Counting calories to drop pounds or build muscle? You could be making a common mistake.
Counting macros—short for macronutrients—is often 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:
Let’s break that down a bit further.
Carbohydrates are nutrients that consist of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Despite their bad reputation, carbs are the main source of energy for most people. Containing 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates account for most—45 to 65%—of the average individual’s calories.
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.
Not all carbs are created equal. 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 foods like cakes, pastas, and decadent side dishes, they are also a crucial component of foods like vegetables and beans.
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 are generally recommended to make up 10 to 35% of an individual’s diet, depending on their activity level and existing health conditions.
While protein is necessary for everyone, it is particularly valuable for those who want to increase muscle mass and stabilize blood sugar. If you’re struggling to get enough protein in your diet, using a high-quality protein powder is an easy way to meet your macro requirements.
Dietary fats are nutrients composed of biomolecules, sometimes called lipids, that contain carbon and hydrogen. Eating too much dietary fat—and, more specifically, certain kinds of fats—can increase fat tissue. With that said, you absolutely need this nutrient to survive and thrive.
Fats are the most energy-dense macronutrient, containing 9 calories per gram. About 20 to 35% of your diet should come from healthy 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. Some people follow the Keto diet to use healthy fats as their main source of fuel as opposed to carbohydrates.
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 haphazardly 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.
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:
- Use a calculator to determine your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and your energy needs, or
- Use the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation to figure out your recommended daily 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 feet 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 each day.
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.
If doing those calculations is daunting or making your eyes gloss over, try using one of the many calorie counting apps available for free. My Fitness Pal is a great one to start with as it also tracks your fitness.
Macros for Weight Loss
Knowing your macros is helpful in any weight-loss program. 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 high-quality protein (e.g., wild-caught salmon, pastured eggs, grass-fed beef, etc.), one-quarter with starchy vegetables (e.g., sweet potatoes, squash, cooked carrots, etc.), and the rest with non-starchy vegetables (e.g., salad, sprouts, cabbage, etc.). Incorporate healthy fats by using coconut oil as a roasting oil or olive oil as a salad dressing.
Try to choose healthy options from each macro category by using the examples listed 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.
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 on a yoga mat. After all, the most important thing about healthy living is to have a balanced lifestyle.
When Counting Your Macros Doesn’t Work
Whether you are trying to lose weight or gain weight, it’s possible that counting macros doesn’t solve the problem. There are many reasons that cause someone to gain weight or that prohibit someone from bulking up. Some key reasons include thyroid disorders, hormonal imbalance, digestive issues, and certain infections.
If you have tried the weight loss or bulk up roller-coaster before, it is a good idea to investigate and identify the underlying root cause of imbalance. This way you understand what is leading to the weight gain or perhaps the reason why it is difficult to gain weight in the first place. For many, counting macros does the trick, but if not it is worth trying Functional Blood Chemistry Analysis (FBCA) or working with a holistic nutritionist who can help design a personal health program to help you succeed.