WHAT ARE MACROS, AND SHOULD YOU COUNT THEM?
By Amanda Suazo
Reviewed by Emily Gonzalez, ND for Scientific Accuracy
Article at a Glance:
- What are macros? Short for macronutrients, macros are the fat, protein and carbohydrates that make up food and help you create energy. You can find them called out on nutrition labels.
- When you count macros and adjust their ratios, you can use them to achieve health goals like weight management, to gain muscle or to get into ketosis.
- Different diets, including keto, recommend ranges of macronutrients that you can customize to help you feel your best and meet your goals. However, tracking them is not mandatory to success.
You may have heard of macros before, especially in reference to the ketogenic diet—but what are macros? And, more importantly, why do macros in food matter? Though there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to macros, these food building blocks can help you reach your weight management goals and improve your overall health and wellness.
WHAT ARE MACROS?
“Macros” is the shortened term for macronutrients—the fat, protein and carbohydrates that make up a food’s composition and help you create energy. You can find them listed on the nutrition facts panel of most foods, or by using calorie counting apps and calculators.
Macronutrients are not to be confused with micronutrients, the key vitamins and minerals your body needs in smaller quantities to do everything from regulating hormones to brain performance. Macros are also different from a macrobiotic diet, a fad diet with principles drawn from Zen Buddhism.
Gram for gram, macronutrients are responsible for the calorie count in your food. One gram of carbohydrates provides 4 calories, one gram of protein provides 4 calories and one gram of fat provides 9 calories. Alcohol is also considered a macronutrient and provides 7 calories per gram, but it adds no nutritional value to your body and is not included in most macro calculations.
When you follow a macro diet, you go beyond counting calories and focus on tracking macros in food. Depending on your health goals, you can adjust the ratios of macronutrients you consume to maintain a healthy weight, build muscle or even kick-start ketosis.
IS COUNTING CALORIES THE SAME AS COUNTING MACROS?
Counting the number of calories you eat is not the same as tracking your macronutrients. The calories in, calories out approach (CICO) alone won’t tell you the balance of fat, carbohydrates and protein in the foods you eat.
Macros zero in on the composition of your daily calories so you can alter each one for the most healthful impact. For example, maybe you aren’t eating enough protein. Or you may unknowingly get 70% of your total calorie intake from carbs on CICO. You’ll feel radically different if that 70% comes from quality fats. With tracking, you can understand the source of the imbalance and adjust accordingly.
Some people count total calories so they can eat fewer calories overall and hit a lower calorie goal. The problem is that under-eating won’t lead to meaningful, sustainable results over time. If you want to track what you eat, counting macronutrients can be a more productive approach to achieving your health goals.
Plus, when you focus on the quality and ratio of your macros, you can increase your fat-burning potential (and even build muscle mass) while naturally regulating how many calories you consume.
WHAT ARE THE MACROS FOR KETO?
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carb style of eating. On a standard keto diet, your macros look like this: 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% net carbs daily.
But there are different approaches to keto, which is why you’ll get different answers to the question, “What are the macros for keto?” Get the details about various keto diet types.
Heads up: Regardless of the keto diet you follow, you’ll have to pay attention to net carbs as part of your macros to determine how many effective carbs you consume, or total carbs minus fiber and sugar alcohols.
The good news is that you still have plenty of macro-friendly options, like a Bulletproof Collagen Protein Bar.
COUNTING MACROS: KEY BENEFITS
LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR FOOD
For anyone who has never tracked macros, learning the ratios of fat, protein and carbohydrates in what you eat can tell you a lot about your dietary habits and food choices.After a few days, you may realize that you eat mostly carbohydrates or fewer grams of protein than you should—and that adjusting their levels can help you feel more energized throughout the day.
FLEXIBILITY AND CUSTOMIZATION
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to macros. Depending on your unique health goals, you can manipulate them to achieve different effects. And when special occasions come around, you can plan around them so you can join in the festivities without running your diet off the rails. This kind of flexibility helps you stick to a long-term eating plan.
MORE BALANCE IN YOUR DIET
Unlike some diets, counting your macros does not force you to eliminate entire food groups. Instead, you can focus more on getting the best balance of nutrients to boost your performance.
When your macronutrients are balanced, you can also avoid some of the problems with overeating in one macro category (such as feeling fatigued after eating large amounts of carbs or feeling constipated from too much fat and not enough fiber).
DRAWBACKS OF COUNTING MACROS
LOWER-QUALITY FOOD (MAYBE)
Some people who follow a macro-based approach to food intake adopt the philosophy that if it fits your macros (IIFYM), you can eat whatever you want (similar to dirty keto). However, this flexible dieting method may be counterproductive to developing solid eating habits and achieving long-term health goals.
With no set standard enforcing high-quality food, you might eat nutritious meals every day—or eat three donuts instead if it fits your macros. This approach could lead to micronutrient imbalances, food cravings and weight management issues.
While counting macronutrients works well for some people, it isn’t the best strategy for everyone. For example, if you find that it causes you stress or creates an unhealthy relationship with food, tracking macros may not be the best path forward for you.
IT TAKES TIME
Since counting macros allows for so much flexibility, it may take time to experiment and find the ideal balance for your body. With no single recommended approach, you’ll have to tailor it to fit your health goals.
HOW TO START TRACKING YOUR MACROS
TAILOR MACROS TO YOUR NEEDS
As a starting point for tracking your macros, you need to understand which macro levels are right for you, which can vary based on your activity level, your weight management goals and your individual body composition.
To calculate your macros, work with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to create a customized plan that works for you. You can also use the macro ratios setting in many food tracker apps, or calculate your macros using an online macro calculator like those from Precision Nutrition or MAPS Fitness Products.
No matter which route you choose, you’ll input information about your gender, height, weight, activity levels and weight management goals to determine your ideal carb intake, fat intake and your ideal grams of protein.
SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS WITH FOOD CHOICES
Make healthy eating part of your life by recognizing what foods make you feel good and what eating patterns work with your schedule.To more accurately calculate macros in food, scrutinize nutrition labels and use a food scale to help you measure foods that don’t come with a label.
It’s important to eat nutrient-dense whole foods and make food choices that can support your overall health and well-being, even if you’re strapped for time. Consider meal prep so you can calculate macros in food and portion out meals that fit your goals all at once. Meal prepping also ensures you always have healthy meals that fit your macros within reach.