Woman with healthy protein, carbs, and fat for counting macros

Counting Macros 101: What You Need to Know About Protein, Carbs, and Fat

You may have heard about counting macros to maintain your current weight or to lose fat and gain muscle. Also referred to as flexible dieting, it can be an effective tool for reaching your fitness and health goals. The best part of counting macros is that all foods can fit with a bit of planning.

What are macros?

Macros is short for macronutrients. The prefix macro means big or large, and in the world of diet and nutrition, it refers to the nutrients we need in larger quantities. Protein, carbohydrates, and fats are macronutrients. Conversely, micronutrients are those nutrients that we need in a lesser amount, such as vitamins and minerals.

The Macro-Lineup: Protein, Carbohydrate, and Fat

Protein: The prom king of the macros, proteins work overtime because of the various functions they perform in the body, starting with repair, maintenance, and growth. Proteins help make hormones and enzymes. They produce antibodies to help identify and fight invaders in the body. Proteins are essential to building a strong immune system. Last but not least, proteins transport and store molecules. Healthy proteins include chicken, fish, poultry, tofu, and meats. Dairy foods such as eggs, cheese, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese are counted as proteins, too.

Carbs: You may have a love-hate relationship with carbs, and we understand. The thing is, carbs are an especially good energy source for the brain. But too much, especially of the refined, sugary stuff, can wreak havoc on the system contributing to weight gain and inflammation. Eating too many refined carbs like crackers, regular soda, and candy can also increase the risk of becoming pre-diabetic or diabetic. Counting macros will help you understand your carb tipping point and determine the right amount for you. Examples of better-for-you carbs to include in your meal plan are whole grains (oats, barley, and rice), starchy vegetables (sweet or white potatoes, acorn or butternut squashes), whole fruits, beans, and legumes.

Fat: Another macronutrient with a bad reputation but a good nutritional profile is fat. Fat is the most nutrient-dense macronutrient, at nine calories per gram compared to four calories per gram for protein and carbs. Some healthy fats to include in your diet include avocado, nuts and seeds, nut butters and oils, and coconut oil. Fats that are found in fatty fish like salmon are also good for the heart and reduce inflammation.

How Many Macros Should You Be Eating Each Day? 

Macro needs can vary based on a few factors, including your gender, activity level, and current weight. There are numerous formulas available to calculate your caloric needs. It is important to remember that the human body is a dynamic system—in constant flux and flow. Your calorie calculations are a reasonable estimate and starting point.

To start:

1. Calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): This is the number of calories your body needs when resting, essentially what you need to complete basic metabolic functions, and accounts for over half of calories burned per day. Men typically have higher BMRs than women. While the Harris-Benedict formula was tried and true for many years, since the mid-90s’s the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation is considered more accurate. The formulas for men and women are below.
  • Men = [10 x weight (kg)] + [6.25 x height (cm) ] – [5 x age (years)] + 5
  • Women { [10 x weight (kg)] + [6.25 x height (cm)] – [5 x age (year)] – 161

(To figure out your weight in kg, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. And to get your height in cm, figure out how many inches you are and multiply by 2.54)

2. Add in a PAL (Physical Activity Level): While BMR will account for about 70% of daily caloric needs, activity accounts for about 20%. The National Institute of Medicine provides the following guidelines to estimate an activity factor.

  • Sedentary, PAL = 1.25: A person with a sedentary occupation who spends the entire day sitting.
  • Low activity, PAL = 1.50: An office worker who sits most of the day, may walk the dog and typically walks to perform the tasks of daily living.
  • Active, PAL = 1.75: Someone who exercises approximately 1 hour/day or a person with an active job equivalent to walking about 6 miles a day.
  • Very active, PAL = 2.20: Athlete engaging in several hours of vigorous exercise and training or heavy occupational work.

To complete the calculation for estimating caloric needs, multiply the BMR calculated in Step 1 by an activity factor above.

  • Men = [10 x weight (kg)] + [6.25 x height (cm) ] – [5 x age (years)] + 5 x PAL
  • Women [[10 x weight (kg)] + [6.25 x height (cm)] – [5 x age (year)] – 161 x PAL

There are a variety of online calculators that estimate caloric needs. You can also enter your data into two-three different calculators, take the average, and use that average for your estimated caloric needs. Add calories if the goal is to gain muscle and subtract if fat loss is the desired result. Depending on your goals, start by adding or subtracting 250-500 calories a day.

Determine your Macronutrient Breakdown

You determine how much of each macronutrient you want to eat in this next step. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides these general guidelines for macronutrient breakdown:

  • Carbs: 45–65% of total calories
  • Fats: 20–35% of total calories
  • Proteins: 10–35% of total calories

Calculating Macronutrients

Once you’ve decided on your percentages, you calculate calories and grams for each macronutrient. Here are a few examples: 

  • 2,000 calories per day: 
    • Carb = 40% = 2,000 calories x 0.4 = 800 calories/ 4 calories per gram = 200 grams
    • Fat = 30% = 2,000 calories x 0.3 = 600 calories/9 calories per gram = 67 grams
    • Protein = 30% = 2,000 calories x 0.3 = 600 calories/4 calories per gram = 150 grams
  • 1,600 calories per day 
    • Carb = 50% = 1.600 x 0.5 = 800 calories/ 4 calories per gram = 200 grams 
    • Fat = 25% = 1,600 x 0.25 = 400 calories/9 calories per gram = 45 grams
    • Protein 25% = 1,600 x 0.25 = 400 calories/4 calories per gram = 100 grams
  • 1,400 calories per day 
    • Carb = 20% = 1,400 x 0.2 = 280 calories/4 calories per gram = 70 grams 
    • Fat = 35% = 1,400 x 0.35 = 490 calories/9 calories per gram = 55 grams
    • Protein = 1,400 x 0.45 = 630 calories/4 calories per gram = 158 grams 

Tracking and Monitoring Macros

If you want to truly monitor your macronutrient intake (also known as tracking or counting macros), know that doing this is quite simple with a little know-how. 

Back in the day, we used to track macros and calories manually. And if you’re up for it, or if you love Excel—you can too. The great news is that an app can do this pretty quickly. Choose an app with an extensive and accurate food database, and many apps have barcode scanners to save you even more time. 

You also want to be sure you have a decent digital food scale and measuring cups and spoons. You can purchase a reliable food scale for about twenty dollars. Taking the time to weigh and measure food from the start will increase the accuracy of your intake and help you determine if the macronutrient breakdown is giving you the best results. Secondly, seeing what 4 oz of chicken, ½ cup of rice, and two tablespoons of salad dressing looks like will help you eyeball serving sizes with better accuracy down the road. Try not to get too obsessive about how close you get to each macro. The key is monitoring your trends and determining if the percentages deliver the desired results. 

Transitioning to a flexible eating plan that includes counting macros may be just the tool you need to meet your health and fitness goals. Be sure to give it several weeks to a month to get the hang of it, and you’ll be looking and feeling your best.