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Counting macros is a common phrase in the gym and among athletes. It’s more fine-tuned than simply counting calories among those who want to lose weight or gain muscle, but counting macros still means counting calories. The difference is a focus on the quality of foods eaten, rather than just the number of calories it contains. While it’s true that losing weight still means eating fewer calories than you expend, it’s also true that all calories are not the same. When counting calories, a cookie may count as 135 calories, but when you log that cookie in terms of its macros, it also tells you how many grams of carbs, protein, and fat it has, providing valuable details about the cookie’s nutritional value. Tracking your macros can be very helpful in helping you achieve diet and fitness goals in a healthier way. How do you know if counting macros is for you? Here’s an overview of what you need to get started.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macros is short for macronutrients, which are the nutrients the body needs in large amounts for energy and for all of the body’s structures and systems to function optimally. Though there are actually seven types of macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, fat, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water—the term “macros” refers to carbohydrates, protein, and fat, the three main types of macronutrients. So, counting macros means keeping track of the amount, in grams, of each of these contained in the foods you eat.
Carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and fibers. They are an energy source, they help control blood glucose and insulin metabolism, and they play a role in cholesterol and triglyceride metabolism. When we eat carbs, they are broken down into glucose, which is used for energy, during digestion. Any unused glucose is stored in the liver and muscle tissue until the body needs more energy.
Carbs provide 4 calories per gram.
- Examples of healthy carbs: unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.
- Examples of less healthy carbs: highly processed or refined foods, like white bread, cookies, chips, pastries, and soda.
Animal-based foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy foods tend to be sources of complete proteins. Plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds, often fall short of being complete proteins. Proteins are the work horses of all of the body’s cells (muscle, bone, skin, hair, etc.), important to the structure, function, and regulation of the entire body. There are thousands of different proteins, all of which are made from building blocks called amino acids. The body doesn’t store amino acids, so the body must make them. Nine of those amino acids, known as the essential amino acids, must come from the diet.
Proteins provide 4 calories per gram.
- Examples of healthy proteins: whole, minimally processed animal- and plant-based foods like salmon, lean meats, chicken, eggs, plain, nonfat dairy, lentils, beans, peas, seeds, nuts, whole grains.
- Examples of less healthy proteins: highly processed meats like ham and deli meats, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, some nutrition or protein bars.
Fats are found in foods like oils, butter, nuts, seeds, meat, fatty fish, and avocado. They provide energy, keep the body’s organs healthy, help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K, and fat helps keep the body warm. Fats are composed of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Saturated fats have been linked with high cholesterol and other health conditions. Unsaturated fats are associated with lowering cholesterol levels.
Fats provide 9 calories per gram.
- Examples of healthy fats: avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, eggs, extra virgin olive oil.
- Examples of less healthy fats: highly processed foods, such as bacon, shortening, margarine, some fried foods like chips and donuts.
What Should My Macros Be?
Your ideal macro count depends on your goal, which determines both your caloric and macronutrient needs. Goals often include losing weight, gaining muscle, maintaining weight, and/or improving overall health. Even with a goal in place, one’s caloric (energy) needs are very individual, as they must take into account things like gender, size, and activity level. There are many calorie calculators, such as MyFitnessPal, online to help determine your current daily calorie expenditure. Once you have this estimation, it’s simple to add or remove calories from the diet to either gain or lose weight.
Breaking calories into specific macronutrients can help you better align the types of food you eat with your goal. Someone who wants to gain muscle may want to increase protein intake; someone following a specific diet, such as a ketogenic (keto) diet, may need to increase protein and fat intake, while decreasing carbs; or a long-distance runner or other endurance athlete in training may want to eat more carbs. There are several recommended macro ratios, such as this one, from the Institutes of Medicine:
- 45-65% calories from carbs
- 20-35% calories from fats
- 10-35% calories from proteins
Finding the sweet spot in the ratio may take some experimentation. The best macro ratio is the one you can stick with and that helps you meet your goals.
How to Count and Track Macros
If you’re counting macros for the first time, it may make sense to start by tracking your present diet for a week. This will give you a good idea of how your macros are right now. Then, you’ll be able to see what you want to change.
There are three basic ways to track:
- Food journal
To calculate macros, you’ll need to log all foods and caloric beverages consumed by the number of calories and grams each of carbs, fats, and proteins. If using a food journal, you’ll need to look up each food, enter data, and then add to see your daily totals in each category. If using an app or website, it will compute this for you.
Once you see your current trend of macro intake, you can align your diet with your goals.
How to Count Macros for Weight Loss
Tracking can help you meet a goal to reduce calories, which can lead to weight loss. Tracking macros can help you choose more nutrient dense foods that are higher in satiating dietary fiber, water, protein, and healthy fats. These are more satisfying, so they can help you eat fewer calories throughout your day. Tracking macros can also help limit fat and highly processed carb foods made with refined ingredients and often high sugar and sodium as well.
What Should My Macros Be to Gain Muscle?
Tracking macros to gain muscle generally focuses on increasing protein, but fats and carbs are important too. Building muscle may mean a macro ratio that is higher in protein than it is in carbs and fats, such as 40% protein, 30% fat, and 30% carbs.
Meeting your goals by counting macros is highly individual. Speaking to a registered dietitian nutritionist can help determine what’s right for you, as well as help you choose the healthiest food choices—and the ones that will help you thrive—within each type of macro. Counting and tracking macros can be a great way to reach your health goals, but it’s not necessarily right for everyone. It’s one of many methods that may be worth exploring.