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Over the past few years, counting macronutrients (macros) has become extremely popular amongst everyone from the average person looking to lose weight all the way up to the top-level athlete looking to get fitter. People from all walks of life have found success counting macros for weight loss in large part due to the macro diet’s flexibility and ease of use.
If you’re interested in counting macros, there are a few fundamentals you’ll need to be aware of in order to have success. To help you on your way towards your transformation goals, we are going over all the ins-and-outs of counting macros for weight loss.
In this article:
Calorie Deficit and Weight Loss
When it comes to losing weight there is only one essential: a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit results when you take in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day.
When your calories are restricted, your body turns to itself to get the extra energy it needs. In a calorie deficit, your body converts fat and muscle mass into energy to make up for the calories that have been cut from your diet.
What Are Macros and Why Count Them to Lose Weight?
While a calorie deficit is all you need in order to lose weight, many people also take their macronutrient intakes into account when following a diet plan.
Macronutrients are the calorie-containing substances that are found in your daily diet. All of the calories that you take in throughout the day actually come in three different forms — protein, carbohydrates, and fat. They are referred to as macronutrients because your body requires them in relatively large quantities (as compared to micronutrients).
Protein is the primary tool your body uses to rebuild tissue — that includes muscle tissue, which is constantly being broken down and repaired by your body. Without enough dietary protein, your body can’t repair and rebuild damaged muscle tissue, which can lead to losses in muscle mass over time.
Carbohydrates are the first place your body turns to for energy. All carbs, no matter the kind, are converted into glucose, which is your body’s primary fuel source. Carbs are the only macronutrient your body can technically function without — protein and fat can also be converted into glucose when no carbs are available.
Dietary fat is often demonized, but your mind and body actually can’t stay up and running without it! In addition to its function as a secondary fuel source, fat is also used by your body to support and protect your vital organs.
So why should you be concerned with your macros if you’re trying to lose weight? As we just mentioned, each macronutrient plays an important and unique role within your body, so making sure that you are getting an adequate supply of each is going to put you in an excellent position to see the progress you’re after.
Lose Fat, Not Muscle
One of the biggest problems people run into when only focusing on their calories and not their macros during a weight cut is muscle loss. When most people say they want to lose weight, what they really mean is that they want to shed body fat, not muscle.
This is why keeping track of your protein intake becomes important when you are trying to cut weight. In order to make sure you are losing mostly fat and not muscle mass during a weight cut, you have to make sure that you are getting in enough protein on a daily basis.
Boost Your Energy Levels With Carbs
Another issue many people face during a calorie deficit is mustering up the energy to make it through the day. Keeping track of your carbohydrates, however, allows you to make sure you are getting the energy you need when you need it most.
Limit Your Fat Intake to Make Room For Protein and Carbs
You don’t want to completely eliminate fat from your diet but you definitely want to make sure that it is in check. Fat is more calorically dense than the other macros. It has 9 calories per gram compared to 4 for protein and carbs, so it can really add up quickly if you don’t stay on top of it.
How to Count Macros For Weight Loss
Now that we know what macros are and why keeping track of them can help with weight loss, let’s talk about how to set up your own macros diet plan. Here’s what everything looks like boiled down into a few basic steps:
Step 1: Figure Out Your Calorie Needs
The first and most important step in the process is figuring out how many calories it actually takes to keep your body up and running throughout the day. This is known as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE.
Your TDEE depends on a number of factors including your height, weight, age, gender, and activity level. All of these different variables can affect how many calories it takes to meet your body’s energy needs.
One of the easiest ways you can begin to figure out your daily calorie needs is by using an online TDEE calculator. Tools like this will give you an estimate of your total daily energy expenditure based upon the variables mentioned above.
It is important to point out that the TDEE score you get from an online calculator (no matter what formula it is using) is going to be an approximation. You may have to slightly tweak your estimate in one direction or the other until your body weight remains consistent over the course of a couple of a week or 2.
Step 2: Moderately Restrict Your Calories Based on Your TDEE
Once you know exactly how many calories it takes to keep your weight consistent, you’re ready to apply a restriction to your calorie intake. As we’ve already discussed, in order to lose weight, you need to take in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day.
While it might be tempting to severely limit your calories, think twice. Rapid weight loss is closely associated with comparable amounts of fat and muscle loss. The research shows that a calorie restriction of between 10-35% is the ideal range to spare muscle mass and target body fat during a weight loss diet.
So for example, let’s say it takes you 3,000 calories per day to maintain your current weight and you want to apply a 20% calorie restriction to your diet. Here’s how it breaks down:
3,000 x 0.20 = 600 calories
3,000 – 600 = 2,400 calories per day
Step 3: Workout a Macro Split That Aligns With Your Goals
Okay, so now that you’ve found a calorie target that will lead to weight loss, you’re ready to start divvying up your calories to create a macro split (AKA macro ratio). Unfortunately, there is no one macro split that is ideal for everybody.
Instead, organizations like the NIH and the USDA have developed daily intake recommendations based on a set of “acceptable” ranges for each macronutrient. You will most likely need to experiment within these ranges until you find the ratio that works best for you.
When it comes to protein, the research shows that a daily intake at or above 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is the ideal range to maintain muscle mass while losing body fat.
While a high-protein intake is certainly effective for preserving lean muscle mass during a calorie restricted diet, you don’t want to overdo it. Organizations like the NIH suggests that when more than 35% of your total calories come from protein, it can be detrimental to your health.
Carbs are your body’s main fuel source, and as such, they make up the majority of many people’s total calorie intakes. The NIH recommends that somewhere between 45 to 65% of your total daily calories should be coming from carbohydrates.
When you’re calories are restricted, it becomes increasingly important to consume the right carbohydrates at the right times. Focus on primarily taking in complex carbs throughout the day — they provide you with long-lasting energy, instead of quick spikes and crashes like sugar.
Also, make sure that you are taking in plenty of complex carbs 3-4 hours before intensive exercise or physical activity. Again, how many carbs you need is going to differ from person to person, so you’ll have to experiment within the ranges mentioned above until you hit the energy levels you’re after.
According to the USDA, your daily fat intake should make up between 20-35% of your total daily calorie intake. While you might be tempted to severely restrict your fat intake to lose body fat, it doesn’t quite work like that. Your body needs a healthy supply of dietary fat to stay up and running.
Your fat calories should primarily come from healthy unsaturated fats. Saturated fats and trans fats should be kept at a minimum in your diet due to their association with numerous health risks.
Step 4: Be Consistent With Your Diet
The key to successfully counting macros for weight loss lies in finding a macro split that you can be consistent with day in and day out. If you wake up dreading your diet every day, it’s only going to be a matter of time before you skip out on your weight loss plans.
One of the many perks of counting macros is flexibility — that’s why it is often referred to as flexible dieting. The diet doesn’t place limitations on the types of food you can eat or when you can eat them.
As long as it fits your macros and calorie goals, you can eat pretty much whatever you want and you can shed some serious amounts of body fat. With that being said, we certainly recommend making food choices that will allow you to feel healthy and fit for the long term.