How to Count Macros: A Step-By-Step Guide

Chances are you’ve heard the term “counting macros” at some point at the gym. Counting your macros (macronutrients) can help you reach various health related goals. While it is relatively simple, it can be confusing if you’re just starting out. Counting macros entails keeping track of the calories you intake and the types of foods you eat in order to achieve certain macronutrient and calorie goals. 

What Are Macronutrients? 

  1. Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates include fibers, starches, and sugars. Most carbs get broken down into glucose, which your body uses for immediate energy or stores as glycogen (the storage form of glucose) in your liver and muscles. Carbs provide 4 calories per gram and typically make up the largest portion of people’s calorie intake. Carb intake is a hotly debated topic (especially for people who follow a Keto diet) but major health organizations suggest consuming 40-65% of your daily calories from carbs. These calories can be found in grains, starchy vegetables, beans, and fruits.
  2. Fats:  Fats contain the most calories of all macronutrients at 9 calories per gram. Your body needs fat for energy and critical functions, like hormone production, body temperature maintenance, and nutrient absorption. Maco recommendations for fats range from 20-35% of total calories, which can be found in meat, fatty fish, nuts, oils, avocados, and butters.
  3. Proteins: Just like carbs, proteins provide 4 calories per gram. Proteins are vital for processes like immune function, cell signaling, and the building of tissues, enzymes and hormones. 10-35% of your calorie intake should be composed of proteins that can come from eggs, poultry, fish, tofu and lentils. Protein recommendations vary depending on body composition goals, age, health and more.

How to Count Macros

1. Figure Out Your Calorie Needs:  

Resting energy expenditure (REE) and non-resting energy expenditure (NREE) need to be determined in order to calculate your overall calorie needs. REE refers to the number of calories a person burns at rest, while NREE indicates calories burned during activity and digestion. Adding REE + NREE gives you the total number of calories burned in a day, which is known as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This can be done using the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation:

Men:  calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5  x age (y) + 5

Women:  calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6/25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161

Next, multiply your result by an activity factor–a number that represents different levels of activity:

  • Sedentary:  x 1.2 (limited exercise)
  • Lightly active:  x 1.375 (light exercise less than three days per week) 
  • Moderate active: x 1.55 (moderate exercise most days of the week) 
  • Very active: x 1.725 (hard exercise every day) 
  • Extra active: x 1.9 (strenuous exercise two or more times per day) 

The end result is your TDEE. 

Calories can either be added or subtracted from your total expenditure in order to reach different goals. Basically, those trying to lose weight should consume fewer calories than they expend, while those looking to gain muscle mass should increase calories. 

2. Decide Your Ideal Macronutrient Breakdown

After determining how many calories to consume daily, the next step is to decide what macronutrient ratio works best for you. 

  • Carbs:  40-65% of total calories
  • Fats:  20-35% of total calories
  • Proteins: 10-35% of total calories 

Keep in mind that these recommendations may not fit your specific needs. Your ratio can be fine-tuned in order to achieve specific objectives. Macronutrient ratios can vary depending on dietary preferences, weight loss goals and other factors. 

3. Track Your Macros and Calorie Intake

Next step, track those macros! This simply means logging the foods you eat on a website, app or food journal. Apps include MyFitnessPal, Lose It!, or My Macros+, Fitbit, etc. Several of these apps contain a barcode scanner that automatically inputs a serving of a scanned food into your macro log. Additionally, a digital food scale may help you track your macros–though it isn’t necessary. Keep in mind that it isn’t necessary to hit your macro targets exactly. You can still meet your goals even if you go a few grams over or under each day.

4. Counting Example 

Here’s an example of how to calculate macronutrients for a 2,000 calorie diet consisting of 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat. 

Carbs:

  • 4 calories per gram 
  • 40% of 2,000 calories = 800 calories of carbs per day
  • Total grams of carbs allowed per day = 800/4 = 200 

Proteins:

  • 4 calories per gram 
  • 30% of 2,000 = 600 calories of protein per day
  • Total grams of protein allowed per day = 600 / 4 = 150

Fats:

  • 9 calories per gram
  • 30% of 2,000 calories = 600 calories of protein per day 
  • Total grams of fat allowed per day = 600 / 9 = 67 grams

In this scenario, your ideal daily intake would be 200 grams of carbs, 150 grams of protein and 67 grams of fat. 

Benefits Of Counting Macronutrients

  • May Improve Diet Quality 
  • May Promote Weight Loss
  • May Assist With Specific Goals

Counting Macros Is Not For Everyone 

People who thrive with structure may find counting macros ideal for their health goals. Because counting macros puts so much emphasis on tracking calories and logging intake, anyone with a history of disordered eating should steer clear of counting macros. Focusing this intently on food intake could lead to disordered eating patterns in those without a history of those behaviors as well. Keep in mind that it is possible to eat poorly while engaging in macro counting because it permits all foods as long as the time “fits in” the set macronutrient ranges. Aim to follow a whole-foods diet rich in fresh produce, healthy fats, complex carbs and protein sources while counting macros.

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