Counting macros has become a popular method for reaching various health goals, but what exactly does this method consist of? Continue reading for your counting macros 101 guide, full of every piece of information you need to be successful with this method.
What are ‘macros’?
Macros, also known as macronutrients, consist of carbohydrates (carbs), protein and fat. These are also where we get calories. One gram of both carbs and protein provides 4 calories and dietary fat provides 9 calories for every gram consumed.
Side note: There are also calories in alcohol, but alcohol is not a macronutrient. Every gram of alcohol contains 7 calories per gram.
What is macro counting?
Macro counting is exactly what it sounds like: counting the grams of macronutrients consumed. It is similar to tracking calories, except this method requires paying closer attention to the types of foods consumed by understanding how many grams of carbs, protein and fat are consumed.
Pros to Macro Counting
There are many positives to counting macros. First, there’s a high chance diet quality will be improved. When paying closer attention to what is in our food, many people may decrease intake of foods high in saturated fat and added sugars.
Additionally, this method will help educate on the nutritional content of foods. Over time, the person counting their macros will start to know what foods fit best into their plan and what foods provide multiple macronutrients.
Another huge pro to counting macros is being able to reach your goals while following any eating pattern of your choice: gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, etc. This is fantastic for giving you freedom in your eating!
The final pro to counting macros is having the ability to fit your favorite “fun” foods into your eating plan. This method gives free reign in what foods are consumed and as long as the food falls into the macro range determined, it can fit in someone’s eating plan.
Cons to Macro Counting
Just like any method of tracking foods eaten, there are some cons to counting macros. First, this method requires tracking of all foods or beverages consumed. This is the same for tracking calories, however with counting macros it may be more difficult to track foods eaten outside the home.
This method might be more difficult while eating outside of the home because instead of tracking one number (calories), it is required to track three numbers (carbs, protein and fats). Restaurant menus are beginning to add more nutrition information, however they are lacking macronutrient information of their foods.
The final con to counting macros, is that many people believe it is okay to eat only “fun” foods such as cheese burgers, donuts, milkshakes, etc. because it “fits into their macros”. However, it is important to remember that quality of food is just as important as sticking to your macronutrient goals.
Step 1 of Your Counting Macros 101 Guide: Determine Your Daily Calorie Needs
Once daily calorie needs are estimated, we are able to split up our daily calories into the three macronutrients. This daily calorie estimation is the amount of calories your body needs to maintain its current weight. This is called your “total daily energy expenditure”, but we will call them “maintenance calories”.
What is included in maintenance calories?
Your maintenance calories consist of quite a few pieces: resting metabolic rate (RMR), thermic effect of food (TEF), nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) and exercise energy expenditure (1).
RMR is the amount of calories your body burns when you are completely at rest (1,2). The calories are burned through supporting your breathing, various organ functions, neurologic functions and blood circulation (1). When choosing your daily calorie goal, you do not want to eat less than your RMR.
One popular equation used for calculating RMR is the Mifflin-St. Jeor Equation. See equation below (1):
Men: [10(weight)] + [6.25(height)] – [5(age)] +5
Women: [10(weight)] + [6.25(height)] – [5(age)] – 161
weight in kilograms | height in centimeters | age in years
The increase in metabolic rate after consumption of food is known as the TEF. This metabolic rate increase is due to digestion of food and the absorption and transport of nutrients (1). It has been noted that protein food sources increase our TEF more than any other macronutrient.
Calories burned due to NEAT are from fidgeting and our normal activities of daily living, like typing, reading and walking to the store. The most variable component of the maintenance calories equation is exercise energy expenditure (all calories burned from participating in any kind of exercise).
Determining Maintenance Calories
Maintenance calories or total daily energy expenditure is commonly determined through multiplying your RMR by an activity factor (AF).
How to choose your AF (1):
Sedentary: desk job, spends entire day sitting
Low Active: desk job, walks more in daily living
Active:one hour/day of exercise or walks 6 to 8 miles/day
Very Active: several hours of vigorous exercise/day
Calories for Weight Loss
If your goal is to lose weight, it is then recommended to subtract 500 calories from your maintenance calories. This calorie amount will put you into a calorie deficit meal plan. The reason for a 500 calorie deficit is because one pound of fat is equal to 3,500 calories.
[Maintenance Calories] – 500 = Daily Calorie Goal for Weight Loss
If you were to have a calorie deficit of 500 every day, it is estimated that you will lose weight at a rate of one pound per week. This might sound slow, however this rate of weight loss will be easier to maintain versus a quick weight loss that occurred from a diet you are unable to maintain long term.
Quick reminder: Having a daily 500 calorie deficit does not mean it is required to only decrease calorie intake/consumption from food and beverages. It is possible to reach a 500 calorie deficit through a reduction in calorie intake and an increase in physical activity.
Step 2 of Your Counting Macros 101 Guide: Choose How You Want to Break Down Your Macros
Now that estimated daily calorie requirements have been determined, the next step of your Counting Macros 101 Guide is to divide the calories up into the three macronutrients.
First, we need to understand how many calories per gram each macronutrient provides:
Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram
Protein: 4 calories per gram
Fat: 9 calories per gram
Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR)
The AMDR is the recommended range of a person’s daily calories going towards carbohydrates, protein and fat to maintain a healthy, balanced diet. These ranges are given in a percentage form.
The percentages are as follows:
Carbohydrates: 45 – 65%
Protein: 10 – 25%
Fat: 20 – 35%
The Importance of Protein in Weight Loss
When working on weight loss, the daily calorie goal chosen is most likely going to be a hypocaloric diet. Meaning that the person is eating less than they burn. However, the type of calorie matters in this diet.
When losing weight fat loss is the goal, not muscle loss. To ensure the weight loss is fat and not muscle, a person losing weight needs to eat enough protein (and exercise enough).
The type of weight loss that occurs, on average, varies in classification of normal weight, overweight or obese. The “normal weight” classification is a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 to 24.9, “overweight” is a BMI of 25 to 29.9 and obese is a BMI greater than 30.
In a person of “normal weight”, muscle loss is usually greater than 35% of their weight loss. In a person classified as “overweight” or “obese”, muscle loss is usually about 20 to 30% of their weight loss (3).
Prevention of muscle loss is very important. When we start to lose muscle instead of fat, we begin to lose endurance and strength. We need our muscles to accomplish all of life’s daily activities, everything from grocery shopping to cleaning our homes to cooking our own food.
To prevent muscle loss, it is recommended to participate in regular physical activity, including endurance and resistance or strength-type exercise and to consume a higher protein diet (3).
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, to achieve a beneficial body composition, decreased blood pressure and avoid body weight regain it is recommended to consume 1.2 grams protein per kilogram of body weight (4). It is also recommended to strive for 20 grams of protein per meal (1).
Determining Your Macronutrient Range for Weight Loss
We now understand the importance of protein in weight loss, so we will start with this macronutrient first. As mentioned above, we will use your weight in kilograms and multiply it by 1.2 grams.
[Weight in Kilograms] x [1.2 grams protein] = Number of grams of protein in the diet
Then, we need to see how many calories those grams of protein provide. We will multiply the number of grams of protein by four, because there are four calories per gram of protein.
[Number of grams of protein] x 4 = Calories from Protein
Before moving on to the next macronutrient, the number of calories from protein needs to be subtracted from our daily calorie goal.
[Daily calorie goal] – [Calories from protein] = Calories remaining for carbohydrates and fat
We learned that the AMDR for fat is 20-35% of your total daily calories. So, you have a choice to make on how much dietary fat you would like to consume.
If you’re someone who enjoys higher fat foods, go more towards the upper end. However, if you enjoy a higher carbohydrate diet, aim for the lower end. If you feel as though you fall in the middle, choose the middle range.
To determine dietary fat intake, multiply your chosen percentage of fat by your total daily calorie goal.
[Total daily calories] x % of calories for dietary fat = Calories from fat
The next step is to figure out how many grams of fat that is, take the calories from fat and divide by 9 calories.
[Grams of fat] / 9 calories = Grams of fat per day
Finally, we subtract the calories from fat from the remaining calories we had for both carbohydrates and fat.
[Calories remaining for carbohydrates and fat] – [Calories from fat] = Calories for carbohydrates
We have now determined calories and grams for both protein and dietary fat. We also know our calories left for carbohydrates. So, the final step is to determine the grams of carbohydrates.
To do this, divide the calories for carbohydrates by 4 calories.
[Calories for carbohydrates] / 4 calories = Grams of carbohydrates
Step 3 of Your Counting Macros 101 Guide: Refeeding Day
The next step of your Counting Macros 101 Guide is to understand what a refeeding day is. A refeeding day is one day every couple weeks where a person is to eat at or above their maintenance calorie level, instead of at a hypocaloric level. The idea is to give your body a slight break from the low calorie diet (5).
The purpose of a refeeding day is to go against some of the negative experiences a person may go through with a lower calorie diet, like low energy, weight loss plateaus, increased hunger, hormone imbalances and more (5).
Now you might be thinking, “this sounds like a cheat day”. However, these are not the same. A cheat day involves a person eating whatever they want at any quantities they want, without a plan in mind.
Refeeding days requires a plan of a slight increase in calories and continuing to focus on the quality of the food consumed. Most refeeding days, however, focus on eating more calories from carbohydrates than fats and protein (5).
The reason for a refeeding day is to avoid the change in hormones that can occur when you lose weight, specifically fat loss, and eating a hypocaloric diet (5).
When we lose fat mass, we are also losing the cells that produce leptin, because leptin is stored in our fat cells. Leptin inhibits hunger and, therefore, stops fat storage in our fat cells. The change in the hormone leptin can lead to adaptive thermogenesis (AT) (5).
AT is a process our body goes through to protect us when we are trying to lose weight. During AT, our body will produce hormones to increase cravings, and therefore calorie consumption, and decrease calories burned to stop weight loss from occurring (5).
Refeeding days are thought to hinder AT from happening. The increase in carbohydrates on these refeeding days is especially important due to the ability of carbohydrates increasing leptin levels (5).
Step 4 of Your Counting Macros 101 Guide: Start Tracking and See How Realistic Your Ranges Are
The last step of your counting macros 101 guide is to see how realistic these ranges are for you to maintain. If your goal is to lose weight, keep in mind that whatever method you choose to lose weight is what you will have to do to keep the weight off.
Use a daily tracking method to see how well you do with meeting your macronutrient goals. If you are nowhere close, start analyzing your food choices to see where you can improve. However, if there are changes that do not seem realistic for you to maintain every day, it might be time to change your macronutrient goals.
- Coleman, E., & Rosenbloom, C. (2012). Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals (5th ed.). Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.