If you read my last article, “What are Macros and How Do You Count Them?”, you probably either figured out how to count macros, or you ended with more questions than you had when you started.
If you’re in the latter group, don’t worry. This article will help you take the knowledge from the last one and apply it to yourself.
As I stated previously, counting macros is a dense subject and entire books are written on it. So, I will not attempt to rival that, but I do want my readers to walk away with at least a basic understanding of how to make this work for them.
The main questions I got after publishing that article, apart from ‘Hey Sarah, can you just write me a macro plan?’ were:
- How do I figure out how many of each macros to eat at my meals?
- How do I figure out specific foods to eat at meals?
- How would my macros be different on training days vs rest days?
- What if I want to be low carb but count macros?
- What if I’m not that physically active, but want to count macros?
So let’s dive into these.
How Do You Figure Out Macros Per Meal?
This part is pretty easy. Remember your TDEE and the percentages of protein, carbs and fat you figured out for the last article? You’ll need those numbers.
I’m going to use my own as an example so this makes sense.
My numbers were:
- TDEE: 2000 calories (I’m going to use 1600, which was my fat loss TDEE)
- Protein: 483 calories (I took the average of the bottom and top of my range: 414-552 calories)
- Carbs: 690 calories (again, average of my upper and lower range: 552 – 828 calories)
- Fat: 427 calories (this is what was left after I subtracted protein and carb calories from 1600)
These calories need to be translated into grams, because that is what I will actually be measuring when I am tracking my food (this is how macros are listed on food labels, but also in almost all tracking apps):
- Protein: 483 calories / 4 calories per gram = 120 grams of protein
- Carbs: 690 calories / 4 calories per gram = 172 grams of carbs
- Fat: 427 calories / 9 calories per gram = 47 grams of fat
Now that I know how many total grams of each of these I’ll eat per day, I need to figure out how to divide these between meals.
This is where your personal schedule and preferences come into play, and thus, what can make counting macros complicated.
In my case, I eat 2 meals a day every day, with sometimes a third actual meal if I have time. I also drink at least two protein shakes along with a couples piece of fruit, and I consider these snacks.
So let’s say I am eating my normal 2 meals + 2 snacks.
I also train in the evening. This is important, because your post-workout meals should look a bit different than your other meals.
Snack 1 is around 8am and it is a protein shake. Sometimes 1 scoop, sometimes 2.
Meal 1 is around 12pm and is kind of a brunch. I usually eat eggs, oatmeal and spinach salad.
Snack 2 is around 3pm and it’s usually a piece of fruit.
Meal 2 is around 7:30 or 8pm after the gym. It is dinner.
Snack 3 occasionally happens right before bed if I had a particularly hard session and need to drink another protein shake, maybe with another piece of fruit.
Figure out Your Post-Workout Macros
Before you plug in all your other meals, figure out what is going into your post-workout macros.
Post-workout, your muscles are much more sensitive to insulin, which promotes absorption of nutrients, especially protein and carbs. So it makes sense to put more protein and carbs into your post-workout meal compared to other meals.
I like to put about 40% of my daily protein into my post-workout window. 120 grams x 40% = 48 grams. So I’ll round that up to 50 grams to make it easier on the numbers.
I also like to put about 30% of daily carbs into my post-workout window. 172 x 30% = 51 grams. Again, round down to 50 so I have an even number.
In my case, because dinner is my post-workout meal, there will be fat, but yours might be only a shake and a simple carb. Most of the time, I eat beef for dinner and it tends to have about 20 grams of fat per 1/3 lb, so, that’s my fat intake for that meal.
Post-workout macros are: 50 grams protein, 50 grams carbs, 20 grams fat.
Figure Out Your Other Meals
Now that I know what I’ll be eating post-workout, I can take the rest of my macros and distribute them by meals and snacks in order to get in the foods that I like.
My first snack is a protein shake and a banana. I know that this has 25 grams of protein and 30 grams of carbs.
My first meal is 3 eggs, a bit of dairy-free cheese, a bowl of oatmeal and some brown sugar. I usually add a spinach salad and a bit of dressing. To save time and not go into each item, these are the macros for the entire meal:
- Protein: 30 grams
- Carbs: 57 grams
- Fat: 30 grams
So now I want to check and see where I’m at so far with my two meals and one snack, so I know what I have left for that other snack. The 2 meals together have:
- Protein: 105 grams
- Carbs: 130 grams
- Fat: 50 grams
Remember my daily totals were: 120 grams protein, 172 grams carbs, and 47 grams fat.
Based on that, I’m over 3 grams on fat but have 15 grams of protein and 42 grams of carbs left.
In reality, I’m not at all concerned about being over 3 grams on fat. It’s pretty negligible in my case. It will amount to over-consuming by a total of only 27 calories, and that’s if I eat exactly the right carbs and protein.
If I drink another protein shake and eat another banana at 3pm for my second snack, that brings my total for the day up to:
- Protein: 130 grams
- Carbs: 160 grams
- Fat: 50 grams
I’ve got 12 grams of carbs left. I can add these to a meal, eat a handful of berries or just write them off.
The Main Point: Once you know your TDEE, you will find your ideal protein, carb and fat intake based on grams per pound of body weight or per pound of lean body mass. Those macros will then be distributed between your meals based on whether they are pre- or post-workout. This part is just math. Don’t worry about food yet.
How Do You Figure Out Which Foods To Eat?
Once you know the numbers, applying them to food is the next step. The trouble you’ll find is that foods will not always fit neatly.
You’ll have some margin of error and as long as you aren’t off by more than 3% either way, then don’t worry too much.
If your fat macros are pretty low (≤50g/day), you’ll want to lean towards protein sources with lower fat. These will be:
- Chicken and poultry, no skin and no dark meat
- Egg whites
- Non-fat dairy
- Beans (watch the carbs here)
- Protein powder
- Fish (watch the salmon; it’s healthy, but higher fat. Decide what’s important to you)
- PB powder (like PB2)
This doesn’t mean you can never eat red meat or whole eggs. Again, figure out what’s most important. Counting macros is a compromise. If you want to give up whole eggs in exchange for eating higher fat foods like nuts, then do it.
Choose your carbs from mostly whole food sources like:
- Starchy roots (sweet potatoes, potatoes, turnips, beets)
- Rice (white, brown or wild)
- Whole grains
These not only provide a clean and unprocessed source of carbs, but also plenty of micronutrients and fiber.
Fiber is critical to healthy digestion and, as an RD, about 90% of the patients I see have poor digestion, partly from eating a diet low in fiber, which leads to a host of other health problems.
Fats will usually come from the meats and eggs you eat, but if you have room left over, consider things like olive oil dressings, nuts, olives, avocados and coconut oil.
Here is where you need to start tracking to get the hang of the foods you are eating and how they fit in.
If you look at the screenshot of the breakfast I described above, you can see how each item breaks down and is added into the total for not just the meal, but for the day.
You’re really only looking at numbers here. Whatever foods you eat will count towards the totals you’ve already determined in your equations up until this point.
If you need guidance on what foods to eat, I can help you out, but I really encourage people to do this part on their own. The best way to learn to eat is to learn to eat.
Prioritize your meals first by putting your most important calories into your pre/post-workout meals and snacks. Your food sources there will matter more than your food sources in other meals.
Here is usually where I get someone that says “Well, after I put in all the protein I need and the other healthy carbs, there’s no room for pizza.” And here is where I have to say “Too bad.”
Can you fit pizza into your macros? Absolutely. But think of calories and macros as a budget. If you have $2000 to spend every month and that is for bills, food, and gas to get to work, then you pay those things first.
Anything left over is for fun. If you blow rent money on hookers and cocaine, you’ll get evicted.
With 2000 calories, it’s the same way (except you can’t pay your cocaine dealer with calories and you’re not getting evicted).
If you meet your protein needs with just protein shakes and want to eat pizza with the rest of your carbs and fat, then do it. My experience is that gets old fast and it’s pretty unsustainable for most people.
One last thing I want to point out: you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned vegetables. Most veggies are ‘free foods’ in my opinion, meaning that they contribute negligible calories.
The exceptions are things like starchy roots (potatoes, carrots and beets) and peas/beans (which aren’t actually vegetables anyway).
Make the bulk of your veggies of the high fiber type like leafy greens and darkly colored stuff and don’t worry too much about calories from veggies.
The Main Point: Take your macro numbers that you distributed per meal and find foods that fit into those by tracking. Use an app to look up foods and figure out the macros per serving. Make sure you enter the accurate serving size. Eat most veggies freely.
How Are Macros Different On Training Days vs Rest Days?
If you are a high volume training type of person, then you may or may not need to figure different macros for rest days. Typically, you’ll be in such a calorie deficit all the time that I wouldn’t pull calories back even more, unless you’re cutting for a physique-oriented show.
For everyone else, you might want a different set of macros for rest days. I normally don’t do mine that way, but that’s because I find it easier to just eat the same thing every day, spreading my calories equivalently over the week.
If you’re eating less on rest days, the easiest way to do this is to take 10-15% off your totals from training days. This is kind of arbitrary, because experts disagree. I’ve used this number for years and it seems to work well in 90% of my clients. So that’s what I’m sticking with.
The exceptions to this are:
- Youth athletes that are not overweight. These kids are growing and I don’t like to take calories from them. Ever.
- People who train 6 or 7 days a week. There’s no point in adjusting your calories for those 1-2 days. It really won’t matter much.
The Main Point: Take 10-15% off your previously calculated TDEE and macros for rest days, if you feel like you need to pull back on calorie intake on those days.
What if You Want to be Low Carb But Count Macros?
Here you need to specify whether you want to be ‘Low carb’ or ‘ketogenic.’
If you’re just low carb, then change the ratios of calories from macros in your TDEE first. Low carb to me is usually ≤20% of total calories from carbs, but some may have other opinions on this.
The other 80% of your calories will come from protein and fat and you’ll follow the same steps for dividing between meals.
My advice is to put the majority of the small amount of carbs you are eating in your post-workout meal, still. This is where they will do the most good and enhance protein uptake into muscle cells and other tissues.
I’m not a fan of low-carb diets in athletes because they tend to lead to fatigue faster. But, I realize diet is largely personal preference.
If you’re not super physically active, there’s nothing wrong with eating low carb. There are a number of health benefits to it.
If you’re ketogenic, then still follow the previous method of calculating your TDEE, but you’ll basically not officially allot anything for carbohydrates. I do recommend you set a fiber goal of at least 15 grams/day.
The Main Point: Low carb diets can still work for counting macros. Adjust your original ratios of macros in your TDEE to limit carbs to less than 20% of calories and increase your protein and fat to make up for the difference. Put most of your carbs into your post-workout meal.
What if You Are Not Very Physically Active?
You can still count macros, even if you don’t exercise often, or intensely. You will just find that the amounts you can eat of those macros are a lot less, in some cases.
Your activity level will be less so obviously you’ll use a lower Activity Factor. This will lower your TDEE accordingly.
Counting macros is first and foremost a system to give you control over your nutritional intake and to find balance in your life.
If you’re not very active, you need a bit less protein. You may not need to go over 30% of total calories in this case. Or you can figure based on 0.8 grams/kg body weight.
You also don’t need to worry about figuring out pre- and post-workout macros. Just distribute macros evenly throughout your day, or however works best for you.
The Main Point: Less activity = Less Calories. Your macros will be adjusted to meet the lower calorie needs as long as you follow the formulas. Distribute your macros across your daily meals as you see fit.
- Figure out your TDEE, macros in percentages, then macros in grams.
- Divide those grams for each macro by your meals and snacks.
- Start tracking.
- Adjust serving sizes.
I would also recommend playing with some apps to see what the averages for serving sizes of food you common eat are.
You may need to make adjustments to serving sizes at meals you’re already eating, in order to make them fit your macros. This is basically just a form of portion control, which is a function of calorie restriction.
But, don’t mistake macros for only calorie counting. It is the ratio of these macros that produce certain results. Restricting calories overall results in fat loss. Increasing protein while restricting calories results in maintaining, or even possibly gaining, muscle.
I normally don’t have a ton of time to just write macro plans, but if that’s something you’re interested in, contact me through this form below. I have a few openings this month for online clients and can create just a plan for a few people without a contract for additional sessions.
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