Morgan Clair, MS, RDN
"A great resource for women and moms for counting macros and wanting to cut fat plus build muscle"
Losing fat but gaining muscle at the same time; is this possible? Sounds a little too good to be true, but it’s not! This concept is referred to as body recomposition and it’s very much possible for females to achieve this.
In order to achieve the aesthetic goals we desire, we need to first understand how body recomp works and then what you can do to put it into action when it comes to your nutrition.
It all starts with a basic understanding of weight loss, which is having a higher daily energy output then energy input. In simplistic terms: calories in < calories out. BUT, there’s more to it than that. We need to understand calories, macros (macronutrients), and how each of the 3 macro groups play a role in our body composition. CGM tracking, like what you get with NutriSense, provides in-depth and personalized macro ratios to make things more targeted.
So let’s dig in and help you gain an understanding of how to understand macros for fat loss and muscle gain for females.
Why Do Women Want to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty stuff, I want to touch on why, as women, we’d like to lose fat but also gain muscle at the same time.
Here’s the deal, muscle tissue has a smooth, compact look and feel. Muscle is what gives our body shape, those coveted curves that we see and desire. Fat, on the other hand, tends to be a little lumpier, bumpier, and doesn’t provide us with much shape, at least not the kind that we want.
Plus, muscle is so much healthier on our bodies than excess fat. Of course, we all need to maintain a certain amount of fat in order for our body’s to function optimally, but too much can cause a whole slew of unwanted health conditions like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and more. Increased muscle tissue, on the other hand, can help us to build stronger muscles, bones, and aid in the aging process.
Also, muscle generally burns more calories than fat does just by existing. People with higher muscle mass naturally burn more calories throughout the day. Extra fat has been shown to secrete certain hormones that contribute to more fat buildup and an increase in appetite.
The desire to lose fat and gain muscle should be about so much more than just aesthetic goals (while it’s definitely OK to have those!), it should also be about your health, wellness, and longevity, too.
How to Calculate Macros for Gaining Muscle and Losing Fat
To get started with personalized macros for body recomp, you first need to understand a bit about macronutrients and how they affect the body.
Calories are composed of 3 main types of macronutrients known as carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Protein is going to be your best friend when it comes to body recomp. To prevent muscle loss, it is important to consume enough protein to replenish and refuel the muscles after a workout. In addition to preventing muscle loss, a high protein intake can help increase satiety (fullness) which can help with weight loss. With adequate protein, you’ll be fuller longer, and less likely to be snacking throughout the day which leads to less calories consumed.
Everyone will have different macronutrient needs that will depend on a number of factors. Many people who wish to follow a macro diet will use an app like My Fitness Pal or the 1st Phorm App (my personal favorite) to keep track of your daily calorie/macro intake. These apps take a number of factors into account when giving you feedback like your daily activity, age, average steps per day, etc.
Weight loss programs can also be helpful. For example, we compared weight watchers vs macros tracking to see which was better for weight loss and it all comes down to how much work you want to put into it. For the DIY'ers out there, let's take a look at a common equation of tracking macros.
Common Macros Equation
If you want to go ahead and get started calculating your macros on your own, one commonly used equation by registered dietitians like myself to determine daily caloric intake is called the Mifflin-St. Jeor which determines your resting metabolic rate (RMR). This equation tends to be a little more accurate than most general apps. In general, using this equation is only useful for healthy adults, though.
Once you have this information, you will then understand how many calories are needed for the body to function at rest (such as for the blood to circulate, heart to pump, lungs to breathe in air, etc.).
Next, we multiply by the activity factor based on your daily activity level. This varies from sedentary to very active. Here’s what the equation looks like:
Mifflin-St. Jour Equation (for Women)
Women: RMR = (9.99 X weight) + (6.25 X height) – (4.92 X age) – 161
Equations use weight in kilograms and height in centimeters.
When determining how much of each macronutrient you need a day, this will be a percentage of your daily caloric goals. In general, you should aim for 45-65% of your daily calories to be made up of carbs with 10-35% being protein and 20-25% being fat.
That being said, some people might find playing around with their macro percentages to be helpful if they aren’t seeing any progress. For example, someone who has a 60% carb diet might see some more body changes with something closer to 45% carbs, but the percentages usually vary depending on the person and their individual factors like activity type and health, etc.
The final piece of the puzzle is to know how many calories of each macronutrient make up a gram. There are 9 calories in 1 gram of fat (9calories/gram) and then both carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories in 1 gram.
Example Calculation: 2,000 calorie diet with 50% being carbs, 30% protein, 20% fat
2000 calories (50% carbs) = 1000 calories of carbs.
1000 calories (1 gram of carb / 4 calories) = 250g of carbs
2000 calories (30% protein) = 600 calories of protein
600 calories (1 gram of protein / 4 calories) = 150g protein
2000 calories (20% fat) = 400 calories of fat
400 calories (1 gram of fat / 9 calories) = 44g fat
Measuring Muscle Gain and Fat Loss Progress: Tips and Tricks
When you’re in a body recomp phase, tracking your muscle gain and fat loss can be a little tricky because you might not lose any weight on the scale, or (GASP), you might even gain some weight. Don’t panic, though. It’s very common to see the scale go up in a body recomp phase, but what you see in the mirror will be improving.
You see, pound for pound, muscle and fat weight the same (a pound of muscle = a pound of fat). However, muscle is much denser and smaller in size when compared to fat. So, a pound of fat on your body looks vastly different than a pound of muscle. This is why it’s vital to have a solid plan for measuring your progress.
Tips for Measuring Progress
Here are my tips and tricks of the trade:
1. Take progress photos
This might just be the most underrated form of body composition measurement out there. As un-exciting as it might be to stand in front of the camera and snap your before pictures, I promise you that you will wish you had. Tracking your progress through pictures will tell you so much more than the scale.
Tips for success:
- Take the photos wearing the same or similar clothing in each shot.
- Use multiple angles i.e. front, back, side.
- Don’t flex, keep it natural.
- Make sure your lighting is good.
- Take new photos every week or two consistently.
2. Take measurements
Aside from taking progress pics, measurements are another great way to track your progress without relying on the scale to paint the full picture. Grab a measuring tape and measure common places like your neck, bust, waist, hips, thighs, calves, etc. Keep track of them closely and repeat every 2-3 weeks to check progress. If your measurements are going down, you can feel confident that you are making progress towards your goals.
3. Do the clothing test
Is there any better feeling than that of slipping into a pair of jeans that used to be tight easily? Seriously, it’s one of the most gratifying feelings, and it’s something that you should be paying attention to. Are your tops looser? Pants less snug? You’re making progress!
4. Track everything
If you aren’t properly tracking everything that you eat, even those bites, licks, and tastes, you won’t truly know how much you’re eating. Precise tracking will help you reach your body recomp goals quicker and more efficiently. The best way to do this is to pre-log your meals for the day. Should you end up going off the plan, still log it! That way you have an understanding of how much of each macronutrient you ate and how it affected your body (biofeedback).
We recommend tracking everything through the 1st Phorm app - download free here. Or, you can use other apps, like weight watchers reimagined or myfitnesspal.
Speaking of biofeedback, this is another great tool for measuring your success on your body recomp journey. How are you feeling physically? Are you sleeping well? Is your menstrual cycle normal? Are you experiencing any new symptoms? Take a hard look at how you’re feeling, and if it’s less than your best, consider adjusting your macros to improve your biofeedback. If you’re seeing results but feeling like crap, that’s not really a win. Make the proper adjustments to keep moving forward!
The biggest key to tracking your body recomp goals is to make sure that you aren’t just relying on one form of measurement. Yes, it’s nice to weigh in on the scale every once in a while to make sure that you’re staying on track there and not seeing any drastic changes up or down. But using these other tracking methods will also help you to notice the changes that your body is making by focusing on hitting your macros every day.
Common Mistakes and Challenges You May Encounter on Your Journey
It is normal to “fall off the wagon” from time to time during your body transformation journey. As women, we can’t be expected to be “ON” all the time. Life happens!
Whether you have a family gathering where only unhealthy food is offered, or it’s the holidays and things get a little out of control just as you begin to really start to see progress with your body recomposition goals, there will always be something that threatens to take you off course. The main takeaway here is that these setbacks are normal and expected - we’re human!
What is important is to make sure you do not give up and keep moving forward. Don’t let one day of going way over your macros or skipping a workout turn into a whole week, month, or year. So you had an off day or two, no biggie, hop right back on the wagon and start again the next day!
If you know that a challenge is coming in the future (family reunion, holidays, vacation, etc.) the best way to tackle that event is to have a plan. You know the saying, when you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Tips for Macro Tracking and Staying On Track
Here are a few of my best tips for staying on track and dodging the common challenges of body recomposition and macro tracking:
1. Plan for movement
Obviously, part of your energy expenditure should come in the form of exercise. So make a plan and stick with it, even if some days look a little different than others.
Know when it may be a good time to exercise or how you can get in some physical activity both during your normal schedule and on vacation days. For the days when you’re out of town or your schedule is thrown off, you can still find some time to fit things in. Here are a few questions to ask as you start to plan:
Is there time for a morning jog? Does the hotel offer a gym? Would the family be interested in a walk together?
2. Focus on healthy food options
An area to really focus on is healthy food options. Try to look up the menu ahead of time to determine if there is a healthier meal option. Are there leaner food options at the family reunion to choose from? How can you make what’s available fit your macros? Remember to prioritize protein and go from there!
3. Keep it simple
Another common mistake that people make when deciding to gain muscle and lose fat is to try to make too many changes at once/overcomplicate the process. It is common to hear about people trying to exercise every day and completely change their daily diet.
The problem with these drastic changes is that they do not allow enough time for sustainable changes to be made. This can result in one (exercise or diet) goal being put on the back burner to be able to do the other. Or, you might feel overwhelmed by this drastic change and think that it is something they will never be able to complete and end up giving up.
4. Set smaller goals at first
On the other hand, some people will set impractical goals. You may want to go to the gym for 1-2 hours every day. While you may maintain this for a week or so, it is common to hit a “burnout” from this impractical goal. A better way to handle this would be to set a small goal that is achievable that can lead one to reach their larger goals.
For example, if you did want to exercise every day, it would be a better idea to set a goal of exercising a few days a week. Once you achieve that small goal for a few weeks, increase the number slowly and make sure it is reached each time. This sets the stage for sustainable weight loss and muscle growth without the risk of falling off the wagon in the process.
FAQs RE: Losing Fat & Building Muscle
If I had a dollar for every woman who thought lifting weights would make them bulky, I’d have a lot of dollars. I used to think this way, too, by the way, so no shame! Yes, women can lift weights without getting big and bulky. With proper diet adherence and macro-tracking, you can put on muscle that fits your body and your goals. Women who are bodybuilders work incredibly hard and go to extreme lengths to achieve those muscles. In general, women do not have the genetic makeup to achieve this look anyway. So pick up some weights, sister! This is only going to help amplify your body recomp goals.
Whatever exercise that you can adhere to. Seriously, it’s that simple. Cardio for weight loss is effective for fat loss, however, it’s not conducive to serious muscle building. If you like running , spinning, or HIIT-style workouts, make sure that you are also incorporating some form of strength training into your routine as well. Most women are surprised by how much fat they can lose by just tracking and following their macros and strength training, no additional cardio is necessary for many when in a body recomposition phase. That said, if you have a lot of weight to lose, adding in cardio can be an effective way to speed up the fat loss process.
You can join our FHM+ membership where we have macro-friendly recipes and simple workouts!
Healthy fats like those found in avocados, salmon, almonds, eggs, etc should be an important part of your daily diet. These healthy fat sources contain things like omega-3 fatty acids that support heart health and the brain. Keep in mind, in order to lose weight you will still be mindful of eating less calories than you are burning each day. As women, we need a certain amount of healthy fat in our diets to help support our menstrual cycle. If you need to cut some calories in order to stay in a deficit, I recommend taking a look at your carbs to see if you can decrease them instead of slashing your fat intake. That said, we all respond differently to carbs and fats, and sometimes it takes some playing around with your macros to see where you feel your best.
Also, keep in mind that Since fat has so many calories, it can be easy to overdo it with even healthy fats for many people. While avocados are definitely a healthy source of fat, (and fiber!), a whole avocado contributes a lot of calories, so I advise you to be very aware of portion size!
The answer to this question is going to be highly dependent on the individual woman and her needs, preferences, and goals. The great news is that the amount of calories you can eat in a day is likely higher than you think. Most women can effectively lose weight and build muscle with anywhere from 1600 to 2200 calories per day.
There are many online calculators that can help determine what number is best for you. These calculators facor in variables such as age, sex, weight, height, goal weight, activity level, and more. Once you have your daily caloric goal, it is important to focus on getting enough sources of protein, limiting refined carbohydrates (junk carbs) and consuming healthy fats as a general rule of thumb. By doing this you will be able to lose unwanted fat and gain some muscle at the same time, assuming you are strength training as well.
Yes, it is possible to do both at the same time. The catch is that you might not see the transition and compositional changes reflected back on the scale, however, using the other forms of measurements like progress pics and body measurements will paint a great picture for you. Often, women who are losing fat and gaining muscle will see the scale go up a bit, but their bodies will look drastically different. They will look smaller, more “toned”, and their clothing will fit better.
Yes, macro counting absolutely works for changing your body composition by losing fat and gaining muscle. Counting your daily macronutrients can be beneficial in determining if you are hitting your daily nutritional goals. It helps identify which foods may be more “empty calories” versus nutrient-dense options. This can lead to trying new healthier food options and consuming less of the unhealthy meals. Plus, a prioritization of protein can help you to build and maintain the muscle tissue that you desire.
It also shows areas for improvement, assuming that you’re 100% honest and accurate in your tracking. If you log everything you eat and drink during the day, you are able to see a broad view of what nutrients you obtained from your food. Then, you can take a step back and analyze your nutrition: Are you eating enough protein? Do you need to cut back on your carb intake? How do you feel when eating within your current macros? Is your energy level good? Sleeping well?
It can also provide you with knowledge of what you have already consumed if you want to squeeze in that occasional delicious dessert. For example, maybe you are out with friends for dinner and they want to split a dessert or bottle of wine. By logging what you have consumed, you can see how many calories you have remaining for the day. This can help you stay on track with your weight loss goal. Macros are so flexible and allow you to eat what you want, generally without restriction. There’s always room for dessert so long as you factor it into your daily macros.
Of course, counting macros is not for everyone. Some find themselves obsessed with the number either on the scale or on the food log. They become so consumed with tracking obsessively that they let it overwhelm their life. If you are the type of person that is too consumed with the numbers or get discouraged by an occasional “off day” this may not be for you.
See how long it takes to see results from counting macros from our registered dietitian, Lindsey!
Conclusion: Should You Focus on Macros for Body Recomposition Goals?
Yes, if you are looking to recomp your body, you should absolutely give macro tracking a try. Losing fat and gaining muscle as a female is not always a straightforward task, it takes having an understanding of what your body needs in order to accomplish your goals. When it comes to nutrition, macros will help you get there.
By setting specific , goal-oriented macro numbers and then sticking to them, you can rest assured that your body will get the protein it needs to build and maintain lean muscle mass while also packing in enough carbs and fats to keep your body full of energy and fueled for your strength training workouts.
While it’s certainly true that the equation for fat loss is calories in < calories out, if you also want to emphasize adding muscle and recomping your body, you must make sure that the calories you’re consuming are conducive to your goals aka, get that protein in, ladies!
I hope this resource has helped you to gain a better understanding of how to lose fat and gain muscle as a female. As a Registered Dietitian, I am always advising my female clients on how they can optimize their fat loss and muscle gain goals by using a macro-tracking approach to nutrition. I myself, along with countless of my clients can attest to the fact that macros work for body recomposition.
If you’re ready to get started with macros and want a good place to start, try the 1st Phorm app or MyFitnessPal. You’ll be able to input your information and the app will do the work to set your macros for you. From there, tracking your meals is easy and sustainable. Plus, you can get access to an online coach inside the app and they will help you optimize your nutrition, provide tips, tricks, and encouragement, and help you reach your goals!