How to Count Macros: A Step-by-Step Guide

by Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

If you belong to a gym or tune in to the health community, chances are you’ve heard the term “counting macros.”

Popularly used by people looking to shed weight or gain muscle mass, counting macronutrients (macros) can help you reach various health goals. It entails keeping track of the calories and types of foods you eat in order to achieve certain macronutrient and calorie goals.

Though counting macros is relatively simple, it can be confusing if you’re just starting out. This article explains the benefits of counting macros and provides a step-by-step guide on how to get started.

What are Macronutrients?

In order to successfully count macronutrients, it’s important to know what they are and why some people need different macronutrient ratios than others.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates include sugars, starches and fibers (1).

Most types of carbs get broken down into glucose, or blood sugar, which your body either uses for immediate energy or stores as glycogen — the storage form of glucose — in your liver and muscles.

Carbs provide four calories per gram and typically make up the largest portion of people’s calorie intake.

Carb intake is among the most hotly debated of all macronutrient recommendations, but major health organizations suggest consuming 45–65 percent of your daily calories from carbs (2).

Carbohydrates are found in foods like grains, starchy vegetables, beans and fruits.

Fats

Fats have the most calories of all macronutrients, providing nine calories per gram.

Your body needs fat for energy and critical functions, such as hormone production, nutrient absorption and body temperature maintenance (3). Though typical macronutrient recommendations for fats range from 20–35 percent of total calories, many people find success following a diet higher in fat.

Fats are found in foods like oils, avocado and nuts.

Proteins

Like carbs, proteins provide four calories per gram.

Proteins are vital for processes like cell signaling, immune function and the building of tissues, hormones and enzymes. It’s recommended that proteins comprise 10–35 percent of your total calorie intake (4). However, protein recommendations vary depending on body composition goals, age, health and more.

Examples of protein-rich foods include beans, tofu and lentils.

How to Count Macros

Learning how to count macronutrients does take some effort, but it’s a method that anyone can use. The following steps will get you started.

1. Figure out Your Calorie Needs

In order to calculate your overall calorie needs, you need to determine resting energy expenditure (REE) and non-resting energy expenditure (NREE). REE refers to the number of calories a person burns at rest, while NREE indicates calories burned during activity and digestion (5).

Adding REE and NREE gives you the total number of calories burned in a day, also known as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) (6).

In order to determine your overall calorie needs, you can either use a simple online calculator or the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation:

  • Men: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
  • Women: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161

Then, multiply your result by an activity factor — a number that represents different levels of activity (7):

  • Sedentary: x 1.2 (limited exercise)
  • Lightly active: x 1.375 (light exercise less than three days per week)
  • Moderately active: x 1.55 (moderate exercise most days of the week)
  • Very active: x 1.725 (hard exercise every day)
  • Extra active: x 1.9 (strenuous exercise two or more times per day)

The end result gives you your TDEE.

Calories can either be added or subtracted from your total expenditure in order to reach different goals. In other words, those trying to lose weight should consume fewer calories than they expend, while those looking to gain muscle mass should increase calories.

2. Decide Your Ideal Macronutrient Breakdown

After determining how many calories to consume each day, the next step is to decide what macronutrient ratio works best for you.

Typical macronutrient recommendations are as follows (8):

  • Carbs: 45–65 percent of total calories
  • Fats: 20–35 percent of total calories
  • Proteins: 10–35 percent of total calories

Keep in mind that these recommendations may not fit your specific needs.

Your ratio can be fine-tuned in order to achieve specific objectives. For example, a person who wants to obtain better blood sugar control and lose excess body fat may excel on a meal plan consisting of 35 percent carbs, 30 percent fat and 35 percent protein.

Someone pursuing a ketogenic diet would need much more fat and fewer carbs, while an endurance athlete may need higher carb intake.

As you can see, macronutrient ratios can vary depending on dietary preferences, weight loss goals and other factors.

3. Track Your Macros and Calorie Intake

Next, it’s time to start tracking your macros. The term “tracking macros” simply means logging the foods you eat on a website, app or food journal. The most convenient way to track macros may be through an app like MyFitnessPalLose It! or My Macros +. These apps are user-friendly and specifically designed to simplify tracking macros.

In addition, a digital food scale may help you track your macros — though it isn’t necessary. If you invest in one, weigh each food item you eat before logging it into your app of choice. Several apps feature a barcode scanner that automatically inputs a serving of a scanned food into your macro log.

You can also hand-write macros into a physical journal. The method depends on your individual preference.

Keep in mind that it’s not necessary to hit your macro targets exactly. You can still meet your goals even if you go a few grams over or under each day.

4. Counting Example

Here’s an example of how to calculate macronutrients for a 2,000-calorie diet consisting of 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat.

Carbs:

  • 4 calories per gram
  • 40 percent of 2,000 calories = 800 calories of carbs per day
  • Total grams of carbs allowed per day = 800/4 = 200 grams

Proteins:

  • 4 calories per gram
  • 30 percent of 2,000 calories = 600 calories of protein per day
  • Total grams of protein allowed per day = 600/4 = 150 grams

Fats:

  • 9 calories per gram
  • 30 percent of 2,000 calories = 600 calories of protein per day
  • Total grams of fat allowed per day = 600/9 = 67 grams

In this scenario, your ideal daily intake would be 200 grams of carbs, 150 grams of protein and 67 grams of fat.

Benefits of Counting Macros

Macronutrient counting may provide several benefits.

May Improve Diet Quality

Counting macros can focus your attention on food quality rather than calorie content.

For example, a bowl of sugary cereal may have a similar number of calories as a bowl of oats topped with berries and pumpkin seeds, but these meals vary widely in macronutrient content.

Counting macros may lead you to choose healthier, nutrient-dense food in order to fulfill set macronutrient ranges. However, unhealthy foods may still fit into your macros and calories — so it’s important to make healthy food a priority.

May Promote Weight Loss

Counting macros may be particularly effective for weight loss because it sets out specific dietary recommendations. For instance, tracking macros can help those following high-protein, low-carb diets, which are linked to weight loss (9).

Plus, research shows that tracking food intake may aid long-term weight maintenance (10).

May Assist With Specific Goals

Macronutrient counting is popular among athletes and those with specific health goals other than weight loss.

Anyone looking to build muscle mass may have greater protein needs than people simply looking to drop excess body fat.

Counting macros is essential for people who need to consume specific amounts of macronutrients in order to boost performance and gain lean body mass. For example, research shows that resistance-trained athletes may need as much as 1.4 grams of protein per pound (3.1 grams per kg) of body weight per day to maintain muscle mass (11).

Counting macros may ensure that your macronutrient needs are being met.

How to Meet Your Needs

Depending on macronutrient ranges, those counting macros may need to add or reduce foods rich in carbohydrates, fats or proteins.

For example, someone transitioning to a macronutrient range of 40 percent carbs, 35 percent fat and 25 percent protein may need to replace some of their carbs with sources of healthy fats and protein.

The following are examples of healthy foods for each macronutrient. Some foods are high in more than one macronutrient and can fulfill different macro needs.

Carbs

  • Grains, including oats, brown rice and quinoa
  • Whole-wheat pasta
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash
  • Fruits like berries, bananas, pineapple and apples
  • Beans, lentils and peas

Proteins

Fats

  • Olive and avocado oils
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Coconut oil and coconut flakes
  • Avocado
  • Flaxseeds and chia seeds

Counting Macros is Not for Everyone

People who thrive on structure may find that counting macros is ideal for their health goals. Counting macros can increase your awareness of the quality and amount of food you are consuming. Plus, it may be a good tool for those following ketogenic or high-protein diets.

That said, counting macros isn’t for everyone.

Because macro counting puts so much emphasis on tracking calories and logging intake, anyone with a history of eating disorders should steer clear of counting macros (12). Focusing on food intake this intently could even lead to disordered eating patterns in those without a history of these behaviors (13).

Keep in mind that it’s also possible to eat poorly while engaging in macro counting because it permits all foods as long as the item fits into set macronutrient ranges.

Those using macro counting should aim — depending on their goals — to follow a whole-foods diet rich in fresh produce, healthy fats, complex carbs and protein sources.

The Bottom Line

When first counting macros, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. However, following the steps above can streamline the process and set you up for success.

The most important steps in counting macros are setting a calorie goal and macronutrient range for carbs, protein and fat that works best for you. Then, log your food intake and aim to stay within your macros by eating a diet rich in fresh produce, healthy fats, complex carbs and protein sources.

Before you know it, counting macros will feel natural.

Related at Care2

Image via Thinkstock

25 comments

Leanne K
Leanne K29 days ago

I will never count macros. Knock yourself out. But thanks anyway

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Edgar Zuim
Edgar Zuimabout a month ago

Thanks

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hELEN h
hELEN hEARFIELDabout a month ago

tyfs

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Frances G
Frances Gabout a month ago

Thanks very much

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Danuta W
Danuta Wabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Peggy B
Peggy Babout a month ago

TYFS.

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Shirley S
Shirley Sabout a month ago

T Y I rely on m common sense. It works for me.

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Christine D
Christine Dabout a month ago

Really? Turning eating into a math assignment? No thanks. Totally unnecessary. Just eat a healthy varied diet and listen to your body. I can't believe how much we are advised to micromanage our food intake these days.

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Jetana A
Jetana Aabout a month ago

Oh, please! It's easy enough to do this intuitively. I like math, but not obsessing about my diet. And a lot of folks don't like math.

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Elizabeth H
Elizabeth Habout a month ago

Life's too short.

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