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What are Macros? A Step-By-Step Guide

Published September 18, 2018
Ben Kissam

Written By: Ben Kissam, BS

Ben has a B.S. in Movement and Sports Science and over 7 years Certified Personal Training Experience.

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<article> <div> <ul> <li><a href="#section1">What Are ‘Macros’ in a Diet?</a></li> <li><a href="#section2">How Do I Figure Out My Macros?</a></li> <li><a href="#section3">Calculating Your Macros—Wrap Up</a></li> </ul> </div> <section> <p align="justify">Macronutrients, or ‘<i>macros</i>’, are the building blocks of everything we eat.</p> <p align="justify">If you’ve heard someone say they’re counting macros recently, that’s not surprising. It’s become a popular tool for managing and losing weight. While tracking your macros isn’t the same as counting calories, it’s a similar process. And the two are connected to each other.</p> <p align="justify">In this step-by-step guide you’ll learn what macros are, how they differ from calories, and how to calculate, count, and refine your macros for weight loss if that’s your goal.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <section id="section1"> <h2>What are macros in a diet?</h2> <p align="justify">‘<i>Macros</i>’ is short for macronutrients. The three macros are <i>protein</i>, <i>fat</i>, and <i>carbs</i>. </p> <p align="justify">These building blocks are the three basic components of your diet. Everything we eat is comprised of one or more of these nutrients.</p> <p align="justify">Each have some specific benefits that we’ll dive into below. Here’s what’s unique about fat, protein, and carbs:</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/cup-almonds-snack-0008.webp" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/cup-almonds-snack-0008.jp2" type="image/jpf"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/cup-almonds-snack-0008.jpg"> <img src="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/cup-almonds-snack-LR-0008.jpg" class="img-fluid" alt="cup-almonds-snack"> </picture> <h3>Fat</h3> <p align="justify">Fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient. It’s broken down into fatty acids, which can then be used for muscle growth and energy. One gram of fat has 9 calories <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/4182-fat-and-calories" rel="nofollow noreferrer">1</a></sup>.</p> <p align="justify">While each type of fat has the same amount of calories, there are different types. </p> <ul> <li align="justify"><i>Monounsaturated fats</i> are abundant in foods like avocados and nuts, reduce the bad cholesterol and lower your risk of heart attack or stroke <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/monounsaturated-fats" rel="nofollow noreferrer">2</a></sup>. Similarly, <i>polyunsaturated fats</i> reduced the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fat/art-20045550" rel="nofollow noreferrer">3</a></sup>. </li> <li align="justify"><i>Saturated fats</i>, found in many meats and coconut oil has ( been considered a “bad fat” in the past. But that perception is changing. The release of the 1977 <a target="_blank" href="https://academic.oup.com/jhmas/article/63/2/139/772615" rel="noreferrer"><i>Dietary Goals for the United States</i></a> is what eventually led the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create the <a target="_blank" href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/cnpp/center-nutrition-policy-and-promotion" rel="noreferrer">Food Pyramid</a> in 1992. Those published <i>Dietary Goals</i> concluded that saturated fat was bad for human health because it raises your “bad” cholesterol levels, and that misnomer translated to the common American household when the pyramid became our standard. Since then, we’ve learned that those guidelines were largely based on assumptions and findings from other animals, like rats. Modern studies show that saturated fat also elevates your “good” cholesterol, which actually reduces your risk of disease <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://ahajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1161/01.cir.79.1.8" rel="nofollow noreferrer">4</a></sup>.</li> <li align="justify"><i>Trans fats</i> are considered unhealthy by doctors and the <a target="_blank" href="https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/trans-fat" rel="noreferrer"><i>American Heart Association</i></a> because they raise the bad cholesterol and lower the good. They’re mostly found in processed foods and in some types of <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/diet/healthier-substitutes-for-vegetable-oil" rel="noreferrer">vegetable oil</a>.</li> </ul> <p align="justify">Connecting this to <i>counting</i> or <i>tracking</i> your macros on a <a target="_blank" href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/diet/keto-101-a-beginners-guide-to-keto" rel="noreferrer">ketogenic diet</a> breakdown: fats usually make up 55 to 70 percent of your daily calories <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499830/" rel="nofollow noreferrer">5</a></sup>. So a number like 60 percent might be your ‘fat macro split’.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/slicing-beef-meat-0008.webp" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/slicing-beef-meat-0008.jp2" type="image/jpf"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/slicing-beef-meat-0008.jpg"> <img src="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/slicing-beef-meat-LR-0008.jpg" class="img-fluid" alt="slicing-beef-meat"> </picture> <h3>Protein</h3> <p align="justify">Protein breaks down into amino acids in the body, which rebuild body tissues like muscle, tendons, hair, and fingernails <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.webmd.com/men/features/benefits-protein" rel="nofollow noreferrer">6</a></sup>. One gram of protein has 4 calories <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/how-many-calories-are-one-gram-fat-carbohydrate-or-protein" rel="nofollow noreferrer">7</a></sup>.</p> <p align="justify">As a weight loss tool, protein can be quite useful. One study from the <a target="_blank" href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16469977" rel="noreferrer"><i>American Journal of Clinical Nutrition</i></a> saw a reduction in the hormone <i>ghrelin</i>—responsible for hunger—when participants ate a high-protein breakfast. </p> <p align="justify">And if fat loss is your goal, studies show consuming protein helps you retain muscle mass as you lose weight <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15466943" rel="nofollow noreferrer">8</a></sup>. Examples of high-protein foods include meats like beef, chicken and pork, fish, and eggs.</p> <p align="justify">Sticking with a ketogenic diet example, protein makes up about 20 percent of your daily calories. ‘20 percent protein’ is your macro split.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/raw-asparagus-prep-vegetables-0008.webp" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/raw-asparagus-prep-vegetables-0008.jp2" type="image/jpf"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/raw-asparagus-prep-vegetables-0008.jpg"> <img src="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/raw-asparagus-prep-vegetables-LR-0008.jpg" class="img-fluid" alt="raw-asparagus"> </picture> <h3>Carbohydrates</h3> <p align="justify">Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which cells in your body can quickly use for energy <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=15381" rel="nofollow noreferrer">9</a></sup>. Like protein, there are 4 calories in one gram of carbs <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/how-many-calories-are-one-gram-fat-carbohydrate-or-protein" rel="nofollow noreferrer">7</a></sup>.</p> <p align="justify">Foods that contain carbohydrates are wide ranging. Due to their high carbohydrate percentage, foods such as fruits, vegetables, soda, bread, and candy would all be classified as carbs even though you might see a few grams of fat or protein on their nutrition labels.</p> <p align="justify">Carbs like fruits and vegetables contain essential <i>micronutrients</i>, like vitamins and minerals, that play a crucial role in metabolic function and disease prevention <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2585731/" rel="nofollow noreferrer">10</a></sup>. </p> <p align="justify">Suffice it to say though, not all carbs are created equal.</p> <p align="justify">Eating too many refined, sugary carbs—like soda or candy—is linked to increased risk of the modern day diseases that kill the most Americans, like heart disease, type II diabetes, and cancer <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-too-much-added-sugar-increases-the-risk-of-dying-with-heart-disease-201402067021" rel="nofollow noreferrer">11</a></sup>.</p> <p align="justify">Closing out the keto diet macro examples, note that carbs usually make up about 5 percent of your daily calories. A.K.A.: ‘5 percent fat’ is your macro split.</p> <h3>What does it mean to count your macros?</h3> <p align="justify">Counting macros means tracking the number of grams of protein, fat, and carbs you eat each day.</p> <p align="justify">Most people who count macros follow a certain macronutrient breakdown, or ‘<i>macro split</i>’ (like we’ve mentioned), which determines exactly how much of each macro they’ll eat. Usually, counting food intake like this is done in an effort to lose or manage weight.</p> <p align="justify">(See “<a href="#determine">Step 3. Determine your macronutrient split</a>” for popular options.) </p> <h3>Macros vs. calories</h3> <p align="justify">Some people count macros to lose or manage their weight, while other people count calories. The two are not the same, though they are connected.</p> <ul> <li><i>Macronutrients</i> are the building blocks of the food humans eat.</li> <li><i>Calories</i> are units of energy. They measure how much fuel we get from our food <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/263028.php" rel="nofollow noreferrer">12</a></sup>.</li> </ul> <p align="justify">When you count macros, you track the number of grams of protein, fat, and carbs you eat. You don’t count calories. But since each macronutrient contains a particular amount of calories (protein and carbs have 4 per gram, and fat has 9), you’re also tracking calories even if that’s not your goal.</p> <p align="justify">So, if you eat 20 percent protein on a 2,000 calorie diet, you’ll eat 100 grams, or 400 calories, per day of protein.</p> <p align="justify">Macros and calories are connected because if you eat a set number of each macro, you’ll also consume the same number of calories.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <section id="section2"> <h2>How do I figure out my macros?</h2> <p align="justify">Use these 5 steps to figure out how to calculate your unique macronutrient split for weight loss or other goals.</p> <h3>1. Determine how many calories you need</h3> <p align="justify">The first thing you must do is calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or the number of calories your body burns at <i>rest</i>. (Your body requires this much energy even if you stayed in bed all day.)</p> <p align="justify">Use this <a href="https://bmi-calories.com/bmr-calculator.html" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">BMR calculator</a>, which takes into account your weight, gender, and age to give you an accurate number. Write your number down in preparation for step 2.</p> <p align="justify">For example, a 35 year old woman weighing 175 pounds has a BMR of 1542 calories per day.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/couple-running-sunset-road-0008.webp" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/couple-running-sunset-road-0008.jp2" type="image/jpf"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/couple-running-sunset-road-0008.jpg"> <img src="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/couple-running-sunset-road-LR-0008.jpg" class="img-fluid" alt="couple-running-sunset-road"> </picture> <h3>2. Determine how many calories you burn exercising</h3> <p align="justify">With your BMR written down, next we’ll calculate your <i>total daily exercise expenditure</i>, or ‘<i>TDEE</i>’. </p> <p align="justify">On top of your BMR, this is the number of calories you burn throughout the day working, exercising, and doing other physical activity.</p> <p align="justify">Use this <a href="https://tdeecalculator.net/result.php?s=imperial&g=male&age=35&lbs=175&in=65&act=1.375&f=1" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">TDEE calculator</a> to find your number. It’s similar to BMR, but takes into account how active you are throughout the week.</p> <p align="justify">For example, that same 35 year old woman that isn’t sedentary and exercises 1-2 days per week has a TDEE of <i>2,277 calories</i>. That number gets distributed by adding it to her BMR, and makes for a difference of <i>735 calories</i> per day.</p> <p align="justify">It’s important to know both your TDEE and BMR, and here’s why: your daily macronutrient needs change based on physical activity. If you exercise in the morning then spend 8 hours on your feet at work, you’ll need to eat more calories to fuel your body. If it’s a <a href="https://www.warriormade.com/content/exercise/active-recovery-rest-days" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">rest or recovery day</a>, you’ll need fewer calories in total.</p> <h3 id="determine">3. Determine your macronutrient split</h3> <p align="justify">Now it’s time to turn your TDEE and BMR numbers into macronutrients. First, you’ll need to pick your macro split. These can vary widely. Here are a few examples:</p> <ul> <li><b>Ketogenic Diet</b>- 20 percent protein, 75 percent fat, 5 percent carbs</li> <li><b><i><a href="https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/executive-summary/" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Dietary Guidelines For Americans</a></i></b>- 25 percent protein, 10 percent or less from carbs, 65 percent from fat</li> <li><b>“Balanced” Split</b>- 35 percent protein, 30 percent fat, 30 percent carbs</li> <li>Paleo Diet split- 20 to 30 percent protein, 40 to 60 percent fat, 15 to 30 percent carbs</li> </ul> <p align="justify">This number will depend on your goals, but we can point out that if you’re trying to lose weight or improve your health, low carb diets are scientifically proven to outperform low fat diets <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2012.01021.x" rel="nofollow noreferrer">14</sup></a>. </p> <p align="justify">If the same 35 year old woman followed the ketogenic diet, her macro split would look like this:</p> <ul> <li><b>Training days</b>- 2,227 calories (189 grams of fat, 142 grams of protein, 28 grams of carbs)</li> <li><b>Rest days</b>- 1,542 calories (128 grams of fat, 77 grams of protein, 19 grams of carbs)</li> </ul> <h3>4. Determine if you want to lose weight (and if so, how fast)</h3> <p align="justify">To a large degree, weight loss is a matter of calories in versus calories out. If your goal is to lose weight, you’ll need to eat slightly fewer calories than your TDEE or BMR to start losing body fat.</p> <p align="justify">Here are two approaches you might consider:</p> <ul> <li>Steady approach (reduce calories by 250 per day)</li> <li>Aggressive approach (reduce calories by 500 per day)</li> </ul> <p align="justify">Consider that a pound of body-fat has about 3,500 calories in it <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/calories/art-20048065" rel="nofollow noreferrer">15</sup></a>. 250 fewer calories per day equals one pound of fat lost every two weeks, while 500 calories per day equals one per week.</p> <p align="justify">Beyond 500 calories per day is not advised. Eating too few calories may actually stall weight loss because it slows down your metabolism <sup><a target="_blank" href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5639963/" rel="nofollow noreferrer">16</sup></a>.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/hands-smart-phone-tap-0008.webp" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/hands-smart-phone-tap-0008.jp2" type="image/jpf"> <source data-srcset="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/hands-smart-phone-tap-0008.jpg"> <img src="https://d1ghrtdbdq2gkr.cloudfront.net/blog-content/hands-smart-phone-tap-LR-0008.jpg" class="img-fluid" alt="hands-smart-phone-tap"> </picture> <h3>5. Track your macros</h3> <p align="justify">Now that you know your macros, the only thing left to do is start tracking your food.</p> <p align="justify">Two options we recommend to make it easy are <a href="https://getmymacros.com/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">MyMacros+</a> and <a href="https://www.myfitnesspal.com/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">MyFitnessPal</a>. Both are apps you can download on your phone.</p> <p align="justify">MyMacros+ is inexpensive (less than $5) and designed specifically for counting macros. MyFitnessPal is free and more of a comprehensive health app that tracks other healthy habits like water intake and sleep.</p> <p align="justify">Both also have an easy-to-use bar scanner. Once you make an account you can easily add your staple foods into the app, plug in your macronutrients, and get started!</p> <h3>6. Refine the process</h3> <p align="justify">You won’t be a pro at tracking macros on day one. You might go over slightly or forget to log a meal. Don’t sweat it! </p> <p align="justify">Just like any new habit, it takes some time for you to get used to counting your macros.</p> <p align="justify">Also don’t get discouraged or think your macros are wrong if you aren’t losing weight immediately after you start. </p> <p align="justify">If you suspect your calculations are off, you can wait about a week or more before recalculating your numbers since your body may just need time to adjust.</p> <p align="justify">Always consult your health-care professional if you have specific questions or concerns.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <section id="section3"> <h2>Calculating your macros—Summary</h2> <p align="justify">Protein, fat, and carbs are the building blocks of everything we eat. Most foods contain more than just one of the macronutrients.</p> <p align="justify">If you want to lose weight counting macros, first calculate how many calories you burn at rest and when you exercise. From there, pick your macro split and determine how quickly you want to lose weight (but remember, don’t be too aggressive or your plan might backfire). </p> <p align="justify">Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to track your macros. Like any weight loss tool, patience and consistency are going to be keys for success.</p> </section> <section> <h3>Resources</h3> <ol> <li><a href="https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/4182-fat-and-calories" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Fat and Calories</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/monounsaturated-fats" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Monounsaturated Fat</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fat/art-20045550" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Dietary fats: Know which types to choose</a></li> <li><a href="https://ahajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1161/01.cir.79.1.8" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">High-density lipoprotein cholesterol and cardiovascular disease</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499830/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Ketogenic Diet</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.webmd.com/men/features/benefits-protein" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">The Benefits of Protein</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/how-many-calories-are-one-gram-fat-carbohydrate-or-protein" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">How many calories are in one gram of fat, carbohydrate, or protein?</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15466943" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=15381" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Medical Definition of Carbohydrates</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2585731/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Micronutrients in health and disease</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-too-much-added-sugar-increases-the-risk-of-dying-with-heart-disease-201402067021" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/263028.php" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">How many calories do you need?</a></li> <li><a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2012.01021.x" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Systematic review and meta‐analysis of clinical trials</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/calories/art-20048065" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Counting calories: Get back to weight-loss basics</a></li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5639963/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noreferrer">Reducing Calorie Intake May Not Help You Lose Body Weight</a></li> </ol> </section> </article>

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