Macronutrients AKA “macros” are the 3 main building blocks of any food: Carbohydrates (Carbs), Fat, and Protein.
Learning to ‘track’ macros is a popular nutrition method to support your health and fitness goals. Depending on your goals and lifestyle, including if you’re vegan or on a plant-based diet, the most optimal amount of protein, fat and carbs for you changes.
Tracking macros means you can dial in your diet to your specific nutritional and physiological needs. Because your macronutrient targets act as guidelines or guard rails, you’re still able to be flexible with your food choices. So much so that macro-tracking is often referred to as “flexible dieting”.
What About Calorie Counting?
Typically when dieting, people start off with tracking calories.
This is a perfectly valid form of nutrition management for some people and goals. In particular, it can be a great way to lose body fat. But it’s not necessarily well suited to maintaining or building lean muscle mass, or fuelling workouts optimally which require extra attention to specific macronutrients. So calorie counting alone can cause frustration when you aren’t getting the results you want.
Macros are made up of calories. So when if you follow macro counting, you are incidentally already tracking your calorie intake. Specifically: 1g of Protein = 4 calories, 1g of Carbs = 4 calories, and 1g of Fat = 9 calories
Ok, so how do I start?
STEP 1) WHAT’S YOUR HEALTH & FITNESS GOAL?
Are you aiming to change your body fat, grow muscle, fuel your training, maintain your weight, or something else?
Each goal has different energy (i.e. calorie) and macronutrient need.
A good place to figure out how many grams of protein, carbs, and fat you need to get started is by using our specialised vegan macro and calorie calculator.
STEP 2) GET THE TOOLS
There are only two things you need:
A food scale – A digital scale tends to be the easiest and most accurate
A calorie/macro tracking app on your smartphone
From experience and popularity, the best apps to do this are:
- Fat Secret
- My Macros +
STEP 3) PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
Let’s say for example you are cooking some tofu.
- Place an empty plate on your food scale and “zero out” the scale.
- Place the tofu on the plate, so the scale gives you a weight reading. This is the raw weight and is the weight you will enter on your calorie/macro tracking app
- When you enter this into your app, it will give you a calorie/macro amount you have reached (Xg amount of protein, carbs and fats)
- Do this with the remainder of your ingredients as you prepare your meal
- Do this with your meals until you have reached your macronutrient goals for the day
Now, Time to Level Up
Tracking is a skill. And like any skill, it requires a little practice, knowledge and time to get used to it and become proficient. Like the saying goes “It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it”. So starting to use an app is one thing, but being accurate is another entirely.
Fresh Produce & Single-Ingredient Foods: NUTTAB, USDA, and COFID
Using reliable and verified entries within the app database will help ensure accurate entries.
NUTTAB, USDA and COFID are examples of nutrition databases used across Australia, the United States, and the UK respectively. When looking up single-ingredient fresh foods (fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and the like), searching with these terms (i.e. “Granny Smith Apple NUTTAB” will turn up entries that will have higher accuracy.
Scales vs. Subjective Portions
Where possible, try to take advantage of a kitchen scale and weigh food. Avoid measuring in cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, estimated serving sizes or subjective portions (e.g. small, medium and large pieces of fruit)
Raw vs. Cooked
Try to be specific with food entries and how you’re weighing them. Weighing food raw, prior to cooking, will be the most accurate method. For example, 100g of white rice is a very different weight depending on if it’s cooked (ie. boiled in water) or raw. This significantly influences their caloric and macronutrient content calculated!
With pre-packaged foods (i.e. bread, yoghurt, chocolate, etc) you will most often not have to weigh these as they are quite often just one piece or X amount of servings in a package. It can be convenient to use the barcode scanner available within your tracking app to make sure you have the correct item.
There may be some variations in portion sizes (i.e. slices of bread might vary in weight). But for most people, such a high level of precision is not necessary for progress to occur. Typically, it’s quite an insignificant Calorie difference and nutrition is a game of averages over time, so this does usually balance out. A small variation in the weight of sliced bread is not going to be the reason why you don’t achieve results.
It’s possible to include occasional alcohol within your diet and track it. Drinking alcohol doesn’t always have to be done ‘off-plan’ and dieting doesn’t mean you need to abstain from alcohol.
We recommend not consuming more than 4 standard drinks in one sitting, or 10 standard drinks in a week.
Alcohol is technically its own macronutrient, outside of Carbs, Fats and Protein. 1g of Alcohol = 7 Calories. When tracking alcohol you need to account for both the calories that come from the alcohol, plus any carbohydrates or fats in the beverage.
Because alcohol is a non-essential macronutrient, in order to track it in a macro-tracking app, we need to “convert” the equivalent amount of grams of alcohol into fat, carbs or a combination of the two.
To keep it simple, we are a big fan of IIFYM Macro Alcohol Calculator to calculate this. Once you’ve worked out your split of fat and carbs, add it to your tracking app.
Low vs. High Accuracy
It goes without saying – if you’re going to do something, try your best to do it right.
Particularly for those trying to lose weight, tracking accurately is key & can help provide reassurance that your metabolism isn’t “damaged”, as the calories tracked as <1200/day are likely miscalculated.
What About When Dining Out?
While working towards a health and fitness goal does require some focus at times, we all need to socialise with friends, family and loved ones, and dine out (or get takeaway food)!
The goal here is to make sure you’re still able to socialise, enjoy food, and live a normal life. Not all meals out should be tracked. If you are engaging in macro tracking, we recommend implementing 1-2 untracked meals a week to help:
Maintain a positive relationship around food
Allow you to socialise and enjoy yourself without thinking about food or tracking
Reduce any of the mental burdens around tracking
But that said, tracking macros while eating out is still possible! It’s worth noting that it won’t be 100% accurate, which is totally ok but should land you in a rough ballpark. For most health and fitness goals, this level of flexibility means you can still achieve results.
If you’ve decided you want to track a meal, you can pick a dish you think will be more aligned with the macros you have available. We recommend something preferably with protein and plants (i.e. fruit or veggies). Then just approximately “eyeball” or estimate the contents of the dish/ingredients and enter it into your tracking app.
It can be helpful to estimate on the ‘high’ end (15-30% more) and account for additions the kitchen may have included to improve taste (sugars, fats, etc)
Tips for Macro Balance
Embracing the flexible dieting approach can be a learning curve initially. The overall goal is to not think of foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy”, or simply high or low in calories, but rather as a great source of protein, fats, or carbs.
A good tip is to think about the food across your entire day, rather than a single food or meal. If you decide to have a delicious high-carb meal of pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast, you might want to focus on including more protein and fat-dense options later in the day – such as tofu and avocado salad.
Once you get the hang of it, flexible dieting and macro tracking can act as nutrition “guard rails” but still give you the freedom to make a wide range of food choices within them. You can balance a range of healthy, nutritionally dense foods, with more indulgent treats and snacks. So at the end of the day, you can have your cake (literally) and eat it too