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Updated September 29, 2020
A Quick Guide to Counting Macros
If you’ve spent any time on health blogs or with trainers, you’ve likely heard the term “macros.” A diminutive of “macronutrients,” the term refers to the caloric content your body gets from carbs, fats, and proteins—the foundational elements of your diet. These three components, when consumed in the right proportion, can make a significant impact on your weight loss and maintenance, giving you an undeniable edge over basic calorie counting.
Are you ready to rethink how you think about food? Here’s a quick look at how, and why, to count macros rather than calories alone.
What are macros?
The dictionary definition of a macronutrient is a substance that living organisms require in relatively large amounts to survive. This is pretty vague, so let’s break that down a bit. Simply put, macros are the carbohydrates, fats and proteins that fill us up and make up the bulk of the calories we consume. We also require micronutrients, a category made up of minerals and vitamins.
From that acai bowls to bowls of mac and cheese, everything we eat contains a proportion of macronutrients, plus some micronutrients (if we’re lucky). The macronutrient method for getting fit is more flexible than many diets, as it doesn’t necessarily shun one type of food or another—i.e., blacklisting animal products, carbs or fat. Instead, the diet revolves around eating foods that help you meet your specific macronutrient intake goal.
Counting macros and getting your numbers
As we mentioned above, calories come from the three macronutrients: fat, carbs and protein. Here’s a breakdown of how many calories a gram of each macronutrient is worth:
- 1 gram of carbs – four calories
- 1 gram of fat – nine calories
- 1 gram of protein – four calories
That little guide will help you keep track of how many calories are in your average meal. But the work doesn’t stop there, and there are some conflicting opinions of what the carb/fat/protein ratio should look like. Cooking Light recommends a 50% carb, 25% protein and 25% fat breakdown. Wellness expert Carrie McMahon changes it up a bit, recommending a 20% fat, 45% carb and 30% protein breakdown. Like anything related to health, the more you know about your genetic makeup and body, the better. A registered dietician, for example, can help you determine the macro breakdown ideal for where your body is today and where you want it to be in a given time period.
But for the purpose of this guide, let’s assume you’re operating on an 1800-calorie per day diet and the 50/25/25 macro guideline. Under these parameters, your day would look something like this:
- Carbohydrates: 1,800 calories/day x .50 (or 50%) = 900 calories/day. Divide 900 by 4 grams to get 225 grams per day of carbs.
- Protein: 1,800 calories/day x .25 (or 25%) = 450 calories/day. Divide 450 calories by 4 grams to get 112 daily grams of protein.
- Fat: 1,800 calories/day x .25 (or 25%) = 450 calories/day. Divide 450 calories by 9 grams to get 50 grams of fat per day.
If you can’t enlist the help of a professional dietician, a few factors can help you establish your own macro target. A good starting point is understanding how many calories you need to support your goals. An easy way to figure this out is by looking up one of several calculators online. You’ll enter your age, height, weight, sex and the description that best fits your activity level. From there, you’ll get a target number for carbs, protein and fat.
Bodybuilding.com has a macro calculator that makes things easy for people new to the plan. This calculator will greatly reduce the amount of math you’ll need to complete before selecting a meal. Feel free to breathe a big sigh of relief.
The “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) plan
IIFYM is an acronym for If It Fits Your Macros. The term refers to the food choices you make after establishing your macro target. Here’s the general idea: you get some leeway when it comes to the types of food you can consume, and you can make room for the things you love, whether it’s a bowl of ice cream or a slice of pizza. It just has to fit within your macro goals. So long as you’re hitting the numbers, you can have it—though whole foods are always your best bet.
The approach may feel similar to counting calories, but it has the major added benefit of helping you achieve more balance. Calorie counting typically relies on creating a deficit, which could easily lead to a lack of essential nutrients or macros if you’re choosing merely on calories alone.
If you’re tired of diets that revolve around what you can’t have, the macros plan could be worth exploring. It’s generally a much more flexible approach to dieting. But at the same time, be cognizant of what you’re putting into your body. Fried chicken or frozen pizza might fit your macros, but it’s still better to load up on whole food ingredients. Think grilled salmon, carbs that come from veggies and whole grains, and healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and avocado.
As the pros over at the Harvard School of Public Health put it, the best diet is the one with the most quality foods.