How to Count Macros: A Step by Step Guide

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

What exactly is a macro diet and should you be on one? While macro counting is gaining popularity on social media, the concept is not exactly new. Macros have been around nearly as long as calories, and tracking macros has long been practiced in the fitness and dieting world. So whether you are brand new to the concept or just looking to step up your fitness journey to the next level, here's everything you need to know about counting macros. 

What are Macros and Why Should You Care?

The term Macronutrients (macros) stems from the Greek word "makros", meaning large. Macronutrients are nutrients you require in large amounts. They are needed in such large quantities because they supply all of your daily energy.

Macros are essentially your calories from food broken up into three major nutrient groups:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Fat

Every macro provides important nutrients for daily function and survival, and getting the right balance of all three is crucial for maintaining lean muscle, burning fat and staying healthy. Meaning macros may play a key role in determining your body composition.  

Macros vs Calories

While weight loss can be achieved through decreasing the quantity of what you eat (aka reducing your daily calorie intake), fat loss likely requires you to change the quality of your diet. In other words, fat loss or muscle gain can be triggered when you start tracking your macros because of the way your body utilizes them.

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Macronutients vs. Micronutrients

There is a lot of talk around an "if it fits your macros" (iifym) approach to dieting, but macros are only one piece of the puzzle. There is also micros to consider when it comes to nutrition needs.

Micronutrients (micros), on the other hand, are nutrients needed in smaller amounts, and they do not provide a source of calories to the diet. These include all of the essential vitamins and minerals we need each day. 

You can likely eat a lot of unhealthy foods and still hit your macros, but you'll get better results if you focus on diet quality as well. I'm talking about choosing more nutrient-dense foods instead of just focusing on your daily macros. 

Is Alcohol a Macro?

Alcohol is also technically a macro since it provides calories, but is not considered an essential nutrient for health so it is often left out of macro diet plans.

You should still track your calorie intake from alcohol since this will definitely affect your progress and ability to lose weight or gain muscle. Alcohol provides a significant amount calories - in fact, each gram of alcohol provides seven calories per gram.

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If you are looking to lose body fat you may want to consider drinking less alcohol. Your body will prioritize metabolizing toxins from drinking before other macros, slowing down your metabolism and increasing how much fat you are storing from food. This can prevent you from burning as much fat.

How to Count Macros

Counting macros is the process of tracking how many grams of each macronutrient you consume per day. And because protein, fat and carbohydrates each provide a certain amount of calories per gram, you are also tracking your daily calorie intake.

Counting macros is an easy way to count calories and nutrition intake at the same time. 

Step 1. Learn How Many Calories Per Macro 

The calorie breakdown of your macros is as follows:

Carbohydrates and protein provide roughly four calories per gram - meaning a food or beverage item with 10g of protein will provide 40 calories from protein.

Fat is the most calorically dense macro and provides nine calories per gram, so a food or beverage containing 10g of fat will provide 90 calories from fat - more than twice the amount of energy as protein and carbohydrates.

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Step 2. Calculate Total Macro Calories

You can calculate the amount you are eating by using the nutrition facts label. It really is that simple, anything that has a nutrition facts label, also has macros listed. In fact, macros are exactly what the FDA uses to calculate the amount of calories in your food. 

Here is an example of a cereal below. A half-cup serving of this food provides 3 grams of fat, 13 grams of carbs, and 3 grams of protein. 

If you wanted to further understand how many calories you are getting and the percentage coming from each macro, you can multiply each amount by their designated macronutrient calorie count.

  • 3g of fat x 9 calories per gram = 27 calories
  • 13g of carbs x 4 calories per gram = 52 calories
  • 3g of protein x 4 calories per gram = 12 calories

These calorie amounts combined should equal the amount of total calories for the food - 90 calories per serving!

Step 3. Assess Macro Ratio (%)

To find the macro ratio percentage for each, you simply divide each calorie amount by total calories (90) and then multiply by 100.

Note: this percentage is different than the percent daily value on the label, which is looking at your total daily needs.

  • 27 fat calories / 90 calories x 100% = 30% of calories from fat 
  • 52 carb calories / 90 calories x 100% = 57% of calories from carbs
  • 12 protein fat calories / 90 calories x 100% = 13% of calories from protein

The percentage of all three - protein, fat and carbohydrates, should total 100%. 

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TIP: To be as accurate as possible, make sure you are measuring for the right portion size! 

Using a Macro Tracking App

In short, the easiest and most useful way to count macronutrients is using a macro tracking app. It's also a good way to ensure you are sticking to your diet so that you get results! 

Tracking apps can be especially helpful for options that don’t have a nutrition facts label - such as fresh meats and produce. Using a searchable database from a food tracking app can help you find the nutrition breakdown of these foods.

You can also find the nutrition information for any food online through the USDA Food Composition Databases.

Additionally, some tracking apps will use a barcode scanner feature that allows you to quickly input nutrition info for packaged foods. 

Pssst...The Trifecta app, has over 6 million food items you can search and a barcode scanner for better tracking! It also has a quick add macro feature that allows you to input the carbs, fat, and protein for any food to count your macros in seconds. 

TIP: Weighing and measuring your food will help you to be more precise, when tracking items without a nutrition facts label.

Calculate: How Many Macros Do You Need?

You can quickly determine your unique macro needs using a macro calculator or macro tracking app, that uses a series of simple questions to assess your fitness and health goals.

Or you can roughly estimate your macros using the simple formula below.

Step #1 - Choose your Objective. Are you trying to lose fat? Gain muscle? Or do you want to maintain your weight and/or improve performance? 

Step #2 - Estimate how many calories you need per day to lose, gain, or maintain your weight. You can find this using a total daily energy expenditure calculator or TDEE calculator

Step #3 - Once you have your target total daily intake, you can estimate your macro needs using the following chart:

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Macro Diets

Of course, it's not always a one-size-fits-all, and there are a number of flexible dieting approaches you can use to control calories and balance your nutrition by counting your macros. 

So whether you are a bodybuilder, or just looking to eat healthier, here are some common macro based diet approaches you've might have heard of, along with an article the breaks down the details for each: 

Weight Loss Macros

Wondering if low carb, high protein, or low fat is best? Here's the best macros for weight loss to get you started. 

Macros for Cutting

Looking to maintain lean mass and get shredded? Check out this simple guide to macros for cutting and dial in your nutrition like a pro. 

Muscle Gain Macros

Gaining healthy weight requires a strategic macro and training focus. Get up to speed on the ideal macros for bulking to make sure you put those gym days to work. 

Keto Diet Macros

Having trouble sticking to a lower fat intake? Consider changing it up with a high-fat, low carb diet for weight loss like keto. Check out this keto macro guide to get started.

Vegan Macros

Since plants are typically a source of carbs and/or fats, navigating a high protein, plant-based diet can feel challenging. Learn more about how to count macros on a vegan diet.

Macro Meal Planner

Once you’ve got your macronutrient ratios dialed in, you can plan your daily meals around them. 

Here’s how to build a solid plan to reach your macro goals:

  1. Start by learning which healthy foods correspond to each macro.
  2. Then get familiar with weighing and portioning your food with this macros made easy guide
  3. Learn to meal prep like a boss to crush your macros and eat the foods you love most.
  4. Track your daily macro intake using a food tracking app.

Want to make sure you are including the right macros in your diet? Try a macro based meal delivery program and get all of your favorite proteins, carbs and veggies pre-cooked and ready to eat. No more shopping and cooking, or dirty dishes!

LEARN MORE

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