbohydrates from?
Ignoring where total calories fall, start to gather some information about the way you typically eat. This step is all about informing the next steps to come in the process: knowing how to manipulate your typical meals to have more or less protein, fat and carbohydrates after you get a macro prescription.
step 3. find a free online calculator to determine your macro needs & compare to your food diary.
Determine your first set of macro targets, also called a “macro prescription”, by identifying a free online calculator and submitting some basics about your health. Don’t get paralyzed in this decision by trying to find the absolute *best* calculator for you. The goal is simply to find ONE prescription that you could work with and practice with. You will then determine if it’s right for you in later steps of the process, but you MUST start somewhere.
Some of the better free calculators are BodyBuilding, IIFYM, and Precision Nutrition or you can also use my free DIY Macros Guide. The DIY Macros Guide was developed after working with clients to develop my own formula. The guide dives a little deeper and takes your personal preference for certain foods, health history, and type of physical activity you do into account. This results in a little more tailored macro prescription, plus, I include 2 full days worth of example meals and snacks that will get you thinking about what it looks like to eat to your macro goals with real, whole food.
After you determine your first set of macro targets, compare it to the averages and trends you saw from tracking your typical eats for a week. Ask yourself a few questions like:
- How far away am I from my protein, fat, or carbohydrate goals, on average?
- What can I realistically change right away to start getting closer to my macro targets, i.e. increase the serving size of protein in my meals, cut back on how many carbs I have in my coffee drink, add a little fat to my post workout meal, etc.?
- Do I need to move toward more whole, real foods that I can manipulate in serving size instead of mixed meals or packaged items?
step 4. pick one macronutrient to focus on and start making changes to meet that macro.
Pick one macronutrient that seems like it’s the farthest away from your macro prescription goal. Ignoring calories and both of the other macronutrients for now, focus on making changes to your typical meals and snacks to get you closer to your daily total goal. Don’t worry about perfection in this step – getting within +/- 10-15 grams of your macro goal is sufficient in this learning stage.
For most people, the first focus is protein because unless they’re really conscious about getting it at every meal, they’re probably drastically undereating what’s needed to see health, body composition, and athletic performance changes.
The focus of this step is to master one macronutrient to build your confidence in tracking macros before moving on to mastering the other macronutrients.
step 5. Aim to get within +/- 5 grams of all your macro targets.
You’ve gained some momentum and you’re feeling confident with several weeks of tracking under your belt. Now, it’s time to really shoot to hit all three macros within +/- 5 grams by the end of the day. If you can string together at least a week of macro tracking within 5 grams of your macro total goals, it’s time to start to assess how you look, feel, and perform. Start to pay attention to your hunger and fullness, energy throughout the day, performance in and recovery from exercise, and mood and sleep changes. Notice the way your clothes are fitting – are they loser in some areas, tighter in others? Let this start to inform you that you’re on the right track and to keep going!
If this is the step you really struggle with, consider downloading my resource, “5 Tips to Meal Plan Around Your Macros”. The download is completely free and expands on breaking up your macros into “checkpoints”, pre logging your food ahead of time, creating reference lists and resources for yourself, and more!
step 6. Assess how you feel and make changes if necessary.
Given an honest assessment about how you’re feeling, looking and performing, you might start to ask yourself some questions to help you determine if your macro prescription should be tweaked to serve you better. It’s important to understand the goal is to find a macro prescription that serves you for at least 6 to 8 weeks. There is absolutely no reason, barring sickness or injury, for dramatically switching up your macro goals any sooner if they are producing results and improving the way you look, feel and perform. Small tweaks, however, to your prescription can be made after asking yourself some questions.
Is it a struggle to limit my fat intake to the recommend goals because I just naturally prefer to eat a lot more fat? Is it a struggle to limit my carbohydrate intake to the recommended goals because I just naturally prefer to eat a lot more carbohydrate? If yes, try keeping your calorie and protein goals the same, but tweaking the fat gram goals up or down while tweaking the carbohydrate gram goals up or down to compensate. Remember, flexible dieting and macro tracking should work around your food preferences because you’ll be far more likely to stick to tracking if you enjoy how you’re eating.
Do I feel hungry or satisfied between meals? Do I have enough energy to rock my workouts or do I feel like I am hitting a wall here? Am I sleeping soundly or experiencing disrupted sleep since starting with macro tracking? If yes, consider increasing your calories just slightly with additional carbohydrates and/or fats to see positive changes in these areas.
Macro tracking is a skill you develop over time, with practice. The closer you get to your macro prescription, consistently, the more data you have to inform whether the eating pattern is supporting how you want too look, feel and perform. Remember, no one starts as an expert – not in the kitchen, not while riding a bike, and certainly not here. The trick is to JUST get started and practice a little bit each day.