Counting calories to drop pounds or build muscle?

You could be making a common mistake. Counting macros — short for macronutrients — could be a better choice for reaching your health and fitness goals.

Whether you want to lose weight, bulk up, or stay in shape, understanding macros is part of a healthy lifestyle. Counting macros may sound complicated, but with our easy-to-follow guide, it couldn’t be simpler.

What are Macros?

If you’re asking, “What is a macro?”, you’re not alone.

According to the journal Annual Review of Nutrition, macronutrients refer to the three main kinds of nutrients your body uses for energy:  

  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Fats

Let’s break that down a bit further.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are nutrients that consist of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Despite their bad reputation, carbs are the greatest source of energy for your body. Containing 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates account for most — ideally, 45 to 65% — of the average individual’s calories.

When you begin exercise or physical activity, your body uses energy from carbs first.

Your body converts carbohydrates to glucose, or blood sugar, which provides energy for your organs, tissues, and cells. When you begin your workout or any other physical activity, your body uses energy from carbs first.

To determine if carbs are healthy or unhealthy, consider the type of carb — simple or complex — and how much added sugar it contains. While carbs are found in “unhealthy” foods like cakes, pastas, and decadent side dishes, they are also a crucial component of healthy foods like vegetables and beans.

Proteins

Protein is a nutrient composed of amino acids. If carbs fuel the existing cells and tissues of your body, proteins are the nutrients that build and repair them. Proteins are also part of the production of enzymes and hormones.  

Like carbs, proteins contain 4 calories per gram. Calories from protein should make up 10 to 35% of an individual’s diet, depending on activity level.

While protein is necessary for everyone, it is particularly valuable for those who want to increase muscle mass. If you’re struggling to get enough protein in your diet, protein powder is an easy way to meet your macro requirements.

Fats

Dietary fats are nutrients composed of biomolecules, sometimes called lipids, that contain carbon and hydrogen. Eating too much dietary fat — and, more specifically, the wrong kinds of fats — can increase fat tissue, but you need this nutrient to survive and thrive.

20 to 35% of your diet should come from fats.

Fats are the most energy-dense macronutrient, containing 9 calories per gram. 20 to 35% of your diet should come from fats.

The fats you consume serve many purposes, from helping your body absorb vitamins to making your skin healthy. After the first 20 minutes of exercise, your body switches from burning carbs to burning fat.

Certain fats are particularly good for you:

  • Essential fatty acids, such as Omega-3, can keep your heart healthy.
  • Unsaturated fats derived from plant oils can actually help lower your LDL (low-density lipoproteins) cholesterol, which in turn reduces your risk of coronary artery disease.

Foods with healthy fats help keep you full after eating — which makes you less likely to consume more calories than necessary.

How to Count Macros

The premise of counting macros to meet a fitness goal revolves around choosing your foods based on the nutrients they contain, rather than counting only calories or blindly cutting out fats or carbs.

Learning how to count macros can be more complicated than fad diets that simply eliminate certain foods. However, this approach leads to a much more balanced blend of nutrients, and ultimately much better results.

 Protein is necessary for all humans and is particularly valuable for increasing muscle mass.

Calculating Caloric Intake

The first step to counting macros for your fitness goals is to figure out your caloric intake. There are two ways to do this:

  1. Use a calculator to determine your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and your energy needs, or
  2. Use the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation to figure out your recommended caloric intake.

The Mifflin-St. Jeor equation requires you to plug your data into the following formula:

BMR (kcal/day) = 10 × weight (kg) + 6.25 × height (cm) – 5 × age (y) + s (kcal / day)

Remember to use the correct order of operations to get an accurate result. Multiply before you add and subtract.

  • Start by converting your weight and height measurements into the metric system.
  • Multiply your weight in kg by 10.
  • Add to that number the product of multiplying your height in cm by 6.25.
  • Subtract from that sum the product of multiplying your age in years by 5.
  • Add the value of s. In this formula, use +5 as the s variable for males and -161 for females.

An Example of the Mifflin-St. Jeor Equation

For a 25-year-old man weighing 200 pounds and standing 5 ft. 9 inches tall — nearly the average height and weight for males in North America — you would multiply 10 times 90.7185 kg (the man’s weight) to get a product of 907.185.

Then you would add 1,095.375, the product of 6.25 times 175.26 cm (the man’s height), to get 2,002.56.  

Next, you would subtract 125, which is the product of 5 times 25 (the man’s age), to get 1,877.56.

Finally, you would add 5 to get 1,882.56. This is the number of calories the individual in this example would need to consume.

From your caloric intake amount, you can calculate how much of each macronutrient you should consume based on the percentages you need to achieve your goal.  

Macros for Weight Loss

To lose weight, you need to fit the right combination of macros into your calorie allowance without overeating. According to Prevention.com, the ideal macros for weight loss break down this way:

  • 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbs, if you exercise one hour or less per day
  • 30% protein, 25% fat, and 45% carbs, if you exercise one to two hours per day

Eating the right combination of proteins, fats, and carbs can help you lose weight without feeling hungry or lethargic. An easy way to count macros for weight loss is to plug your daily caloric intake and recommended percentages into a macro calculator to determine how many grams of each nutrient you need per day and per meal.

Here’s a simple way to think of it: Fill one-quarter of your plate with lean protein, one-quarter with whole grains or starchy vegetables, and the rest with non-starchy vegetables, such as beans, leafy greens, and eggplant. Incorporate fats by using olive oil as a roasting oil or salad dressing.

Try to choose healthy options from each macro category — like whole grains, lean meats, and avocados — to see the best results.

Macros for Bulking

Not every diet is about losing weight. If you’re trying to gain muscle, you need to follow a different plan. Counting macros for bulking means consuming more calories than you burn through exercise. But you need to choose your food strategically.

Many individuals add bulk successfully by following the Zone diet percentages of 40% carbs, 30% proteins, and 30% fats.

Your body type can also affect which macro percentages are ideal for you.

  • If you have a thinner build, you might benefit from increasing carbs to 55% of your caloric consumption, with proteins accounting for 25% and fats for 20%.
  • Those with naturally larger frames may see better results eating fewer carbs. A diet that is 25% carbs, 35% proteins, and 40% fats may be a good choice during bulking phases.

For more about how your body type can affect your fitness goals, be sure to check out our article, “What’s My Body Type? The Three Body Build Types.”

Counting macros can be a game-changer, but to achieve your fitness goals, it’s also important to make exercise a priority. If you have the discipline to count macros, then you have the discipline to exercise regularly — especially if you start with something simple, like an exercise bike or yoga. After all, the most important thing about healthy living is to have a balanced lifestyle.