If you belong to a gym or tune in to the health community, chances are you’ve heard the term “counting macros.” Popularly used by people looking to shed weight or gain muscle mass, counting macronutrients (macros) can help you reach various health goals. It entails keeping track of the calories and types of foods you eat in order to achieve certain macronutrient and calorie goals. Though counting macros is relatively simple, it can be confusing if you’re just starting out.
Macros are the shortened term for macronutrients the fat, protein, and carbohydrates that make up a food’s composition, and help you create energy. You can find them listed on the nutrition facts panel of most foods, or by using calorie counting apps and calculators.
Counting calories is not the same as tracking your macronutrients. The calories in, calories out approach (CICO) alone won’t tell you the balance of fat, carbohydrates, and protein in the foods you eat.
How to Count Them
Learning how to count macronutrients does take some effort, but it’s a method that anyone can use.
The following steps will get you started.
In order to calculate your overall calorie needs, you need to determine resting energy expenditure (REE) and non-resting energy expenditure (NREE).
REE refers to the number of calories a person burns at rest, while NREE indicates calories burned during activity and digestion.
Adding REE and NREE gives you the total number of calories burned in a day, also known as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
In order to determine your overall calorie needs, you can either use a simple online calculator or the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation:
Then, multiply your result by an activity factor — a number that represents different levels of activity:
The end result gives you your TDEE.
Calories can either be added or subtracted from your total expenditure in order to reach different goals. In other words, those trying to lose weight should consume fewer calories than they expend, while those looking to gain muscle mass should increase calories.
After determining how many calories to consume each day, the next step is to decide what macronutrient ratio works best for you.
Typical macronutrient recommendations are as follows:
Keep in mind that these recommendations may not fit your specific needs. Your ratio can be fine-tuned in order to achieve specific objectives.
For example, a person who wants to obtain better blood sugar control and lose excess body fat may excel on a meal plan consisting of 35% carbs, 30% fat and 35% protein. Someone pursuing a ketogenic diet would need much more fat and fewer carbs, while an endurance athlete may need higher carb intake.
Next, it’s time to start tracking your macros. The term “tracking macros” simply means logging the foods you eat on a website, app or food journal.
The most convenient way to track macros may be through an app. The apps are user-friendly and specifically designed to simplify tracking macros.
In addition, a digital food scale may help you track your macros — though it isn’t necessary. If you invest in one, weigh each food item you eat before logging it into your app of choice.
Keep in mind that it’s not necessary to hit your macro targets exactly. You can still meet your goals even if you go a few grams over or under each day.
Here’s an example of how to calculate macronutrients for a 2,000-calorie diet consisting of 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat.
In this scenario, your ideal daily intake would be 200 grams of carbs, 150 grams of protein and 67 grams of fat.
Macronutrient counting may provide several benefits.
Counting macros can focus your attention on food quality rather than calorie content.
For example, a bowl of sugary cereal may have a similar number of calories as a bowl of oats topped with berries and pumpkin seeds, but these meals vary widely in macronutrient content.
However, unhealthy foods may still fit into your macros and calories — so it’s important to make healthy food a priority.
Counting macros may be particularly effective for weight loss because it sets out specific dietary recommendations.
Macronutrient counting is popular among athletes and those with specific health goals other than weight loss.
Anyone looking to build muscle mass may have greater protein needs than people simply looking to drop excess body fat.
Counting macros is essential for people who need to consume specific amounts of macronutrients in order to boost performance and gain lean body mass.
Depending on macronutrient ranges, those counting macros may need to add or reduce foods rich in carbohydrates, fats or proteins.
For example, someone transitioning to a macronutrient range of 40% carbs, 35% fat and 25% protein may need to replace some of their carbs with sources of healthy fats and protein.
The following are examples of healthy foods for each macronutrient. Some foods are high in more than one macronutrient and can fulfill different macro needs.
People who thrive on structure may find that counting macros is ideal for their health goals.
Counting macros can increase your awareness of the quality and amount of food you are consuming. Plus, it may be a good tool for those following ketogenic or high-protein diets. That said, counting macros isn’t for everyone. Because macro counting puts so much emphasis on tracking calories and logging intake, anyone with a history of eating disorders should steer clear of counting macros. Focusing on food intake this intently could even lead to disordered eating patterns in those without a history of these behaviors.
Keep in mind that it’s also possible to eat poorly while engaging in macro counting because it permits all foods as long as the item fits into set macronutrient ranges.
When first counting macros, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. However, following the steps above can streamline the process and set you up for success. The most important steps in counting macros are setting a calorie goal and macronutrient range for carbs, protein and fat that works best for you. Then, log your food intake and aim to stay within your macros by eating a diet rich in fresh produce, healthy fats, complex carbs and protein sources. Before you know it, counting macros will feel natural.