What Do I Do With Foods That Don’t Easily Fit My Macros?

Reviewed by Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD

Not all foods fit into neat macro categories.

Meeting your macro goals can seem simple on paper or on an orderly spreadsheet, but in real life, it can sometimes feel more like a child’s finger painting.

Finding foods that align perfectly with your macro targets can be challenging, making the task of accurately tracking your intake feel impossible.

While there are many apps that can help you track the nutritional breakdown of each food you eat, using an app doesn’t work for everyone.

For those trying to track macros without the assistance of an app in your back pocket, you might have questions about how exactly some foods fit into different macro categories.

Luckily, there are multiple strategies available to help.

In this post, we’ll go over methods and solutions for accommodating foods that don’t naturally fit into a single macro category—from individual foods like beans (which contain both protein and carbs) to dishes like soup or stew (that might contain a mix of macronutrients).

A brief review of the macro categories: Carbs, protein, and fat

Before we start exploring foods that don’t easily fit into ‌traditional macro categories, let’s take a minute to get a solid understanding of macro basics.

Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are the three macronutrients that our bodies need in large amounts. They provide us with energy, help build and repair tissues, and protect our organs.

  • Carbohydrates are our body’s main source of energy. They’re found in foods like bread, pasta, rice, fruits, beans, and starchy vegetables. Carbs are broken down into glucose and used by our cells as fuel.
  • Protein is essential for building and repairing tissues. It’s found in foods like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, soy, and beans. It’s made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.
  • Fat is a concentrated source of energy and nourishes our brain and cell membranes. It’s found in foods like oils, nuts, seeds, and avocados. Fats also help absorb vitamins, and play a role in hormone production.

Of course, there’s a lot more to macronutrients than this summary above.

Macro-based diets are designed to meet daily targets for these three macros—often through measuring/weighing foods and calculating their corresponding macros.

Weighing food on a scale using grams provides the most accurate way to account for macros, though measuring cups and spoons work too.

However, for those who want to track macros without the hassle of weighing and measuring your food, our Hand Portion Method is highly effective.

A brief overview of the Hand Portion Method

Precision Nutrition’s Hand Portion Method offers a solution to the inconvenience of tracking your macros, allowing you to manage your food intake without weighing, measuring, or counting calories.

The method is simple: Estimate portion sizes with your hands.

Your hand serves as a reliable gauge for portion sizes because the size of your hand remains constant, ensuring consistency when portioning meals.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • The size of your palm represents your protein portion
  • The size of your clenched fist represents your vegetable portion
  • The amount that can fit in your cupped hand represents your carb portion
  • The size of your thumb represents your fat portion

Once you have an idea of how much each portion looks like, you can aim to meet your personalized recommended number of macros daily—in a practical, sustainable way.

The only wrinkle with tracking methods like the hand portion method is that for some foods, it can be hard to figure out which category they fit into. We’ll discuss solutions below.

Macro organizing category guide: Some foods don’t fit perfectly

Food is complex (beans have both carbs and proteins; nuts have both fats and proteins). And, measuring can be complicated (soda can’t follow the cupped hand rule). Yet, if you’re trying to meet your macro goals, what you eat still needs to be accounted for.

We’ll cover some of the most common, tricky-to-categorize foods and provide recommendations for how to account for them.

The key for all of these foods is to pick an approach, and apply it consistently. (This is probably more important than the actual classification itself!)

Tricky macro #1: Legumes (beans and lentils)

Legumes and lentils both contain protein and carbs—so where should they be counted?

Generally, it depends on the meal itself and/or the eating style of the individual.

If someone is fully plant-based/vegan, then it’s likely the legumes or lentils will count as their protein source, since those are probably the most protein-dense foods they’re consuming. But they can also count as both protein and carb, under certain conditions.

Our suggestion: Choose the most protein-rich food (assuming there is one) as your protein source, and categorize the other items from there.

Here are a few examples.

In a meal with…

▶ Chicken with beans, broccoli and olive oil, chicken is the protein (the most protein-rich part of the dish), beans are the carbs, broccoli is the vegetable, and olive oil is the fat.

▶ Beans with rice, broccoli and olive oil, beans are the protein (the most protein-rich part of the dish), rice is the carbs, broccoli is the vegetable, and olive oil is the fat.

▶ Two servings of beans with broccoli and olive oil, one serving of beans would count as protein, and the other serving would count as carbs.

▶ Rice with broccoli and olive oil, there isn’t a protein-rich food—just a carb, vegetable, and fat.

▶ Beans, broccoli and olive oil, it would depend on the eater. Omnivore? Then we’d count the beans as a carb. Plant-based? Then we’d count the beans as a protein.

Tricky macro #2: Dairy

Despite being a dietary staple, dairy doesn’t always neatly fit into a macro category.

Cow’s milk and non-Greek yogurt tend to be a pretty even mix of all three macros, but can vary depending on the fat level (whole, low fat, skim).

Ultimately, we suggest categorizing based on the fat or carbohydrate content of the milk or yogurt you’re consuming.

  • Generally, consider 1 cup (8 oz) of whole milk products a “thumb” of fat. (Even though it’s larger than a thumb and also provides protein and carbs, it’s fat rich so can be counted as a fat.)
  • A cup of lower fat milk (0-2%) is generally considered a cupped hand of carbs (although it also provides fats and protein).
  • A portion of lower fat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese (0-2%) is generally considered a palm of protein.
  • A cup of anything highly sweetened (chocolate milk, strawberry yogurt) is generally considered a cupped hand of carbs (though it has fats and protein).

So, let’s say you have a full-fat Greek yogurt or whole milk that’s highly sweetened.

Is it a fat or carb??

Think of it this way: If it’s full-fat, you know it’s a thumb of fat. But if there’s also a lot of sugar added to it, then it’s also a cupped hand of carbs.

Tricky macro #3: Dairy Alternatives

Dairy alternatives—nut, soy, or grain milks—are much like products made from cow’s milk. They tend to provide a mix of macros, depending on the source, and classification also depends on whether or not they’re sweetened.

At just 30 to 40 calories for an 8-ounce serving, unsweetened variants like almond milk can almost be considered negligible on macro counts. If you’re just using a splash in coffee or tea, you might just overlook it altogether.

However, this isn’t a universal rule across all dairy alternatives.

For instance, oat, soy, or pea protein milk may have a richer nutrient profile that, even when unsweetened, should be factored in.

Sweetened dairy alternatives introduce another layer of complexity. Added sugars can quickly ramp up the carbohydrate content, and should be categorized as a cupped hand of carbs.

Tricky macro #4: Soda

A serving of soda doesn’t fit into a cupped hand, and a scale isn’t always on hand.

To classify when on the go, consider an average 12-ounce can of soda as a cupped hand of carbs.

Eight ounces might be a preferable serving in terms of sugar content, but 12 ounces simplifies the math, as most beverages come packaged this way.

This is similar to how we account for bananas, apples, oranges, pears, and other fruits, since they’re “pre-packaged” by nature. While they can be standardized, each piece can differ significantly in its macro content.

Estimating is okay. By frequently comparing actual measurements with visual estimations, we can train ourselves to be more accurate over time.

Tricky macro #5: Alcohol

Alcohol generally should be in its own category, as the majority of its calories are derived from fermentation from starch and sugar.

This applies to pretty much all alcohol, be it light beer, microbrew/craft beer, wine, and spirits (although some microbrews/craft beer and dessert wines can contain quite a few carbs).

Many folks like to put alcohol in the carb category, which works. Again, whatever method you prefer can work; just follow it consistently.

Note that most alcohol is about 100-150 Calories per serving. If it has a sweetened additive (think margarita, or alcohol + soda), count that as an additional cupped hand of carbs.

How to account for mixed-food meals

With the tricky food out of the way, it’s time to discuss mixed food, like soups, salads, chili, casseroles, curries, and more.

Since these types of foods are technically several foods put together, they naturally have a mix of macros.

Our advice: Eyeball it.

Make your best guess at the proportion of protein-rich foods, carb-rich foods, and fats. This isn’t a full-proof method, but the key is consistency. If you categorize chili one way one day, do the same the next day.

With mixed meals, the goal is to get a protein, veggie, quality carb, and/or healthy fat in each portion.

This is relatively easy to do when making it yourself, as you can weigh each ingredient to calculate the macros and then divide by the total portions. When made by others, simply guesstimate as well as you can.

Tip: If a mixed meal—like chili or soup—is low in any particular macronutrient, you can always add a side dish to fill the gap.

We can support you on your fitness journey

If you’re just getting started with macros, take a moment to explore Precision Nutrition’s Ultimate Macro Calculator.

This interactive tool can help you determine your ideal calorie and macronutrient intake based on your individual goals and needs to create a personalized plan—no expertise on the carb content of beans required.


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