What are macros and how do you count them?
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When it comes to weight-loss, some people have traded old-school calorie (kilojoule) counting for counting macros. Macros—short for macronutrients—include carbs, proteins and fats. Simply put, counting macros involves tallying up how many grams of each macronutrient type you consume each day, aiming for specific targets. The method is a key component of eating plans like the keto diet.
While fans of the approach say that counting macros helps them lose weight, boosts their intake of healthy foods and helps them feel their best, the method requires daily math that others may find complicated and time-consuming, says Zoe Griffiths, registered dietitian. Wondering if it’s worth the effort? Read on for a step-by-step guide to counting macros, along with expert insights on whether this technique can help you reach your wellness and weight-loss goals.
What are macronutrients?
Simply put, macronutrients are dietary components that give us energy, says registered dietitian, Rahaf Al Bochi. As you read a minute ago, macronutrients encompass three categories: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Each type provides a certain amount of energy per gram, expressed in calories.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel; every gram contains 4 calories (17 kilojoules). Carbs include sugars, starches and fibre; most are broken down into glucose, which powers everything from your brain to your muscles. Carbs are abundant in a wide variety of foods (both everyday and occasional foods) including grains and grain-based foods such as pasta and bread, as well as dairy, legumes and vegetables. As sugar is classified as a type of carbohydrate, this also means carbs are found in foods such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, soft drinks, etc.
Proteins help form the tissues found in organs, muscles and more. They also supply essential amino acids the body needs for growth, repair and digestion. While the body produces some amino acids needed for these processes, nine can only be obtained through diet - these are known as essential amino acids. Like carbs, proteins contain 4 calories per gram. High-protein foods include meat, poultry, seafood, nuts, seeds and dairy, as well as some plant based proteins such as tofu, tempeh and legumes.
Along with providing energy (9 calories or 37 kilojoules per gram), fats insulate the body and help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. There are two main categories of dietary fat: saturated, primarily found in animal-based sources such as red meat and full fat dairy; and unsaturated, found in plant-based sources such as nuts, seeds, avocados and vegetable oils, as well as some fish, including salmon.
How to count macros
If you’d like to start counting macros, you’ll need to estimate your target macronutrient ratio—in other words, the percentages of your daily calories that will come from carbs, protein and fat. Think of it like a personalised pie chart that takes into account your body’s energy needs, your weight goals and your overall health picture. Here’s a starter guide on how to do it, step by step.
Step 1: Determine your daily calorie requirement
Your body doesn’t just burn calories when you’re exercising. “In fact, the majority of your energy goes toward maintaining vital physiological processes that keep your organs functioning,” says Jackie London, registered dietitian. This is what’s known as your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - ie. how many calories your body burns at rest. To figure out your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), you’ll need to determine your BMR and your activity levels, to determine how much energy you use during physical activity.
- Determining your basal metabolic rate
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is a reflection of how many calories per day your body needs to function at rest, based on height, weight, age and sex. The original formula to calculate BMR was first developed in 1918 and has undergone various refinements in the decades since. Just note that do-it-yourself metabolic rate calculations are rough estimates, and are unlikely to be 100% accurate. Given this, and the various calculations that exist to calculate BMR, we recommend you speak to your healthcare professional (HCP) or a registered dietitian to get a more accurate calculation of your BMR.
- Multiply for your activity level
Next, you need to factor in how active you are on a daily basis to determine your non-resting energy expenditure (NREE)—the calories you burn through movement. To do so, multiply your BMR from step 1 by the number below that best corresponds with your activity level in an average week. Again, round your answer to the nearest whole number.
- Sedentary (little to no exercise): BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active (light exercise one to three days per week): BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active (moderate exercise three to five days per week): BMR x 1.55
- Very active (intense exercise six to seven days per week): BMR x 1.725
- Extra active (very intense exercise six or seven days per week or a physically demanding occupation): BMR x 1.9
Your answer is an estimate of your TDEE—the number of calories your body uses in a typical day. As stated above, it’s best to discuss this with your HCP or registered dietitian to receive a more accurate calculation.
Step 2: Factor in your weight goal
TDEE is the amount of energy your body needs to maintain your weight. Weight loss occurs when you use more energy than you consume. Here are some points to keep in mind if you’re hoping to count macros and lose kilos. Public health guidelines suggest that gradual, steady weight loss of about 0.5kg to 1kg per week is best for long-term success. To drop 0.5kg per week, you would need a daily calorie deficit of 500 calories—in other words, your TDEE minus 500. Consult with your HCP or dietitian for personalised guidance on setting safe and realistic, healthy weight-loss goals before starting any new eating program.
Step 3: Figure out your ideal macronutrient ratio
Once you know your target daily calorie requirement, you can then determine what percentage should come from each of the three macronutrient categories. As with most things in the nutrition world, there’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation here. “It’s based on your personal needs while accounting for lifestyle, food preferences, medications you may be taking, past medical history and even life stage,” London says.
For most healthy adults, a useful starting point to consider is the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR). These ranges have been established to reduce the risk of nutrient deficiencies and to minimise risk of adverse health conditions:
- Carbs: 45–65% of calories
- Fat: 20–35% of calories
- Protein: 15–25% of calories
These are just general guidelines, London notes. If you’re living with a health condition or have other health-related concerns, work with a registered dietitian or your healthcare provider to create a personalised plan. For example, people recovering from surgery may have higher-than-average protein needs; meanwhile, people living with diabetes may have particular considerations for carbohydrate intake.
Step 4: Plug these values into a macronutrient calculator
Once you know your daily calorie goal and target macro percentages of carbs, fat and protein, you’re ready to figure out how many grams of each macronutrient to aim for each day. Here’s how someone would calculate their macros based on a 2,000-calorie diet consisting of 50% carbs, 25% protein and 25% fat:
Carbs (4 calories/gram)
- 50% of 2,000 calories = 1,000 calories of carbs per day
- 1,000 / 4 = 250 g of carbs/day
Proteins (4 calories/gram)
25% of 2,000 calories = 500 calories of protein per day
500 / 4 = 125 g of protein/day
Fats (9 calories/gram)
- 25% of 2,000 calories = 500 calories of fat per day
- 500 / 9 = 56 g fat/day
Step 5: Start tracking macros
To count macros, you’ll need to record everything you eat. The method is totally up to you, you can use a journal, a note on your phone or a document on your computer. Once you decide on a medium, log how many grams of carbs, proteins and fats you consume at each meal and snack and keep a running tally for each.
Alternatively, you may find it easier to download a calorie counting app on your smartphone, and use this to track your macros instead. This method is not only convenient, but is more likely to accurately track your macros, given these apps use extensive databases to store calorie and macronutrient information for a variety of commonly consumed foods. It also keeps a running tally of your macros and calories on its own - meaning less work and math for you to do on your own.
Most foods contain a mix of carbs, proteins and fats, but some have a considerably higher amount of one macronutrient. You can find this info on the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) of packaged foods. For homemade meals, fresh produce and bulk items, use Australian Food Composition Database, which provides a complete nutritional profile for every food in the database. If you’re using an app to track your macros, nutrition information will be stored within their own database. Whilst this may be convenient, it's important to keep in mind that it may not always be as accurate as the Australian Food Composition Database.
Here are some nutritious foods that contain carbs, protein and fat as the major macronutrient source that you may want to include in your eating plan. These portion sizes are purely a guide, so be sure to consider what’s best for you and your plan given your daily calorie goal.
- Brown rice: ~57 grams of carbs per 1 cup (~170g) serving
- Sweet potato: ~20 grams of carbs for one small potato
- Wholemeal bread: ~12 grams of carbs per slice
Other carb-rich foods: Oats, rice, barley, quinoa, pasta, breakfast cereal, potatoes, corn and starchy vegetables.
- Skinless chicken breast: ~24 grams of protein per 80 g serving
- Peanuts: ~7 grams of protein per 30 g serving
- Eggs: ~7 grams of protein per large egg
Other protein-rich foods: Seafood including fish, meat, dairy, tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds
- Avocado: ~21 grams of fat per whole avocado
- Peanut butter: ~12 grams of fat per 1 tbs serving
- Olive oil: ~9 grams of fat per 1 tbs serving
Other high-fat foods:
Saturated fats: Fatty meat cuts such as lamb chops, processed meats, full fat dairy products including whole milk, cheese and yoghurt, butter and margarines, sweets and pastries and fast foods.
Unsaturated fat: Oily fish including salmon, olive oil and olives, nuts, seeds, grapeseed and sunflower oils.
Benefits of counting macros
This eating approach isn’t ideal for everyone, but if it works for you, here are a few of the potential benefits:
1. Can help with making better food choices
If you’re a person who’s accustomed to counting calories, counting macros may be helpful in nudging you toward more nutrient-dense options that meet your calorie requirements. For example, a bagel with jam and a bowl of chocolate, peanut butter and banana overnight oats have similar calorie counts, but their nutritional profiles are different. The oat bowl packs protein, unrefined carbs and heart-healthy fats, along with other key nutrients. While both breakfasts can be part of a healthy pattern of eating, the oats may be more helpful to your macro goals (and overall wellness goals).
Recording what you eat is a powerful tool for weight loss—there’s a reason it helps form the foundation of the WW program! Research shows that tracking, also known as self-monitoring, can help you lose weight and keep it off long-term.
3. Raises awareness of portion sizes
In order to accurately count macros, you also have to log how much of a food you eat. This can provide useful intel for how much you’re actually consuming. Something to keep in mind when reading nutrition labels; serving sizes and portion sizes are two very different things. The serving size listed on the (NIP) of a food is chosen by the manufacturer, and may not reflect how much you choose to eat - i.e. your portion sizes. The more you measure and track portion sizes (whether via a food scale, measuring tools, or just your hand), the more aware you’ll become of your eating habits.
Counting macros for weight loss
Many people follow a macro-focused diet in hopes of losing weight. As with all weight-loss approaches, shifting the scale requires a calorie deficit—consuming fewer calories than the body burns. Counting macros may help some people become more aware of the source and quantity of their daily calories, as well as how physical activity affects their energy needs. Ultimately, however, there’s no magic ratio for weight loss, Griffiths explains. A 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that “reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasise.”
Macros: quality or quantity
Macronutrients are just one consideration when it comes to a healthy pattern of eating—vitamins, minerals and other factors matter, too.
For example, the carbs in whole vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains are bundled with lots of other nutrients—including fibre, which helps you feel satisfied. On the other hand, the carbs in a chocolate chip biscuit (though delicious) generally don’t come with the same nutritional perks.
Likewise, not all fats are the same. High amounts of saturated fat—found in foods such as red meat and butter—are associated with an increased risk of developing health conditions like heart disease. Meanwhile, the unsaturated fats found in avocado, seafood, nuts and plant-based oils may help reduce disease risk.
That being said, all types of foods that provide carbs, proteins and fats can fit into a healthy pattern of eating, London notes. While prioritising whole, nutrient-dense options is a smart everyday practice, it’s not a rigid rule for achieving or maintaining optimal health.
The upshot: Should you try counting macros?
Ultimately, you’re the best judge of whether counting macros makes sense for you. “The best type of diet for weight loss—which becomes weight management over time—is one that you can stick with,” Griffiths says. For people who don’t mind crunching numbers every day, tallying up grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates can be a helpful method for establishing a pattern of eating that may help with weight management and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Counting macros isn’t suitable—or necessary—for everyone, however. “Many people can easily become fixated on numbers instead of overall health,” Al Bochi says. Instead, she says she generally advises clients to focus on cultivating health-promoting behaviours, such as adding more fruits, vegetables, plant-based proteins and healthy fats to daily meals and snacks, prioritising good-quality sleep and managing stress.