How to Count Macros: Easy Guide for Beginners

Discover the key to effective weight loss through personalized nutrition. Learn how counting macros empowers you to achieve your goals with precision.

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by
Sarah Zimmer, PT, DPT
— Signos
PT, DPT
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
May 20, 2024
November 13, 2023
— Updated:
November 14, 2023

Table of Contents

Have you overheard your friends or coworkers talking about “tracking their macros?”  Macros, short for macronutrients, are the largest essential components of your diet that provide your body with energy and nutrition.1 Specifically, these include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Counting macros allows you to tailor your diet to meet your specific health and fitness goals, whether it's weight loss, muscle gain, or simply maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In this article, we'll walk you through the basics of how to count macros to achieve your goals and maintain a healthier diet.

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What Are Macros?

Macronutrients, or "macros," are the fundamental nutritional components in food. There are three primary macronutrients - carbohydrates, proteins, and fats - and each has an important role in producing energy and tissues within the body.1 

Carbohydrates are your body's primary source of energy. They are quickly converted into glucose, which the body uses immediately or stores for later use.2 Carbohydrates consist of sugars, starches, and dietary fiber and are commonly found in foods like bread, pasta, fruits and vegetables, and beans. Remember, carbohydrates are still important for healthy blood sugar levels, hormones, and brain health. 

Proteins play a crucial role in the growth, repair, and maintenance of the different tissues within our bodies (i.e., muscle, hormones, etc.).3 You can find protein in animal sources such as meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products or non-animal sources such as beans, legumes, nuts, and soy. 

Fats serve as a long-term energy store and participate in key functions like cell membrane formation, insulation, and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.4 Healthy fat sources include avocados, nuts, seeds, oils, and fatty fish.

What Is Counting Macros?

"Counting macros" refers to calculating and tracking the intake of macronutrients in your diet within a specific ratio. This approach involves quantifying the grams or percentages of each macronutrient to meet specific health and fitness goals, such as weight loss, muscle gain, or overall well-being. 

For example, losing body fat may require a lower carbohydrate and higher protein/fat ratio, whereas building muscle might emphasize higher carbohydrates for energy. Counting macros empowers individuals to make informed food choices, optimize their nutrition, and reach their fitness goals while ensuring their bodies receive the necessary nutrients.5

Macros vs Calories

Both counting macros and calorie intake are valuable dietary approaches, but they serve different purposes depending on your specific goals. Counting macros focuses on tracking the intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. It considers the composition of your calories more than the amount. Counting calories centers on tracking the total calories you consume and expend. However, it doesn't address the quality or source of the calories, and a diet solely based on calorie counting may not adequately address your nutritional needs. 

Which approach is best? Counting macros is often more precise, flexible, and beneficial for those looking to optimize their diet for muscle gain, athletic performance, or specific health needs. Combining both approaches can offer a comprehensive view of your diet and help you achieve a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

How to Count Macros Explained

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Counting your macros is fairly simple and begins with calculating your daily caloric needs and the ratios of macronutrients that match your goals. Here are three steps to help you get started: 

  1. Calculate Your Daily Caloric Needs: Use an online TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) calculator to estimate the number of calories you need each day to achieve your goals. For weight loss, if your TDEE is 2,100 calories, you might aim for a daily intake of 1,800 calories.
  2. Determine Your Macronutrient Ratios:  A common ratio for balanced nutrition or weight loss is 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat. On a 1,800-calorie diet, you might aim for 180g of carbs, 135g of protein, and 60g of fat daily.
  3. Track Your Food Intake: Use apps or written logs to record the grams of carbs, proteins, and fats in the foods you consume each day to see if you are hitting your daily targets. 

Benefits of Counting Macros

Counting macros offers several benefits that can help you achieve your dietary and fitness goals, such as:

  • Improved Dietary Awareness: Becoming more mindful of the nutritional content of your meals and snacks can lead to healthier food choices, better portion control, and a more balanced diet overall. 
  • Precision and Personalization: Counting macros allows you to fine-tune your diet to match your unique objectives and dietary values.  
  • Optimize Athletic Performance: For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, counting macros can help dial in your nutrition for performance enhancement, muscle growth, and body composition.
  • Easy to Follow and Sustainable: Counting macros can be a sustainable approach to nutrition because it's flexible dieting and an adaptable strategy. You can adjust your ratios as your goals and needs change over time while maintaining a healthy diet.

Drawbacks of Counting Macros

While counting macros can be a powerful tool for many, it has drawbacks. Here are some potential disadvantages:

  • Time-Consuming: Tracking macros requires constantly calculating the macronutrient content of your meals and weighing your food on a food scale to determine exact portions. This can be time-consuming and cumbersome for some individuals, especially those with busy schedules.
  • Obsession and Stress: Counting macros can lead to an unhealthy obsession with food and numbers. It may cause stress and anxiety, leading to an unhealthy relationship with eating. Listen to yourself, and make sure counting macros isn’t affecting your mental health. 
  • Neglect of Micronutrients: A well-rounded approach to nutrition should also consider micronutrients to ensure overall health. Focusing solely on macros may lead to neglecting essential vitamins and minerals your body needs. 

Macro-Based Diets

Many popular diets and meal plans focus on specific macronutrient ratios or restrictions. One of the most popular diets that focuses on counting macros is “If It Fits Your Macros” or IIFYM. This eating plan claims that no foods are off limits if they fit within your macro targets. Other diets that focus on macros include low-fat and low-carb diets, as well as a high-protein diet.

How to Calculate Macros for Weight Loss

To calculate macros for weight loss, estimate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) using an online calculator and establish a daily caloric deficit of 250 to 500 calories less than your TDEE. Then, determine your macro goals for weight loss, often set at 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat, making sure the amount of protein is a high priority specific for weight loss. For instance, if your daily calorie goal for weight loss is 1,800 calories, then aim for about 180 grams of carbohydrates, 135 grams of protein, and 60 grams of fat daily. 

How to Count Macros for Cutting

Athletes and bodybuilders calculating macros for cutting adapt their approach to the different phases of the cutting cycle. During the initial phase, aim for a moderate calorie deficit of around 10 to 20% below your maintenance calories and stick to a common ratio of 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat. As you progress into a more aggressive cutting phase, increase the caloric deficit to 20 to 30% below maintenance by reducing carbohydrates and fats while keeping protein intake high to preserve muscle mass. This shifts the macros to 30% carbs, 40% protein, and 30% fat. 

Leading up to an event or competition might involve an even more significant calorie deficit, resulting in macros of 20% carbs, 50% protein, and 30% fat, again focusing on protein to maintain lean muscle mass. Be careful to attempt cutting cycles if you are not familiar with how to do it safely or if you have an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise.

How to Count Macros for Weight Gain

To gain weight in the form of muscle mass, estimate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and add surplus calories to support muscle growth, often around 250 to 500 calories above maintenance. Set your macronutrient ratios to a higher protein intake, around 30 to 35% of total calories, moderate carbohydrates at 40 to 50%, and fats at 15-20%. 

For example, if your TDEE is 2,500 calories, you might aim for a daily intake of 2,750 calories with roughly 206 to 219 grams of protein, 275 to 343 grams of carbohydrates, and 46 to 61 grams of fat. 

How to Count Macros on Keto 

To calculate macros on a keto diet, you'll primarily focus on consuming high amounts of healthy fats, moderate protein, and very low carbohydrates. Common macronutrient ratios are approximately 70 to 75% fat, 20 to 25% protein, and 5 to 10% carbohydrates. If your daily caloric target is 2,000 calories, your macros could be approximately 155 to 175 grams of fat, 100 to 125 grams of protein, and 25 to 50 grams of carbohydrates. 

It's essential to focus on healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and olive oil and limit carbohydrate intake from sources like grains, starchy vegetables, and sugars to follow a ketogenic diet effectively.

Tips for Counting Macros for Beginners

Beginning to calculate and track your macros can feel daunting. Here are some essential tips for beginners. 

  1. Start Slowly: Take your time with detailed tracking. Start by choosing healthier sources of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and understanding portion sizes. As you get comfortable, you can delve deeper into precise macro counting.
  2. Use Tracking Apps: Mobile apps like MyFitnessPal, Cronometer, or Lose It! can make tracking your macros more manageable. These apps offer extensive food databases and can calculate your macros based on the foods you input.
  3. Don't Obsess Over Perfection: While tracking macros is valuable, it's okay to have days when you don't hit your targets perfectly. Aim for consistency over perfection.
  4. Seek Professional Guidance: Consider consulting a registered dietitian or nutritionist for personalized guidance if you have specific dietary needs or health concerns.

Remember that patience and consistency are key; don't be too hard on yourself if you don't get it perfect from day one. Over time, you'll become more in tune with your body and its nutritional needs, making macro counting a valuable tool on your health and fitness journey.

Should I Count Macros? The Bottom Line

Counting macros is a valuable tool for many individuals, but it's not suitable for everyone. It is most beneficial when you have specific fitness objectives, want to create a healthier diet, or are experiencing a plateau in your weight loss goals. 

However, if you have a healthy relationship with food, can maintain your desired weight and fitness, or find it overwhelming, counting macros may not be necessary. The decision to count macros should align with your individual goals and values and promote a sustainable and balanced approach to nutrition. There are various dietary strategies; what matters most is finding the one that works best for you and supports your long-term well-being.

Frequently Asked Questions

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How to Count Alcohol Macros?

Alcohol contains calories primarily from carbohydrates. To calculate alcohol macros, find the total calories for the drink and divide it by 4, as 1 gram of carbohydrates equals about 4 calories. For example, a beer of 120 calories contains roughly 30 grams of carbohydrates. 

How to Calculate Your Macros?

To calculate your macros, estimate your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). Next, decide on your macro ratios for your specific goals (i.e., 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30%.) Then, calculate the grams of each macro by converting the percentages into calories, keeping in mind that 1 gram of carbohydrates and protein provides roughly 4 calories, while 1 gram of fat provides approximately 9 calories. In this example, a 2000-calorie diet would require 200g carbs, 150g protein, and 67g fats. 

How to Figure Out Macros for Weight Loss?

For weight loss, estimate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and subtract 250-500 calories from your desired caloric deficit. For instance, if your TDEE is 2500, you might set your macros to around 2000 calories daily. Use the ratio of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat to find the number of grams to target daily per macronutrient.  

How Do Macros Work?

Macros are the most essential components of your diet, comprising carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. They provide your body with energy and play various roles in your health. Balancing the right proportion of these macros in your diet is crucial for meeting your health and fitness goals, such as weight management, muscle gain, blood sugar control, and overall well-being.

What Is a Macro Calculator?

A macro calculator is an online tool or software that helps individuals determine their ideal macronutrient ratios and daily calorie targets based on their specific goals, activity levels, age, and gender. After users input their data, the calculator provides recommended grams of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to align with objectives like weight loss, muscle gain, or maintenance. 

Learn More About Health with Signos’ Expert Advice.

If you have more questions about improving your health, fitness, and nutrition, seek the expert advice of the Signos continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and the Signos team. A CGM can give you the insights to make smarter nutrition and exercise choices. The Signos app provides a unique, personalized program to help you lose weight and reach your health goals. Take this quiz to see if Signos is a good fit for you and to reach your goals faster than ever.  

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References

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  6. Koliaki, C., Spinos, T., Spinou, Μ., Brinia, Μ. E., Mitsopoulou, D., & Katsilambros, N. (2018, September). Defining the optimal dietary approach for safe, effective and sustainable weight loss in overweight and obese adults. In Healthcare (Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 73). Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.

About the author

Sarah is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, graduating from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2017.

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