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.
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 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 4 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% of your daily calories from carbs (2).
Carbohydrates are found in foods like grains, starchy vegetables, beans, dairy products and fruits.
Fats have the most calories of all macronutrients, providing 9 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% of total calories, many people find success following a diet higher in fat.
Fats are found in foods like oils, butter, avocado, nuts, meat and fatty fish.
Like carbs, proteins provide 4 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% 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 eggs, poultry, fish, tofu and lentils.
Summary The three macronutrients to keep track of are carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Macronutrient recommendations vary depending on many factors.
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% of total calories
- Fats: 20–35% of total calories
- Proteins: 10–35% 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% carbs, 30% fat and 35% 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.
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% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat.
- 4 calories per gram
- 40% of 2,000 calories = 800 calories of carbs per day
- Total grams of carbs allowed per day = 800/4 = 200 grams
- 4 calories per gram
- 30% of 2,000 calories = 600 calories of protein per day
- Total grams of protein allowed per day = 600/4 = 150 grams
- 9 calories per gram
- 30% 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.
Summary To count macros, determine your calorie and macronutrient needs, then log macros into an app or food journal.
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.
Summary Macronutrient counting is an excellent tool for those looking to lose weight or build muscle. It can promote healthier eating and improved diet quality.
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% carbs, 35% fat and 25% 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.
- 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
- Milk and yogurt
- Egg whites
- Milk and yogurt
- Protein powders
- Egg yolks
- Olive and avocado oils
- Nuts and nut butters
- Coconut oil and coconut flakes
- Full-fat milk and yogurt
- Full-fat cheese
- Flaxseeds and chia seeds
- Fatty fish like salmon and sardines
Summary When trying to reach specific macronutrient goals, focus on foods rich in the macronutrients you need to consume the most.
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.
Summary Counting macros may help people lose weight and reach health goals. However, it’s not appropriate for those with a history of eating disorders.
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.