How to Set Your Macros For Beginners: A Step-by-Step Guide
How to Set Your Macros For Beginners: A Step-by-Step Guide
The thought of tracking macronutrients can be intimidating. I mean, “macronutrients” has 5 syllables. That’s kind of a lot. It must be hard and fancy, right? Honestly, I used to think macro tracking was just for meathead gym rat bros. Macros, among other things like Paleo, Whole30, and injuries, were all the rage in the Crossfit gym I belonged to back in the day. It just always sounded kinda douchey.
I Was Wrong
Now I know macros are for everybody and anybody. Anyone who wants to lose weight, gain weight, change body composition, or maintain can accomplish their goals with macros. Douchery must be in the eye of the beholder, too, because now I don’t think it’s just for tools. Because I’m pretty cool, and I track macros.
Macros Feel Right
I began tracking macros in July of 2019, and it’s by far my favorite “diet.” I’ve got the exaggerated air quotes in there because I don’t feel like I’m “on a diet.” Nothing is off-limits, I don’t feel restricted, and I almost never have uncontrollable cravings. I just eat.
Well, that’s a lie. I weigh and measure, then I eat. And the weirdest part is I enjoy it. Some days it can be a bit tedious, like meal prep day!, but it’s a habit. I really don’t mind it. It often feels like a fun lil game of Tetris getting all my meals and numbers to work for me.
Because that’s what it’s all about. Making the numbers and food work for you. I’m not a slave to the numbers, eating a bunch of bullshit I don’t want or like just to hit my macros, or worse, going to bed hungry. I eat, and I eat good. I’m not talking chicken and veggies good, although I also eat that. I’m talking about tacos and ice cream good. I never feel, nor am I, deprived.
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Step 1: Identify Your Goal
When I started tracking macros over a year and a half ago, my sights were set on maintaining. I was happy with my weight and my body, but I guess you could say I got bored.
Although, overall, I was content with my body, I was still ready for a change. Things just felt stagnant. I needed a new adventure and goal. Getting stronger seemed like a good one. My goal became to “tone” muscle, as they say, while maintaining my “happy” weight.
I decided to set myself a calorie target and protein goal, just see what would happen. Honestly, I was also curious to see if I could even be successful tracking such things! It was just the challenge I needed to spice up my fitness routine. Sometimes you need to refocus to keep things interesting. I didn’t achieve exactly what I set out to do yet, much to my surprise, it was still a raging success.
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I didn’t achieve my goal of toning up and maintaining my weight. I ended up toning up and losing 10 pounds. 10 pounds I never planned on, or even dreamed of losing…gone. I didn’t set out to lose weight, but it definitely let the muscles I was working so hard for shine through!
I’ve been maintaining my new “happy” weight for nearly a year now. Through macros, I’m currently, slowly working toward building more muscle. If I gain a few pounds, so be it. There might technically be more weight on the scale, but I’ll be putting more “weight” on progress pictures, energy levels, and the quality of my lifts.
What’s Your Goal?
What’s your goal? If you don’t have one, you won’t succeed with macros. Sorry, not sorry. Moving forward without a goal will be a hot mess of second guessing and confusion causing your macro journey to come to an abrupt and bitter end. Give this serious consideration. What are you wanting to accomplish? Once you identify your goal you can then move forward.
Step 2: Calculate Calorie Target
I didn’t hire a coach for this, and relied on the good ol’ Internets to guide me. NOTHING could go wrong! Luckily, I must be a genius because everything went swell. It’s either I’m a genius or it’s just not that hard. Either way, I know you can do this, too. Here’s how I figured it out.
Use an Online Calorie Calculator and Be Honest
I visited @jamessmithpt ‘s website and plugged my info into his macro calculator. Whatever your goals and situation are, plug them in honestly. If you are moderately active, don’t say you’re sedentary. I know it’s tempting because being skinny and quick results are “better,” only they’re not. You’ll only set yourself up for failure.
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If you’re lying on the macro calculator you’re painting yourself into a corner. A lower-calorie-than-necessary, sad little corner. Your chances of adhering to your numbers decrease as you put more and more restrictions on yourself. That’ll get you nowhere fast.
Your Number Shouldn’t Make You Miserable
Your numbers should be attainable and, more or less, comfortable. It shouldn’t be a huge struggle to stay within your calorie limit. Sure, you’ll have days where you’d rather have another doughnut instead of veggies with light ranch. Honestly, that’s every day. I’d always rather have a doughnut. I mean c’mon. But, it’s a reasonable, doable request to make a healthier, more macro-friendly choice more times than not. Your macro goals should be reasonable and doable.
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Your Number Might Surprise You
When I first figured up my macros, I was terrified of my numbers! What right-minded woman wouldn’t be freaked out by the maintenance numbers I got from James Smith Academy!? As a 145 lb, 5’8”, 36 year old woman, the macro calculator told me I should be eating 2250 calories and 101g protein per day. Like, WUT. 2250! What am I, aspiring to be a sumo wrestler?? That number seemed outrageous. But, I was naive.
Diet Culture Mentality can be Hard to Overcome
I’d never been on a weight-maintenance journey. Most of my adult life was spent gaining or losing weight. I only “tried” when I felt it was time to lose a few pounds or had a trip/event coming up that warranted trimming down for. The rest of the time was spent eating whatever whenever, and nary seeing the inside of the gym. The extent of my tracking experience was calorie counting specifically for weight loss. And to me, “weight loss” always meant 1300 stupid calories/day. I tried 1500 once, but I plateaued. So back to trusty 1300 it was! Woof.
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2250 seemed cray-cray. Nearly 1,000 calories per day OVER than my “magic” weight loss number?? Surely that was weight gain material, not maintenance. I needed a second opinion. I went to @thoresenfitness ‘s website and used his calorie calculator. This one required me to Google my weight and height in kg and cm, because I’m ‘Merican. Depending on if I entered a sedentary job or an active job, along with hard training 3-6x/week, my suggested calorie intake was either the same or higher! 2236-2515! Whaaaaa? These numbers, and the prospect of gaining the weight I’d lost back, was scary, folks.
Take Leap of Faith…
There was no way in my mind 2,250 calories and beyond could possibly be maintenance numbers. At the same time, I knew I had to get out of my comfort zone. I took a leap of faith, and decided on a calorie target of 2,000. I couldn’t faith-leap all the way to 2,250+, because I was scared and naive at the time. 2,000 calories/day was where I was comfortable being uncomfortable. Even though I was convinced I would gain weight at 2,000, I reminded myself this number wasn’t set in stone.
…But Make a Judgement Call if You Have To
It’s ultimately up to you whether or not to go with the number the calculator(s) gives you. The results may seem high or low to your mind’s eye, depending on past experiences or societal influence. My advice is to at least aim for somewhere in the ballpark of the calculator. This can always be changed down the road based on how your body and mind respond (see Steps 5 and 6). A great way to track your progress is by using a planner – this one is great! – to keep your thoughts, feelings, and numbers in one convenient place!
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Step 3: Calculate Protein Goal
Next, I looked at what my protein goal should be. Calories and protein should be your two highest priorities. Giving adequate attention to these two numbers will be less overwhelming than looking at calories and all three macros. And you’ll get results. Win-win.
How Much Protein Should You Eat?
How much protein should you shoot for? The RDA (recommended daily allowance) of protein set by the USDA is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Let me save you some time on the Google, and tell you: that’s too low! Consider that the number to double…then add a lil more. Aim for between 0.73 to 1.0 grams of protein per POUND of bodyweight, per day.
For starters, just calculate the low end and the high end, and take the average of the two.
- 145 lbs x 0.73 grams = 106 grams protein / day
- 145 lbs x 1 grams = 145 grams protein / day
- Protein goal somewhere between 106 and 145 grams / day.
- (106 + 145) / 2 = 125 grams of protein / day
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PS. Need a delicious protein boost? My favorite protein bars when taking taste, price, and macros into consideration, are BUILT Bars. Discount code SQUATTO saves 10% on top of any sitewide sales, plus free shipping!
Step 4: Fill in the Rest
Now that you have your calories and protein targets, all that’s left is carbohydrates and fats. These figures are important to be aware of, but don’t force them or get discouraged if you’re not hitting these perfectly. Really, don’t get discouraged if you’re not hitting any of the numbers perfectly, because you’ll end up discouraged 100% of the time. Or at least 99.9% of the time. Macros follow the pirate’s code: they’re more like what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends a fat intake of 20-35% of your total daily calories.
- 1800 calories per day x 20% = 360 calories
- 1800 calories per day x 35% = 630 calories
- Each gram of fat contains 9 calories.
- 360 calories / 9 calories per fat gram = 40 grams of fat
- 630 calories / 9 calories per fat gram = 70 grams of fat
At a calorie target of 1800 calories, your fat intake range should be somewhere between 40-70 grams per day.
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The DGA recommends a carbohydrate intake of 45-65% of your total daily calories. Use the same method as the fat calculation above. Use 45% as the low end, 65% as the high end, and 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate.
- 1800 cal x 45% = 810 calories
- 1800 cal x 65% = 1170 calories
- Each gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories.
- 810 / 4 = 202
- 1170 / 4 = 292
At a calorie target of 1800 calories, your carbohydrate intake range should be somewhere between 202-292 grams per day. If your goal is fat loss, shoot for closer to the lower end. If your goal is muscle gain, aim higher.
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Here’s another good online calorie and macro calculator outlining these same steps.
As you can see above, these are some big ranges. You can dial them in a bit based on your protein goals determined above, with a little help from the internet. I’ve done the internet searches and reading for you, so simply read on.
Put it all together
Plug your calorie and all three macro targets into your food logging app. I use the free version of myfitnesspal.
How to Set Calorie and Macro Goals in MyFitnessPal
- Go to the main menu drop down and select Goals.
- Under Nutrition Goals, Select Calorie, Carbs, Protein, and Fat Goals.
- Click on the Calories row. You’ll be given the option to update your calorie goal.
- Click on any of the Macronutrients listed. You’ll be taken to a screen where you can update all 3 of the macros as percentages. This will change the amount of grams to fit your percentages, based on the calorie goal you set.
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Close Enough is Close Enough
Start by choosing the percentage that most closely aligns with your protein target. Then modify the others based on your fitness goal (ie. weight loss, muscle gain). Sometimes you won’t be able to set the number of grams to exactly what you want it to be because of the limitations of the percentages. That’s ok. Get as close to your target number as you can in the app, and just keep your actual target in mind on a daily basis. I also calorie cycle, and am unable to set different calorie goals for different days of the week in the free version of MFP. I just keep that info in my brain (and in my habit tracker goals for the month).
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For me, I find it easy to focus on the actual number of calories and protein grams I want, and loosely follow a percentage goal for carbs and fats. Close enough, that’s what I always say.
Step 5: Give it Time
Patience is a virtue. It’s also hard as f*ck, but ya know. Give your experiment time! That’s what this is – an experiment. You’ve got a hypothesis and predictions. Time to see what happens! Oh, and FYI, you’re the guinea pig. This will be fun!
Don’t Put All Your Weight On The Scale
Weight loss, muscle gain, and body composition change takes time. Pay attention to more than the scale. How do you feel? Are your clothes fitting differently? What are your energy levels like? Did your measurements change? Have you gotten stronger (ie. increased weights or more reps)? These considerations are important to be aware of and reflect on often.
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How Much Time?
Give it no less than 8 weeks, preferably 12. If you can honestly say you’ve adhered to your macros at least 80% of the time, and you haven’t noticed even the sliiiiiiightest, miniscule physical change, it might be time to revisit your numbers. If you can’t honestly say you’ve adhered to your macros at least 80% of the time, stay the course. Just dial it in and tighten it up.
Within the first 9 months of tracking macros, with the goal of weight-maintenance at a calorie target I was sure would cause weight gain, I’d lost 10 pounds. I saw the scale starting to drop fairly early on, but I was pleased with what I was seeing in the mirror, how my clothes were fitting, and how I was feeling. So I stayed the course. For over a year now, I have been maintaining my overall 30 pound weight loss. This by no means means my weight has been a steady, straight line for the past 11 months. Goodness no! Weight fluctuations happen, for any number of reasons, but I’ve been about where I am now a vast majority of the last year.
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The Exception to the 8-week Rule
The exception to the 8 week rule is if you happen to see changes in the direction opposite of the one in which you’re trying to go. Maybe you’re losing weight or gaining weight a little too quickly. Or maybe you’re too often feeling hungry, weak, bloated, or icky. If that’s the case, feel free to make some adjustments to increase your comfort level and chances of sticking to your macros. Once you find the right numbers for you, you will see, and feel, the results you’re looking for.
Step 6: Adjust as Necessary
I set my macros in July 2019 at 2000 calories/day, 250g carbs (50%), 125g protein (25%), and 56g fat (25%). These numbers may not have exactly done what I set out to do, seeing as I lost weight rather than maintained. However, they ended up being perfect for me. Honestly, my numbers aren’t all that different now, in March 2021. If I didn’t like the results I was seeing and feeling, I could have and would have adjusted them.
Seasons of life, injuries, and holidays have a way of humbling you over the course of a fitness journey. Things like vacation, illness, and hardship can affect how much effort you put into sticking to your numbers. Some months I have decreased my calories to 1900-1950/day to lose weight I gained in previous months due to injury, lack of motivation, or fun social events . Now I’m aiming for about 2075/day and 130g protein in an attempt to build more muscle. Goals evolve and situations change. Pivot and adjust if and when necessary.
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Make Tiny Changes at a Time
Increase or decrease your calories depending on your goals. Keep in mind that even slight changes in deficits or surplus can yield results given enough time. Don’t drastically change anything. Stair step your way up or down in calories, increase or decrease your macronutrients by a few grams here and there. Once you’ve made your adjustments, refer back to Step 5.
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Macros for the win!
I love macros. I ate one and a half Krispy Kreme doughnuts today. The whole one was a 360 calorie, cake batter kreme-filled one. It was amazing. And because of macros, I still managed to come out of today smelling like a fit lil rose. Flexible dieting, as macro-tracking is also referred to, has been a total game-changer! Instead of saying F it and eating the whole dozen, I enjoyed my doughnut completely guilt-free. I am going to bed proud, and with complete confidence in my choices.
Find me on Instagram!
Follow me on Instagram for more macro tips and tricks. Check out my daily food diary stories and highlights to see what I eat in a day to consistently hit my macros. My goal is to feel healthy, happy, and strong while partaking in doughnuts, pizza, and wine along the way!
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5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Fitness Journey