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This is an easy-to-understand, comprehensive beginner’s guide on how to count your macros. It explains the benefits of counting macros, and how you can achieve all your goals whether fat loss, muscle gain, or performance.
You’ll easily learn how to calculate your calorie needs for your goal so that you can start getting results as soon as possible!
First Let’s Talk About Calories
Before diving into macronutrient breakdown, it’s important to know what calories are first.
To keep it simple, a calorie is a unit of measurement used to calculate the energy in the food we eat.
Calories determine whether you lose fat, gain fat, or maintain your weight by how much you eat, and how much you burn through various daily activities; both through planned exercise (like resistance training, yoga, running, etc) and non-exercise activity (like walking, typing, fidgeting, folding laundry, mopping floors, etc).
One thing you need to know about calories is that they are king for weight loss. If you lose weight, it’s because you ate less than your body burned (aka calorie deficit), and if you gain weight it’s because you ate more than your body burned (aka surplus). This is called energy balance: energy “in” vs. energy “out”.
Energy balance is especially important to understand when you have a body composition goal. You can adjust and balance both your calories “in” (your diet) and calories “out” (your total daily energy expenditure) to achieve the body you’ve always wanted.
It’s much easier to lose weight by watching how much you are eating than trying to burn calories through exercise.
Eating a balanced diet based on whole foods is also recommended when focusing on changing your body composition. What you eat is just as important as how much you eat. This is where macros come into the picture.
So What Are Macros and How Do You Track Them?
Macros Definition: “Macros” is short for macronutrients. Macros are composed of three different categories of the food you eat that give you daily energy and that contain calories:
- Protein =4 calories per gram
- Fats = 9 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram
- Alcohol = 7 calories per gram
An easy way to think of macros is they are essentially made up of the daily calories you eat, but are split up into 3 main categories.
Each macro serves its purpose for providing the body what it needs to function and survive. Getting a daily balance of all 3 is best if you want to feel good, stay healthy, and build a lean body.
Macro balance can negatively or positively affect:
- thyroid function
- balanced hormones
- appetite control (inability to feel full or always hungry)
- energy balance throughout the day
- mood balance
- performance in the gym
Micronutrients, on the other hand, are vitamins and minerals that are needed in smaller quantities compared to macros which are needed in larger amounts to sustain human growth and metabolism.
Why do we need it?
Protein helps build, repair, and maintain muscle. It contains 4 calories per gram.
If you are trying to lose weight, adequate protein intake is a must to prevent muscle loss while in a calorie deficit. High protein intake supports fat loss. It’s also important to eat enough protein if you are trying to build muscle.
Protein also keeps you feeling full longer, controlling your appetite so you are less likely to snack or feel hungry right after eating.
Where you should get most of your protein:
- animal meats: beef, chicken, pork, turkey, lamb, seafood
- dairy: Greek yogurt, whey protein
Other sources, but only make up about 15-20% protein. These foods do not contain much protein:
- nuts, seeds
- legumes: beans, lentils, peanuts, peas
- grains: oats, quinoa, white rice
First, eating fat does not make you fat. We need fats to live, and without them we would starve.
Fats are vital for energy, hormone function, brain health, and the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals.
They contain the most amount of calories of all 3 macronutrients, at 9 calories per gram. Eating healthy fats are also a great way to keep hunger at bay and help you feel satiated.
- cooking oils: extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, grass-fed butter, lard, duck fat, avocado oil
- egg yolks (eat the whole egg!)
- fatty meats: chicken thighs/legs, fatty cuts of steak, grass-fed ground beef, duck, etc.
- fatty fish: wild salmon, herring, sardines, trout
- nuts: walnuts, almonds, pecans
- seeds: flaxseed, chia seeds
- nut butters: almond butter, cashew butter, peanut butter
Unhealthy Fats to Avoid:
- vegetable oils: canola oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, grapeseed oil
- hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils: ‘buttery spreads’ like “I can’t believe it’s not butter, Earth Balance, etc.”
First, carbs are not ‘bad’, and you shouldn’t completely take them out of your diet, unless it is for medical reasons.
Our bodies use carbohydrates for energy. They are stored in our muscles, liver, and brain. Carbs contain 4 calories per gram.
Carbs serve a very important role in helping females balance their hormones, support better performance in the gym, and influence mood and memory in brain function.
These carbohydrates provide you with sustained energy, contain more fiber and keep you full longer.
- fruits: apples, bananas, berries, pineapple, watermelon, etc.
- non-starchy vegetables (contain fewer carbohydrates): artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery, mushrooms, onions, salad greens, peppers, tomato, zucchini, etc.
- starchy vegetables (contain more carbohydrates): butternut squash, parsnips, carrots, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkin, spaghetti squash
- grains: rice, quinoa, oatmeal
- legumes: beans, lentils, peanuts, peas
- nuts & seeds: almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.
These carbohydrates aren’t inherently ‘bad’, they just don’t hold much nutritional value compared to fruits and veggies. Less nutritious carbs are typically those that are packaged, bagged, or boxed.
They provide you with more immediate energy because they are quickly digested.
- candy & desserts: cookies, pastries, cakes, ice cream
- fried foods: chips, french fries, etc
- sugary drinks: fruit juices, soda,
- breads/pastas: white bread, whole wheat bread, pastas
When counting macros, should you count net carbs?
It is generally recommended to count total carbs rather than net carbs when counting macros. There are certain carbs that your body will not process and absorb, such as dietary fiber. Net carbs are calculated by subtracting the grams of non-usable carbohydrates from your total grams of carbs count. We recommend that you keep track of all the carbs you eat, and consider them all calories-containing food. This way, even if you accidentally eat more than you planned, you will still have a better chance of sticking to your diet.
Alcohol is the fourth macronutrient, and not because it has any nutritional value, but because it contains calories. Alcohol contains 7 calories, per gram.
If you drink alcohol, make sure to still track your drinks, because they can really add up in calories, which will make it hard for you to achieve your macro goals.
If you are wanting to lose fat, consider giving up alcohol or drinking less. Your body blocks fat burning when drinking, which speeds up the rate at which your body stores dietary fat as body fat.
You also may notice that when you drink alcohol you eat a lot of food along with it, which won’t help your fat loss efforts either.
Flexible Dieting with Counting Macros
In order to achieve your goals and maintain them, you need to choose a diet that fits into your lifestyle, not the opposite. In other words, if how you lost the weight is unsustainable, the results will be unsustainable as well.
Most diet programs fail because they have you eliminate a food group, depriving your body of nutrients, and leaving you to feel deprived. Or, have you eat way too little calories (compared to what you were eating), leaving you starving and constantly thinking about food.
There are many problems with the dieting industry, but one of the main issues is none of the diets are sustainable nor do they teach you how to have a good relationship with food, or how to maintain your results after the diet.
This can lead anyone to feel hopeless and that they’re never going to achieve their goals without feeling miserable and giving up their social life.
Introducing flexible dieting with macros. With this approach, you can nourish your body with whole foods, all while including your favorite foods too! No more restricting certain foods, or labeling them as good or bad. Flexible dieting gives you freedom with your food choices, making it easier to stay on track with social events, eating out at restaurants, or dealing with limited food options.
80-90% Whole foods and 10-20% Fun foods
When eating ‘whole foods’ I recommend a paleo style diet, while still including some whole grains like oatmeal, and brown rice.
The paleo approach is the most unprocessed and balanced diet that resembles what our human hunter-gather ancestors ate thousands of years ago. Eating a paleo style diet will lead to major improvements in your health and well-being and of course weight loss.
If you are trying to lose weight, eating a paleo style diet will make losing fat a lot easier. Whole foods are naturally lower in calories, and more filling versus hyper palatable processed foods that make you want to eat more and are high in calories.
Counting Calories vs. Counting Macros
Counting calories and macros are very similar in that they are both units of energy that we get from food.
Counting calories is how much energy that you get from the food you eat, and macros is the percentage of each nutrient (protein, fats, and carbs) that you get from your food in a day. When you count your macros, you are essentially counting your calories at the same time.
Is it Better to Count Calories or Macros?
Both calorie counting and tracking macros will work for weight loss by putting you into a calorie deficit, however, there are big differences in how they will work to change your body composition.
Essentially when you track your macros, you are also counting your calories. But, when you just count calories and don’t pay attention to the amount of protein, carbs, and fats you’re eating, you probably won’t achieve the body composition goal that you’ve worked so hard for.
You lose 50 pounds, and your goal was to look shredded or ‘toned’. However, you just look skinny and have no muscle mass. This might also be referred to as ‘skinny fat’. Skinny fat is someone who has excess body fat and not enough muscle mass for optimal health.
You lost weight which is great, but you didn’t prioritize the right macros (especially protein), to prevent muscle loss while in the calorie deficit, and you didn’t follow a quality resistance training program to build muscle either.
Protein is the most important macro to consider tracking when trying to lose body fat or gain muscle mass. Most of us don’t eat the right amount of protein daily that our body needs. If you are overwhelmed by tracking your macros, I highly recommend to start by just tracking your protein intake. You will likely be mind blown about how little protein you actually consume.
Benefits of eating more protein:
- It’s less likely to be stored as body fat. Protein keeps you satiated for longer, leading you to eat fewer calories and lose more fat.
- Protein keeps you full for longer. If you are in a calorie deficit you need to be eating an adequate amount of protein for your body to keep you satiated and to maintain muscle mass. The less hungry you are when you’re on a diet, the more likely you are to stick with it for longer.
- Helps the body recover and repair.
- Increases the calories burned in a day. Protein has the highest (TEF) thermic effect of food; which means it burns the most energy/calories while you digest your food.
- Protein keeps appetite and cravings at bay.
Along with the benefits of eating enough protein for your goals, carbohydrates and fats are also important. Not enough carbohydrates will affect your performance in the gym, and not enough fat will negatively affect your hormones. Both of which will have a negative effect on your ability to lose body fat or put on muscle mass.
With the proper macronutrient ratio for your individual body, you can build and maintain muscle more quickly, as well as lose body fat.
How to Calculate Macros From a Nutrition Label
Calculating macros from a nutrition label is easy, especially when you can scan the barcode of a packaged item on MyFitnessPal or other tracking app, and it automatically log the macros for you.
However, it’s still important to know how to read and understand a nutrition label.
The most important things to pay attention to on a nutrition label if you are counting macros are:
- Serving size: Most packaged foods have more than 1 serving size. Serving size is how big each serving is. It could be the whole container, 180 grams, 1/2 cup, 4 ounces, or 30 mL. When using your food scale to weigh portions, it’s important to use the right units of measurement.
- Servings per container: How many total servings there are in a package. The amount of servings per container can vary.
- Calories: How many calories there are per serving. In the example above, there are 200 calories per serving, and 8 servings. This equals out to 1,600 for the whole package.
- Protein- how many grams are in each serving. In the example above, there are 3 grams per serving, and 8 serving. This comes to 24 grams of protein for the whole container. This is a very low amount of protein for a food item that is 1,600 calories.
If you want to change your body composition, keeping protein and calories in check are the most important, however these are also important for your health:
- Fiber- important for maintaining bowel health and keeps you fuller longer. 25 grams-35 grams per day is recommended.
- Sugar- you probably already know the negative health effects of sugar. Aim to keep your intake under 25 grams daily.
- Fats- important for maintaining hormone, digestive, thyroid, and brain health.
- Carbohydrates- carbs are your bodies main source of energy. They improve performance in the gym, help balance women’s hormones, and helps uplift mood and memory.
How to Calculate your Macros
1. Determine your Maintenance Calorie Intake
The first step to setting the proper macros is to figure out your maintenance calorie intake (how many calories you eat to maintain your current body’s basal metabolic rate).
There are several ways you can calculate your maintenance calories:
- Using an online calculator. I also recommend this one. Keep in mind that the calculated numbers are only estimations, and are not 100% accurate. They are however a good starting point to help you figure out your maintenance calories. I recommend keeping track of your weight for 1-2 weeks while eating the calculated maintenance calories. If your weight is stable, then you have found your maintenance calories.
- Track everything you eat for 1-2 weeks in My Fitness Pal. From your coffee creamer, to the random handful of snacks, and all the bites, licks, and “tastes”. Log your weight each morning before eating or drinking anything. Adjust your calorie intake up or down until your weight remains stable for 1-2 weeks. This is the most accurate method to finding your maintenance calories, but takes the most patience, and time.
- Multiply your activity level by your body weight.
- Sedentary (body weight x 12): desk job, work from home, very little activity/ less than 3,000 steps per day
- Light Activity (body weight x 13): some standing + moving (ex: teacher, host, usher) /3,000-8,000 steps per day
- Active (body weight x 14): mostly standing + moving (ex: nurse, server, trainer) / 8,000-12,000 per day
- Very Active (body weight x 15-16): physical job or hard labor (ex: construction worker, farmer) /12,000-15,000 steps per day
2. Set your Calorie Goal
Now that you have figured out your baseline maintenance calories, you will calculate your calorie goal, depending on whether you want to lose fat, or gain muscle mass:
Fat Loss: subtract 200-500 calories off your maintenance calories. If you want to lose 1 pound per week you will need to subtract 500 calories each day for 3,500 calories (1 pound) per week. Keep in mind, you will most likely have to adjust these numbers at some point in your weight loss journey.
Generally, the higher your body weight, the more weight you can lose per week. The smaller your body weight, the less weight you can lose per week while maintaining optimal hormone levels, metabolism, muscle tissue mass, thyroid health, and performance. I recommend you strive to lose 0.5-1 pound per week.
Muscle Gain: start adding in 100-200 calories per day. You need to be in a surplus, along with training hard with a high quality strength training program. Monitor your weight every day and be patient with the process.
3. Decide your Macro Ratio
Once you have your calorie goal, you can now determine what macro ratio is ideal for your goals. This is highly individual and may take some experimentation with consistent tracking to know what works best for your body.
As we discussed above, macros (or macronutrients) are made up of calories, and when added up they equal your daily calorie intake. Protein is 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates 4 calories per gram, and fats 9 calories per gram.
- Set protein to 0.7-1.3 grams per pound of body weight. I recommend starting with 1 gram per pound of body weight, especially if you are new to counting macros.
Let’s see how this works out for me. My daily calorie intake is 1,900 calories, and I want to set my protein at 1 gram/1b of body weight so:
125 pounds (my weight) x 1 = 125 grams of protein
To get the number of calories that will be from protein I multiply 125 x 4 = 500 calories
- Set fat to .3-.4 grams per pound of body weight.
Let’s see how this works out for me. My daily calorie intake is 1,900 calories, and I want to set my fat at .4 grams/1b of body weight so:
125 pounds x 0.4 = 50 grams of fat / 450 calories
- Fill your remaining amount of macros with carbohydrates.
Let’s see how this works out for me. My daily calorie intake is 1,900 calories.
I subtract the 500 calories from protein 1,900 – 500= 1,400 calories
Then, subtract the 450 calories from fat 1,400 – 450= 950 calories
I have 950 calories remaining so to calculate my carbs, I divide 950 by 4 (because carbs are 4 calories per gram).
950/4= 237 grams of carbohydrates
My total macros are: 125g protein, 50g fat, 237g carbs
- Set your calorie, carbs, protein, and fat goals in MyFitnessPal
- Start by selecting ‘more’ in the bottom right corner of the app
- Select goals
- Select ‘calorie, carbs, protein, and fat goals
- Select one of the numbers highlighted in blue
- Now you can adjust your macros by percentage or by grams. (Notice how I am 2 calories off from 1,900. This is because protein and carbs each contain 4 calories per gram). Based on the macros I calculated, I can’t get exactly 1,900.
- Start tracking your food in your MyFitnessPal diary.
What is the Best Macro Tracking App?
In my opinion, MyFitnessPal is the best macro tracking app, whether you’re a beginner or advanced. The app has a database of over 11 million foods to log, and you can even scan bar codes to bring up packaged foods’ nutrition information fast. You can also save meals and recipes that you cook frequently for quick tracking.
The app is user-friendly, and a great tool to use when you want to take control of your goals and start educating yourself on what you put in your body every day.
Be aware if you do choose MyFitnessPal that it will not calculate accurate calories or macros for you. I would not follow their guided nutrition or exercise plans. I also would not let the app subtract exercise calories for you. You can turn that setting off. Simply use the app just to track.
- Macro tracking app: MyFitnessPal is my favorite. I find it the most user-friendly. I recommend the Premium feature as your able to customize your target macros by gram or percentage.
- Digital food scale: you can use tablespoons, measuring cups, etc, but the most accurate is a food scale. If you want results, being accurate and precise with your nutrition is very important.
- Glass food storage containers: throw away the plastic, especially if you microwave your food. Glass containers last longer and are healthier.
- Body weight scale: if you are tracking macros you need to also be tracking your progress. This way you can adjust your macros accordingly.
- Progress pictures: the number on the scale doesn’t always tell the whole picture. I highly recommend taking progress pictures every 2 weeks in the morning before eating or drinking anything.
- Measuring tape: if you have a serious body composition goal start taking body measurements. The number on the scale could stay the same, but you’re actually gaining muscle and loosing inches of body fat.
Measuring Food With a Scale
When you are counting macros, a food scale will be your best friend. Not only is it easy to use, but it’s the most accurate way to measure the amount of food you are eating.
A food scale also teaches you what portion sizes should look like based on your calorie goal, and keeps you accountable to eat what you are measuring and from eating more than you planned.
You will be measuring your food by weight (ounces, mL, grams) rather than measuring by volume (ex: measuring spoons/cups). Measuring volume can be very inaccurate leading you to eat an additional 200-500 calories a day, which will hinder your progress especially if your goal is fat loss.
Check out the blog post here on how to use a food scale for tracking macros.
Common Tracking Mistakes
- Measuring food by volume (using measuring spoons or cups; or eyeballing foods) instead of measuring by weight (using a scale to measure ounces, grams, mL, etc). This can make or break your weight loss efforts. Some foods like peanut butter that you measure with a tablespoon are extremely inaccurate once weighed on a scale. Your “tablespoon” measurement can be two to three times the serving size of one tablespoon of peanut butter.
- Taking “little bites”, “taste”, or “licks” too often without tracking. Surprisingly all of these can be to blame if you are having trouble losing weight. Just a few “bites” or “licks” can add hundreds of calories.
- Forgetting to track cooking oils that you use when sautéing, frying, or baking foods. Cooking oils can add up quick in calories, in fact 1 tablespoon of oil is around 100 calories. If you aren’t measuring your oils, you could be eating a large additional amount of calories that you had no idea about!
- Using generic entries in your macro tracking app. For ex: 1 medium avocado, 1 small sweet potato, 1 medium banana. A medium avocado can look a lot different to you than it does someone else and can range in hundreds of calories. That is why it is best to use a scale to weigh in grams or ounces, then choose an entry in your macro tracking app that list grams or ounces as a serving size option.
- Adding calories back for exercise. If you calculated your macros above, or with a macro calculator that took into consideration your activity levels, then adding calories back for exercise is not recommended, especially if you are trying to lose weight. You don’t want to eat back calories you burned during exercise.
- Eating “hard to track” foods to often. This includes fast food, takeout, restaurant food, and even home cooked meals that are ‘mixed together’ like casseroles, soups, etc.
- Using ‘raw meat entries’, but logging your meats as ‘cooked’. The nutrition label on all meat products is stated as 4oz of raw meat, not cooked. If you are scanning the package (aka using the raw meat entry on your macro tracking app), then you will need to divide the cooked amount weighed by 0.75. For example: 5oz cooked ground beef weighed on the scale, will be logged as 6.6oz in your macro tracking app.
- raw to cooked = raw weight x 0.75
- cooked to raw = cooked weight/0.75
The Downsides of Tracking Macros
Tracking macros is beneficial no matter what your goals are as it increases your awareness of portion sizes and food quality, however, it isn’t for everyone, especially if you have a history of eating disorders.
There is also a huge popularity in eating as much junk as you can while still meeting your macro targets (formerly known as IIFYM). Although you could still lose weight, you probably aren’t very healthy on the inside and are missing out on crucial nutrients that your body needs to function.
If you choose to count your macros, you should aim to eat 80-90% whole foods, and 10-20% fun foods that you enjoy. This way you’re getting the nutrients your body needs from whole foods, and making it sustainable by including foods you love, instead of cutting them out completely.
How To Stop Tracking Macros and Still Maintain Your Progress
Once you have met your goal, you may be wondering if you will have to continue tracking your calories and weighing every morsel of food to be able to maintain your results.
Unless you enjoy every minute of weighing and tracking your food, then the answer is no. How to count macros is a tool to reach your goals, and not a tool to obsessively use forever.
It’s important to figure out a way of eating that you can transition into that is more relaxing and sustainable for your lifestyle. I recommend eating in an 80/20 ratio. 80% of the time eat high-quality whole foods, and 20% of the time you can have ‘fun foods’.