How to Lose Weight and Eat the Foods You Love by Tracking Macronutrients
If you’re going to count calories, make sure you also count macros. Here’s a complete guide to making it work for you by getting your macronutrients right.
“That’s it, I quit.”
I don’t know how many times I have said this after following a diet for a few weeks. I started having issues with my weight after I moved to the USA back in 2009. I followed the advice from personal trainers, registered dietitians, and bro-science gurus. I also followed every popular diet you can think of. I even followed a few not-so-popular ones.
I finally applied scientific research to my weight loss problem, set up some new habits, and finally got fit again. In this article, I’ll share how I came around to this method and show you how to do it yourself.
My Initial Diet Experiments
The first diet I followed was the Paleo Diet. At the time, it was the most popular diet and everyone was swearing by it. All you had to do was to pick from a handful of food options, and you could eat as much as you wanted.
Of course, I took that literally. Initially, the high amount of protein and fat suppressed my appetite. I lost around 10 pounds in the first month of Paleo Diet. I felt like I had found the secret to life.
But cravings for desserts became unbearable about a month into my Paleo diet. I discovered paleo dessert cookbooks, with substitutions for the carbohydrates I craved. I started eating Stevia-sweetened almond flour cookies filled with butter. I ate half a jar of almond butter every day. I just couldn’t satisfy my cravings.
It didn’t take long for me to gain the 10 pounds back, with interest. How could it be possible? I thought carbs were the reason we gained weight. My carb intake was very low, but I was still gaining weight. Something was wrong.
The next diet I tried was the Atkins Diet. Millions of people couldn’t be wrong, right? However, the results were almost identical to the Paleo Diet. Initial weight loss, followed by a plateau, and finally irresistible cravings and hunger. Atkins Diet has its own solution for the cravings: Atkins-brand snacks. Since they were low in carbohydrates, I started eating those bars every time I felt like having some sweets.
The lost pounds came back again, and again with some extra. I repeated this cycle with South Beach Diet, Fasting Diet, and many other diets that involves restriction of certain foods or food groups.
When I decided to lose weight I was 200 pounds. At the end of all these diet attempts, my weight ended up quite a bit higher.
In September of 2017, I went to a doctor for my knee and injuries. I love playing soccer, but my knee bothered me every time I run or jump. I also tore my hamstring playing soccer.
In the doctor’s office, there is a routine check of height, weight, and blood pressure. When I stepped on the scale, the digital scale read 230 pounds! For someone my height (6’1”), that is considered obese!
So I decided to approach this problem scientifically. I have the education, experience, and resources to read any scientific study and analyze it, so I decided to apply that to my own health. I also enrolled in online nutrition and exercise science classes from reputable universities.
I spent the first 3 months of my weight loss journey learning how weight loss really works. I then applied the things I learned into my routine, one by one. By Christmas in December, I had lost 20 pounds. It was impressive, but it wasn’t perfect, and I made mistakes in the beginning.
At first, I just focused on eating healthy and added a cheat day every week. I weighed myself once a week, but on some weeks, I wouldn’t lose any weight. That made me frustrated, so I would starve myself for a few days until I reached my weekly goal weight. That gave me the right reading on the scale, but it left me miserable.
Then I learned that I didn’t have to do that at all. I could enjoy the foods I liked 7 days a week, a little differently, without the need for a cheat day.
My learning process continued during the first 4 months. I continued researching and learning everything I could, and when I learned something new, I would apply that to my diet.
Sometimes the information I got from two sources contradicted each other. In that case, I turned to scientific literature to find evidence to make a decision.
I also spent my Christmas break studying everything about fat loss and exercise. The new year was the perfect opportunity for me to finally reach the best shape of my life.
Starting My 12-Week Body Transformation
For the new year, I decided to go all in on transforming my body. I signed up for online body transformation challenges to help motivate myself. (If I was going to transform my body, I might as well win something.)
My secret weapon in this transformation became macro tracking. Macro tracking means tracking your food by total calories, and how they break down by protein, carbohydrates, and fats. I learned how to track these and set goals for myself for each.
Eating healthy might help you lose weight. Restricting your carbohydrate intake may also help you lose weight. However — whatever diet you choose — they all work by restricting calories. Studies such as from Sacks, et al., 2009 and from Hall, et al., 2016 show that restricting carbohydrates or fats doesn’t matter in terms of weight loss as long as you restrict your calories.
If restricting calories is the secret of weight loss, why not enjoy the foods you like occasionally while staying in your calorie limits? Consistency is the key to weight loss, and whatever diet you follow, it will only work if you can sustain it for a long time.
This was the key for me: restricting certain foods or macronutrients was not sustainable. The only way it would work for me was the freedom to eat the foods I like.
How to Calculate Target Macros
There are many different ways to calculate target macros (your calories, and portions of protein, fats, and carbohydrates that make up your food for the day). Depending on your goal, you first calculate how many calories you need to eat. After that, you can decide on a macro split based on your goals, lifestyle, and personal preference. There is no scientifically proven ideal macro split for everyone, but if your goal is to lose fat, you need to create a calorie deficit. The total calories you eat must be lower than your total daily energy (calorie) expenditure (TDEE).
In general, the higher the deficit, the faster you will lose fat. However, creating too much of a deficit puts you at risk of losing lean muscle tissue and slowing down your metabolism. It is also more difficult to maintain a large deficit for a long time.
On the other hand, if your deficit is too small, you won’t see results for a while and you may get discouraged.
There is an optimum calorie deficit somewhere in the middle that gives you results and is sustainable. For most people, a 20–30% deficit is the sweet spot.
How to Calculate Daily Calories
There are 2 different ways to calculate your target calories based on your current TDEE. Both are calculations for an average person, and everyone is different. Neither is 100% accurate.
Not only you are different from another person with the same measurements, but you also vary from day to day. Do you burn the exact same calories every single day? Do you move and exercise exactly the same way every day?
Keep in mind that we are calculating estimates based on averages, and you should only consider these numbers as a starting point. Once you start seeing results, you’ll find your target and can adjust along the way.
The quick and dirty method. Use this method if you don’t want to get into too much detail, and you’re just looking for a starting point.
In order to calculate your TDEE, you need to multiply your current weight in pounds with the multiplier.
The multiplier you use will be between 10 to 20. 10 is for a very inactive person who barely moves, and 20 would be for a professional athlete or someone who does heavy physical work.
For an average person who works out 3–4 times a week, and is active during the day, the multiplier is 15. You can pick your own multiplier based on your lifestyle.
For example, for a 200-pound person who works out 3–4 times a week, and has an active lifestyle, TDEE is 200 x 15 = 3,000 Calories. (If you only know your weight in kilograms, multiply it by 2.2 to convert to pounds.)
A more scientific calculation. Use this method to be more specific with your numbers, and if you don’t mind doing some math.
First, you need to calculate your BMR (basal metabolic rate). This is the number of calories you burn at rest. There are 2 main formulas in the research literature for calculating BMR:
BMR = (Lean Body Mass (kg) x 21.6) + 370Mifflin-St Jeor method for men:
BMR = 10 × weight (kg) + 6.25 × height (cm) - 5 × age (y) + 5Mifflin-St Jeor method for women:
BMR = 10 × weight (kg) + 6.25 × height (cm) - 5 × age (y) - 161
The Katch-McArdle formula requires you to know or calculate your lean body mass; you can estimate that with the calculators here.
Then you multiply your BMR with an activity level multiplier to find your TDEE. The activity multiplier is anywhere between 1 and 2: 1 being a person whose biggest activity is breathing, and 2 being a construction worker on cocaine. So 1.5 might be a good place to start.
To calculate your target daily calories: once you find your TDEE for your current weight, all you have to do is to create a 20–30% deficit. If your current TDEE is 3000 calories, then your target daily calories for weight loss will be based on a 25% deficit and calculated like this:
Target calories = 3000 - (3000 x 0.25)
In our example, that results in a target calories of 2250.
Calculating the Macro Split
Now that you know how many calories you are going to eat, you need to decide how much of each macronutrient (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) should be allocated to that total.
Protein: The first macronutrient you should calculate is the protein. Your protein needs are directly correlated to your mass because protein is not going to be used for energy. Instead, it is used for building and repairing lean mass. Therefore, instead of calculating protein intake as a percentage of your total calories, you should calculate it using your body weight. 1 gram of protein has 4 Calories, and a good number to aim for is around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
Fat: Unlike your protein intake, your fat intake should be calculated as a percentage of your total daily calories. 1 gram of fat has 9 Calories, and you can set your fat intake at 20–30% of your total calories.
Carbohydrate: Carbs are the macronutrient that fuels our body for our workouts. Eating too few carbohydrates may adversely affect your workout performance, especially high-intensity workouts such as heavy lifts or sprints. 1 gram of carbohydrate has 4 Calories, and after you calculate your protein and fat intake, the rest should come from carbohydrates.
For example, using the quick and dirty method, let’s calculate the macros for a 200-pound man who lifts weights 3x a week, has an office job, and takes occasional walks. He wants to lose fat.
Quick & Dirty method:
200lbs x 15 = 3,000 Calories — TDEE
3,000 x 0.25 = 750 Calories (25% calorie deficit)
3,000–750 = 2,250 CaloriesProtein = 200g for 200lbs: 200 x 4 = 800 CaloriesFat: 2,250 x 0.20 = 450 Calories: 450/9 = 50gCarbs: 2,250 — (800+450) = 1,000 Calories: 1,000/4 = 250g
This person would shoot for 2250 Calories daily, made up of:
- 200g protein
- 50g fat
- 250g carbohydrates
You want to get as close as possible to your target amounts, but there will naturally be a little variation day-to-day. Getting within 10% of your target for each of the three is great. As long as your week averages out, you’ll be fine. (There’s a lot more on how to actually do your meal planning below.)
Here is a table with my calories and how my weight changed during the 12 weeks. This shows my target calories per day each week, and how I adjusted that as my weight changed:
You may be wondering what kind of food I ate during this time. I honestly didn’t pay a lot of attention to food quality or other food rules. I ate the foods I liked, and made sure I stayed in my calorie limit by including high protein foods and vegetables. Here is a sample day of eating for me:
As you can see, I ate pancakes, potato chips, and fries. However, at the end of the day, I only consumed 2,131 Calories. Of course, I didn’t pick these foods randomly when it was time to eat. I planned ahead and made sure I would stay within my limits.
Now, you may think “Okay, you lost weight, but what about your general health? Doesn’t eating processed foods and carbohydrate rich foods negatively affect your health?”. To answer the question, I got my blood work done, and I have my blood work results from a year before to compare.
As you can see, all my blood markers including cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides have improved. The only marker that seems negatively affected was my glucose level. My glucose levels on these days were 82mg/dL to 92mg/dL, but 92mg/dL is still in the healthy range. When I brought this up to my doctor’s attention, she assured me that there was nothing to worry about with my glucose levels, and it tends to fluctuate from day to day.
How to Plan Your Meals
Naturally, meal planning is a skill you’ll need to develop to make it easier for you to hit your targets. Here is a step-by-step guide I used to plan my meals. You can use smartphone apps such as MyFitnessPal, or you can look up macronutrient contents of food from references like the USDA web site.
Step 1: Decide how many meals you want to eat.
I personally decided to eat 6 times. Breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, post-workout snack, and late night snack. This is a personal decision, and it’s not worth to spend too much thought on. You may or may not want to eat breakfast. You may try intermittent fasting. Don’t worry you won’t get into starvation mode when you skip breakfast. Your snack times may be different than mine. Maybe you don’t want to snack and use those calories to eat a bigger dinner instead. This is completely up to you, and your primary concern deciding this should be what fits your lifestyle.
Step 2: Pick a protein source for each meal.
Eggs are excellent for breakfast. Lean chicken or turkey are great choices for a light lunch. Seafood such as salmon provides an ample amount of protein, along with healthy fats. For snacks, you can choose greek yogurt or low fat cottage cheese. Whey protein shakes are great for post-workout recovery.
You already have a protein target, so try to get to that target by including high-protein foods with each meal. If you can’t reach your target from lean protein sources, that’s okay. You can get more protein from other foods such as whole grains and legumes.
Step 3: Add your “bad food”.
Let’s be honest, you crave certain foods you think you are not supposed to have in your weight loss diet. However, you can still enjoy the foods you like in moderation. Once you picked your protein sources, now it’s time to include that little something-something.
You need to be smart about this. Remember, highly processed foods that are high in fat and sugar won’t fill you up. Make sure whatever you choose, it is worth it. In my own experience, the calories from the highly processed foods shouldn’t exceed 20% of your total calories.
Step 4: Pick your carbohydrate and fat sources.
Now you can calculate how many grams of carbohydrate and fat allowance you have left based on your calculations described above.
You can include fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes as side dishes to your meals. Remember, keeping your vegetable and fiber intake high will keep you full for longer.
If you decide to exchange carbohydrates for fats, remember the number 2.25. For every gram of fat, you add or remove 2.25 grams of carbohydrate to make sure you stay within your calorie target. For example, if you decided to add higher-fat foods in your meal and you went over 20 grams of fat from your initial target, you can remove 45 grams of carbohydrates to match the calories.
If you are going to accurately track your macros, you need to get into the habit of measuring your food. It may sound like a lot of work, but once you get used to it, it’s actually pretty simple.
If you have never measured your food before, prepare to be shocked by how much food you were actually eating before.
In order to measure your food, you need a kitchen scale. It is an inexpensive piece of instrument, and you don’t need anything fancy.
You want to measure your food by the gram. Measurements such as tablespoon or cup are wildly inaccurate. You will notice that once you actually start weighing your food.
The numbers on the nutritional fact label are calculated based on grams, but usually, they give serving size as cups or tablespoons.
How to Use a Kitchen Scale
Kitchen scales have a tare or zero function to let you weigh food in containers. There are 2 simple ways to use a kitchen scale:
- If you are adding something onto a plate or bowl such as rice, vegetables or steak, put the plate on the scale, tare the scale, then place the item on the plate and record the weight. If you want to add another item to the same plate, just tare the scale again and add it to the plate.
- If you are removing something from a container such as peanut butter or mayonnaise, remove the cap of the container, place the container on the scale, tare the scale, and using a spoon or knife remove the contents. The number on the scale will go to negative. Ignore the negative, and the number you see is the amount you removed. Now you can lick the spoon!
Potential Issues and How to Solve Them
In a perfect world, we could measure every food we eat and accurately track all the calories, and meet our macro goals every single day. However, we are not living in a perfect world, and that’s okay.
How to Track When You Eat Out
So, you decided to go out to a restaurant. Maybe it’s date night, maybe you are socializing with your friends, or you are out of town, and cooking is not an option. Or perhaps you only eat in restaurants.
This is not an excuse to overeat or stop tracking your macros. So, what do you do?
First of all, if you know the restaurant in advance, try to look up their menu online. Most restaurants nowadays post their menu and nutritional information online. Also, macro tracking apps such as MyFitnessPal have nutritional information on a lot of restaurants. This way you can pick the meal that fits your macros ahead of time.
When you look up nutritional information this way, pay attention to the serving size. Sometimes the nutritional information given for one order is listed as 2 servings (even though the restaurant doesn’t really expect you to split it).
What if the menu or nutritional information is not available online, or you didn’t have the opportunity to look up that information in advance?
Here are 4 tips to make sure you stay on track:
- Skip the bread and the appetizers: Most restaurants bring you bread or chips for you to snack on as soon as you sit down. The purpose of this is to keep you distracted, so you are not bothered by the wait. The server also tries to get you to order some appetizers before your food. Pre-meal snacks such as bread and butter or appetizers have almost as many calories as the meal itself, so say no to bread, and say no to the appetizers.
- Ask for dressing on the side: You may decide to order a salad to keep your calories low. However, most restaurants fill their salads with fat and sugar-heavy dressings to make it enjoyable for their customers. Dressing on the salad has more calories than the salad itself. To avoid the unwanted calories, ask for the dressing on the side. This way you can control how much dressing goes into the salad.
- Ask for a to-go box when you place the order: Restaurant portions, especially in the United States, are huge. They are usually plenty for two people. As soon as you order your food, ask for a to-go box. Separate half of your food before you take your first bite. You can also share your entree and save money on the restaurant bill.
- Skip the red meat: Restaurants stay in business by making their foods tasty, not healthy. A chef once told me that the trick to making meat taste good is the fat. The more fat content the meat has, the better it tastes. So, they most likely use at least 30% ground beef, and sometimes even add more fat to in the cooking process. They also use the fattiest part of the steak and cook it in butter. Instead, opt for chicken or fish for your protein. You can also ask how they cook it. If you have the option, chose grilled.
So you ordered your food, you separated half of it or shared with someone, and enjoyed it. How do you track it if the restaurant doesn’t post their nutritional information?
Your first option is to look up something similar. Simple items like a chicken sandwich or tuna salad have similar macros to what you find online. You can also estimate your macros.
A piece of protein such as chicken, steak or fish that’s the size of your palm has about 20–30g of protein (depending on your palm size; or think of it as about the size of a deck of playing cards).
Your cupped hand full of carbs, such as cooked rice or pasta, has about 20–30g of carbohydrates.
A fist-size helping of cooked vegetables has about 10g of carbs.
If you control your fat intake by asking for oil on the side, your thumb size of oil or butter is about one tablespoon or about 15g of fat.
You should also look up the fat content of your protein to fine-tune your estimate. Your chicken will probably have 4–5g of fat for every 20g of protein, whereas your red meat can have 10–30g of fat for every 20g of protein.
Try to estimate your macros as best as you can, but you don’t need to get OCD about it. Small errors on your estimations are always fine, and you should focus on enjoying your time rather than stressing about the macro content of your food.
How to Deal With Slip-Ups
Nobody is perfect, and we all blow up our macro targets from time to time. Sometimes you go out to a restaurant for a celebration, and other times you just cave into the temptation.
Life happens, and we can’t always control everything. So how do you deal with occasional slip-ups?
The important word here is occasional. If this happens all the time, maybe losing weight is not the priority in your life right now. You should work on whatever it is that’s stopping you from committing to it, and try again when you are ready to make it a priority.
If you have a planned social event that you know you are going to be surrounded by tempting food or you have no other option available, you can prepare for it.
Leading up to the event, focus on eating foods higher in protein and fiber, and lower in calories. Also, make sure you drink plenty of water, and you are well hydrated before the event.
Some people try to save their calories for the event by fasting. It may work for some people, but there are risks. Unless you are used to intermittent fasting, saving your calories might make you eat more than you would normally eat.
I find it better to get enough protein and fiber throughout the day, and eat a regular amount of food at the event, rather than saving calories and getting all those calories from highly processed, calorically dense foods.
Schedule a heavy workout, preferably a leg workout, as close to the event as possible. Doing a heavy workout will do three things:
- It will empty your glycogen stores, so the carbs you eat will primarily be used to refill the glycogen stores before being stored as fat.
- Your muscles will be highly insulin sensitive, so the when the big meal you eat causes a spike in insulin, your muscles will readily use the glucose, and there won’t be much insulin floating in your bloodstream to store the glucose in fat tissues.
- Heavy weight training will burn a lot of calories, you will have a better chance of staying in a calorie deficit or at least not being in too much calorie surplus.
What if it was unexpected, and you didn’t have a chance to prepare for it? Maybe your co-workers decide to go to happy hour after work, or you had a stressful day and just picked up a pizza on your way home?
First of all, try to avoid it as much as possible. Tell yourself this: “it’s going to taste good for 10 minutes, and it will not make me happier”.
Sometimes, when I feel the urge to eat something I am not supposed to, I play tricks with myself. I say, “Ok, I will eat a chicken salad first, and if I still want to eat that pizza afterward, I will not stop myself,” 9 times out of 10, after eating the chicken salad, I don’t even want the pizza anymore. When you are actually hungry, you have very little control over your cravings.
If you still blew your macros, no matter how hard you tried to avoid it, don’t beat yourself up about it. One meal is not going to ruin your progress. The worst thing you can do is to think you just ruined everything, so you might as well go all out.
Last Christmas, my wife and I decided to drive from Phoenix to Seattle. Somewhere in Idaho, we got caught in the snow storm in the middle of the night, and we had to stop and wait for it to pass until the morning.
That meant we were going to get there 4 hours later than we expected. We didn’t say, “oh what the heck, let’s just go back to Phoenix, and start over.” We also didn’t try to make up the time by going super fast, once we started driving.
Think of the progress you are making with your eating plan in the same way. Accept whatever happened, and don’t try to make it up the next day by starving yourself. You can lower your calories just a little bit over the course of a few days if you want. But more importantly: make sure these slips are only occasional.
Remember, you will rarely if ever, get your macros perfectly. Just make sure you reach your calorie goal and be in the 10% of your each of your macros.
If calorie counting still seems like a hassle to you at first, just give it a couple weeks. Use the tips and tricks you learned from this article and try it for a few. weeks. You will be shocked how easy and effective calorie counting is, and how naturally it can fit into your daily routine.
When you realize you can actually eat that slice of pizza or a cup of your favorite ice cream, and still reach your fat loss goals, your perspective will change. You will stop feeling guilty about eating your favorite foods and enjoy the freedom of your diet.
People who knew I was losing weight have asked me many times, “are you supposed to be eating that?” Yes! I can eat this delicious mac n’ cheese because I planned for it. I know I can enjoy this ice cream guilt free, and still reach my fat loss goals.
Fat loss happens slowly and in order to reach your goals, you need to find a sustainable solution. I don’t know about you, but I can sustain eating the foods I like for a long time.