You’ve heard of counting calories. But recently, there’s something else we’ve started counting instead: Macros.
So what are macros, anyway? The main nutrients in food are called “macronutrients” or “macros” for short. The big three are carbohydrates, protein and fats. And yes, you need some of all three of them for optimal health. So when it comes to how to calculate your macros, it’s looking at the nutrient content of certain foods rather than the calories in them.
“It’s not just about counting calories,” says registered dietitian Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). “It’s really about making those calories count. You do that by picking foods that are more packed with nutrients.”
How macros break down
Carbohydrates. Carbs are your body’s main source of energy. There are three kinds of carbs: sugars, starches and fibers. Your body breaks them down into glucose, which it then uses for fuel.
Protein. Think of protein as a building block for your body’s tissues and many of your body’s processes.
More than twenty different amino acids make up protein, including nine that are considered essential and must come from the food you eat: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Fat. Your body uses fat to support cell growth and provide energy, among other things. You’ll often hear about the “bad” fats (the saturated and trans fats), which can raise your cholesterol levels, and the “good” fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) that are healthier for you.
“You need all of those in a healthy diet, in an appropriate balance, based on your weight loss, weight maintenance and health goals,” says Audra Wilson, MS, RD, LDN, a bariatric dietitian at the Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital.
Related: Using MyFitnessPal to Track Your Calories? Here’s What Nutritionists Want You to Know
What should my macros be?
So, how much of each macronutrient do you need to consume on a daily basis? The short answer is: it depends.
Think of your nutritional needs in terms of a range, rather than a hard-and-fast number. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that you consider these ranges for each macronutrient category:
Carbs: 45-65 percent of your dietProtein: 10-35 percent of your dietFat: 20-35 percent of your diet
You want to get a balance, or what’s sometimes called a macronutrient split, that’s appropriate for you.
Start with carbs, since, as Wilson notes, “That’s where most of your calories should be coming from.” Then you can plan out the rest of the split from there.
But the specific balance will differ from person to person, depending on factors such as certain health conditions that you may have. A person with diabetes, for example, might have a lower carb requirement, while a person with chronic kidney disease might need to go with a lower protein estimate. Your activity level and your food preferences may also play a role.
There’s no magic number or distribution that’s perfect for everyone, notes Shannon Leininger, MEd, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator with LiveWell Nutrition in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“It really is based on preference and what at the end of the day is sustainable for you,” she says.
Related: What Is the Keto Diet and How Does It Work?
How to calculate macros
So, how do you actually calculate macros? Before you start to calculate your macros, you’ll need to determine a daily calorie goal. It might be 2,000 calories per day, or it could be higher or lower.
Then you can delve into the macros. Each type of macro provides a certain number of calories per gram. According to the USDA, it works out like this:
Carbs: four calories per gramProtein: four calories per gramFat: nine calories per gram
Next, look back at your macronutrient percentage goals and calculate how many calories of carbs, protein, and fat you’ll be aiming for. Then you can work out how many grams of each of those macros you need to consume.
For example, let’s say you have a 50/20/30 split of carbs, protein and fats. If you have chosen a 2,000 calorie-per-day goal, you’ll want to consume 1,000 calories of carbs, 400 calories of protein and 600 calories of fat. That works out to 250 grams of carbs, 100 grams of protein and about 67 grams of fat.
As you plan your meals, you can look for ways to incorporate the foods that will help you meet that goal.
Related: 56 High-Fat, Low-Carb Keto Recipes
Experts caution that counting macros can be a little tedious. You can certainly do your calculations by hand and keep them in a journal or notebook. You can also use an app that quickly calculates and tracks the macros for you. You could try MyFitnessPal, MyPlate, or any other food tracking apps that you prefer. (Hint: go with the app unless you just enjoy the math.)
Counting macros isn’t for everyone, but counting can help you stay healthy and get the most out of the food you eat. You can also look for healthier options within each macro category.
“The bottom line is that when you look at macros, the balance is really good to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need,” says Maples.
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Not sure how to start? Leininger suggests consulting a registered dietitian before diving in. You want to make sure you are choosing a calorie goal and macronutrient goals that are appropriate for you and your specific needs.
Next up, can you eat too much protein? Here’s your answer.
U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Carbohydrates”Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health: “Protein”American Heart Association: “Dietary Fats” Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)Shannon Leininger, MEd, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator with LiveWell Nutrition in Las Vegas, NevadaAudra Wilson, MS, RD, LDN, a bariatric dietitian at the Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital