Recently, there has been more talk about people wanting to “count their macros.” If the term isn’t familiar to you, it simply means taking a more tailored approach regarding your intake of the “big three” macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
Depending on your calorie needs and objectives, counting macros can be a way to provide the right amounts of these vital nutrients and help you achieve your goals.
What Are Macronutrients and Why Are They Important?
The reason protein, carbohydrate, and fat are called macronutrients is that you need them in relatively large amounts. Your intake of these nutrients is measured in grams, whereas micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are measured in milligrams and micrograms.
All macronutrients are vitally important because they serve as sources of energy to the body, and when you choose the right food sources, they can provide an abundance of those micronutrients, too.
Each macro group has a distinct and primary function in the body, which is why the right balance of the three is important:
Your body creates essential proteins, such as enzymes and hormones, from the amino acids found in protein-rich foods you consume. Protein is also necessary for your immune system to produce antibodies, which are specialized proteins that aid in defending your body against foreign invaders.
Additionally, dietary protein is required for the assembly of transport proteins, such as hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to all the cells in your body. In fact, protein is essential for almost every cell in your body and is what physically binds us together.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source, and all your cells, tissues, and organs rely on a steady supply. Good sources of carbohydrates include:
- Whole fruits
- Whole grains
- Dairy products
Fats serve as a major fuel source for your basic metabolic processes, support the health of the brain and nervous system, and help your body take up fat-soluble vitamins and certain phytonutrients.
What Is the Best Macronutrient Ratio?
All macros are important for good health, and it’s important to get the right balance of the three – which is why it’s best to steer clear of diets that severely restrict your intake of any one macro.
General recommendations around macro intake usually provide a range for each, allowing for customization. Recommendations typically range from:
- 40-65% of your calories from carbohydrates
- 10-40% of your calories from protein
- 15-35% of your calories from fat
The key is to find the balance that works for you.
A good starting point is a “40-30-30” macro ratio:
- 40% of your calories from carbohydrates
- 30% of your calories from protein
- 30% of your calories from fats.
For most people, this ratio provides the right amounts of macros to support your goals, whether it’s balanced nutrition, weight loss, or muscle gain.
Some adjustments might be needed for specific situations, though. Endurance athletes, for example, may need more carbohydrates as a proportion of calories and may want to boost carbs closer to 50% of total calories and reduce fat and protein to 25% each. To learn more, visit Know Your Macros: How Protein, Carbs, and Fat Fuel Athletic Performance.
How to Calculate Your Calorie Needs
To count macros, you first need to have an idea of your calorie needs and then complete the calculations based on the percentages of each macronutrient.
Using a Macro Calculator
Online, you’ll be able to find calculators that provide estimates of your daily needs according to your age, height, weight, and sex.
If you don’t use an online calculator, you can use the “quick” method to estimate your calorie needs:
- Simply multiply your current weight by 15.
- The number you get is roughly the number of calories you need to maintain your weight if you are moderately active.
- For example, if you weigh 150 pounds and you exercise regularly, it probably takes about 2250 calories a day for you to maintain your weight.
Calculating Macros for Weight Loss
No matter how you count your daily needs, if weight loss is your goal, you’ll want to subtract 500 calories from the estimate, which should allow for a half-pound weight loss per week. Always be sure that you take in a minimum of 1200 calories per day to make sure you have adequate calories to spend on the foods and nutrients you require.
How to Calculate Your Macro Percentages
Now that you know your calorie needs, the next step is to count your macro ratio and calculate the number of grams of protein, carbohydrate, and fat you will eat per day.
Keep in mind:
- Protein has 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrate has 4 calories per gram
- Fat has 9 calories per gram
Let’s use a 2,100-calorie diet and our 40-30-30 ratio as an example: 40% of calories from carbohydrates, 30% of calories from protein, and 30% of calories from fat.
- 4 calories per gram
- 40% of 2,100 calories (2,100 x 0.4) = 840 calories of carbs per day
- 840 calories from carbohydrates/4 calories per gram = 210 grams of carbohydrates per day
- 4 calories per gram
- 30% of 2,100 calories (2,100 x 0.3) = 630 calories of protein per day
- 630 calories from protein/4 calories per gram = 158 grams of protein per day
- 9 calories per gram
- 30% of 2,100 calories (2,100 x 0.3) = 630 calories of fat per day
- 630 calories from fat /9 calories per gram = 70 grams of fat per day
Your final daily intake would be:
- 2,100 calories per day
- 840 calories from carbohydrate or 210 grams of carbs per day
- 630 calories from protein or 158 grams of protein per day
- 630 calories from fat or 70 grams of fat per day
How to Track Your Macro Intake
Now that you know how much of each macro you’re going to eat each day, you’ll want to keep track of your intake. Again, there are food trackers that can do this for you, and nutrition information is readily available online, as well as on nutrition facts panels on packaged foods.
The nutrition facts panels on food labels provide protein, carbohydrate, and fat grams per serving – just confirm that the serving size you consume matches that on the label. If you eat more than the designated serving size, you’ll need to adjust.
You don’t have to accomplish your desired macro balance at every meal. Instead, concentrate on achieving it throughout the day. It’s acceptable for certain meals or snacks to have more protein than others – the benefit of tracking your macros is that you may make adjustments during your next meal or snack.
What Are the Benefits of Counting Macros?
Finding the right macro balance and keeping track of your macros can be useful in helping you reach your goals – whether it’s to lose weight, gain muscle, or provide the right balance to fuel activity. More importantly, it may improve the quality of your diet.
For example, if you are watching your weight and you opt to simply count calories, there’s no guarantee that you’ll make the best food choices. If the only thing you’re keeping track of is your calories, you could spend them on unhealthy junk foods while still staying within your daily calorie limit – but you’d probably be shortchanging yourself on several important nutrients. However, when you keep track of your macros and learn the best food sources for each, you’re more likely to be consuming a nutrient-dense diet.
One way to think of nutrient density is to think of your calories as cash – and to buy as much nutrition as you can with the calories you have to spend. By prioritizing nutrient-dense foods – lean sources of protein, vegetables, whole grains and beans, whole fruits, and healthy fats from foods like nuts and seeds – you’re spending your calories most wisely. And, when you budget your calories for each macro, that’s smart spending.