Since January 2017, I have been experimenting with using macro nutrients as a means of body re-composition (ie. cutting fat and building muscle) and in the process, I have moved down to a lighter strongWOman weight class/division. I started my macro journey at 211 lbs and I am currently sitting at 179.9 lbs. I have had invaluable guidance, but I have also done my own research and I have experienced how counting macros can work as a fat loss tool. Not only do I have experience with tracking macro nutrients, but I have used calorie counting as a weight loss and weight management tool off and on since 2008. In 2008, I lost over 100 pounds over a one-year time span. To say that I did it completely “right” would be hogwash, but I did my best with the information I could find. It was trial and error and persistence. I learned as I went. I made mistakes, had health issues, and over time I have recovered from them. My shift from calorie counting to now focusing on macros has benefited me in many ways. Primarily, focusing on macros has helped my mindset shift away from an “orthorexic” way of living. Macro counting has also helped me work through food morality - the idea that food is either “good” or “bad.”
Over the course of about 150 days, I have lost 20+ inches and more than 30 pounds. I have lost 5+ inches in my waist and also in my hips. I have done so eating well over 2,000 calories for most of that time, and I have not had cravings or felt weak, hungry, or struggled with mind fog. As a strength athlete, my lifts have remained the same OR increased over this time period. I have traveled, competed in strongman shows, and lived this life for nearly six months, and it has changed my mindset for the better. Read on to find out what this macro thing is all about, and how you can get started.
Disclaimer(s): I am NOT a nutritionist. I am NOT a dietician. I do NOT have a degree in sports or nutrition. This article/blog reflects my own personal anecdotal experiences and my experience in talking to others ONLY and should not substitute that which a certified individual may offer.
Lastly, let’s take a moment and also celebrate the fact that we are in a position in life where we have the time and ability to select the foods we eat in order to change our bodies. Not everyone is blessed with this much freedom and choice. <3
BMR & Calories - Things to Know
If you’ve dieted before, you’ve likely counted calories at one time or another. If you use apps like MyFitnessPal or other calorie counting apps, you’ve likely been given a number of calories that would achieve a desired number of pounds lost per week. The numbers given are likely based on a set formula for your Basal Metabolic Rate. Your Basal Metabolic Rate is a number of calories that your body requires to function. The formulas used to find your BMR are based on your age, gender, and current bodyweight. I especially love how iifym.com describes the idea of BMR:
Your basal metabolic rate is essentially the sum of all the energy your body uses each day to simply stay alive. Note this is not the number of calories needed to get you out of bed in the morning, to brush your teeth, or to cook the breakfast you’re eating.
This is simply the energy required to keep your heart beating, your lungs taking in oxygen, your brain functioning, and all the other everyday tasks your body does to maintain life. As the name suggest basal means fundamental. If you sat in bed all day long and didn’t move a muscle, this is how many calories you’d burn.
That being said, it’s generally not a good idea to eat at or under your BMR. Some doctors actually recommend a 1200 or lower calorie diet which will definitely provide extreme weight loss, but the problem with such a diet is the struggle that you will find when you stop losing weight or stall out. You can’t exactly reduce calories again. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Remember, I am only sharing my experiences. I can tell you that when I had lost 100 lbs, based on calories alone, I was eating 1400 calories and the struggle to binge was daily and it was strong. I was not properly feeding my body, and it showed in many ways both physiologically and psychologically.
A quick google search will bring up a few different BMR calculators and formulas. When calculating BMR, it’s important to remember it’s an estimate and there is more than one formula out there. If you use a different calculator or formula, you will get a varied result. It’s best to try a few and average your outcomes. Remember, this is a complete baseline and your actual calorie intake should most likely be substantially higher. As an example, my BMR is around 1500-1600 and I consume 1900-2300 daily.
You might wonder why, in an article about macros, I am focusing on calories so much. It’s simple, when it comes to weight loss, calories are truly the driving force. While nutrient timing is also important (we will get to that), the number of calories you consume is the determining factor as to whether or not you’re in a calorie deficit. You’ve probably heard of or seen the stories of folks eating nothing but burgers and junk food and still losing weight. That’s because the foods they consumed provided enough of a calorie deficit to lose weight - even with food that wasn’t abundantly nutritious.
If you want to eat for health and nutrition, micro nutrients (vitamins and minerals, amino acids, and trace elements) play an important role as well. That’s where eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can help, as well as watching things like saturated fat and processed foods. But as with all things, processed foods and even saturated fats have a time and place in our diets. All things can truly be consumed in moderation. :-) Keep in mind that body weight lost is not ONLY fat, but can include muscle as well, it’s important to think about the makeup of the calories that you consume in order to feed and fuel your body as well as the timing of particular macro nutrients.
Tracking macro nutrients still requires you to think a little bit about calories. You'll want your calorie total to fall in a range where you're fueled but still in a slight deficit. In order to figure out a good calorie number to fall at or below, you can look up your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) using an online calculator here. This will give you an idea of calories you need based on your BMR as well as an approximation for your specified level of activity. Again, this is an estimate. It gives you a general idea of a calorie number for weight maintenance.
Why Macro Nutrients?
Each food we consume contains both micro nutrients and macro nutrients. Macro nutrients consist of either proteins, carbohydrates, or fats. These macro nutrients determine the calories in the foods we eat. Fat provides 9 calories per gram and carbs and protein each provide 4 calories per gram. Varying your macro nutrient consumption can provide a more ideal outcome both in overall calorie consumption and in hormonal response as well as energy levels, depending on your goals.
You’ve heard of “low carb” or “high fat” diets, right? Those are forms of macro nutrient manipulation. While those ideas have helped many, they also somewhat vilify or nearly eliminate one nutrient in preference for another. Carbs aren’t “bad,” and fat isn’t “bad.” I’ve tried cutting carbs completely, I’ve tried ketogenic diets, I’ve tried a more paleo high-fat, high-protein approach. All have worked, in some ways. However, I always found myself wanting to go “off” plan, and in a big binge-worthy way. I have found that my mind and body prefer a well-rounded macro nutrient plan. I perform better when I consume a moderate amount of carbohydrates.
Before You Start
Get used to the idea that this will take time. Doing anything right can take much longer than using shortcuts. As such, losing weight is much like a science experiment. Your current situation is like the “control.” It’s good to know what your starting point is so that when you change variables, you can know how your body reacts to each individual variable. Changing too much too fast, and without knowledge of your starting point makes it messy and hard to track or adjust.
To start out, it’s good to know what you are currently eating and also your current weight trend. If you’re gaining weight, you may need to lower your calorie consumption a bit and/or increase your activity. I recommend logging the food that you would usually eat (WITHOUT ADJUSTING) in an easy to use app (MyFitnessPal is great) for a week or two in order to get a baseline number. You should do this during an uneventful time so that it’s a true look at an average week. Avoid vacation or holidays, etc. This will tell you in general, how many calories you’re consuming and what your macros look like currently. It’s also a good idea to watch your weight once per week to see what it’s doing.
Some things to look at for your starting point include, your average daily total of calories, and your average daily consumption of carbs, protein, and fat. Then, compare these numbers to your BMR and your TDEE (using the calculators above) to find out where your current caloric intake falls.
Now that you know your starting point, you’ve calculated your BMR and your TDEE, it’s time to pick a calorie target. You'll want to be within 200-300 of your calorie target each day. Keep that number in mind, it will be useful when you create your macro nutrient goals.
You can choose your macros based on a desired calorie number. Using macros as my main focus, I made sure that my calories fell within 100-500 calories of my average TDEE. My TDEE currently calculates between 2000-2800 depending on my activity levels. My current macros ensure that my calories fall between 1900-2300. This is 200-500 calories *under* my TDEE yet also *above* my BMR. I found the most success happened at calorie levels 200+ over my BMR and up to my max TDEE, I call that the “sweet spot” for fat loss.
Fat and protein are pretty much a constant on my daily macros, they don't change much from day to day. Fat and protein are based on need and/or bodyweight. Carbohydrates have been the variable that I have been able to increase or decrease based on my needs for that day, or my current weight loss trends.
In general, my daily fat consumption stays around the same number of 60-70 total grams. I keep it set at 65 grams so that if I fluctuate within my goal by +/- 5 grams I’m still at a good number. Our bodies need fat. My body loses weight when my fat is kept moderate. It’s not high, but it’s not low. I have eaten low fat in the past (25 grams or so), and that caused me many health issues. Keep fat in your diet, not only does it help you feel satiated, but it is good for digestion and brain function and helps with nutrient absorption (among many other things). Since fat has 9 calories per gram, keeping around 60-70g of fat contributes 540-630 of my daily calories.
When I started this journey in January, I weighed around 211 lbs. I started with my protein at 200 grams. In general, it is helpful to keep your protein number at or above your lean body mass (ie. what you’d weigh without fat taken into consideration). The more muscle you have, the more protein you may want to consume, and the opposite is also true. Protein can vary depending on your goals and how easily you can consume protein. Protein is a building block and contributes to muscle growth and hormones, among many other important bodily chemicals and functions.
I found it easy to consume 200 grams once I got used to the idea. I am currently sitting at 180 lbs body weight, and I am consuming 180 grams of protein per day. Again, this is what has worked for me. I have friends who consume 60-70% of their body weight in protein and have success as well. Just remember the rest of your calories need to come from carbohydrates. Since protein has 4 calories per gram, my protein consumption contributes about 720 calories towards my daily calorie intake.
Carbohydrates are the most easily sourced and most efficient source of energy for our bodily functions and for training. I have found greater success while eating carbohydrates, than on diets where I cut my carbs low or excluded them altogether. In January, I started with 250 carbohydrates on training days, and 200 on my rest days. I consumed the 50 extra carbs directly before my training sessions, and that made it easy to stay in a routine for what I was eating the rest of the day. At this point, I am consuming 200 carbs on my training days and 150 carbs on my rest days. Since carbs have 4 calories per gram, they contribute between 600-800 calories towards my daily calorie intake.
Consistency and Compliance
I have had several women reach out to me asking for help with their nutrition and curious about how I got started with macros. As I mentioned above, I had a lot of amazing guidance. But the guidance was also inclusive of some trial and error. We found a starting point, stuck to it for two weeks with complete compliance (within 5 grams of each macro goal), and tracked progress. The key is to be compliant and consistent long enough to track progress and to make adjustments.
As you progress, and notice trends, you should make adjustments as needed. Nothing is fixed. However, track data long enough to notice trends before you change anything and only change one variable (macro, activity, etc.) at a time.
If you notice that your body weight is not changing like you might desire, be sure you are taking measurements of your hips, waist, chest, arms and legs. If the scale isn't changing, sometimes your body will still be changing. Be sure you are sleeping and recovering enough, and that you are not over training. It's not always nutrition that gets in the way of success.
Refeeds can be used in the case of a weight loss stall, or if you run into a time period where you are lacking energy in training for a week or longer and can’t seem to find your mojo. A refeed can give you a boost (both mentally, and physically) and can help your body continue its path to fat loss. Refeeds are great for your cortisol and leptin levels and have other hormonal benefits.
I did a refeed about every 15-20 pounds, and before competitions. For me, a refeed meant that I kept my fat and protein at a constant level (my usual goals for the day) but I increased my carb goal by 200 grams. That meant I was consuming up to 350 or 400 grams of carbs in a day.
The best way to do a refeed is to start early and to consume extra carbs after each regular meal, or between meals. If you don’t space it out enough, you will end up with a lot of carbs left at night which may sound like a great idea -- but I assure you, that it is not.
On refeed days, I almost always try to double my water intake. This can ultimately help with digestion and with flushing out the extra sodium consumed on a refeed day.
Since January, I have consumed one gallon of water each day. If there is one thing you change after reading this, hopefully you increase your water consumption. It’s really easy to fill a gallon each morning, and to pour from it into a water bottle as the day progresses. This way, you can see how much more you need to drink. I pretty much only drink water, and drink diet drinks or energy drinks as needed sparingly. On hot days, or carb refeed days, I drink up to two gallons of water. It may sound like you’ll be going to the bathroom a lot, but your body does adjust pretty well.
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned that I exclude any specific foods from my food consumption. This is because I do not. I eat foods that nutritiously fuel my body, and also foods that some dogmatic fitness gurus would call "not food at all" because they have "no nutritional value." But even those foods have a place. I regularly use Pop Tarts as a pre-workout carb source, and I have an affinity for Reese's Cups so I do usually have one Reese's Cup each day. Processed indulgent foods do not have to be excluded completely. They can and should be integrated in a way that helps you fuel your body and also feel like you're not always going without. What good is a diet that you can't stick to because you constantly want to binge? There is no cheating in macro counting. You either fit it into your day, or you don't. If you can't fit it today, maybe you can tomorrow. If you go over today, no biggie. Get back on tomorrow. Real life is not rigid, success doesn't happen over night and neither does sabotage.
- 1. Figure out your BMR, and TDEE. This gives you a range to shoot for. Write it down.
- 2. Figure your starting weight, and current macro and calorie intake. Write it down.
- 3. Measure your body and take starting photos! You’ll want to track this. :-)
- 4. Choose an app or method to track your daily macronutrient consumption. MyFitnessPal is great and does allow you to look at your macros and to set goals based on macros.
- 5. Pick your starting numbers for Fat, Protein, and Carbs.
- 6. Fill your gallon jug. Prepare your food. (Food prep blog coming soon!)
- 7. Get busy eating, training, and tracking. Stick to the plan for TWO WEEKS.
- 8. After two weeks, take a look at weight and measurements. Pay attention to how your clothes feel. If your weight has stayed the same and/or you’ve gained, then think about the following:
- ---> Are you rested? Are you hydrated? Have you stuck with your goals consistently everyday within 5 grams? If the answer to any of these is no, continue for another week and re-evaluate.
- 9. If you’ve lost weight, continue another 2-4 weeks. Evaluate as you go, and repeat! You’ll need to adjust your carbs and protein numbers by about 10% every 20-25 lbs that you lose. But you can alternately increase your daily activity! I’ve recently added walking into my nightly routine.
One last IMPORTANT note about calories: Many people are under-eating in an incredible deficit and have been for a long time. If this is you, you will most likely need time to slowly increase what you’re eating to get yourself to a number substantially above your BMR. Do this slowly, and be aware that your body will go through an adjustment. That is normal and is the only way to get you to a desirable number of calories. For more information on this topic, you can do some online reading about “Reverse Dieting.” Reverse dieting can be done while focusing on macros as well, but you might desire to bump up slowly rather than all at once.
Questions? Feel free to hit me up! I can try to help you out, offer some accountability, or point you in a good direction for resources. Email: RaeannePemberton@belleofthebar.org or look me up on Instagram or Facebook.