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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
November 18, 2022
Fitness junkies and personal trainers have more than likely heard the phrases "Did you hit your macros?" and "That doesn't fit my macros" frequently.
But if you aren't a fitness professional or haven't yet dipped a toe into macro counting, you may have some lingering questions regarding the very trendy diet plan and what "if it fits your macros (IIFYM)" is all about.
This begs the question: What exactly are macros, why do you need to count them, and how do you begin?
This article will explain all you need to know about macros and their importance. Also, we'll show you how counting macros is helpful for everyone, regardless of fitness goals.
This post will discuss:
The first step with counting macros is answering the question: What is a macro? The term "macros" refers to macronutrients. Your body requires large quantities of these nutrients in order for it to function optimally. There are 3 different macros: protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
Not only does each macronutrient pack its own unique health benefits, but each also provides you with calories.
Compared to macronutrients, micronutrients are various compounds essential for optimal health that are required in smaller amounts. These are vitamins and minerals.
We must consume over 13 essential vitamins and numerous other minerals in our diet. When it comes to vitamins, there are two groups:
Let's get into the question on everyone's mind: What is counting macros? A macro diet is a flexible dieting method that allows a person to choose the foods they want, as long as they fit into a predetermined macro ratio.
Macro counting differs from plans such as the Metabolic Confusion Diet, as it requires counting calories and then also tracking macronutrients to fit within that daily calorie goal.
An example of this is a person on a 2,000-calorie diet who wants to hit a macro split of 30/30/40 (Protein/Fat/Carbs). This means they must choose foods to eat that will hit their intended macro target. In practice, this means that 30% of their daily calories come from protein, 30% from fat, and 40% from carbs.
It sounds more complicated than it is. And don't worry, we'll show you how to make tracking calories easier a little later on in the article. For now, let's talk about each macronutrient in more detail.
In a way, how much protein you need per day is the most important macro to focus on and is generally the first macro determined in a diet.
Compared to fat and carbs, there is far less variation in the amount of protein a person eats across all fields. This number remains pretty steady, no matter your other macros. Protein is made of strings of amino acids, which act as the building blocks of tissue. It's the primary macro used to build and repair muscle.
There are 4 calories per gram of protein.
The RDA for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.8g/kg).
However, this number is minimal for the entire population, including the sick and elderly. In addition, it's the basic amount needed to support healthy liver function.
A 30-year-old guy going to the gym, following a workout split, will need more protein compared to an inactive man who never works out to support the amount of stress he's putting on his muscles. Therefore, the recommended protein intake for athletes is 1.6-2.2g/kg¹.
Many people do better using a high protein intake as they generally see better muscle gains as well as improved body composition.
This occurs due to one of the proven health benefits protein provides. It aids in weight loss². This occurs through many mechanisms, including:
Protein is found in both animal products and plant foods. Generally speaking, animal protein will be a better protein source in terms of quality and quantity.
Some of our favorite sources of high protein low-fat foods are:
If you're interested in ways to consume more protein daily, check out our 7-Day High Protein Meal Plan for some great inspiration!
Fat is largely misunderstood by the public. It's generally associated with excess body fat, but that is due to overconsumption. In reality, our bodies require a significant amount of fat to support life.
The suggested minimum dietary fat intake is at least 25% of a person's diet. You can go higher if you would like, but aside from Keto, most diets are in the 25-45% range.
A few functions provided through dietary fat include warmth, fatty acids, protection of our organs, hormone production, and stored energy. It's also required to transport fat-soluble vitamins.
Fats have a significant amount of calories at 9 calories per gram.
There are numerous types of fat. To keep things simple, stay away from or limit anything with trans fats or saturated fats. These are mainly found in things like fast food and processed food.
Aim for healthy fats. Some good sources include avocado, fatty fish (2 servings a week), nuts, and eggs, which can increase testosterone³.
Again, carbs are vastly misunderstood. Carbs are your body's main fuel source for intense activities, like HIIT, making them vital for sufficient energy.
Carbs are basically sugar in different molecular structures. That's a wildly simplified explanation, but for the purpose of this discussion, it will do. When digested, carbs are broken down into a single molecule of sugar (glucose), which is then stored in our muscles to be used as fuel.
Most people would do awesome if they cut out anything with added sugar. It's one of the reasons we love a vegan diet for weight loss packed with wholesome nutritious foods. If you only get your carbs from natural sources, it's not going to make a massive difference whether it's from fruit or pasta.
That said, some of our favorite carb sources are:
Carbs are vital for optimal performance, particularly as you take on a tough gym session, like these assault bike workouts, and we love them. However, when compared to fats and protein, our bodies can function with very low amounts.
We only need to get around 5% of our calories from carbs as our brains require glucose. Our other muscles and organs can get energy from other fat and protein if needed.
But the diets of some endurance athletes may include a carb intake of 70%-80%⁴! That said, your average lifter will likely be around 3-5g per kilogram of body weight.
One important thing to keep in mind is carb's role in manipulating calories, which is almost exclusively done by increasing and decreasing your carbs. Your protein and fat intake should remain consistent.
The first question some people may ask themselves is: What's the difference between whether I count calories or count macros? At the end of the day, both methods wind up using the same calorie intake.
However, there is a significant difference that sets these methods apart.
Tracking calories puts all of the emphasis on, you guessed it, calories, in order to get into a deficit, maintain weight, or build muscle.
But simply counting calories can be too simplistic and neglect other parts of a person's nutrition. A person's diet consists of a lot more than just calories.
In fact, this entire article is about your macros. In addition, there are also micronutrients that can have a large effect on the body's health and performance.
Further, it ignores the source of the food. This can lead some people to determine if a product is "healthy" or not purely by looking at the calories.
For example, here are a couple of examples of how only using calories results in poor choices.
Neither assumption would be correct.
In comparison, counting macros shifts the interest to tracking how many macros you need to eat. While your calorie goal stays the same, you focus on hitting your desired macro ratio.
This is important because it causes people to look at the foods they eat, so they're not bypassing any of the three macros.
Further, this leaves less room for junk food as a person must eat nutrient-dense foods to hit their prescribed macros within their calorie goal. This aligns with the 80-20 rule diet, which emphasizes high-quality, nutritious foods the majority of the time.
Now, let's go through some of the reasons a macro diet might be good for you.
The first benefit of tracking macros for weight loss or any other goal is that it's going to work. It's one of the few things we can guarantee in nutrition and fitness.
The end goal of any weight loss program, or clean bulking diet, is to control calories. Counting them and keeping track is the only way to ensure you don't overeat.
Plus, if you hit your macros and stay within your calorie goal, you'll lose weight. It's science.
If it doesn't work, or you find you are gaining/losing too much weight, you can adjust your macro ratio or calorie intake.
Even though we're confident your body will respond, nothing is 100% guaranteed. Some people seem to operate better with different macro splits as they handle compounds differently than others.
The only way to discover this is by tracking macros and calories while paying attention to body changes. Start by figuring out your daily macros, and then even determining things like how much protein you need per serving to hit those, and adjust as needed.
This is what differentiates it from other diets. At the end of the day, just about every diet that has been introduced is a "macro diet." The difference is that it either prescribes what macro ratio to use (keto, "low-fat") or it dictates what foods you eat (Mediterranean, paleo, vegan).
We're not saying that any of the above are bad diets, nor are we saying they're great. What we're saying is that with macro counting, as long as you're hitting your macro goals (which you set), you get to select the foods you eat to reach your target. Essentially, there's more freedom.
If macro counting is almost guaranteed to work, why isn't everybody doing it? These are a few reasons why.
This primary drawback explains why more people don't track their macros. It's hard, especially at the beginning.
And truth be told, they're right. While we can make it easier with the use of a macro counter, it still takes time. There's a learning process involved, even with a macros calculator helping you out. Unfortunately, this part can be a bit obnoxious. Anyone who tells you it's not is lying.
However, it does get easier the longer you do it (what doesn't?).
Further, not taking control of your health will eventually lead to many annoying things, like heart disease and constant insulin injections. The point being is that while it can be hard to learn, the payoff is huge. Plus, you'll start to prioritize healthy habits, like eating the right foods before a workout and after a workout, to support your macro and muscle-building goals.
Eating disorders can occur anytime weight loss is involved, meaning this isn't specific to a macro diet. However, counting calories and tracking macros have the potential to create an unhealthy obsession with tracking food.
You likely even know someone who shows disordered eating patterns, doing things such as checking the nutrition label of everything they eat and stressing out because they tracked their calories incorrectly.
This obsession develops from the fear of eating too many calories or missing your macro target. While you want to hit your macros pretty consistently, you will never get them exactly, nor will eating a few too many cancel the health benefits.
However, we know that knowing these things doesn't necessarily fix the issue. If you are prone to eating disorders or obsessive behaviors, please keep this in mind and be mindful of any signs. In fact, if you have a history of eating disorders or obsessive behaviors, you should first speak to your doctor.
Similar to the issue with calorie counting, a macro diet still leaves room for unhealthy food choices. Don't get us wrong. Following one will probably result in better overall food selection. But not everyone sees it this way or uses the diet with the correct mindset.
For example, your macro diet quality can be greatly increased by choosing healthy foods that deliver the same macros. This includes things like choosing healthy fats vs. saturated fats and complex carbs instead of added sugar.
To some people, fat is fat, and carb is a carb. This isn't true. That is like saying fuel is fuel. However, there's a definite difference between diesel, premium, and regular.
Some will choose to eat any type of food as long as it fits their macros. For example, choosing Mcdonald's 10-piece chicken nuggets as a protein source delivers 20+ grams at 440 calories.
The problem is that there are other important nutrients your body needs and some compounds your body doesn't need, such as saturated fat, which nuggets are full of.
Further, you must consume all of your vitamins and minerals consistently. Not only do some of these processed foods have larger amounts of calories, but they also have smaller quantities of vitamins and minerals. In other words, even if you do hit your macros, you could still miss your micros.
That said, if you concentrate on using nutrient-dense foods to hit your macros, strategically including things such as the best protein powders, lean protein sources, fruits, veggies, and whole grains, hitting your micros shouldn't be an issue.
Figuring out how to count macros first includes finding out how many macros you need to eat. You'll start by finding out how many calories you need, and then you'll take your calorie tracking a step further.
This process contains a few steps, but we'll try to keep it simple.
Depends on who you ask. Seriously.
If you ask us, we like to keep things moderate except for protein. We suggest a higher protein intake for the majority of people as it works great regardless of your goal.
When reading a macro split, it's labeled as protein/fat/carbs. So this would be a 30/30/40 split.
Now that you know your macro nutrients ratio, you need to calculate how many calories you burn during the day. This is called your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE for short. Your TDEE consists of four different values:
To find this number, you must first calculate your BMR. There are multiple equations that can be used for this. For example, the Mifflin St. Jeor equation is popular. It looks like this:
You then calculate this number by your activity level.
That said, you can also find a good TDEE calculator on the web that will not only provide you with your maintenance calories but may also have a macro calculator that provides you with your daily macros split.
Regardless of which TDEE calculator or equation you use, it's important to note that you will need to track your progress and likely need to tweak these numbers as everyone's needs are highly individual. Think of the daily calories provided by a calculator as a good starting point.
Once you know your total daily energy expenditure, take the macronutrient ratios you've decided to go with (like 30/30/40) and calculate your macros.
Remember that the ratio is only from the calories. So once you determine how many calories should come from each macro, you then divide that by the number of calories in 1 gram of each macro.
Take an imaginary person who weighs 100kg (~220 pounds). He has a 3,000-calorie diet and wants to use a 30/30/40 split.
1) 30% Protein:
2) 30% Fat:
So the macro diet for this person would be 225 grams of protein, 100 grams of fat, and 300 grams of carbs.
If after walking through this, you're still feeling like it's too much math required when it comes to how to count your macros, you can download an app like MyFitnessPal, which serves as a macro calculator for weight loss. Simply pay the monthly membership, and they will do the majority of the macro-calculating work for you.
Now we get to the "complicated" part: Tracking macros, which is an essential part of the macros diet. When figuring out how to count macros, it will take a bit of time to get used to.
The only way to be sure of what you're eating is if you make your own food. You can use packaged foods once in a while, but what your read on the nutrition label isn't always correct.
This means when it comes to how to count macros, you need to learn how to cook at least some basic meals (using nutritious whole foods). This muscle-building meal plan will provide you with some inspiration.
There are a ton of different websites that show you the nutritional information of various foods. However, we strongly recommend just downloading a macro counting app, like MyFitnessPal, which we touched on above.
Not only does a counting macros app help provide the calorie content of different foods, but it also serves as a great macro counter, requiring minimal effort (aside from inputting your food) from you.
For example, if you're cooking chicken breast you can search the app for chicken breast, select how many grams or ounces of that food you'll be eating, and the app will record that information for you.
This is why we also strongly recommend you buy a digital food scale to weigh your food. Remember to weigh your food before cooking it (raw meat and vegetables).
When you cook your food, make a larger quantity so you can then divide it into multiple meals. Basically, meal prep!
Learn some easy meals that are easy to calculate. The easiest meal should have a minimal amount of ingredients. We like these bulking breakfasts if your goal is building muscle. When you count calories, don't get too caught up on precision either.
Here are some guidelines for building a meal.
Examples of meals that easily make this possible include a sandwich, crockpot meals, and smoothies. Crockpot meals let you easily toss in all of your macros, and a dinner of steak, sweet potato, and spinach checks all your macro boxes. A pasta meal consisting of chicken, noodles, and tomato sauce is another meal that will help you stay on macro-counting track.
Once you have cooked a few meals, write down the recipes along with the nutritional information. This way, you don't need to recalculate everything, which saves a ton of time and headaches! You also might consider purchasing a meal prep bag to make sure you can take your food with you on the go.
One more way of making counting macros easier is to use a meal delivery service that lists the nutritional values of everything. There are even meal delivery services that specialize in keto meals and vegan meals. If you were looking for a surefire way of tracking your macros, check out our Trifecta Meals Review to see if their service is a good fit for you.
Another method some people use is to only track their protein intake and monitor their daily calories. If you do this, then for fats and carbs, just pay attention to what you're eating to make sure you get your essentials (like omega fatty acids and vitamins).
In fact, a lot of advanced lifters do this to ensure muscle hypertrophy without rigorously tracking.
Keep these 3 tips in mind to set yourself up for macro counting success.
We'll now quickly go through how to adjust your macros and total calorie intake. To do this, we're going to use the 3,000-calorie example from above.
The calorie needs from the above calculation are known as your maintenance calories. This is the amount you need to eat to maintain your weight.
Basically, your daily calorie intake is equal to the number of calories burned throughout the day. As a result, you maintain the same body composition. If you're hoping to use macro counting for weight loss, you'll need to lower your daily intake. If the goal is to build muscle, you'll want to increase it.
When you want to lose fat and weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you expend. This means your body will grab more fuel from your fat stores, glucose, or muscle (which we don't want!).
Therefore, when counting macros for weight loss, eat fewer calories than your maintenance calories. Under normal circumstances, you should attempt to cut 300-500 calories for steady weight loss. This will put you in a big enough defect to lose weight while still being moderate enough to maintain muscle mass.
Subtracting the 300 to 500 calories, your daily calories are now 2,500-2,700 calories. We suggest making this cut as small as possible. So if you're not in a rush, choose to eat 2,700 calories. Without reducing your calories more, you can create an even bigger deficit with simple changes to your workout routine, like adding a few LISS cardio sessions each week.
For your macros, you'll eat the same amount of fat (100g at 900 calories) and protein (225g at 900 calories). You could alter the fat and protein content, but this isn't needed under normal circumstances.
Therefore, we use carbs to cause a 300-calorie deficit. Three hundred calories divided by 4 calories is equal to 75 g. of carbs. So the new macro diet becomes:
Now, in order to build muscle and gain strength, you need to add more calories. When it comes to weight gain, the same general rule of 300-500 calories applies, but now we're using it to create a caloric surplus.
In order to mitigate fat gain and maximize muscle gain, start with 300 calories. This means you now need to eat 3,300 calories.
Again, the fat and protein content can stay the same. This leaves us with raising the number of carbs to add calories. Three hundred calories equal 75 grams of carbs, so the new macro diet for gaining weight is:
Counting macros, particularly when paired with moderate exercise, is an effective way to control your diet while still giving yourself some freedom to occasionally eat unhealthy foods. Also, realize that a time will come when you won't need to really count macros anymore.
As you become aware of your body and proper food portions, the need to be exact will lessen. Alternatively, if nothing has ever worked for you, counting macros will as it's merely obeying natural laws. The headache will be worth it in the end!
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