In This Article
In This Article
Whether your goal is to lose weight, gain muscle mass, or increase your daily energy threshold, counting macros can help. When done alongside counting calories, macro counting is a very easy way to balance your diet.
“Macronutrients provide different amounts of calories and serve different functions,” says our in-house medical expert, Dr. Rizza Mira. Which is why balancing macronutrients is crucial in order to optimize health and weight loss beyond counting calories.
Macronutrients are the main nutrients in food that our bodies convert into energy in the form of calories and body mass. The three macronutrients are fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
They are called “macro” nutrients because we consume them in large quantities versus other nutrients. In comparison, micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals are consumed in small amounts from food.
Each macronutrient also provides energy in the form of calories. The amount of calories gained per gram of fat, carbohydrates, or protein is not equal.
Proteins and carbohydrates provide four calories per gram. A gram of fat provides nine calories, which is more than double the other macronutrients.
Macronutrients are important to both the body’s regular functions and general weight maintenance.
“Macronutrients support the body's basic needs–from nerve function to cellular processes and metabolism,” says Dr. Mira.
For example, eating enough protein is the only way to promote consistent muscle growth. One’s carb intake can also positively or negatively impact daily energy levels.
But because macronutrients do not provide the same amount of calories per gram, eating them in the wrong proportions can result in an excess of calories.
Each person’s body utilizes a baseline amount of calories every day to function, but excess calories are stored as fat. Too much body fat can negatively impact health.2
Macro counting is, therefore, a form of diet control that adjusts the macro ratio percentage of fat versus protein versus carbohydrates to achieve one’s health and fitness goals.
To build muscle, for example, one must increase protein intake while reducing either carbs or fats to compensate for and maintain the same number of total calories.3
No, they’re not the same.
While they can go hand-in-hand to help you achieve your goal weight and a healthier lifestyle, calorie counting is the act of limiting intake. Macro counting can be done alongside it to make sure each calorie you do consume counts.
Counting calories involves keeping track of daily or weekly calorie consumption to avoid exceeding the body’s energy needs. Simply put, calorie counting is limiting your food intake to maintain a healthy weight.2
If you’re limiting your calorie intake, then counting macros is the next step to making each calorie more efficient.
In other words, 1500 calories of fat is the same amount of energy as 1500 calories of protein, but protein will increase muscle mass while fat will not. 1500 calories of protein is also significantly less food than 1500 calories of fat.
To begin a macro diet, therefore, means first determining how many calories of food one should consume.
Even without moving, the human body continues to burn calories just to maintain bodily functions.
How many calories one burns in a day in this way is called one’s Basic Metabolic Rate (BMR) or also Resting Energy Expenditure (REE).
Some organs and body parts use fewer calories than others, but on average, the human body uses 1 calorie per hour for every kilogram of body weight.4
This rate can also be affected by biological sex, age, and height.5
Because no person is truly only at rest every day, the BMR is not yet a complete accounting of one’s total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
Every movement increases how many calories one’s body needs.
One of the most common and simplest ways to calculate true Total Daily Energy Expenditure is by using the Harris Benedict Formula.6 This multiplies BMR based on one’s estimated activity level.
It’s important to note that this equation may slightly overestimate one’s true required total calories.7
Some exercises also burn more calories than others; the scale depends on how you gauge your lifestyle.
Generally, this equation is, however, an adequate measure of daily calories needed for diet planning.
If you want to determine a formula and method that best fits you and your energy expenditure, it may be best to consult a healthcare professional or nutritionist.
Once you have calculated your TDEE, both weight loss and weight gain become a matter of adjusting your calorie intake against your TDEE.
Consuming more calories than your TDEE will make you gain weight as the excess calories are converted into body fat.
Consuming at a calorie deficit will make you lose weight as the body converts stored fat into the needed calories.
Most balanced diets will adjust using the following baseline ratio:
To apply this macronutrient ratio, calculate each percentage from your target daily calories. Then, convert those calories into grams for each macronutrient.
For example, a 1500 daily calorie target becomes the following:
These should be your macronutrient intake if you’re targeting a 1500 daily calorie intake.
Check the nutrition facts label to know the grams of macronutrients in packaged food. For fresh foods, you can use macro tracking apps or estimate based on the type of food.
“Some weight-loss strategies, like the keto diet, use different proportions,” clarifies Dr. Mira. If you have different parameters or diet restrictions, take those into account.
The 50/20/30 ratio can be adjusted to meet your body composition goals.
Eating fewer carbs and fats can help you reach your target calories. Low-carb and low-fat diets are effective ways of losing fat.9
As long as your daily calorie intake is less than your TDEE, you will lose weight.
The recommended calorie deficit for effective fat loss is around 500 calories, resulting in a decrease of 2kg in body weight per month.8 This can be done by eating less, regardless of macronutrients, or by exercising to increase your TDEE.
If you don’t count macros, however, the body can lose muscle tissue and body fat. Reducing protein in one’s diet to decrease calorie count may result in weight loss but also less muscle, which may not be your goal if you’re trying to bulk up.
Similar to weight loss, weight gain is achieved by consuming more calories than your TDEE. However, just consuming calories indiscriminately will result in excess fat that may cause health risks. Instead, a high protein intake on top of increasing calories is best for muscle gain.
The 50/20/30 ratio applies to muscle gain as well.10 These macronutrients can be adjusted differently, however, for muscle gain:
Muscle can only be gained by pairing increased grams of protein with strength training. Strength-based exercises such as lifting weights push stretch muscles to their limits.
More muscle mass is formed when rest and protein consumption repair damage done by strenuous strength exercises.
Yes, macros for weight loss adjust for specialized diets.
According to modern nutrition science, these diets can be more effective than just eating at a calorie deficit.8,11 The trade-off is having to more consciously count macros to achieve optimized fat loss.
A keto diet is a high fat diet that aims for 60% fat, 30% protein, and 10% carbs as macro targets.
Though it seems that eating too much fat may be bad for health, the diet prioritizes healthy fats and a process called “ketosis.”12
Ketosis refers to a high amount of ketones in the blood. Ketones are an alternative form of fuel for the body to glucose.
Ketones are processed from grams of fat and stored in reserve, as opposed to glucose which comes from grams of carbs and are used immediately by the body.
A keto diet achieves ketosis by depriving the body of glucose through a low carb diet. After starting this diet, it may take 3-4 days before the body’s glucose is reduced enough for the body to start to lose fat by turning to ketones for fuel.
Non-specific low-carb diets also seek to limit how many grams of carbs one eats without necessarily going to the extreme of a fully ketogenic diet.
Low-carb diets are any diet that limits calories from carbs to 25% or less.14
Aside from weight maintenance, a low-carb diet also has several other benefits. Lower glucose levels can help avoid or mitigate diabetes. Decreasing carb intake can also improve one’s metabolism.13,14
When counting macros to maintain weight, build muscle, or lose fat, prioritize nutrient-dense foods.
Healthy foods are more efficient with both macro and micronutrients for every calorie consumed. They also contain more macronutrients relative to their mass.
All foods will weigh more than their component macronutrients. A 50g egg, for example, will have around 6g of protein, 5g of fat, and less than 1g of carbohydrates. What accounts for the remaining 38g of mass in the egg?
A very small portion of the remaining mass could be other nutrients, but the majority is just moisture content. This is true for any food. Some meals can be high in volume and low in macros.
Knowing the actual breakdown of macros in your regular meals is necessary to properly compute macros.
All packaged foods are required to have a nutrition facts label that lists product-specific information such as serving size and nutrients. The information is divided into three sections:
For the purposes of macro calculating, you will want to look at Total Fat, Total Carbohydrates, and Protein.
Under carbohydrates, sugar content will also be split between Total Sugars and Added Sugars. Total sugars account for natural sugars already present in many foods in addition to added sugars. Added sugars are artificial sugars added in the food-making process.
Avoid foods with “empty” calories, such as foods with processed oils and added sugars. These tend to be high in calorie value but with not as many macronutrients as healthy foods.
Foods that are nutrient-dense can help reach your macro targets easier. Here are some specific examples of macro-rich foods:
High nutrient foods also have the advantage of helping you feel full or satisfied with less volume of food. A nutrient-rich diet will produce less negative hunger feelings than an unhealthy diet.15 This can help make even a low-calorie diet more sustainable as a habit in the long run.
“Highly dense foods send brain signals that trick the body into feeling full. It also slows the movement of food in the gut so you feel full for longer periods,” says Dr. Mira.
Calorie and macro counting may be intimidating at first, but it becomes easier over time. Most people consume the majority of their foods repetitively. Foods such as eggs, bread, and fruits are ubiquitous enough that you may find yourself calculating their macros often.
Over the course of several weeks of macro counting, it will become easier to memorize the macros of your most frequent meals. This also makes it easier to eat a specific kind of food to quickly reach your target macros for the day.
One of the most efficient methods to count calories while hitting macro targets consistently is to prep meals in advance. This involves preparing a few meals in large quantities to be eaten over the course of a whole week.
The advantage of meal prep is being able to calculate the macronutrient content of each meal in advance. The sameness of each meal also makes these counts consistent.
Here are some examples of foods that are good for meal prep because they don’t spoil easily in a refrigerator:
The downside of meal prep is a lack of variety in your daily meals. Some may also lack the time for food preparation. For many people, this is outweighed by the ability to consistently hit their macro targets and reduce the need to calculate macros at every mealtime.