Tracking Macros Is the Last Diet You Will Ever Need

Tracking macro nutrients and counting calories is simply the best nutrition plan out there. I am also going to share with you everything I know about how to track macros to meet your nutrition goals in this post.

I have been tracking my macros on and off since 2013 to help me reach fitness goals.  I tracked calories, protein, and carbohydrates.  2013 is also the year I started leading 5.11 in the gym; that is kind of tough.  Aside from getting to the climbing gym about 3 times a week, I contribute my climbing success to changes I made in my nutrition and tracking what I ate everyday.  I tweaked my nutrition to support my climbing goals, tracked it, gained a bit of muscle, lost a bit of fat, and it worked.  And it is not just me. 

An image of a macro nutrient tracking journal of mine.  I have been tracking macros on and off since 2013.
One of like 4 little books I have filled up over the years!

The data is in.  The best strategy to actually make a food lifestyle work for your goals, is to track what you eat.  Research studies show that it is the only diet method that makes you highly aware and reflective of what you eat and keeps you on track with your nutrition needs. So, if you have any health goals that involve nutrition, you greatly improve your chances of reaching those goals if you track macros in what you eat.

Here is a bunch of research reviews that supports this statement:

But Tracking What I Eat Sounds Like a Pain..

It is actually super easy! Learning how to track your macros is actually a pretty interesting and straightforward thing to do!  If you can make a table and read a nutrition label, then you can track your macros.   I always use a little moleskin notebook to track macros. I will show you an example later. Remember, I am not a nutritionist though! I am a high school English teacher. However, I am really into fitness and nutrition, and I am as knowledgeable as a dedicated amateur athlete should be about nutrition.  I will reference you to several professionals as we go. 🙂

Research Says Diets Don’t Work

If you have any personal goals remotely related to diet: if you want to lose fat, gain muscle, eat a heart healthy diet, stave off diabetes, or simply have maximum health, it is not a diet that you need.  There is loads of research supporting the idea that diets do not work.  Diets are not a sustainable lifestyle. You need a sustainable food lifestyle.  The best way to establish a food lifestyle is to figure out what you need in your diet to meet health needs and goals and then track those macros.  Do you sometimes eat cookies and pizza and beer? Yes, of course! Sometimes.

Here is a bunch of research reports supporting the idea that diets do not work: 

What Are Macros?

Macros are the major nutrients in your food: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.  I take it a little further later in this article and throw in some nutrients related to heart health too, like cholesterol, fiber, and sodium.  

Again, I am not a nutritionist, I teach high school English! But, I am pretty informed. Here is good resource from the pros that gives an overview of macros. What Are Macros and Why Should I Be Counting Them?

What Is Counting Macros?

Counting macros, is when you simply count how much of a nutrient you have consumed in a day, and try to hit a target number for your personal health goals and needs while staying under a certain number of calories.  It is sometimes called flexible dieting because you can eat anything, but it is not a diet.  Tracking macro nutrients not something you do for 6 weeks then quit. Rather, it is a food lifestyle that is shaped around your health needs and goals.  Does it allow for modest amounts of “cheating”, of course!  It is the smartest nutrition concept out there.  Let’s see what counting macros might look like.  Seeing examples will help you understand how to track macros for yourself.

What Does Tracking Macros Look Like?

For example, what does counting macros look like if I am trying to build muscle?   I personally want to build muscle, so I try to eat over 100 grams of protein a day to meet this goal.   As I eat throughout the day, I track how much protein I have eaten in my little moleskin book.  Maybe by dinner, I am still 40 grams short, so I will make sure that for dinner I have 40 grams of protein.  

Tracking macros will naturally cause you to eat a balanced diet from all of the food groups.
Heart Healthy Foods: Healthy fats: Avocado. Whole Grains. Fruits and Veggies.

Another example, if a person is trying to stave off diabetes, then they need to have a very nutritious and balanced diet and probably also lose weight.  All foods with carbohydrates impact blood sugar, so it will be very important to track their consumption of carbohydrates, as well as making sure they are getting the right amount of other nutrients in their diet.  By tracking diet, a pre-diabetic individual might notice that their breakfast of a yummy granola cereal with raisins and milk actually contained 45 grams of carbohydrates (totally possible btw!), and probably caused an unhealthy spike in their blood sugar!  Carbs are a very important nutrient, but should be spaced out and come from healthy sources like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, not sugar.  

An image of food groups.  Tracking macros will naturally help you eat balanced from all food groups.
Think about abalanced diet. This is the basics of understanding macros.

Another example, say I must eat a heart healthy diet because my doctor just told me my cholesterol is a getting high. How would you track macros for this health need? So now I think about fiber, an important nutrient in a heart healthy diet. I want to eat 20 grams of fiber every day.  (Fiber is actually a type of carbohydrate.) So, as I eat throughout the day, I will write down how much fiber is in the food I eat.  By dinner, maybe I am 5 grams short, so I will have a cup of raspberries, which are high in fiber, for dessert.  

Tracking macros will cause you to make distinctions between high quality carbohydrates and low quality carbohydrates.  Better carbs have fiber in them.
Not all carbohydrates are equal! Whole grains are best! Straight up sugar is not ideal!

Track Macros: Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are our body’s first source of fuel. If you want your body and muscles to perform at their best, then they need to be fueled with carbohydrates from your diet.

So many individuals cut out carbs in an effort to lose weight fast, but while this does help you lose weight, very low carb diets are simply not sustainable and also not healthy.  Although lowering your carbohydrate intake is a good temporary strategy for weight loss, and can improve heart health, studies show that cutting out the nutrient entirely or too much is unhealthy because of the nutrition that you also lose.  Here is some information from the pros:

Tracking Carbohydrates Is Important for Three Main Reasons

  • To fuel a workout.  Your muscles turn carbohydrates into glycogen, which is what fuels muscle activity.  Therefore, to have the best muscle performance possible in a workout, your body needs to be fueled with some good carbs.
  • Fiber.  Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is really important in heart health and digestion.  Most Americans do not get enough fiber in their diets.  Carbohydrates in the form of fiber, like brown rice, wheat bread, or beans, or raspberries are broken down slowly and do not cause spikes in blood sugar.  Fiber also lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. 
  • If you are concerned with blood sugar levels, then tracking carbohydrate intake throughout the day is important. Especially the source of carbs, because so many seemingly healthy foods out there, especially juices, cereals, and granola, are filled with added sugar.

Great Sources of Healthy Carbohydrates

Whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and beans especially: oatmeal, bananas, sweet potatoes, raspberries, quinoa, beets. Watch out for added sugar in all foods! Especially in cereals juices, and granolas. If it is sweet, make sure you know why!

Track Macros: Fat

Nearly all kinds of cooking oils are bad fats that cause bad cholesterol to clog up arteries and cause heart disease.
Bad Fats: All fats from animal sources as well as most common cooking oils.
Fats from plants like olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds are healthy fats that provide healthy cholesterol that actually lowers bad cholesterol.
Good Fats! Any fat that comes from plants such as olives, nuts, seeds, or avocado.
Nutrition researchers are still debating about whether the cholesterol found in eggs is good or bad for us!
Eggs: The jury is still out on this one! Some say good, some say bad!

Good fat and bad fat can be a super confusing concept, but I have a quick and easy rule so you will always know if a fat is good or bad.  

 Rule of Thumb:  Plant fat = good, Animal fat = bad, but eat all fats in moderation only.

If the fat came from a plant, it is good: peanuts, avocado, almonds, cashews, walnut, any nut, coconut oil, olive oil, flax, chia seed, sunflower seeds.  Watch the sodium on nuts and seeds though!

If the fat came from an animal, it is bad: dairy fat, fat in sausage, fat in ground meat, cheese, butter, sour cream. This is why a heart healthy diet insists on only low fat dairy products and only the most lean meats.  

If the fat came from an egg: Who knows.  Science is still fighting over this!  Super annoying, because I love eggs.

Here is an article written by the pros about good and bad fats.  Good Fats vs. Bad Fats: Everything You Need to Know

Cutting Fats vs Cutting Carbohydrates for Weight Loss: Beware!

Also, concerning fats and carbohydrates for weight loss, the data is in. Cutting fat is not nearly as effective as cutting carbs. But remember, cutting carbs out is not a healthy long term solution. There are so many essential nutrients found in high quality in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, all foods that all contain a lot of carbs.  However, if you are considering cutting back on carbs AND maintaining an active lifestyle make sure that you are still fueling your body with enough carbohydrates to sustain and recover from your athletic performance! A word from the pros:

23 Studies on Low Carb and Low Fat Diets

Track Macros: Protein

Protein is my favorite macro! After Carbohydrates, because I LOVE whole grain baked goods!!  I wrote a whole blog post on protein here! And, I also wrote a whole one on healthy baked goods here! Lol! Anyway, the vast majority of Americans are barely staving off protein deficiency.  Whether you are sedentary, a little active or very active, you are probably not getting enough. Check out my post to see how much protein is right for your active lifestyle!

Image of healthy sources of protein.  Find protein staples that can fit in your diet every day.
These foods are protein staples in my diet. While i am not vegan, I try to limit animal protein some. Thus, the Beyond Burgers.

Protein is my favorite macro! After carbohydrates, because I LOVE whole grain baked goods!!  I wrote a whole blog post on protein here! And, I also wrote a whole one on healthy baked goods here! Lol! Anyway, the vast majority of Americans are barely staving off protein deficiency.  Whether you are sedentary, a little active or very active, you are probably not getting enough. Check out my post to see how much protein is right for your lifestyle!

High Protein Low Calorie Foods: low fat Greek yogurt, protein powders, egg whites, chicken breast w/o skin, turkey breast, top sirloin, brisket, 97% lean ground beef.  Remember a serving of cooked meat (3-4 oz) is only the size of a deck of cards or a bar of soap!

Other nutrients to track: fiber, sodium, cholesterol, and calories

Fiber

Fiber is found in your whole grains, fruits and vegetables.  Fiber is actually a kind of carbohydrate that is important in your diet to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and it helps you have nice poops everyday!  

No surprise here, but most Americans have a terribly low amount of fiber in their diets.  The RDA of fiber for an adult is 25 grams for the average person.  

Here is what the Mayo Clinic has to say about fiber: Nutrition and Healthy Eating: Fiber 

Sodium

Sodium is essential for hydration but dangerous for heart disease!  For hydration purposes, all the sports and electrolyte drinks out there also have sodium to help the body retain water.  But! Too much sodium is really bad for you.  Excess sodium in your diet causes you to retain too much water in your body.  When you retain too much water, this excess puts pressure on your blood vessels from the outside!  So, excess sodium is very bad for anyone with high blood pressure or any kind of heart disease.  This article written by pros, explains it more in depth.

Salt! 1500 mg per day!

While the RDA of sodium is 2300 mg a day, that is way too much for anyone with any kind of heart health thing going on.  In fact, the American heart Association wants to lower this to 1500 mg, which is the current recommendation for a person with heart disease.  So for a person with heart health stuff going on, you need to do what your doc says, and probably even cut that in half.  Here is an article that discusses how much sodium we should eat in a day.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is not a fat; it is not a protein; it is a fat and protein together.  Cholesterol is everywhere in our bodies and it does various things.   Our bodies make all the cholesterol we need.  But, of course we can also get cholesterol from our diet.  When we get extra cholesterol from our diet, we want to make sure we are getting the good kind, not the bad kind.  The bad kind gets stuck in our blood vessels creating blockages.  The good kind makes no trouble.  The good kind actually lowers the bad kind!

HDL is good cholesterol.  LDL is bad cholesterol.
It is tough to remember LDL and HDL… I always just thing about whether the fat is form a plant or an animal, that helps me a lot!

The RDA for cholesterol is 300mg.  Remember your number might be higher or lower.  We make cholesterol using the fat in our diet.  Good cholesterol comes from good fats, and bad cholesterol comes from bad fats.  And remember, as far as fats go, if it came from a plant, then that is a good fat, but if it came from an animal, then that is bad fat!

Here is a basic run-down of cholesterol from the pros! Cholesterol.

Calories

Calories Last but not least.  The purpose of counting calories is to make sure that you are losing or maintaining weight, whichever is right for you.  Counting calories is key, so that you know how to budget your macros.  To lose one pound of body weight you must burn 3500 calories more than you have consumed.  So, you need to build up that much of a calorie deficit over time to lose a pound of fat. 

When you know how many calories you need to consume everyday to achieve your health goals, then you know how to budget for your macros.  For example, I eat a lot of protein because I want to gain muscle.  So, I budget a lot of calories for protein in my diet.  Carbohydrates too, because carbs are essential for muscle performance.

Counting calories, though many people frown on it, is proven to work in research studies.
Counting calories is pretty easy!

There are a lot of online tools to calculate how many calories you burn in a day based on your gender, height, weight, and age.  Are they perfect? No. Will they give you a decent target for free? Yes.  If you really want to get as accurate as you can, you will have to do the math!  Michael Matthews really gets into this in Part Four of his Thinner, Leaner Stronger diet and weight training program.  

I personally use my Garmin.  I love my Garmin!  It has a heart rate monitor, I have entered into it my height, weight, age, and it gives me an estimate of my calories burned every day. Is it perfect? No, but it is plenty accurate enough. Whatever my Garmin says I burned that day, I try to stay right at that number or right under that number everyday.  Of course, I occasionally go over.  🙂

Image of a Garmin Venu.  Used to track activity and calories burned using a wrist heart rate monitor
My Garmin Venu!

Calories Burned Calculator

How Do You Track Macros?

Step 1, Decide which macros you care about for your nutrition and health goals.  Do you want to build muscle? Maintain? Lose weight? Gain weight?  Pick maybe 2 macros to track, in addition to calories. 

If you have heart health goals, then fiber and sodium are important. If you want to build and maintain muscle, the protein is key. 

Step 2: Figure out how much you can or should eat of each in a day.  You can ask your doctor about this or ask a nutritionist about this.  If you have already read about your health concerns to inform yourself or if you have already talked to a doctor or nutritionist about your macros, you might already know!

Step 3: Find some staple foods to help you reach your goals.  For example, if you want more protein in your diet and less sodium, maybe find a protein shake that has a lot of protein in it And is low sodium!  If you are concerned about your fiber, find a cereal or bread that has plenty of fiber! Then just eat those things practically every day!  

Finding healthy food staples to have in your diet everyday take the guesswork out of having a healthy diet. 

Step 4: Track! A picture is worth a thousand words here, so, this is how I set up my little food book. A simple table!  You can see I track calories and protein. I don’t always track all three things. With my diet staples, I know I am getting plenty of healthy carbs, so I often just track calories and protein.  There is am image below where I was tracking three macros.

Image of my journal where I track calories, protein, and carbs.
Here is my little book! Is it perfect? No. Do I guesstimate sometimes? Yes. But, it is the best way for me to actually make progress towards nutrition goals. I also list whatever activity I did that day.

Phew! That was a lot of information! I hope you checked out the articles I linked here, because, again, I am not a nutritionist! High school English teacher here!  However, since I am so into fitness and being active and healthy, I have made myself pretty knowledgeable on the topic of nutrition.

This is an image of my macro tracking notebook.
On this day, I was tracking calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

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