How to Count Macros for Weight Loss or Muscle Gain

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

What exactly is a macro diet and should you be on one? While macro counting seems trendy, 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 nutrition world. So whether you are brand new to the concept or just looking to dial in your nutrition like a pro, here's everything you need to know about counting macronutrients for any diet. 

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

Each 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. By counting your macros, you are counting calories and your nutrition intake at the same time.  

Macronutients vs. Micronutrients

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. 

Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss 

While weight loss can be achieved through decreasing the quantity of what you eat (aka reducing your daily calorie intake), fat loss 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.

Macros-Trifecta-12

 

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.

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.

Macros-Trifecta-04

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 amount.

  • 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 amount combined should equal the amount of total calories for the food - 90 calories per serving! And 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%. 

Macros-Trifecta-09

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

Use a Macro Tracking App

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. Macro tracking apps are also the ideal way to track you macro intake and ensure you are hitting your goals.

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

Pssst...The Trifecta app, has over 6 million food items you can search and a barcode scanner for fast tracking!

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


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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TIP: 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.

Counting Macros for Weight Loss

Because calorie control is the most effective approach to weight loss, counting macros can help you lose weight. And as a bonus, a good macro balance can help you control your appetite, support energy levels, lose more body fat, and protect your lean mass while in a calorie deficit.

Each macro is used a little differently by the body. Carbs are your preferred source of quick energy, and excess carbs can be stored in your muscles for fuel or as body fat. Fat is your source of long-term energy, used as immediate fuel or stored as body fat. And protein is the builder macro, used to build and maintain a majority of the cells throughout your body including your DNA, bones, and muscle mass - any excess protein can be used as energy or stored as body fat.

How Many Carbs to Lose Weight?

It feels like carbohydrate intake has become one of the most controversial topics when it comes to losing weight. For decades, health and nutrition experts have battled it out over low-fat and low-carb styles of eating for the best results.

According to the US Dietary Guidelines, Carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 percent of total calorie intake. But other popular diets recommend intake as low as 20g of carbohydrates per day. So what gives? Is there any proof that cutting carbs is an efficient way to lose weight and how many carbs do we actually need?

First, as far as we know, weight loss is only accomplished through eating less calories than you burn each day. We don't have any research that disproves this concept. So the argument is not whether or not eating too many carbs will make you fat, it's whether or not eating less carbs can promote more body fat loss during a calorie deficit. And whether or not low carb diets offer specific advantages over other macro diets for weight loss. 

The truth is, we don't know for sure. There is plenty of research suggesting low-carb diets may be more beneficial than low fat, but there are also large, high-quality studies implying no difference between the two (1). What we can takeaway from the science is that everyone is a little different when it comes to dietary approaches and what works well for some may not work for all. We are in need of more individual approaches to dieting and more research looking at what variables we should be guided by.   


They type of carbs you choose is likely more important than the amount for most people.

Carbohydrates come from anything that grows out of the ground, including fruits and vegetables - and carbohydrates contribute fiber to the diet. They are the body's quickest and most efficient source of fuel, and the only macro that is able to readily supply energy to the brain (ketones can also do this, but requires your body to go into a state of ketosis and metabolize fat into usable fuel). They are also important for muscle recovery, endurance and strength building. And they play a role helping regulate our energy, mood, and self-control. Lack of carbs can actually make you "hangry", tried and even create brain fog. And poor blood sugar control from too much added sugar and poor dietary choices can do the same thing. 

Depending on your fitness level and personal goals, striving for low carb intake (less than 100g of carbs per day) may not be the best solution. But the less active you are, the less carbs your body needs.

Depending on your calorie level, you will want to eat roughly 30 to 60% of your calories from carbohydrates.  

Carbohydrates are embraced in the athlete world. Macro timing and balance has been a popular tool for optimizing performance and results and this approach can be applied to the average eater. Understanding how carbs work and adjusting your intake of high quality options to support your daily needs through carb cycling may be an alternative approach to just eliminating carbs all together.

Higher Carb Foods Low Carb Foods
  • Added Sugars
  • Baked Goods and Desserts
  • Beans, Lentils and Peas
  • Breads and Tortillas
  • Candy and Sweets
  • Cereals
  • Chips, Pretzels
  • Corn and Potatoes
  • Fruit
  • Milk
  • Pasta
  • Polenta
  • Rice
  • Whole Grains
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Fish and Shellfish
  • Meat and Poultry
  • Melon and Berries
  • Non-Starchy Veggies
  • Nuts and Seeds
  • Oils and Butters

 

How Much Protein to Lose Weight?

Protein is the most unique of all the macros because it is not a preferred source of energy and is the least likely to be stored as body fat. Protein also helps maintain lean muscle, takes more energy to digest (more thermogenic than the other macros), and is thought to help control hunger, and reduce cravings.

Research continues to suggests that higher protein intakes may support more weight loss, but the amount of protein you actually need is still widely debated. US Dietary Guidelines recommend 0.36 to 0.45 grams per pound of body weight - while others argue this amount is based around getting minimum adequate needs for the general population and does not take into account differences in body composition and fitness needs.

Some studies point to 0.45 to 0.55 grams/pound body weight as the minimum intake (2,3,4,5,6). And when looking at weight loss in specific, some studies argue that even higher protein intake at 0.6 to 0.72 grams/pound, and meals providing at least 25 to 30g of protein, are associated with decreases in appetite and better weight management overall (7). Furthermore, studies looking at athletes who are cutting calories, suggest that intakes as high as 1 to 1.5 g/pound to minimize their loss of lean mass (8,9,10,11).

Overall, science suggests that approximately 0.6 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight with sufficient energy intake, can support building lean mass while cutting calories.

And while some research still argues that eating more than 0.8 grams/pound does not results in any additional benefits, additional intake has not shown to be harmful either (12).

How Much Fat Per Day to Lose Weight?

Dietary fat is essential for good health, but because it is the most calorie dense macro, it can also be easy to overdo it.

The amount of fat you need each day to lose weight ultimately depends on the person. Some people are much more efficient at utilizing fat for energy and do well on a higher fat diet, while others prefer higher carb intake - this is partially determined by your fitness needs as well as your overall lean body mass.

For most, keeping your fat intake around 20% to 30% of your calories will support good health and provide an ideal macro ratio for fat loss.  

Macros for Building Muscle

Just as your macronutrient ratio can affect your fat loss, the type of food you eat can also impact weight gain. Building muscle requires excess calorie intake, and with the wrong bulking diet, you can easily end up gaining more body fat than muscle.

How Many Carbs to Build Muscle?

Carbohydrates can supply energy for your muscle building workouts, and may also support muscle growth in other ways - such as supporting exercise recovery and the prevention of further muscle breakdown (13).

A higher carb might also be ideal for weight gain, with some studies suggesting that high carb intake is less likely to promote fat storage compared to high fat intake when calorie needs are exceeded (14,15). But of course, this always depends on the person and how well/often your use carbs for energy.

To get a more precise estimate, you can figure out your daily carbohydrate needs by calculating your protein and fat needs first. See below.   

How Much Protein to Build Muscle?

Protein is essential when it comes to muscle gain - it is the sole source of amino acids needed to build lean tissue. It is also crucial for workout recovery, helping to repair muscle damage and support existing muscle mass. In addition, protein is the least likely of all the macros to be stored as body fat in a calorie surplus.

The amount of protein you need to build muscle is determined by your fitness level and existing muscle mass - essentially, the more muscle you have and the more you use it, the more protein you will need.

According to the research, a high protein diet - roughly 1 to 1.5 grams of protein a day, per pound of body weight, is ideal to support more muscle growth and less body fat gain in a bulking diet (17,18).

How Much Fat to Build Muscle?

Because fat can be an easy source of calories needed to gain weight, increasing fat intake is one way to support muscle growth. However, too much fat in some people could end up causing more body fat gains, and fat doesn't play quite the supportive role as carbs do since it is mainly just used for energy.

That being said, how well you handle a high-fat diet is dependent on your unique metabolic needs. In addition, the type of fat you eat might impact potential fat gain - with some research suggesting saturated fats are more likely to cause increases in fat storage compared to unsaturated, healthy fats in a calorie surplus (19).

Aim to keep your fat intake at 20 to 30% of your daily calories to get the potential health benefits, but not overdo it. And opt for more healthy fats from plants and seafood where possible.

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 but change your body composition?

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:

Macros-Trifecta-08 (1)

Other Macro Diets

Of course, it's not always a one-size-fits-all, and there are a number of dietary approaches you can take to control calories and balance your nutrition. 

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 fat, navigating a high protein, plant-based diet can feel challenging. Learn more about how to count macros on a vegan diet.

Carb Cycling and Macro Timing

The type of workouts you are doing and the intensity, can directly affect your daily calorie and macro needs. For the ultimate results, consider adjusting your macros each day based on your fitness regime. This is commonly referred to as carb cycling or macro timing. 

By increasing your intake of certain macros on days you use them more, you can potentially utilize your calories more efficiently and fuel your workouts better. Use the following breakdown to customize a specific macro based meal plan that supports your workout routine.

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At Rest

At rest, your body is using mostly fat for long lasting energy.  Fat is preferred because you have an abundant supply and it provides twice as much energy per gram, compared to carbs and protein.                                                           

  • How your calorie needs change: Low overall calorie burn. Decrease total calorie intake.
  • How your macro needs change: Decrease carbs and fat on these days. For many, 30 to 40% carbs, 30 to 40% protein and 20 to 25% fat work well. 

Moderate Activity

During moderate exercise, your body is still using mostly fat for energy but also starts using carbs for quicker energy. Fat metabolism is slow and requires plenty of oxygen. As you start moving around, oxygen becomes less available and you need energy faster - carbs are a quick and easy source for fuel.

  • How your calorie needs change:  Moderate calorie burn. Keep calories the same.
  • How your macro needs change: Keep protein, carbs and fat moderate. For most, 40 to 50% carbs, 20 to 30% protein, and 20 to 30% fat work well. 

High Intensity

When performing at high intensity, oxygen is not readily available and quick energy is needed. At this level your body is burning mostly carbs for fast energy, and some fat for sustained endurance.

  • How your calorie needs change:  High overall calorie burn and increased fat burning potential. Slightly increase total calories on these days.
  • How your macro needs change: Decrease fat, and increase carbs and keep protein moderate. For many, 50 to 65% carbs, 20 to 30% protein, and 15 to 25% fat work well. 

TIP: Use your estimated daily calorie needs from your TDEE and adjust up or down each day based on your workouts. The total weekly average of calories should still equal your TDEE.

Macro Meal Planner

Once you’ve got your macronutrient ratios dialed in, you can plan your daily meals around them. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Start by learning which healthy foods correspond to each macro.
  2. Then get familiar with weighing and portioning your food to hit your macro goals.
  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 save time on meal prep? 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, just portion, season and eat!

LEARN MORE

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