Health

How To Count (and Track) Macros For Fat Loss, Muscle Gain And Better Health

What are macros? | How to calculate your macros | How to keep track of your macros | Troubleshoot macros and FAQs | What to eat on a macro diet | How to measure portions | Macros and consistency | Macros for weight loss | Macros and alcohol

Lose weight, build muscle and perform better.

But in return you have to do math.

Still with us?

Then you might want to learn to count macros.

Counting macros is a way to track food intake based on grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats (macronutrients) instead of calories.

The advantage of focusing on macronutrients over calories is that you learn a little more about the quality of your food and how it affects your body.

The disadvantage of tracking macros is that you have to plan, measure, and record everything you eat. And then you have to do the math to add up your macronutrient balances at the end of each day.

For most people, this can be a little confusing and intimidating, especially when you're first starting out.

That's why we've created this comprehensive guide to all macros.

You will learn:

  • What are macronutrients and What foods do they contain?
  • How to calculate and track Your personal macronutrients
  • Why macronutrients aren't the fully story when it comes to health
  • Who is Macronutrient Tracking Best for? (and who doesn't)

Let's go.

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What are macros anyway?

Macros, or macronutrients, are large groups of nutrients.

There are three main macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

(Technically, alcohol is a fourth macronutrient, but nutrition plans don't focus on that as it doesn't offer much in terms of health benefits.)

Most foods and beverages are made up of a combination of these three macronutrients. But many foods have a dominant macronutrient that provides the majority of the calories.

For example:

  • Brown rice is mostly made up of carbohydrates but also has some protein and fat.
  • Cashew nuts are mostly fatty but also contain protein and a little carbohydrates.
  • Lean chicken breasts are mostly made up of protein but also contains some fat. It does not contain any carbohydrates.

The title of the picture is "Macronutrient content in various foods". The picture shows three pie charts in a row. The first pie chart is labeled “Brown Rice”. The macronutrient split consists of 85% carbohydrates, 8% proteins and 7% fat. The second pie chart is labeled "Cashews". The breakdown of the macronutrients is: 21% carbohydrates, 11% protein and 68% fat. The third pie chart is labeled “Lean Cooked Chicken Breasts”. The breakdown of the macronutrients is: 0% carbohydrates, 81% protein and 19% fat.

Each macronutrient provides a certain number of calories:

  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
  • (1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories)

As a result, tracking macros means you automatically Track calories.

Why are macronutrients important?

Your body breaks down macronutrients to perform certain tasks in the body.

For example:

  • Proteins break down into amino acids that can influence our muscle composition and are involved in the formation of mood-regulating neurotransmitters.
  • carbohydrates broken down into sugars, which provide us with energy for immediate consumption, but also for storage.
  • Fats break down into fatty acids that help to form certain structures in our body such as our brain, nervous system and our cell walls.

So macronutrients not only affect your body weight and composition, but can also influence the way you feel, your performance and your behavior.

How to calculate your macros

If you want to get your personalized macro plan, here are some things to consider before you begin:

Once you have your macro numbers, be sure to keep them for at least two weeks.

It takes this long to determine whether the changes you are noticing are due to your plan working (or not working) or just due to regular body fluctuations.

After two weeks you can assess how it's going and adjust your calories / macros up or down as needed. All of the methods listed below provide estimates of your daily calorie and macro needs, so in most cases It takes some experimentation before you find what works for you.

Ok, let's crack these numbers.

Step 1: Calculate your energy needs (calories).

Macrocounting is based on the principle of calories in, calories out (CICO): if you take in more energy than you burn, you gain weight, and if you take in less energy than you burn, you lose weight.

(Find out why CICO is undeniable: Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The debate is finally over.)

So before you start working out your macros, you need to determine your energy needs (calories) based on your body, lifestyle, and goals.

Here are two ways to do this.

Option 1: Use our macro calculator.

There are plenty of nutritional calculators out there, but ours – low-key boasting – is special.

Most calculators use static formulas to determine your calorie needs. Then they just chop up 500 calories a day or cut the calories 10 to 20 percent below maintenance needs – regardless of how much weight someone is trying to lose or in what time frame.

Our Macros calculator does two things that are unique:

  • It takes into account the date by which you want to achieve your goal. For example, the time you plan to build muscle or lose weight.
  • It contributes to metabolic adaptation. As you lose weight, you burn fewer calories. As you gain weight, you burn more calories. In other words, your body is trying to compensate for weight loss by slowing down your metabolism a little, and weight gain by speeding up your metabolism a little. Other computers do not take this into account.

An illustration of the Precision Nutrition Macros Calculator of calories and servings surrounded by fruits, grains, fish, and vegetables.

How Much Should You Eat? Let's find out.

Getting started

© Precision Nutrition

To use it, fill in your personal details and goals and you will be given your estimated daily calorie needs.

If you're using our calculator, you can just skip step 2 below. Because along with your calorie estimates, you will also receive recommendations for your ideal macronutrient ratio – or the ability to adjust it yourself.

Option 2: Use the diagram below.

For people who love doing calculations by hand, we've got it.

First, find your activity level and goal below.

Then multiply your body weight in pounds by the appropriate multiplier.

Daily calorie estimator

Customer target
Decrease Hold the weight Gain weight
Little activity
(<3 hours / week)
10-12 12-14 16-18
Moderately active
(3-7 hours / week)
12-14 14-16 18-20
Very active
(<3 hours / week)
*
14-16 16-18 20-22

* Competitive athletes – who are often active for more than 15 hours a week – have even higher needs.

For example, a lightly active 170-pound person looking to lose weight would eat between 1,700 and 2,040 calories each day.

Women should generally start at the low end of the range and men at the high end. Or start in the middle and see what happens. If you don't see the results you want, adjust your caloric intake accordingly.

Note: These short hand multipliers become less accurate as you move away from "average" body weights. For people who are very light, very tall, or very muscular, our macro calculator above might be more accurate.

Step 2: determine your macronutrient ratio.

Your Macronutrient ratio (also you "Macronutrient split“) Refers to how much of each macronutrient you are consuming.

For most people, a good breakdown is 15 to 35 percent protein, 40 to 60 percent carbohydrates, and 20 to 40 percent fat.

(This is just a frame. You can change these proportions to your liking. And if you are on a high-fat or high-carbohydrate diet, your numbers may be outside of these ranges.)

By adjusting your macro ratio based on your age, gender, activity level, goals, and preferences, you can personalize your eating plan for your optimal health.

Take advantage of our Macros calculator as mentioned above, or the formulas below.

We'll cover each macronutrient individually.

protein

Your protein needs will depend on your weight, activity level, and goals.

We calculate protein first because it is essential to so many aspects of good healthincluding fat loss, muscle building and maintenance, and athletic performance and recovery.

Use the tables below to find out how much protein you need in grams per pound or kilogram of body weight.

PROTEIN NEED IN G / LB
Maintaining / improving health Fat Loss / Body Gain Muscle gain
Little activity
(<3 hours / week)
0.6 to 0.9 0.7 to 1.0 0.8 to 1.1
Moderately active
(3-7 hours / week)
0.7 to 1.0 0.8 to 1.1 0.9 to 1.2
Very active
(> 7 hours / week)
0.8 to 1.1 0.9 to 1.2 1.0 to 1.3
PROTEIN REQUIREMENTS IN G / KG
Maintaining / improving health Fat Loss / Body Gain Muscle gain
Little activity
(<3 hours / week)
1.3 to 2.0 1.5 to 2.2 1.8 to 2.4
Moderately active
(3-7 hours / week)
1.5 to 2.2 1.8 to 2.4 2.0 to 2.6
Very active
(> 7 hours / week)
1.8 to 2.4 2.0 to 2.6 2.2 to 2.9

If you are new to healthy eating or are having trouble getting protein into your diet, start with the lower end of the range.

If you're ready for more advanced nutritional protocols or a committed athlete, go for the higher end.

So a 170-pound beginner who is lightly active and looking to lose fat could choose 0.8 g / lb from the 0.7 to 1.0 range.

170 pounds x 0.8 = 136 grams of protein / day

A highly active, experienced 165 pound lifter looking to build muscle might choose 1.2 g / lb from the 1.0 to 1.3 range.

165 pounds x 1.2 = 198 grams of protein / day

Note: For professional athletes, lean individuals trying to get very lean, and experienced strength athletes trying to minimize fat gain as they increase body weight, protein needs can reach 1.5 g / lb or 3.3 g / kg.

Fat & carbohydrates

How much of these two macros you eat depends on what you like.

First, find out how many calories and what percentage of your macros you have left after protein.

The formula looks like this (remember that every gram of protein has four calories):

Total Calories – (Total grams of protein x 4 calories) = fat and carbohydrate calories

To get your protein percentage, divide the calories from the protein by the total calories:

Calories from Protein / Total Calories = Percentage of total calories from protein

Now subtract your protein percentage from 100 to get your percentage of fat and carbohydrates. (Home stretch folks!)

100 percent calories from protein = percent fat and carbohydrates

Then you can decide how you want to split fat and carbohydrates.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  • In general, the more active you are, the higher your need for carbohydrates.
  • The minimum threshold for fat is 15 to 20 percent of total calories.
  • Research shows that diets low in fat and low in carbohydrates are equally effective for weight loss

Let's say after a person subtracts their percentage of calories from protein, there are 75 percent of the calories left to use for either fat or carbohydrates. And they opt for 50 percent carbohydrates (4 calories per gram) and 25 percent fat (9 calories per gram).

How to do the math:

Carbohydrates:

Total calories x 0.5 = carbohydrate calories

Carbohydrate calories / 4 = grams of carbohydrates

Fat:

Total calories x 0.25 = fat calories

Fat calories / 9 = grams of fat

Keto Macros: How Low Carb Can You Walk?

That ketogenic diet was originally developed to treat epilepsy. Doctors found that fasting reduced the frequency of seizures, but so did a diet that was extremely low in carbohydrates.

Eventually, bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts got wind of the diet and thought, "If the ketogenic diet mimics fasting, I may be able to get toned without cutting my calories too low and losing all of my gainz."

A few decades later, everyone is eating keto-style cauliflower-crusted pizza. (Actually, it's pretty good.)

As far as the distribution of the macros is concerned, the ketogenic diet consists of about 70-90 percent calories from fat, with the remaining 10-30 percent of the calories coming from a combination of carbohydrates and proteins.

(For comparison, a standard low-carbohydrate diet consists of about 50 percent fat, 30 percent protein, and 20 percent carbohydrates.)

Unless you're trying to stay in ketosis for medical reasons (to reduce seizures), less strict versions of the keto diet – which allow for higher amounts of protein and carbohydrates – are more sustainable for most people, especially athletes who try , Power and muscles maintain mass.

(Interested in trying – or coaching – the ketogenic diet? Here's your introduction: The Keto Diet Plan: Your Complete Guide.)

How to keep track of your macros

Once you've set your macros, these should be followed up to make sure you're meeting your macronutrient goals every day.

Most people use an app like MyFitnessPal, Cronometer, or Macros +.

There are several advantages to using an app:

  • They have a quick guide on how much of each macronutrient is in a serving of a food
  • The app will total your macros for you (and let you know how many are left for the day).

Or you can keep track of your macros by hand by keeping a paper diary and a nutritional database like that USDA Food Data Central or SELF nutrition data.

Either approach, write down the foods you ate at each meal along with the amount in grams of each macronutrient that each food contains.

Many people find it helps Schedule meals the evening before or in the morning. This will help you strategize ahead of time and prepare meals that will suit your macro goals, rather than reactively choosing food when you are starving and – oh man, that giant burrito looks great.

Most apps also let you save meals. So if you tend to repeat meals every now and then, Pre-entered and calculated food combinations can make tracking more efficient.

If you want to eat out, logging early can be a good strategy for sticking to your macros. Check out the menu before entering the restaurant and do your best to gauge the macros of the meal you have ordered.

5 frequently asked questions about macro tracking

Once you've figured out your macro numbers, you may feel like you have the key to all of your future health and fitness goals.

Until you really have to eat.

"Wait … how do I do this in real life ?!"

Here are some of the most common questions users have about tracking macros and what to do.

Question 1: What do you eat on a macro diet?

As you get used to following your macros, you will learn which foods are high in protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

One thing that the macronutrient count doesn't take into account, however, is micronutrients (vitamins and minerals normally found in whole, minimally processed foods).

Micronutrients are necessary for good health. And while you could probably achieve your macros by chopping up pizza, french fries, and protein shakes, we wouldn't recommend doing this.

As a macro counter, it is up to you to make sure you are eating a diet that meets your macro and micronutrient needs.

An easy way to do this?

Mainly reach your macros through a variety of minimally processed foods naturally rich in micronutrients: lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, nuts and seeds, and pressed oils.

If you're not sure where to start, take a look at the graphic below. You can see that while some foods fit well into certain macronutrient categories, others are more of a mix.

The title of the picture is “Food and its macro groups”. The picture shows a Venn diagram with the three main circles protein, carbohydrates and fats overlapping. Foods high in each macronutrient are listed in their respective circle groups. Where the circles intersect, the foods that contain a mixture of macronutrients are shown. The protein circle lists: chicken and turkey breasts, extra lean beef, game meat, protein, lean fish and seafood and protein powder. Where protein and fat overlap, tofu, whole eggs, non-lean red meat, bacon and sausage, oily fish, full-fat yogurt, and cheese are listed. The fat circle lists: Butter & Ghee, Cream & Cream Cheese, Mayonnaise & Dressings, Olives & Oil, Avocado & Oil, Coconut & Oil and Nuts & Nut Butter. Where fat and carbohydrates overlap, hummus, cereal, ice cream, chocolate, baked goodies, and fries & chips are listed. The carbohydrate circle lists: cereals, pasta & bread, breakfast cereals, potatoes & sweet potatoes, vegetables & fruit, honey, syrup & jams and sweetened drinks. Where carbohydrates and proteins overlap are listed: non-fat cottage cheese and Greek yogurt, low-fat and non-fat milk, beef jerky, and lentils and beans. Where carbohydrates, proteins and fats overlap are listed: tempeh & edamame, pizza & fried chicken, whole milk and some protein bars.

(You can find a more detailed version of the above image in our handout: The macro diagram.)

Question 2: How do I measure my food?

It's not exactly Sophie's choice, but people still wonder:

Should I measure food by volume (with a measuring cup) or by weight (with a food scale)?

Use food scales for the best results. Measuring by weight is always more accurate than measuring by volume.

For example, about 100 grams of almonds fit in a cup, depending on whether they are whole or chopped. But when these almonds are finely chopped they are easier to pack and a cup can hold maybe 200 grams.

On a scale, 100 grams is always 100 grams, regardless of whether the almonds are whole or chopped.

But if your only option is to measure cups and spoons, that's fine. Just make sure – especially at the beginning – to measure everything instead of eyeing it.

People tend to overestimate what a “tablespoon” or “cup” looks like and sometimes inadvertently double their serving.

Note: Cooking certain foods like cereals, pasta, and meat can change their weight and volume. So, When you measure a food raw, record it raw. If you measure it cooked, record it cooked.

If weighing and measuring your food feels like a chore and shrinking soul, there are other tracking options.

For example, you can track your intake using hand portions. Our Macros calculator also offers hand portions so you don't have to meticulously measure everything (unless you want to).

(Find out everything about hand portions here: How your fist, palm, cupped hand, and thumb can all help you avoid the hassle of counting calories.)

Question 3: How important is it to hit my macros exactly?

Consistency leads to the desired results.

However, that doesn't mean you have to hit your macros accurately every day.

If you're having a bad week (or year), just remember that 50 percent consistency is better than giving up completely.

(Need some proof that you don't have to be perfect to get results? Read: A million data points show what it REALLY takes to transform your body.)

If you feel like you're really punching, easy prioritize meeting your protein goals every day. Eating a higher protein diet will help reduce hunger, maintain muscle, and improve overall health.

Total, strive for consistency rather than perfection. Try to get close to your daily macro goals, but don't force yourself to eat when you're not hungry.

What if you'd rather eat half an avocado than a bowl of oatmeal? Don't stress yourself swapping fat for carbohydrates.

Question 4: Can you use weight loss macros?

If your goal is to lose fat, it is a good idea to use some method to track food intake for at least a period of time.

Lots of people consume calories. But macros make up calories and have the added value of telling you a little bit more about food quality (like the amount of protein, fat, or carbohydrates in a food).

Especially in weight loss – where the goal is usually to lose fat but get lean mass – tracking macros can help ensure you're getting enough muscle-maintaining protein while consuming fewer calories than you burn.

Use the Protein recommendation table above to find the protein range for your goal and activity level. If your goal is to lose fat, minimize hunger, and maintain muscle mass, go for the high end of your range.

From there, calculate your carbohydrate and fat amounts and remember that losing weight requires consuming fewer calories than you burn – also known as a calorie deficit – for a period of time.

Question 5: How can I track alcohol?

Just because alcohol isn't included in typical macro plans doesn't mean you can't have it.

But you should pursue it as it contains calories.

The most common way to do this is Use some of your fat or carbohydrate grams to explain the alcohol.

For example, if you're drinking a beer, 12 ounces is roughly 155 calories. 2

If you want to swap it out for carbohydrates, do the following equation:

155 calories / 4 calories per gram = 38.75 grams

So you could log your stock as 39 grams of carbohydrates.

Or if you're drinking a glass of red wine, a 5-ounce serving has 127 calories

To use fat grams for this jar:

127 calories / 9 calories per gram = 14.1 grams

So you could log your vino as 14 grams of fat.

Or just use a combination of carbohydrates and fat by dividing the calories as you like and repeating the steps above.

What do you do next

Ready to start? Here are a few things to consider before you begin.

Know what you want to achieve.

Macro counting works well for people with specific goals.

When you reach, or even achieve, your goal, consider continuing to count macros. Some people enjoy counting them indefinitely, but most eventually get tired of chasing them.

The truth is that macro counting is just one of many nutritional strategies that you can add to your toolbox.

(Want another great strategy? Read: The 30 Day Eating Challenge That Can Blow You Away And Transform Your Body.)

Think of counting macros as an experiment.

The first macro split you try might work just fine. Or not.

Whether you succeed or fail, don't use it as a proxy for your self-worth.

Gather your data and just see what happens. Stay open and use the results of your experiment to make your next decisions.

Did you enjoy tracking macros and got closer to your goals? Cool! Keep going.

Was all the measuring and counting too delicate and stressed you? Try another way to improve your diet.

(And if you really enjoy working with macros, you might like our advanced training course: How to coach a macro-based diet.)

It's okay if macro counting isn't for you.

Full Disclosure: At Precision Nutrition, macronutrient counting is not our preferred method of regulating food intake. At least not for most people.

Counting macros works – especially for high-level, advanced goals, like preparing for a body competition or a major sporting event.

But despite the fact that macro counting can be super flexible, it's also a lot of work. Especially when compared to other "watch what you eat" methods that can be just as effective.

For most people and most goals, there are less labor-intensive ways to get results. Here are a few ideas:

(Want to compare different methods of food tracking? Read: Macros vs. calories vs. servings vs. intuitive eating.)

Remember, we eat food, not nutrients.

Food is so much more than grams of protein, carbohydrates and fat. And meals aren't just a chance to meet your macro goals.

Meals are also an opportunity to experience joy, spend time caring for your body, and sharing with people you love.

Every meal is a chance to connect – with yourself and with others. And every food choice is an opportunity to direct, shape, and reshape your health.

References

Click here to view the resources referenced in this article.

1. Sacks, Frank M., George A. Bray, Vincent J. Carey, Steven R. Smith, Donna H. Ryan, Stephen D. Anton, Katherine McManus et al. 2009. "Comparison of weight loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein and carbohydrates." The New England Journal of Medicine 360 ​​(9): 859-73.

2. "FoodData headquarters". n.d. Accessed July 15, 2021. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/344427/nutrients.

3. "FoodData headquarters". n.d. Accessed July 15, 2021. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173190/nutrients.

If you are or would like to become a coach …

Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes – in ways that are tailored to their unique bodies, preferences, and circumstances – is both an art and a science.

If you want to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification.

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