In the world of dieting and sports nutrition, counting macros has become increasingly popular. But what exactly are macros? And how do you count them? Here is everything that you need to know about macros, the difference between macros and calories, the benefits of counting macros, the drawbacks of counting macros, and some suggestions on whether or not you should be counting macros.
What are macros?
The term macros is short for macronutrients. Macros, or macronutrients, are the primary dietary nutrients and include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. All foods are made up of macronutrients and can be composed of one macronutrient, two macronutrients, or a combination of all three.
Carbohydrates are composed of sugar, starch, and fiber and are the body’s primary source of energy. The sugars found in carbohydrates are broken down into glucose by the body through the process of digestion, which is either used immediately for energy or stored as glycogen to be used later on, between meals or during exercise.
Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram and are found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, root vegetables such as potatoes, whole grains, beans, lentils, dairy, nuts, and seeds.
Proteins are made from compounds called amino acids, which are the building blocks for many structures and functions in the body. Protein is responsible for building muscles, supporting our immune system, aiding digestion, and carrying oxygen through our blood.
Proteins provide 4 calories per gram and are found in foods such as red meat, poultry, and seafood such as salmon, dairy, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.
Fats are made up of smaller molecules called fatty acids, which are composed of carbon and hydrogen elements joined together in long chains called hydrocarbons. Fats are found in saturated and unsaturated forms and, depending on their exact structure, can be used as a source of energy or for other critical functions including hormone production and nutrient absorption.
Fats provide 9 calories per gram and are found in foods such as animal fats, oils, butter, avocado, olives, nuts, and seeds.
Macronutrients are not to be confused with micronutrients. Macronutrients are the large (macro) nutrients required by the body, while micronutrients are the small (micro) nutrients required by the body and include vitamins and minerals. Essentially, eating adequate macronutrients will provide the body with the necessary micronutrients.
Are macros the same as calories?
Macros are what calories are made of, so if you are tracking macros you are inherently tracking calories; however, if you are tracking calories you are not necessarily tracking macros.
Each gram of macronutrient provides a specific number of calories (carbohydrates = 4 calories, proteins = 4 calories, fats = 9 calories) by tracking the total number of grams of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats you are consuming you will be tracking your total calorie intake as well. For example, if your goal is to consume 220 grams of carbohydrate per day, 120 grams of protein per day, and 50 grams of fat per day, you will (mathematically) be working towards a goal of 1,810 calories per day, given 220 grams of carbohydrate provides 880 calories, 120 grams of protein provides 480 calories and 50 of fat provides 450 calories, for a total of 1,810 calories.
- Calories from Carbohydrates = # of grams x 4 calories per gram
- Calories from Protein = # of grams x 4 calories per gram
- Calories from Fat = # of grams x 9 calories per gram
Total Calories = Carbohydrate Calories + Protein Calories + Fat Calories
However, if you are counting calories you aren’t necessarily counting macros unless you chose to. For instance, if you have a goal of consuming 1,810 calories per day, this can be achieved by tracking the total number of calories in the food you are consuming without or without monitoring macronutrients. For example, a goal of 1,810 calories could be achieved with 220 grams of carbohydrates, 120 grams of protein, and 50 grams of fat, but it could also be achieved with 190 grams of carbohydrates, 105 grams of protein, and 70 grams of fat, as well as many more combinations!
How to Count Macros
Determining how to calculate and count macros is equal parts art and science. Although the numbers aren’t set in stone, determining your macros can provide some dietary targets to aim for to help you reach your personal health goals.
1. Determine your Calorie Needs
The first step is to determine your calorie needs. The number of calories a person requires per day is based on their metabolism, which is based on a number of factors including age, height, weight, activity level, lifestyle habits, and personal health goals. More specifically, your estimated calorie needs are based on two key factors; your resting energy expenditure (REE) and your non-resting energy expenditure (NREE). The combination of these two numbers determines your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) or estimated calorie needs. (1)(2) Although there are many different ways to determine your calorie needs, a simple online macro calculator is a great place to start.
It is important to keep in mind that these estimated numbers are exactly that – estimates. Our bodies are not perfect computers and our calorie needs can vary from one day to the next, not to mention, calorie needs will fluctuate based on personal goals. For example, someone with a goal of weight loss may need to consume fewer calories than they expend, while someone looking to gain muscle mass may need to consume more calories than they expend. It is for this reason that calorie requirements can vary immensely from person to person.
2. Determine your Macro Breakdown
Once you have determined your daily calorie needs, you can then determine your macro breakdown. A typical macro breakdown, recommended by the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine (IOM), is as follows: (3)
- Carbohydrates: 45 – 65% of total calories
- Fats: 20 – 35% of total calories
- Proteins: 10 – 35% of total calories
As you can see, there is a lot of variation in macronutrient ratios. These ranges are simply suggestions and can be fine-tuned for your personal goals, style of eating, and dietary preference. For instance, an individual whose dietary preferences require more carbohydrates may opt for a higher percentage of carbohydrates, a moderate percentage of protein, and a lower percentage of fat; while an individual who is looking to manage blood sugar may opt for a higher percentage of fat, a higher percentage of protein and a lower percentage of carbohydrates; while an endurance athlete may opt for a higher percentage of carbohydrates, moderate percentage of fat and lower percentage of protein; and an individual who is looking to lose weight and build muscle tissue may opt for a higher percentage of protein, moderate percentage of carbohydrates and lower percentage of fat.
The macros you choose to follow are based on your personal goals and can be adapted and altered over time as your needs and goals change.
3. Track your Macros
Once you have determined your calorie needs and your macro breakdown, you can begin tracking your macros. Tracking macros simply means you are monitoring the total number of grams of carbohydrates, protein, and fat you are consuming per day. In order to ensure accuracy with this method, foods must be weighed, measured, and logged to ensure that you are reaching your carbohydrate, protein, and fat goals. The easiest and most convenient way to track macros is by using an app such as MyFitnessPal, MyMacros+ or Lose It!. These digital apps are designed to calculate the macros in the food you consume and are a very user-friendly way to track macros.
When tracking macros is it not necessary that you hit the exact target of grams of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. You can still meet your goals even if you are over or under by a few grams of each macro each day, however, the more accurate the better.
Benefits of Counting Macros
For anyone who has never tracked macros, it does have some potential benefits.
Understand the Value of Portion Size
Learning how many calories each macronutrient provides can be helpful in understanding how our individual food choices impact our total calorie intake. This can help to open your eyes to what an appropriate portion size is and how an extra piece of this or a handful of that can add up quickly over time if you are not being mindful of how much you are consuming.
Understand the Impact of Macronutrients
Monitoring your macronutrient intake can also help you recognize how the consumption of each macronutrient can impact how you feel, your energy levels, your mental state, as well as physical changes. For example, eating a diet too low in protein may leave you feeling extra hungry or lethargic, while eating a diet too low in fat may leave you lacking energy and feeling cranky, and eating a diet too low in carbohydrates may cause athletic performance to suffer. Counting macros and comparing how you feel to what you ate can help you understand how each macronutrient directly impacts your body.
Eat a More Balanced Diet
Counting your macros is a very strategic way to ensure that you are eating a balanced diet. Unlike calorie counting and other restrictive diets, counting macros forces you to monitor your intake of carbs, protein, and fat to help ensure that you are eating adequate macronutrients to reach your personal goals. Not only can eating a balanced diet help with performance and body composition goals but eating a balanced diet is imperative for general health, including everything from energy to digestion.
Understand Dieting Flexibility
Counting macros can be a good reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to nutrition. Given there is so much flexibility in counting macros, you can easily manipulate them to work for your personal eating style. Whether it’s a treat, an indulgent meal or a special occasion, counting macros can help teach you how to make indulgences a part of a healthy diet, as opposed to trying to avoid them altogether.
Holds You Accountable
When it comes to eating well, accountability is key. Whether someone is checking in with you to review your food log and your macros, or you are just doing your own thing, tracking your food can help to hold you accountable to your choices and your goals. The simple act of tracking your food, be it macros or another format, can help to bring an element of mindfulness and awareness, as well as help to identify any patterns or triggers you might have.
Drawbacks of Counting Macros
Although there are some benefits to counting macros, there are some potential drawbacks as well.
Does not Ensure Food Quality
Unfortunately, tracking macros does not require you to focus on food quality. Although any healthy diet should focus on food quality (i.e. whole foods), it is possible to count and track macros without focusing on whole foods. You can easily make a day of chicken, veggies, and rice fit your macro the same way you can make burgers, fries, and soda, which is certainly not an ideal way of eating. Yes, calories are important, and yes, macronutrients are important, but the quality of the food that you eat will always outweigh the quantity of the food that you eat.
Takes a Lot of Time and Effort
There is no way around it, counting macros takes extra time and effort. In order to ensure accuracy, you need to weigh and/or measure all of the food that you consume to ensure that what you are tracking is truly what you are consuming. This additional step can be off-putting for many, as grocery shopping and cooking are often time-consuming enough.
Can Make Mealtime Stressful
The additional steps of weighing, measuring, and tracking everything that you eat can make mealtime stressful, and this is especially true is you are cooking from scratch. If you are eating a lot of packaged and processed food, although not ideal, it is a lot easier to scan their barcodes, whereas cooking homemade meals, although ideal, means a lot more counting and math to ensure the macros are accurate.
Not Sustainable for the Long-Term
Although it may be beneficial in the short term, counting macros is likely not a long-term solution. Using macros as an educational tool may be helpful but it is highly unlikely that someone would continue to count macros for the rest of their life or even multiple years.
Can Promote Disordered Eating
Most notably, the diligence required for counting macros has the potential to become an obsession and potentially promote disordered eating. The constant weighing, measuring, tracking, and focus on calories can become very unhealthy and lead to destructive habits around food, and this is not to be taken lightly.
Should You Count Macros?
Let me be clear – counting macros is not for everyone, in fact, it is probably only for a select few. For individuals who are very numbers-driven and detailed oriented, feel confident in their “relationship” with food, and are athletes with specific performance goals and timelines, macros can be a useful short-term tool. However, for those who are new to nutrition, are looking for a long-term strategy, looking to develop an overall healthy lifestyle, have a history of disordered eating, or simply don’t like the ideas of counting, weighing, and tracking everything they eat, macros are likely not a good choice.
The Bottom Line
Counting macros is a method of tracking food that can be used as a tool to help you learn more about nutrition and how the consumption of different macronutrients impacts the body. Although counting macros may be a beneficial short-term tool for some, it is likely not a good fit for everyone nor is it a long-term strategy. If you want to track your food, it is important to keep in mind that there are many different ways to track your food and it is vitally important that you chose the method that works best for you.