“What’s measured improves.” – Peter F. Drucker
I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon with people who are new to the fitness world. They’re willing to grind for hours in the gym, but they refuse to spend even 10 minutes tracking their diet.
These newbies spend countless hours on the treadmill trying to sculpt their bodies, yet when I talk to them about tracking their calories and macros, all I get are lame excuses.
Here are some of my favorites:
- “I’m serious about fitness, but I don’t want to be obsessive about it.”
- “I’m too embarrassed to bring out a scale at a restaurant. It looks ridiculous.”
- “You just don’t understand—food is my weakness!”
These poor souls will forever spin their wheels with fitness. Trust me, I used to be one of them.
I learned after years of struggle that fitness is 85% diet and 15% exercise. You simply cannot outwork a bad diet no matter how many hours you spend in the gym.
I know that counting calories and tracking macros seems scary, but the whole process is actually quite straightforward and manageable once you know a few basic numbers.
I’m going to walk you through all the ins and outs of calories and macros, and by the time we’re finished, you’ll see that a proper diet doesn’t have to be complicated.
Let’s start with a simple science lesson that explains why calorie counting is necessary.
Why You Must Count Your Calories
A calorie is simply a unit of measurement for the potential energy that food contains.
All food contains calories that provide our bodies the energy that is necessary for us to survive.
Proper nutrition starts with first understanding the law of energy balance, or as it’s more commonly known, the rule of calories in vs. calories out:
- If you consume more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight.
- If you burn more calories than you consume, you’ll lose weight.
It’s that simple. To maintain a desired body fat percentage or body weight for a prolonged time, you must avoid a caloric surplus (consuming more than you burn).
No other factor has a greater impact on your body composition than energy balance.
Knowing this, the question becomes: How many daily calories do you need?
Determining How Many Calories You Need
Fair warning: We’re about to get into some math in this section. The good news is that these equations are simple and there are tons of online calculators out there if you need help.
As much as you might hate math, I’m sorry to say you cannot skip this section. Counting calories requires precision. You won’t see results if you simply eyeball your food and try to estimate your calories.
Here’s why: Humans grossly underestimate the number of calories they consume.
When you eat more calories than you realize, your energy balance will be out of whack without you knowing why. This is the fastest track to spinning your wheels with fitness.
Save yourself the frustration (and years of wheel spinning) by developing and sticking to a calorie budget. It’s that simple.
Basal Metabolic Rate
The first step to knowing how many calories you need is to determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or the minimum number of calories you need just to live.
Here’s an online calculator if you need one, but the BMR equation for men looks like this:
Men’s BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
For women, the equation looks a little different:
Women’s BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
I’m 37 years old, weigh 155 lbs., and my height is 69.5 inches, so my BMR = 1596.70.
Maintenance Calories and Activity Factor
Now that we have our BMR, we can use it to calculate our maintenance calories (MC). You might also see this number called your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
The equation for MC is dead simple: BMR x Activity Factor.
There are five activity factors to choose from:
- 1.2 = sedentary (little or no exercise)
- 1.375 = light activity (light exercise/sports 1 to 3 days per week)
- 1.55 = moderate activity (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days per week)
- 1.725 = very active (hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week)
- 1.9 = extra active (very hard exercise/sports 6 to 7 days per week and physical job)
These activity factors have been known to overestimate true activity, so for the purposes of determining your MC, I suggest starting with an activity factor of 1.2.
It’s better to err on the side of caution if your goal is to shed body fat.
My math works out to 1596.70 x 1.2 = 1916 calories per day. Not a whole lot.
If I eat 1916 calories every day, my weight will stay the same. If my activity stays the same and I eat more calories than that, I’ll gain weight; eat less and I’ll lose weight.
Just knowing this one number is powerful in that gives you a broad sense of your calorie budget each day and puts you miles ahead of your peers in the gym who have never done these simple calculations.
The next step to fine-tuning your nutrition is tracking your macros.
Why You Need to Track Your Macros
Every calorie you consume is comprised of three macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, and fat. They are “macro” nutrients because your body needs them in larger quantities than micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals.
Hitting your macros is crucial to making sure your body functions properly. For example, if you’re cutting and only eating 1500 calories a day, but you don’t eat enough protein, you’ll actually lose muscle and end up skinny fat.
Some foods skew heavily toward either proteins or carbs. For example:
- 100 grams of skinless chicken is pure protein: 31g protein, 0g carbs, 3.6g fat.
- 100 grams of white rice, meanwhile, is all carbs: 2.66g protein, 28g carbs, 0.28g fat.
Macronutrients are listed on every nutrition label, and once you know the numbers, you can deploy the 4-4-9 formula to determine the approximate caloric density of food items:
- 4 calories for every gram of carb.
- 4 calories for every gram of protein.
- 9 calories for every gram of fat.
When you understand that fat is more than twice as dense as protein or carbs, you can see why fatty foods like pizza have more calories per serving than “clean” foods like chicken breast.
Let’s use this nutrition label for Lay’s BBQ chips to see if the math works out:
10g fat x 9 = 90 calories. 15g carbs x 4 = 60 calories. 2g protein x 4 = 8 calories.
Grand total = 158 calories, almost exactly the same as the 160 calories listed on the label. As you can see, companies are starting to include 4-4-9 on the bottoms of their labels. (As you can also see, these potato chips are 57% made of fat. So put them back on the shelf and move on, pal…)
Aside from determining how many calories are in the food we eat, macros are worth tracking because proper nutrition demands a certain ratio of carbs, fat, and protein in our daily diet.
Let’s look now at how to compose a diet that respects your calorie budget and provides you with the proper macronutrient ratio.
How to Budget for Calories and Macros in Your Diet
Now that you know your maintenance calories, the next step is finding a system of calorie counting that consistently works for you.
I get it—counting calories is a drag. Nobody enjoys this process, but the good news is that technology has made things way easier than it used to be.
You’ll need three things to budget calories and macros effectively:
- A way to track calories/macros: I’m an old-school guy, so I use an Excel spreadsheet to track my data, but most of my coaching clients use apps like MyFitnessPal to keep up with their calorie intake.
- A food scale to weigh your food: I know it’s nerdy to bring out a food scale at a restaurant, but if you want to be the person at the beach with the perfectly toned body, you must be willing to go this extra mile. Or just ask the chef/kitchen for the weight of the food you order. They will always be able to tell you.
- A way to research your food’s nutrition info: Once you have the food weights, hop over to a site like CalorieKing.com or FatSecret.com to see the calorie and macronutrient breakdown for your meal.
Let’s use our chicken breast example from earlier. Let’s say you are out to eat and you order the chicken breast as your main course. You bust out your scale and weigh the breast which clocks in at 100 grams.
The next thing you do is go to CalorieKing.com and type in “chicken breast” in the search bar. If you choose “roasted chicken breast, without skin” and change the serving size to 100 grams you will see the macros appear down below. As we mentioned before, it is pretty much pure protein: 31g protein, 0g carbs, 3.6g fat.
Whichever source you use for your nutrition facts doesn’t actually matter. What matters is sticking with the same site consistently.
The Ideal Macronutrient Ratio for Fitness
So now you know how many calories you need to consume every day to shed body fat, and how to track your macros, but what are the levels of carbs, fat, and protein you need for proper nutrition? Again, this part gets a little bit mathy, but don’t worry, we’re almost done.
When combined with a strength training program, a proper diet is all about your protein intake. As a general rule, each day you should be getting 1.25g of protein per pound of body weight.
At 155 pounds, I need to eat 193.75g of protein every day. Using the 4-4-9 formula, I can multiply that number by 4 and see that 775 of my calories must come from protein.
That might not seem like a lot until you realize it’s about 40% of my daily calorie budget!
The average person gets way less than 40% of their daily calories from protein, but when you’re on a cut, combined with heavy weight training, you need that protein to replenish and rebuild your muscles and keep you satiated.
The rest of your calories should be evenly split: 30% carbs and 30% fat.
So for me, that would be daily maintenance calories of 1916 * 30% = 575 calories for carbs and 575 calories for fat. Using 4-4-9 once again we see that 575/4 = 143.75g of carbs and 575/9 = 63.8g of fat.
So my ideal macro targets each day are: 193.75g protein, 143.75g carbs, and 63.8g of fat.
You can manipulate the fat and carb ratios if your body is more sensitive to one or the other, but when you’re starting out, I’d begin with a 50/50 split and make changes from there.
Keeping track of calories and macros can seem daunting. Planning ahead is critical in allowing you to maintain your results with less worry.
How To Find Foods To Fit Your Calorie And Macro Budget
Finally. You now know exactly how many calories are in your daily budget and exactly what your macronutrient goals are each day. Now the final piece of the puzzle is figuring out exactly how to fit in the right combination of foods into your framework. Hint: The secret lies in food choice.
Without tracking your calories and macros, no amount of “clean foods” will get you lean.
You can get fat eating chicken breasts and you can get skinny eating junk food all day. As we know, your fitness nutrition comes down to food quantity, not food quality.
But once you understand the factors that actually dictate your nutrition, you can turn your attention to food choice, which is the final obstacle to getting lean.
Here are two truths when it comes to food choice that seem hard to reconcile at first:
- If you meet your calorie and macro needs, you can technically eat whatever you want.
- That said, the easiest path to sustainable long-term fitness involves eating healthy foods.
Why healthy foods? Because when you’re on a caloric restriction, you’re going to be hungry a lot.
Natural foods are less dense calorically, which means you can eat until you’re full without busting through your calorie budget. Healthy foods also keep you satiated for longer.
Remember, fat is more than twice as dense as protein or carbs (4-4-9). You can still eat fatty foods, but you can’t eat as much of them when compared to healthier alternatives.
You can get lean by eating pizza every day and meeting your calorie and macro needs with other foods, but at 300+ calories per slice, your pizza habit is going to leave you starving!
On the flip side, two large plates of broccoli only cost you 100 calories and leave you feeling full.
Even so-called super foods like olive oil have the potential to wreck your calorie budget. Before you douse your healthy salad in olive oil, check the macronutrient composition.
You’ll be surprised at how many “healthy” foods are actually bad for your fitness progress when you look at the labels.
The nutritional value of healthy foods also provides tremendous power for your lifts.
Fuel your body with lean protein and complex carbs. Fat and sugar will make you feel like shit and your workouts will suffer. Remember—garbage in, garbage out.
As you discover healthy meals that you enjoy eating regularly, log the data for easy reference later on. When you’re in a pinch, you have a go-to list of meals with known calorie and macro counts. Just rinse and repeat.
By frontloading your work early on, managing your nutrition becomes much easier as you go.
Tracking Calories and Macros is a Lifestyle Change—Not a Diet
You’re never going to reach a point where you can stop counting calories or tracking macros.
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What I’ve described in this article represents a lifestyle change, not a temporary diet.
But here’s the thing—unlike some diets that restrict what you can eat and make you want to quit them, this lifestyle change allows you the flexibility to still eat what you love.
So, if you love cake or burgers or Bloody Marys, you’re not giving those guilty pleasures up for good. You’re just eating them rarely and in appropriate quantities when you splurge.
What I’ve found is that you’ll gravitate towards healthier foods and naturally make better meal choices the further away you get from your old poor eating habits.
Finally, if you are cutting, there is one thing to keep in mind as you move forward: Every 2-3 weeks, you have to recalculate your BMR since your weight will drop.
As your weight goes down, you need less energy and therefore must consume less food. You can understand why most people choose to ignore this crucial step.
Unless you want to hit a sudden wall three weeks into managing your nutrition, you need to recalculate your calorie needs regularly and adjust accordingly.
The best thing you can do right now is dive in head first and start tracking your macros today. All the intimidating math will become second nature and intuitive to you after just a day or two of piecing together the nutrition puzzle. Inputting the data will take you less than 5 minutes a day. But the rewards you will reap from just that incremental amount of work is the difference between a six pack and a dad bod for life.