What are Macros, and Should You Count Them?
- What are macros? Macros are the fat, protein and carbohydrates that make up food and help you create energy. You can find them on nutrition labels.
- Benefits of counting macros include weight management, increased muscle and ketosis.
- Different diets, including keto, recommend ranges of macronutrients that you can customize to help you feel your best and meet your goals.
Macros is shorthand for “macronutrients”, the three main categories of nutrients your body needs to survive. The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and protein.
Balancing your intake of these macronutrients is essential for maintaining a healthy diet. Some diets focus on specific macronutrient ratios for targeted wellness or weight management goals but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to macros. Understanding more about these food building blocks can help you reach your weight management goals and improve your overall health and wellness.
Keep reading to learn what macros are and whether or not you should count them.
What are macros?
Macros are the fat, protein and carbohydrates that make up a food’s composition and help you create energy. You can find them listed on the nutrition facts panel of most foods, or by using calorie counting apps and calculators.
Gram for gram, macronutrients are responsible for the calorie count in your food. One gram of carbohydrates provides 4 calories, one gram of protein provides 4 calories and one gram of fat provides 9 calories.
For example, the nutritional breakdown of a 104-calorie apple includes:
- 0 gram fat
- 1 gram protein
- 25 grams carbohydrate
Carbohydrates, also known as carbs or sugar molecules, make up the majority of a variety of foods, such as whole grains, fruits, dairy and processed foods. As one of the main nutrients in your diet, your body breaks carbs down into glucose (blood sugar) and uses this as its main source of energy.
There are different types of carbs, such as sugars, starches, and fiber (soluble and insoluble).
Examples of carbs include:
- Whole grains (bread, oatmeal, rice)
- Beans and lentils
Proteins are complex molecules that help the body function. They are made up of different amino acids and contribute to many health benefits, such as providing structure and support to the cells and building lean muscle.
Examples of protein sources include:
- Egg whites
- Dairy products, such as cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, milk, cheese
- Lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef
- Protein supplements, such as collagen peptide powder or whey protein
Healthy dietary fats play an essential role in daily nutrition. The body relies on fats for energy, organ protection and supports cell growth.
All fat isn’t created equal. Opt for food rich in quality fats or good fats (such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) and avoid “bad” fats, such as trans fats.
Examples of healthy fats include:
- Avocados and coconuts
- Vegetable oils, such as olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and MCT oil
- Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, herring
- Nuts, such as walnuts, almonds and pistachios
- Seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, flax seeds and chia seeds
Why do people count macros?
When you follow a macro diet, you go beyond counting calories and focus on tracking macros in food. Depending on your health goals, you can adjust the ratios of macronutrients you consume to maintain a healthy weight, build muscle or even kickstart ketosis.
Plus, when you focus on the quality and ratio of your macros, you can increase your fat-burning potential (and even build muscle mass) while naturally regulating how many calories you consume.
Are counting calories the same as counting macros?
Counting the number of calories you eat is not the same as tracking your macronutrients. The calories in, calories out approach (CICO) alone won’t tell you the balance of fat, carbohydrates and protein in the foods you eat.
What are macros in comparison? Macros zero in on the composition of your daily calories so you can alter each one for the most healthful impact. For example, you may discover that you’ve been unknowingly getting 70% of your total calorie intake from carbs on CICO. You may feel radically different if that 70% comes from a mixture of protein and quality fats. With tracking, you can understand the source of the imbalance and adjust accordingly.
Some people count total calories so they can eat fewer calories overall and hit a lower-calorie goal. The problem is that under-eating won’t lead to meaningful, sustainable results over time. If you want to track what you eat, counting macronutrients can be a more productive approach to achieving your health goals.
The Benefits of Counting Macros
Helps Maintain Weight Loss
If your goal is to shed some pounds, counting macros may be an effective method. A lot of this comes down to food tracking since recording the ratios of fat, protein and carbohydrates in your diet can tell you a lot about your dietary habits and food choices.
Research has found that food tracking is a successful habit for long-term weight loss. One study of almost 1,700 participants found that those who kept a food diary lost double the amount of weight of those who did not track their food.
Learning how to calculate macros for weight loss depends on the individual, but a balanced macro ratio for weight loss is 45% of calories from carbohydrates, 25% from protein and 30% from fats.
Learn about your food
After a few days of counting macros, you may realize that you’re eating too many carbohydrates and not enough protein. This knowledge gives you the power to adjust your macro ratio so that you feel more energized throughout the day. For example, you may choose to swap out a chocolate bar as a snack for Greek yogurt and berries to avoid a mid-day crash.
Flexibility and Customization
Unlike some diets, counting your macros does not force you to eliminate entire food groups. Instead, you can focus more on improving your diet by changing your ratio to strike the best balance of nutrients to boost your performance.
This has long-term benefits. Multiple studies have found that people who follow a flexible diet with lots of food variety result in sustained weight loss.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to macros. Depending on your unique health goals, you can manipulate them to achieve different effects. And when special occasions come around, you don’t need to miss out on your favorite foods. You can plan your macros to include special treats so you can join in the festivities without running your diet off the rails. This kind of flexibility helps you stick to a healthy eating plan in the long term.
More balance in your diet
When your macronutrients are balanced, you can also avoid some of the problems with overeating in one macro category (such as feeling fatigued after eating large amounts of carbs or feeling constipated from too much fat and not enough fiber).
Drawbacks of Counting Macros
May lead to disordered eating
While counting macronutrients works well for some people, it could lead to disordered or obsessive eating in others. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, obsessing over your weight, calories, fat grams and dieting are signs of an eating disorder.
So, if you find that macro counting causes you stress or creates an unhealthy relationship with food, it may not be the best path forward for you. Consider consulting with a healthcare provider before making changes to your diet.
Potential for Lower-Quality Food
Some people who follow a macro-based approach to food intake adopt the philosophy that if it fits your macros (IIFYM), you can eat whatever you want (like dirty keto). However, this flexible dieting method may be counterproductive to developing solid eating habits and achieving long-term health goals. The quality of your food is just as important as its macronutrient profile.
With no set standard enforcing high-quality food, you might eat nutritious meals every day—or eat three donuts instead if it fits your macros. This approach could lead to micronutrient imbalances, food cravings and weight management issues.
It takes time
Since counting macros allows for so much flexibility, it may take time to experiment and find the ideal balance for your body. With no single recommended approach, you’ll have to tailor it to fit your health goals.
How to Start Tracking Your Macros
Tracking your macros starts with determining your ideal macro ratio. While the recommended macronutrient distribution differs for every individual, here’s a general guideline to help you get started:
- 10-35% of calories from protein
- 20-35% of calories from fat
- 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates
Tailor Macros to Your Needs
Learning how to calculate your macros can be difficult and involves a lot of math. One solution is to work with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to create a customized plan that works for you. You can also use the macro ratios setting in many food tracker apps to calculate your macros or use an online macro calculator like those from Precision Nutrition or MAPS Fitness Products.
No matter which you choose, you’ll input information about your gender, height, weight, activity levels and weight management goals to determine your ideal carb intake, fat intake and your ideal grams of protein.
For this, use a food tracking app, journal or notepad on your phone so you can log all the data in one place.
Food tracker apps make tracking your macros easy since you can just plug your food choices into your phone. Some even let you scan the barcodes of packaged foods and will automatically pull information from the nutrition label. Plus, if you want to fine-tune your macros for weight management, you’ll be able to better understand how changes in your diet may have impacted your progress.
Set Yourself Up for Success with Food Choices
- Eat mindfully. Make healthy eating part of your life by recognizing what foods make you feel good and what eating patterns work with your schedule.
- Use tools to accurately calculate macros in food. Read nutrition labels carefully and measure foods that don’t come with a label.
- Consider meal prep. This way, you can calculate macros in food and portion out meals that fit your goals all at once. Meal prepping also ensures you always have healthy meals that fit your macros within reach.
- Plan for busy days. Don’t get caught in a hangry panic. Stock your kitchen with ultra-convenient coffee pods and ready-to-go fuel like protein bars.
Macro Food List
Counting macros for beginners is a lot easier when you understand what nutrition certain foods bring to the table. This macronutrient food list gives a breakdown by category so you can make informed choices based on your diet.
- Lean protein: Egg whites, chicken breast, turkey breast, white fish, lean cuts of beef
- Moderate-fat protein: Chicken sausage, cod, haddock, snapper, ground beef
- Higher-fat protein: Chicken thighs, ground beef (85% or less lean), rib eye, lamb, wild-caught salmon
- Quality fats:Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, whole eggs, olives, certain nut butter, coconut, grass-fed ghee or butter
- Carbohydrates: Brussels sprouts, spaghetti squash, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, sweet potatoes, fruits
Adjust and Experiment
Ideal macro ratios differ depending on various factors, including gender, chronic conditions, age, body weight and calorie needs. If one range doesn’t work for you, keep experimenting until you find one that does.
To tailor your macros, listen to your body and notice how you feel. You may perform best when you eat fewer grams of carbs, build muscle when you eat a high-protein diet or realize that you have more energy when you increase your fat intake.
Change one macro at a time to isolate an ideal level for each one. Remember, healthy eating is different for everyone (but it’s universal that you should eat your veggies).
Don’t feel obligated to perfectly hit your macros every day. Finding the right balance and sticking to it may take trial and error–and if it causes too much stress, remember that you can still achieve your health goals without it.
What are the macros for keto?
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb style of eating. Standard keto macros per day look like this:
- 75% fat
- 20% protein
- 5% net carbs
Since there are different approaches to keto, you’ll get different answers to the question, “What are the macros for keto?” Get the details about various keto diet types.
Keep in mind, regardless of the keto diet you follow, you’ll have to pay attention to net carbs as part of your macros to determine how many effective carbs you consume, or total carbs minus fiber and sugar alcohols.
The good news is that you still have plenty of macro-friendly options, like a Bulletproof Collagen Protein Bar. It comes in a variety of delicious flavors and is made up of 11 grams of protein, 12 grams of fat and 12 grams of carbohydrates.
Should you count macros? The Bulletproof stance
The Bulletproof Diet takes a loose approach to tracking macros. But as a general recommendation, you’ll get 50-70% of calories from quality fats, up to 20% from protein, up to 20% from vegetables and up to 5% from fruit or starch.
This range allows for more customization depending on your dietary needs and goals. You don’t need to force yourself to hit certain numbers or count calories to feel the benefits of Bulletproof.
Beyond the ratios, the Bulletproof Diet also recommends a range of food group servings so there is no counting or measuring required. If you follow the servings on the Bulletproof Diet Roadmap and stick to “green-zone” choices, you can still hit your goals while eating delicious, nutrient-rich foods.
Unlike macro tracking alone, the Bulletproof Diet also recommends high-quality foods to fill your micronutrients and macronutrients. When you eat nutrient-dense foods, you can eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full and have the energy you need to conquer your to-do list.
Want to tailor your macros to build muscle on the keto diet? Check out keto bodybuilding diet tips from an expert.
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This article has been updated with new content.