Count. Your. Macros. We have all heard this. Everyone is always talking about macro counting being the best approach to get your goals without restricting you from the foods you love. But, how do you do it? And does it really work? This is an easy to follow approach to counting macros, the flexible way to diet.
What are Macronutrients? (Macros)
Macros, or macronutrients, are the three biggest components in our diet. They consist of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. All three of which carry out different body processes and are essential pieces of a healthy diet.
There are plenty of “fad” diets out there, claiming it’s best to go “high fat” or “low carb”, but let’s look at the science…
Science states that our bodies need macronutrients for different reasons. Protein helps with muscle repair and recovery. Fat helps with hormone production and metabolism function. Carbohydrates are needed for energy (both externally for daily activities, and internally for digestion and other body functions).
Because each of the three is essential for a healthy diet, eliminating one of the core macronutrients could be detrimental to your body. Instead, calculate the correct macronutrient breakdown for your body, in order to reach your goals.
And please make sure you figure this out for yourself or pay someone to do it for you. Because following someone else’s “full day of eating” or “these are my macros” is not going to help you.
You cannot get someone else’s body by doing exactly what they do.
Because you are your own individual. You have a different genetic makeup.
For a full breakdown of macros (what they do, what foods to eat etc), you can check out my previous blog what are macronutrients.
Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients
Nutrients can be divided into 2 categories: macronutrients, and micronutrients. Macronutrients are those nutrients that the body needs in large amounts; They consist of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. These provide the body with energy (calories). Micronutrients are those nutrients that the body needs in smaller amounts; vitamins and minerals.
Think of Macros as the meat and potatoes of your family dinner (which, it literally is).
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. Still necessary components, but they don’t pack such a heavy punch calorically.
For instance, macros are going to make up the majority of the calories you eat. The chicken you need for protein, the sweet potatoes you need for carbohydrates, and the olive oil you need for fat.
With micronutrients, we are talking about fruits and vegetables. Sauerkraut, bananas, broccoli, dark leafy greens – these foods are going to give us extra vitamins and minerals that our body needs to also get the job done. While they are smaller amounts of food and don’t carry as much weight as carbohydrates, fats, or proteins, they are still important.
A healthy diet has both macronutrients and micronutrients.
We can’t get so caught up in the perfect number of carbs, fats, and proteins that we forget about fiber, magnesium, and other important vitamins. If you want to learn more about how vitamins and minerals play a role in the body like macros, check this out.
And if you want to learn more about the different types of fiber and how they can plan a role in macro tracking, check out this blog.
What does counting macros mean?
Counting macros means finding your individual breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that your body needs to fully function each day. The idea of this approach is to be flexible. Meaning there are no foods that are off-limits if they fit into your allotted macros for the day!
This has become an incredibly popular approach to fat loss, especially for those in the competitive fitness world. A lot of people out there are now turning to count macros and away from strict meal plans as a means to make it more sustainable.
Everyone has a specific number (unique to them) of calories that they burn each day, at rest. This means pumping your heart and taking in oxygen. This does not include walking around, exercising, sitting and standing, etc. This resting number, or Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), is the bare minimum of calories you should take in each day just to fuel the body process’.
So, if we are moving around during the day and exercising, that means we need to increase our energy in (calories). The main focus here is that calories in must equal calories out in order to maintain your weight. This also means that to gain weight we need to consume more than we burn, and to lose weight we need to eat less than we burn. Seems simple, right?
Science has shown that just eating a certain number of calories per day might not be enough. Our bodies need a certain amount of each macronutrient to carry out different body functions. So if we are requiring 1,500kcals/day and are eating them all in the form of cake, donuts, pizza, and pasta, then we are not going to be fueling our bodies appropriately. This is because these foods are all very high in carbohydrates and fat, but include little to no protein. Without protein, our bodies cannot build/repair tissue, form chemical compounds like enzymes and hormones, or even regenerate skin/bone.
This is why focusing on the intake of all macronutrients has become so important. We can also lose weight or gain muscle by changing the amounts of these macronutrients we ingest, but we will get into that later.
Macro Counting Vs Calorie Counting
Macro Counting consists of tracking the breakdown of your daily macronutrients, while calorie counting is simply tracking the sheer number of calories you intake.
Let’s think of macro counting as the new calorie counting.
Calorie counting used to be people counting their calories. It didn’t matter where the calories were coming from, they just tracked their total intake. This can be a good way to measure calories, obviously, but we have since found out that the more specific we are, the better our results.
Which begged the question, are all calories created equal?
Thus – macronutrient counting started. This is just a way of tracking where exactly our calories are coming from so that our body gets the specific amount it needs. Because you can count 2,000 calories a day – but if they are all coming from chips, pasta, and soda…then you aren’t getting any protein to help build muscle tissue and change your physique. So the more specific you can be about macro counting, the better.
Pros and Cons of Tracking Macros
Like every other diet in the world, there are both pros and cons to counting macros. Again, this is going to be extremely dependent on the type of person you are and what you want your day to day life to look like. Not to mention your relationship with food!
» Flexibility-you can eat what you want, in moderation. Some people tend to overeat “craving” foods, and counting macros allows you to “fit” those foods into your daily goal without going overboard.
» Understanding intake-you understand measurements and can visualize how much a serving size is (especially with nuts and nut butter). We tend to think we can eyeball foods, but in reality, we tend to over-shoot and eat more than we think.
» Nutrients vs Empty calories– Counting macros allows you to see which foods are dense in macronutrients. Meaning, they provide a high percentage of nutrients without the calories. Vegetables are a perfect example of this. On the flip side, counting macros allows you to determine which foods in your diet are high in calories, but not in essential macronutrients. Potato chips are a great example of this. Whole foods are the best for nourishing our bodies, but sometimes our soul needs those empty calorie foods, and with tracking macros, you can see how much of those empty foods you can have without feeling guilty.
» Provides targets and schedule- allows you to know exactly what you need to eat in a day without guessing. We run on schedules and tasks and our day to day lives are getting more stressful, tracking macros takes the guessing out of your nutrition without sacrificing your goals.
» Body recomposition– people have seen amazing/quick results from properly tracking and adjusting their macro intake. Great way to see results by just manipulating intake and adjusting foods that we respond well to.
» Stressful– this causes you to always be thinking about your meals and what to eat. Freaking out about not hitting the numbers perfectly and also feeling like you can’t eat what you want.
» Time consuming- you have to weigh and measure everything to be exact. This makes going out, being at parties and social events hard to master.
» Poor quality- people tend to focus on hitting their macros rather than the quality of the foods they are eating. This can cause a lot of bad relationships with food down the road.
» Lacking diversity- people tend to eat the same foods day after day because they easily fit into their macros, yet this can cause major internal problems with digestion and hormones. Doctors always say to eat a balanced diet for a reason.
» Addicting- once people start tracking, they become addicted to it and they cannot stop thinking about numbers. This leads to a fear of never being able to eat the correct amount without measuring in the future.
» Bad relationship with food- you become so focused on the numbers and amount you are eating that you find it hard to adjust your numbers or even start eating intuitively. Not only that but you stop seeing food as nourishment, and more as just numbers.
» Internal Stress- sometimes we find our “ideal macros” for fat loss and end up in a deficit for far too long, which can cause internal stress and hormone imbalances. If we cause too much internal stress it can lead to fat gain and also extra inflammation.
It is important to weigh the pros and cons before starting any kind of diet. This may be a great approach for some of you, and a terrible approach for others.
How To Calculate Your Macros
There are 23984734985734 different calculators online that can be used to calculate your macros, but I am not certain you can trust them all. Even after using these bogus calculators, people still tend to ask me “how do I figure out my macros?” because the calculators are so vague and cookie-cutter. So I thought I would share with you the long version, like long division, of how to figure out your macros.
Let us remember…you are likely still going to have to adjust your macros based on your results. It isn’t just figuring them out and following them for a year. You have to figure them out, adjust, continue, adjust, continue, etc. So – working with a coach is ideal..otherwise, do a lot of research about macros, your body’s response to food and exercise.
To make it easy, I am going to use myself as an example during this process…
5’3” — 122lbs — 24 years old — Active
Step 1: Find your BMR
Women BMR = 655 + (9.6 X weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in yrs)
Men BMR = 66 + (13.7 X weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in yrs)
Therefore, mine looks like..
655 + (9.6 x 55.45) + (1.8 x 160) – (4.7 x 24) = 1,362
*kg= lbs/2.2 *cm= in. x 2.54
*Don’t forget order of operations (Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally: PEMDAS)
BMR = 1,362
Step 2: Calculate your TDEE.
TDEE = BMR x Activity Factor
|Amount of Exercise||Explanation||Activity Factor|
|Sedentary||Little to no exercise, desk job||1.2|
|Lightly Active||Light exercise, 20min.-1 hour/ 1-3x per week||1.375|
|Moderately Active||Moderate exercise, 30-60min./3-5x per week||1.55|
|Very Active||Intense exercise, 60-90min./ 5-7x week||1.7|
|Extremely Active||Extreme exercise, 2x/day/7 day/week, active job||1.9|
TDEE = 1,362 x 1.7 = 2,315
This means I need to be eating about 2,300kcals per day to maintain my current weight.
Step 3: Determine your goal (see below)
Step 4: Determine your macros (see below)
Step 5: Start tracking!
Best Macro counting Apps
Once you have your macros figured out, then you are going to need a way to track them. The easiest way is going to be downloading an app on your phone, but if your old school…you can write it all down on paper?
The biggest differences I have found is that My Fitness Pal has more food options to just search and use, while My Macros has less options. But – My Macros has more customizable options than the free version of My Fitness Pal. So I suggest testing out a few different apps to find the one that works best for you.
How do I count macros for weight loss?
Eating for weight loss means being in a caloric deficit, or burning more calories than you are consuming. To determine these calories, I would track your food for a few days to a week to get a baseline of calories. The point of doing this is to see where you are eating now without tracking. What types of food you reach for, and where you are going to have to put your focus the most.
You also want to make sure you are not already under-eating. If you are eating less than 1,500 calories per day (without tracking) then you are going to need to do a reverse diet before you will be able to lose fat. Long story short, the body needs to be ready to diet. If you want to track macros for weight loss, learn the basics of dieting first.
To count macros for weight loss, you want to start out just below your maintenance calories (which you calculated above for your TDEE). Once you have figured out your total calories, then you can configure your specific macro breakdown.
*Women should be somewhere between 1,600 – 2,000 calories per day
*Men should be somewhere between 2,700 – 3,200 calories per day
Typically you want your macro breakdown to look something like 15-25% of total calories for protein, 20-35% of daily calories for fat, and the rest carbs. You want to be sure you are eating 0.8-1.2g of protein per lb of body mass. And then you can fill in your carbs and fats accordingly. Ladies, I suggest keeping your fat grams above 50 at all times for hormone health.
When figuring out macros, you need to know…
1g of protein = 4 calories
1g of carbohydrates = 4 calories
1g of fat = 9 calories
So to figure out your protein, do 1g of protein per lb of body mass (for me, that is 122 grams). Multiply that by 4 (because there are 4 calories in 1 gram of protein. This means 488 of my calories are going to be protein.
For the sake of easy math, I am going to start at 60g of fat per day and I can adjust from there after tracking for a few weeks. This means 60 times 9 (9 calories in 1g of fat), so 540 calories are coming from fat.
I am now at 1,028 calories.
If my target calories are 1,950 to start, then I subtract 1,028 from 1, 800 to get 922 calories from carbs. 922 divided by 4 (4 calories in 1g of carbohydrate) means I am eating 230g.
So my weight loss macros to start are 122g protein, 60g fat, and 230g carb.
From here you need to track your progress (measurements or bodyweight). If you are weighing, make sure you weigh daily and keep a log. Then average your numbers at the end of the week and use that weight. The scales fluctuations so much from day to day it is not a great way to measure – so use a weekly average.
If you are staying the same weight for a few weeks, drop your calories by 100. (spread between carbs and fats).
If you are losing, keep things the same.
If you are gaining, also reduce your intake.
You want to keep adjusting things for a few weeks and keep track of progress. Also take into account stress, sleep, energy, soreness etc. So much goes into weight loss than just how much you are eating.
You also need to take diet “breaks” here and there to ensure you do not do actual damage to your body and metabolism. It is suggested that you do this every 4-6 weeks. After that time frame you should increase your food back up to maintenance for awhile to ensure that you are not in a deficit for too long. If you continue to “diet” for too long, it can cause serious damage to your metabolism. This damage can lead to excess stress, which can cause hormone imbalances which take much longer to come back from. My blog post about 3 S’s for healing hormones will teach you more about hormones and how they can affect your day to day life.
How do I count macros for muscle gain?
For muscle gaining, this means you need to be in a caloric surplus, or eating more than you are burning in a day.
I would start at your maintenance calories and then slowly start to increase your macros by 5-10 grams a week. This is going to allow your body to slowly adjust to the increase in food rather than adding in 400 calories right away and causing your body to be shocked. This would cause a lot of extra fat gain in the beginning rather than slowly causing an adaptation so you can use the food rather than store the food.
Gaining muscle is a hard task, and it, unfortunately, doesn’t come without some fat gain. This gain is going to allow your body to get back to homeostasis after a diet phase, but can also allow you to put on some size and muscle if that is your goal.
You want to make sure you are eating at least 1 gram of protein for every 1 lb of body mass, and your carbohydrates are high enough to replenish the glycogen stores in the muscle to give you energy! Your fats should be at a moderate level to also give you energy and ensure healthy hormones!
Once you get to the desired weight (or time frame) you can then slowly start to decrease your calories back down into a maintenance phase. You don’t have to add a ton of calories in order to build muscle, you just have to be burning less than you eat.
How do I count macros for maintenance?
Your maintenance calories are going to be your TDEE (or maybe even a bit higher). This means we figured them about above when we were figuring out a baseline.
You can then use the calorie number you got there and break it down into your specific maintenance macros.
Ideal: 15-25% of total calories for protein, 20-35% of daily calories for fat, and the rest carbs.
Depending on the foods you like to eat, you can adjust your percentage of fat calories. If you like nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocado, etc I would go for the 35%, if you prefer sweet potatoes, rice cakes, rice, etc I would pick 20% so you have more room for carbohydrates.
For me this looks like:
2,300calories per day.
For protein (You want about 1g of protein per lb of body mass): So 122g of protein, or 488 calories. Multiplying 122 by 4 (because there are 4 calories in 1g of protein).
30% for fat: 690 calories (divide by calories per gram, 9) is 76g fat per day.
Then figure your carbs:
2,300 – 488 – 690 = 1,122calories (divide by calories per gram, 4) is 280g carbs per day.
Now, these are going to be what is necessary for me to stay at the current weight and body composition I am.
What is a good macro balance for women
So we know men and women are different, for obvious reasons. Women have different hormones and body functions than men, which typically means we should eat a little differently.
Women should eat less than men because we are just smaller humans. Men need more protein and carbohydrates, and just more food.
Women, on the other hand, need a higher amount of fat because we need to make sure our hormones are happy. Because we tend to be more stressed humans than men, we need to make sure our food and lifestyle is not adding to the internal stress we already have. So this means making sure our fat macros are at 30-35% of our overall calories.
Women also want to make sure they are not cutting out food groups. We, women, tend to fall more for the fad diets of low fat, low carb, keto, etc. So in general…we need all macronutrients. DO NOT CUT THEM OUT because some random article in Women’s Health says it could help. We need to be healthy, we don’t need to be skinny.
A good macro breakdown for women, in general, is 30-35% fat, 20-25% protein, and 40-50% carbohydrates. Again, everybody is different, but this is usually a good place to start.
Macro split for keto
If you don’t know, keto (ketogenic diet) is a high-fat diet that was originally designed for those with epilepsy or other brain disorders. This is because fat is brain food, so eating mostly healthy fats has been proven to help with their symptoms.
Recently this diet has been adopted by the general public and is getting some extra air time. To me, this diet is not for the general public because not only is it hard to maintain, it also cuts out carbohydrates which are the leading source of energy within the body.
But, if you are someone who is looking to try the keto diet, the general macro split for keto is 75% fat, 20% protein, and only 5% carbs. So take your maintenance or slightly lower calories and break them down into these percentages. If you want to learn more about the science behind keto and how macro tracking works with it, check it out.
If you find yourself falling off and having to start over contentiously, this might not be the diet approach for you.
Is counting macros a sustainable plan
We know that everyone is very individualized. One approach is not going to be well suited for everyone, so you have to find yours. Some people enjoy tracking macros because they have more control and rules. While others don’t like tracking macros because it is too rigid and time-consuming.
I do not think tracking macros is a sustainable plan, and here’s why. Tracking macros makes us think all of our food is numbers. We have to be very specific about what we eat, how much we eat and make sure everything is input into an app. To me, that is a very hard habit to break. What happens when you hit your goal, or you get busy, or life changes. You think go from relying on an app to plug in numbers, to trying to eyeball and figure it out on your own.
If you start out learning portion sizes and how much you should be eating, then you don’t even have to break the relationship between you and the food scale. Because we already know most women already have issues with the weight scale already.
Tracking macros is just another way to make people obsessed with numbers and images and health. Nothing should take up that much time.
All of this is very loose advice. This will not work for everyone, and this will not be the right approach for everyone.
Be careful when counting macros, and use it as a short term tool to track where you are currently and not a crutch to lean on for years and years. A lot of science and knowledge goes into adjusting numbers and making sure you are progressing at the right rate. Remember, you DO NOT want to be in a deficit for longer than 3 months or you could harm your body. Take diet breaks, and always track your progress.
This is not medical advice, and I am not telling you this approach will work 100%. Your numbers may not be fully accurate and you may not be successful, this is just the calculations and numbers that have worked for others in the past. For best results, you should use a professional to calculate your macros and coach you through the process.
If you have tried certain macros in the past without results, check into your process. A lot of people “find their macros” and then keep them the same for months and months and months and wonder why they are not seeing results. The best option here is to find a coach or do enough research that you can be successful!