What are macros and how do you count them?
When it comes to weight loss, some people have traded old-school calorie 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, boost their intake of healthful foods, and generally feel their best, the method requires daily math that others may find complicated and time-consuming, says Zoe Griffiths, RD, global director of nutrition at WW. 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—the body uses them in relatively large amounts, says Rahaf Al Bochi, RDN, LD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of Olive Tree Nutrition. 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. Carbs include sugars, starches, and fiber; most are broken down into glucose, which powers everything from your brain to your muscles. Carbs are abundant in grains and grain-based foods such as pasta and bread, as well as dairy, beans, and vegetables.
Proteins help form the tissues found in organs, muscles, and more. They also supply amino acids the body needs for growth, repair, and digestion. (While the body produces some amino acids needed for these processes, nine others can be obtained only through diet.) Like carbs, proteins contain 4 calories per gram. High-protein foods include meat, poultry, seafood, nuts, seeds, and dairy.
Along with providing energy (9 calories per gram), fats insulate the body, and help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. There are two main categories of dietary fat: saturated, primarily found in animal-based sources such as red meat; 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 personalized 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 Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, head of nutrition and wellness at WW. To figure out your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), you’ll need to do a little math that reflects both values: how much energy you use at rest and how much you use during physical activity. Here's how:
Estimate your basal metabolic rate
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is a reflection of how many calories per day your body needs to function based on height, weight, age, and sex. The formula 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.
To get a general sense of your BMR, plug your info into one of the more recent Mifflin-St Jeor equations below, then round your answer to the nearest whole number.
- BMR for men = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) - (5 x age in years) + 5
- BMR for women = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) - (5 x age in years) - 161
Multiply for your activity level
Next, you’ll want to think about how active you are on a daily basis to find 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.
Here’s how the formula would look for a moderately active 35-year-old woman who weighs 150 lbs (68 kg) and is 5’7” (170 cm) tall.
Estimated BMR: (10 x 68) + (6.25 x 170) - (5 x 35) - 161
- BMR = 1,407 calories
Estimated TDEE based on activity level: 1,407 calories x 1.55
- TDEE = 2,181 calories
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 pounds: Public health guidelines suggest that gradual, steady weight loss of about 1 to 2 pounds per week is best for long-term success. To drop 1 pound per week, you would need a daily calorie deficit of 500 calories—in other words, your TDEE minus 500—according to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Consult with a doctor or nutrition pro for personalized guidance on setting realistic, healthy weight-loss goals before starting any new eating program.
Step 3: Figure out your ideal macronutrient ratio
Once you’ve calculated your target daily calorie requirement, it’s time to estimate 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 trio of Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR). Developed by the National Academy of Sciences, these are the ranges of macronutrients shown to be associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases. For an adult, the AMDR are:
- Carbs: 45–65% of calories
- Fat: 20–35% of calories
- Protein: 10–35% of calories
These are just general guidelines, London notes. If you’re living with a health condition or have other health-related concerns, she advises working with a registered dietitian or your healthcare provider to create a personalized 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 those values into a macronutrient calculator
Once you know your daily calorie goal and target 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 smartphone, a document on your computer, or an app. 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.
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 Facts panel of packaged and prepared foods. For homemade meals, fresh produce, and bulk items, use FoodData Central, which provides a complete nutritional profile for every food in the database.
As you build your meal repertoire, here are some high-carb, high-protein, and high-fat foods to consider including (or limiting) based on your goals.
- Brown rice: 52 g of carbs per 1-cup serving
- Sweet potato: 26 g of carbs per 5-inch potato
- 100% whole wheat sandwich bread: 16 g of carbs per slice
- Other high-carb foods: Oats, rice, cornmeal, barley, quinoa, bread, wraps, pasta, breakfast cereal, potatoes, corn, green beans, winter squash, and additional grains, grain products, and starchy vegetables
- Skinless chicken breast: 26 g of protein per 3-oz serving
- Peanuts: 7 g of protein per 1-oz serving
- Eggs: 6 g of protein per large egg
- Other high-protein foods: Fish, meat, poultry, beans, lentils, peas, nuts, and yogurt
- Avocado: 30 g of fat per whole avocado
- Peanut butter: 16 g of fat per 2-tbsp serving
- Olive oil: 14 g of fat per 1-tbsp serving
- Other high-fat foods: Olives, whole milk cheese and yogurt, nuts, seeds, butter, 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-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).
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. A serving is how much food is listed on an item’s label, whereas a portion is how much of the food you actually choose to eat. The more you measure and track portion sizes (whether via a food scale, measuring tools, or just your hand!), the more awareness of your eating habits you’ll develop.
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 emphasize.”
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, beans, and grains are bundled with lots of other nutrients—including fiber, which helps you feel satisfied. On the other hand, the carbs in a chocolate chip cookie (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 prioritizing 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 behaviors, such as adding more fruits, vegetables, plant-based proteins, and healthy fats to daily meals and snacks, prioritizing good-quality sleep, and managing stress.
Nicole Saporita is a senior content manager for consumer wellness at WW. A writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York, she specializes in health & wellness, lifestyle, consumer products, and more. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Prevention, and REDBOOK magazines.