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Whether it’s at the gym or on an internet forum, you’ve likely come across the concepts of counting macros or the macros diet more than a few times.
Counting macronutrients has become wildly popular in recent years amongst everyone from competitive athletes to casual gym-goers with body transformation goals. Whether you’re trying to lose fat or pack on muscle mass, keeping track of your macros can help you to look and feel your best.
In simple terms, the macros diet consists of closely managing your caloric intake by choosing foods that align with your daily macronutrient goals. These goals can vary significantly depending on whether you are trying to gain, lose, or maintain weight.
While this might sound complicated, it’s actually pretty easy once you’ve got the hang of things! In order to get you started on your dieting journey, we’re covering all the ins-and-outs of how to count macros.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the calorie providing substances found in food. They come in three forms — protein, carbohydrates, and fat — and each of which has a distinct and vital function within the body. Understanding how each macro fits into your diet is the first important step towards achieving your health and fitness goals.
Protein plays a number of important roles within your body. It’s used to rebuild tissue, produce enzymes and support the healthy functioning of your immune system. What protein is best known for, however, is its association with the muscle-building process.
Your muscles are actually made up of tiny proteins which are in a constant state of flux. Physical activity, whether it’s an intense workout or a leisurely walk, causes breakdowns in muscle proteins.
In response to the breakdown of muscle proteins, a series of signaling events is set off in your body triggering something known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS). In simplest terms, MPS refers to the process through which your body takes protein from your diet and uses it to repair and rebuild damaged muscle tissue.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source and are usually the majority of our total daily calorie intakes. Carbs come in a variety of forms including simple sugars and complex carbs. Starches, fibers, and sugars are all classified as carbs.
All carbohydrates, no matter what type, are converted into glucose, which serves as your body’s primary fuel source. Small amounts of excess carbohydrates can also be converted into glycogen and stored in your muscles for later use. Any leftover carbs that don’t fit in your body’s hypothetical storage facilities are ultimately converted and stored as fat.
While it may have a scary connotation, fat actually plays a number of important roles within the body. In fact, your mind and body cannot stay up and running without a healthy supply of dietary fat! In addition to acting as your body’s secondary fuel source, fat also helps to support the functions of your vital organs as well as protect them from external forces.
Even though low-fat diets tend to get all of the attention — especially when it comes to weight loss — they are certainly not the only way to transform your body.
Macros and Calories
All macros, no matter which type, contain calories. While protein and carbohydrates have the same amount of calories per gram, fat is more calorically dense. Here’s how it breaks down:
Add up all of the protein, carbs, and fat you consume throughout the day and you get your total daily calories.
How to Count Macros
The first thing that you will need to figure out in order to start counting macros is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), which is an estimate of how many calories your body burns off throughout the day at your current weight.
There are a number of formulas for calculating your TDEE, however, one of the most popular is the Katch-McArdle Equation, which takes into account your sex, age, height, weight, and activity level to estimate your daily caloric needs.
You can use an online TDEE calculator to easily estimate your caloric needs. It is important to point out that whenever you are calculating your TDEE, you are getting an estimate. You may need to slightly adjust your calories in one way or the other until you do not see any fluctuation in your weight.
After you know exactly how many calories it takes to maintain your current weight, you can manipulate your calorie intake to reflect your goals: subtract calories from your TDEE to lose weight or add in more to pack on muscle mass.
How Much of Each Macronutrient Do You Need?
Once your goals and caloric needs have been established, you’re just about ready to start counting macros. So how much protein, carbs, and fat should you shoot for on a daily basis?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to determining your own personal needs from a macros standpoint. Instead, organizations such as the USDA have developed macronutrient recommendations based upon a set of ideal ranges. Here’s what it looks like for the average healthy adult:
10-35% of total daily calories
45-65% of total daily calories from carbs
20-35% of total daily calories from fat
As you can see, there are a number of different macro ratios that may potentially work. The key lies in experimenting within these provided ranges until you are able to establish a macro spit that meets your body’s needs and aligns with your goals.
For example, if you’ve already figured out your TDEE and are simply looking to maintain your weight, you’re ready to start tinkering with your macro split. Let’s say your TDEE is 2,500 calories and you start off with a 25/45/30 macro split, meaning 25% of your calories are coming from protein, 45% from carbs, and 30% from fat.
Your macro goals would break down like this:
Let’s say, however, that after a month of following this split your weight is on point, but you notice that you’ve been feeling consistently low on energy. You can start to experiment with increasing your carbs and decreasing your fat until you find a ratio that provides you with the energy you need.
How to Count Macros For Weight Loss
One of the biggest benefits of the macros diet is that it is extremely flexible, unlike many diets which tend to restrict the foods you can eat. As such, many people have turned to counting macros in order to lose weight.
This is why it is sometimes referred to as flexible dieting — as long as you hit your calorie and macro goals, it technically doesn’t matter what you eat. Don’t believe me? Check out this biology teacher who lost 60 lbs by eating a 2,000 calories per day diet consisting solely of McDonald’s.
So how do you do it?
The first (and most important) aspect of any weight loss program is a calorie deficit. In order to lose weight, you must be taking in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day.
While you might be tempted to severely restrict your calories in order to lose weight rapidly, doing so can result in significant muscle loss. Instead, focus on only moderately restricting your calories to target fat and spare muscle mass.
Research suggests that somewhere between a 10-35% calorie restriction is the ideal range for burning fat and preserving muscle during a weight loss diet.
So, for example, if your TDEE is 2,500 calories and you want to apply a 25% calorie restriction, it breaks down like this:
2,500 x 0.25 = 625 Calories
2,500 – 625 = 1875 calories per day
Once you’ve figured out your daily calorie goals, you can start to experiment with your macro ratios. As we’ve already mentioned, your body is at risk of losing muscle mass whenever it is in a calorie deficit. Most of us, however, don’t want to lose muscle, we want to shed fat. A high protein intake is therefore essential if we want to look lean and muscular as the fat comes off.
A common recommendation is to consume between 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight when cutting weight. For example, let’s say you weigh 200 hundred pounds and are going for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. That’s 200 grams (800 calories) of protein per day.
Since we want to keep our protein intake high during weight loss, we need to restrict our calories by reducing our carb and/or fat intake. While cutting dietary fat is certainly an option, make sure that you are staying in the recommended range of 20-35% of your total calories coming from fat.
Although you can get away with going under the 45% minimum recommendation for carbs, it can really have a negative impact on your energy levels during a weight cut, where your energy is already depleted to begin with.
How to Count Macros to Build Muscle
Counting macros can also come in handy for bulking up. When it comes to building muscle, there are a couple of things that are absolutely essential. The first is a calorie surplus. In order to pack on muscle mass, you need to consume more calories than your body burns off in a day.
While it might be tempting to go way over your TDEE, you only want to be consuming a small surplus of calories. Building muscle takes time and your weight gain should be gradual. If you’re putting on well over a pound per week, chances are you’re not only packing on muscle, you’re also gaining fat.
Add somewhere between 250-500 calories on top of your TDEE to minimize fat gains during your bulk. It’s a good idea to start at the lower end of this recommendation and tack on more calories if you don’t experience any weight gain over the course of a month.
The other crucial thing your body needs to build muscle is protein, and this is where counting macros comes in. Simply eating in a calorie surplus is not enough to add muscle mass to your frame. In order for your muscles to react and adapt to exercise-induced stress, they need to have enough dietary protein to fuel the recovery process. Without enough protein, you won’t be able to build muscle, no matter how much time you put in at the gym.
Your diet should provide you with somewhere between 1-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. Let’s say you weigh 150 pounds and need 2,700 calories per day in order to pack on muscle mass. We’ll assume you’re going with 1g of protein per pound of body weight, so 150 grams per day.
150 x 4 = 600
600 ÷ 2,700 = 0.22
22% of your daily calories are coming from protein
That leaves the remaining 78% of your calories to be divided up between carbs and fat. The same thing goes here: you’ll want to experiment with the ranges listed above until you find the macro split that works best for you.
When it comes to bulking, it is especially important to take in plenty of carbs to fuel your performance in the gym. Having said that, you may want to start at the higher end of the recommendation for carbohydrates and then dial them back as you see fit.
For example, you could start out with something like a 25/55/20 (protein/carbs/fat) macro split and then make adjustments based on what you are experiencing both inside and outside of the gym.
Tips to Make Counting Macros Easy
One of the most important components of any successful diet is consistency. After you find calorie and macro goals that work for you, stick to them! Think about it in the long-term: if you want to gain or lose weight gradually, your diet needs to be on point day in and day out. When it comes to counting macros, hitting your calorie and macro goals should become second nature.
Use a Macro Tracking App
One of the easiest ways to make sure you are being consistent is by using a macro tracking app like MyFitnessPal or FatSecret. Apps like these allow you to easily log all of your meals so that you have an exact count of your calories and macros. You can also set up goals within the app to make sure that you are heading in the right direction on your dieting journey.
Use a Food Scale
Another tool that will help make counting macros easy is a food scale. If you are trying to hit specific calorie and macro targets, you need to be precise. If you are simply estimating how much food you are eating, you’re really not going to know for certain how many calories and macros you’ve actually consumed.
A food scale allows you to portion out your food so that you know exactly how many calories and macros each of your meals contains. Once you are able to measure your calorie and macro intakes with precision, you can really start to dial in what kind of macro split works best for you.
Counting macros can benefit people with a wide variety of goals, from shedding body fat to building muscle. While it might seem daunting at first, it is very simple once you get the hang of it.
The macros diet revolves around establishing a calories target that aligns with your goals and experimenting with macronutrient ratios until you find the split works best for you.
Tools like tracking apps and food scales allow you to be precise with your calorie and macro intakes, making it easy to maintain consistency over the entire course of your diet.