How to count Macros: A Beginner's Guide
If you are in any way involved with gym culture, or, if you are the type of person who stays current with fitness and health, you have heard about how to count macros. Counting macros has become a standard feature of fitness and health along with counting calories and carbs.
In fact, counting macros can get confused with things like counting calories and carbs. How to count macros is a distinct process and accentuates your health and wellness in specific ways. How to count macros is part of a process that is more geared toward overall health rather than focused on something like losing weight.
Getting a solid understanding of what macros actually are will help you in any of your health and fitness plans. Since macros are part of the larger picture within nutrition and wellness, learning how to count macros can help you whether you are interested in weight loss, overall fitness, or have specific health issues in mind.
What are macros? What are the differences between macros and calories? And how do you properly count macros? This guide will give you the information you need to understand macros and to learn how to count macros.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the basic nutrients your body needs in large quantities in order to properly function. There are three main categories of macronutrients. These are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. These are considered essential nutrients which means your body will not function if you do not get enough of them.
Proteins are essential for processes like cell signaling and immune function. Proteins are also necessary for the production and proper function of enzymes and hormones. And, of course, proteins are the building blocks of muscles. Proteins contain 4 calories per gram. It is recommended that 10-35 percent of our caloric intake be comprised of proteins.
Carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and fibers. Most carbohydrates are broken down by the metabolism into glucose which is the fundamental unit of blood sugar. This makes energy available to the entire body, and it is stored as glycogen in your liver and your muscles. Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram and often make up the bulk of many people's diets. Health experts recommend that derive no more than 4-60 percent of our calories from carbohydrates.
We tend to think we need to avoid fats, but they are necessary macronutrients. We need fats for critical functions like the production of hormones. Fats are also necessary for us to be able to absorb other nutrients, and fats help maintain body temperature. There are 9 calories per gram of fats.
What's the difference between calories and macros?
Counting macros is different from counting calories mainly because of the obvious reason that you are counting two different forms of nutrition. Calories constitute a total that is derived from all that you eat. Macros constitute a total that is derived from the specific things you eat.
To count calories, your main objective is to maintain a specific level of caloric intake. You want to stay below a certain number of calories. It is true that this often means counting the number of fat grams you consume, but this is largely due to the high level of calories per gram that are in fats. But in the long run, you can consume calories from any food source as long as you consume the specific number of calories required for a diet or health program.
Counting macros entails keeping track of the kinds of foods you eat. For example, someone who is counting macros toward the goal of building muscle will necessarily be primarily interested in counting protein macros. They will need to consume a healthy amount of calories in order to maintain energy levels and to ensure the ability to sustain an exercise program, but they will count the grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats according to a diet that favors proteins.
For weight loss programs, you will want to count macros with an eye toward balance. While you still need at three of the major macronutrients, you will likely cut back on fats and carbs and derive much of your caloric intake from proteins. But the specific levels of calories will not necessarily be an issue.
How to count macros?
Getting the hang of counting macros can be a challenge, but the payoff for counting macros is good. Though there are some steps involved, anyone can learn how to count macros.
Here is a rundown of the basic steps:
Determine your caloric 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. Adding REE and NREE gives you the total number of calories burned in a day, also known as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)
In order to determine your overall calorie needs, you can either use an 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 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.
Decide on your ideal macronutrient breakdown
After you calculate how many calories you need in a day, you now need to decide which macronutrient ratio is going to work best for your goals. A typical macro ratio recommendation is below:
Carbs: 45-65 percent of total calories
Fats: 2-35 percent of total calories
Protein: 1-35 percent of total calories
Remember this is a typical breakdown. You will want to adjust these ratios to suit your needs. For example, if your primary goal is to adjust and regulate blood sugar levels, you can break your distribution to rough carbs, fats, and protein to 30, 30, and 35 percent. A ketogenic diet would naturally reduce carbs to a minimum and increase macros on the other ends.
Keep track of both macros and calories
Among those who count macros, you will hear people talk a lot about “tracking macros.” This is important simply so you can keep track of how much you consume in terms of both macros and calories. There are online apps that can help you do this. My Macros + is a good example. Some apps even allow you to scan product labels for easy entry of macros and calories. These apps are extremely easy to use and reduce the amount of time (and math) involved in tracking and counting macros.
Counting macros examples
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.
Benefits of Counting Macros
Some of the most important benefits of counting macros include:
Improves the quality of your diet. Counting macros helps you focus your attention on what you eat and how much you eat. By focusing on more than just calories, you can become increasingly aware of the types of foods you are eating. A good example is that paying attention only to calories can make it easy for you to eat sugary cereals that contain the same number of calories as organic oats topped with fresh fruit since they both have the same number of calories. These things differ vastly on the number of macros, and the oats with fruit are far healthier than junk cereal.
Counting macros forces you to pay attention to foods that are rich in nutrients. It helps you prioritize healthy foods over simple calorie counts.
Promotes weight loss
Counting macros has been shown to be a highly effective weight-loss program. Tracking and counting macros makes it much easier to reduce carbs and increase proteins, and this is a proven method for weight loss. The long-term benefit of counting macros makes it much easier to keep weight off after you lose it.
Can help with specific fitness goals
Counting macros is extremely popular among athletes and people who regularly train for specific health goals. People with an interest in developing muscles and muscle mass need to increase their protein percentages in their diets. Counting macros makes this possible. It also allows people to properly balance carbs with protein for increased or sustained energy levels.
Even if you are not an athlete, you can derive the same benefits by counting macros. Paying attention to the ratios of macronutrients makes it possible to increase your energy levels in order to remain active.
Macro calculators are simple online tools that will help you work out your macro ratios and help you determine how to plan your diet. These tools take the complex math out of the process and simplify counting macros. There are many online macro calculators, and apps available that can take you through the process from the grocery store to your kitchen.
Cronometer, FoodNoms, and MyFitnessPal are examples of apps you can download to a smartphone.
How to Plan your diet and reach your goals?
Depending on your needs and goals you will likely need to adjust the ratios of carbs, fats, and proteins. For example, someone who has worked out a plan that includes 40 percent carbs, 35 percent fat, and 25 percent protein may want to replace some of the carbs with healthy fats for a plan that is geared more toward weight loss.
The key to counting macros is to select foods that will allow you to track the macro content. This almost always means eating healthy foods. Here are some examples of foods that work well for counting macros:
- 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
Counting Macros FAQS
What Are Macronutrients? Macronutrients are the basic nutrients your body needs in large quantities to properly function. There are three main categories of macronutrients. These are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. These are considered essential nutrients which means your body will not function if you do not get enough of them.
What's the difference between calories and macros? Counting macros is different from counting calories mainly because of the obvious reason that you are counting two different forms of nutrition. Calories constitute a total that is derived from all that you eat. Macros constitute a total that is derived from the specific things you eat.
What are the benefits of counting macros? Counting macros can help you lose weight, it can help you improve your diet, and it can help you become more physically fit.
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Anyone with a passing interest in fitness and health has heard of counting macros. Keeping track of macros has proved to be beneficial for a wide array of purposes. Athletes who have highly specialized dietary needs have found that counting macros is the best way to help build muscle and increase energy levels. People who simply want to lose weight have found that counting macros works far better than simply counting calories.
While there are some complicated steps for counting macros, this is made simple with the help of online calculators and easy smartphone apps. It is something of a testament to the success of counting macros that we can now find online systems that make it easy to go through the process.
Perhaps one of the best things about counting macros is that this kind of diet translates to healthy eating. By working out the ratios of macronutrients for specific needs, you end up eating an extremely healthy and well-balanced diet. Counting macros helps us lose weight and keep it off, it helps build energy and fitness, and we simply eat well.