In this blog, you will discover:
- Where to start with counting macros
- How to balance your macros daily
- Why 40/30/30 is the right ratio to start with
Have you ever had one of those conversations with a fellow CrossFitter at your box and all they can talk about is counting macros? Their excitement is palpable as they enthusiastically show you a Six-Pack Bag filled with precisely measured and portioned out food made complete with a portable scale in case of emergencies.
As you stand there impressed by their commitment to eating well, they shatter that impression by popping open a Kill Cliff and chowing down on a recovery bar they found at GNC. They see the perplexed look on your face and answer with the Macro Creed: "Hey, this fits my macros. So it is legit."
Here in lies the problem. Many CrossFitters jump towards counting macros as a means of controlling their nutrition before they address the underlying problems with what they eat. They haven't made the shift towards eating real foods and avoiding processed and fast foods. This creates a system where loopholes are used repeatedly to justify the end goal of keeping everything balanced. Except, keeping bad food choices balanced doesn't really address the problem. So are macros even worth the time? If you are willing to lay a solid foundation first, they are. To keep things simple and efficient, we are giving you a clear 3-step action plan to get you started using macros correctly.
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What is a Macro?
Put simply, macronutrients are the carbohydrates, protein, and fat in food. Take the uncooked sweet potato in the picture above. It has 30g of carbs, 0g of fat, and 2g of protein in a serving that weighs 148g (roughly 5 oz). This sweet potato obviously provides other nutrients like potassium and vitamin A, but for this blog we focus on the big 3. You should also note that there are different types of carbs, fats, and proteins, and some are definitely better than others. For now, we want you to have a basic understanding that non-starchy vegetables are your preferred source of carbohydrates, but there are other starches like the sweet potato that can be used in limited amounts. For fats, we prefer the chewable types like olives, nuts, seeds, and avocado over the oils like olive oil and other seed oils. For protein, we prefer quality sources like wild-caught fish, organic beef, and chicken.
Now that we know what a macro is, let's look at how to start figuring out your macro needs. The classic mistake made here is thinking you need to jump in the deep end and follow the lead of some of the elite CrossFit athletes. For example, one particular female athlete had a daily nutrition plan that looked like this:
- 7am - Scoop of protein powder
- 8am - 2 eggs, 5 egg whites, 2/3 cup of oats
- 11am - tuna, 2/3 cup of oats, 1 scoop of peanut butter, 1 pickle
- 2pm - 4 eggs and 2/3 cup of oats
- 4:30pm - 6oz of fish and 2/3 cup of oats, 1 banana
- 6:30pm - Scoop of protein powder and table sugar
- 8pm - 6oz of fish and a banana
- 9:30pm - 1 cup of cottage cheese with granola
Anybody notice the redundancy here? Guess what? The rest of her week looked very similar. Now, is it effective? Sure. Is it sustainable? Probably not beyond 90 days. So should this be the standard to follow just because it works for this particular athlete? No. It doesn't have to be this complicated, or frankly, this boring. Most of us are not training for Regionals or even to be high-level athletes. We need a simpler plan that allows us to use the good parts of counting macros without losing sight of the bigger goal of eating real foods and moving away from the processed and junk foods. To do this, we start with our protein needs.
Step 1: Figure Out Your Daily Protein
There are multiple ways to come up with this figure. For example, I'm 170 pounds, 5'8" and have an approximate body fat percentage of 15%. If I was to follow the Renaissance Periodization (RP) diet, I would start with 145 grams daily. This number does not move regardless of whether you are on a training day or rest day and even remains constant through the different phases of their diet. If I followed the Zone Diet, I would use the conversion tables from Zone to figure out my protein needs. Based on my activity level, it states my protein needs are roughly 130g per day and does not distinguish between training days and rest days.
Our recommendation is based off of our belief that the easiest way to count portions beyond our Free Macro and Meal Timing Calculator is to use the hand and plate method. Fill your plate up with two fist size portions of non-starchy vegetables, a palm-sized portion of protein, a fist-sized portion of starchy carbs or fruits, and a thumb-sized portion of healthy fats (two thumb-sized portions of chewable fats). If I use this method for 3 meals a day, I will eat roughly 5oz of protein or 35g per meal. Factor in a protein powder like collagen, whey, or casein once a day at 25g per serving and I am at 130g a day. I also have to factor in that the other foods on my plate like the non-starchy vegetables, starches, and some of the fats also contain protein. So without doing any difficult calculations, I end the day at roughly 140g of protein which is in line with RP and slightly higher than Zone.
Step 2: Use 40/30/30 To Be Your Own Coach
40/30/30 stands for a macro break down of 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat. This is the exact combination used by Zone, the one the plate diagram above is based on and we advocate, and the CrossFit prescription (based on our interpretation). If you fill your plate up by eating "meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some starch, little fruit, and no sugar", your plate is going to look a lot like ours.
Using the hand and plate method is the easiest way to go about counting macros and you can definitely stop here for step 2. However, if you want to see how it all breaks down, read on. Otherwise, move on to Step 3.
If I am eating 145g of protein daily, I can quickly figure out my carbs and fat. We start by multiplying grams of protein by 4 since there are 4 calories in each gram. That gives me a daily caloric intake of 580. Since we are looking to take in the same amount of calories from fat, we divide 580 by 9 since there are 9 calories per gram of fat. This works out to 64g of healthy fat daily. Finally, we need 40% of our calories from carbs, so we take our 145g of protein and divide it by .3 (this is our 30%). Now take that total and multiply it by .40 to get your 40% carbs which comes out to 193g of carbs or 773 calories (4 calories/gram just like for protein). Add this all together and I have a daily caloric intake of 1933 and a daily macro break down of 193g/145g/64g. Keep in mind that these numbers are all based off my weight and body fat percentage. If we looked at a fairly active 140lb female CrossFitter, all three methods would net us something close to 146g/110g/49g which is the same as using the hand and plate method above.
Step 3: Use the Macros to Balance Your Day
OK, here is where we start to make the whole process easier. Instead of worrying about balancing every meal you eat with 40/30/30, start with balancing your entire day. Diets like Zone are great and produce results by having you carefully control every meal, but typically at the expense of your sanity. To put it bluntly: Weighing and measuring every meal sucks. It is time consuming and can lead to bad habits like eating beyond the point of feeling full or satisfied. To be clear, we believe you should strive to balance every meal to help regulate insulin spikes. However, we want you to succeed quickly, so give yourself a break and focus on hitting your goals for the day. To make this even easier, I use a free app called Fitocracy Macros. It is super simple. I plug in my 193/145/64 goal and it keeps a running tally for me. I still have to enter my protein, carbs, and fat into the app, but I find it to be a fairly fast process and I like that I can always take a peek to see where I am for the day. If my meals don't exactly hit 40/30/30, I don't sweat it. I know my nutrition needs are not made or broken by one meal or even one day. The daily, weekly, and monthly consistency will yield results. Trust the process.
Of course, you can also skip all of the tracking and just use the hand and plate method. It will take you a long way if you are being careful to fill up your plate with real foods and not junk. Junk food is a loophole and not the intended purpose of counting macros for health. Remember, there are only 3 possible outcomes after balancing your diet for a few weeks:
- You stay the same weight
- You lean out and lose body fat
- You gain weight and work to make it muscle mass
Anybody that tells you there is a magic macro ratio for gaining muscle mass or losing body fat percentage is lying. However, most of us will benefit greatly from first focusing on eating a diet rich in real foods and few if any processed or fast foods. Start there. Then adjust your macros to 40/30/30 without sacrificing the healthy foods. Don't worry about balancing each meal, but do make an effort to do so without going crazy measuring and counting. The bigger goal is to achieve an overall balance. Once you have that down for a while, start to look at how you can improve with meal timing and individual meal macro breakdowns. You will be better off for being patient and allowing your body to give you the cues you need to make smart decisions.