Whether you want to lose body fat, gain muscle, or improve the overall quality of your diet, it helps to track your macros.
"Calorie counting" has been popular for decades as a tool to help manage weight. Still, for those looking to optimize body composition, performance, and overall health, only counting how many calories you eat each day may not be enough.
The reason for this is that calorie counting doesn't take into effect how much you are eating of each macronutrient.
So, while calorie counting may be a step in the right direction towards improving your performance and physique, macro tracking is a better option as it gives more specific guidelines as to how much you should eat of each type of macronutrient.
In this guide, we’ll explain:
- What are Macros in Food?
- How to Determine Calorie Needs?
- How to Track Macros? Plus, more…
Let’s start with the basics.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are chemical compounds consumed in large quantities that supply our bodies with energy. <1>
The four main classes of macronutrients found in food are:
Each of these compounds has its own set of properties and metabolic impact on the body.
Let's now take a more in-depth look at each macronutrient.
Carbohydrates can seem like a four-letter word in certain circles these days, but the truth is that carbohydrates (as glucose) are the primary energy source for our cells.
Following ingestion, carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars (such as fructose, galactose, and glucose) and transported into the bloodstream, where they can either be used immediately by our cells for energy or stored as glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate) in either skeletal muscle tissue or the liver.
Carbohydrates are primarily found in plant foods (bananas, potatoes, spinach, etc.); however, they can also appear in some animal products, such as whole milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Every gram of carbohydrate contains four calories.
Protein is comprised of chains of amino acids held together by peptide bonds.
These amino acids serve as the “building blocks” our bodies use to repair and build tissues (including skeletal muscle), create enzymes, synthesize neurotransmitters, and produce hormones, such as insulin.
Protein also plays a crucial role in cell signaling and immune function.
The current RDI (recommended daily intake) for protein is 0.8g/kg of body weight; however, this amount is far below what is recommended for physically active people that engage in resistance training.
Current research indicates that the amount of daily protein needed to support the demands of those training to build muscle and lose fat is between 1.6-2.2g/kg of body weight (~1 gram per pound of bodyweight). <2,3>
Consuming this amount ensures your body has enough “raw material” (amino acids) to repair muscle damage brought on by intense training as well as support the synthesis of new muscle protein.
Every gram of protein contains four calories.
Fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient.
Similar to carbohydrate, fat, too, has been unfairly demonized over the previous decades.
Your body needs fat to synthesize hormones, absorb nutrients (such as Vitamins A, D, E, & K), and maintain core temperature. <4>
There are four types of fats:
- Monounsaturated Fat
- Polyunsaturated Fat
- Saturated Fat
- Trans Fat
Without getting too much into the weeds, you want the right mix of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats in the diet, while limiting your intake of trans fat. The reason for this is that trans fat
has been noted to raise "bad" LDL cholesterol and lead to heart disease and stroke. <5>
Fats can be found in foods such as olive oil, butter, coconuts, nuts, nut butter, seeds, and avocados.
Every gram of fat contains nine calories.
The fourth and final macronutrient is alcohol.
By and large, alcohol will make up very little (if any) of your daily energy intake, at least it should if you’re looking to maximize health, performance, body composition, and longevity.
The reason for this is that alcohol is toxic to your tissues and organs, particularly the liver and brain. <6>
Due to its toxicity, the body prioritizes its metabolization and elimination, which means it focuses first on breaking down and getting rid of alcohol before anything else you eat.
Furthermore, compared to carbohydrates, protein, and fat, alcohol serves no physiological benefit to the body (aside from helping you to "loosen up").
As such, you would be well served to limit your alcohol consumption.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to completely abstain from alcohol, though you can if you should so choose as you will not be doing your body any harm by abstaining.
But, you can enjoy alcohol in moderation (1-2 drinks per day) based on the current body of research. <6>
FYI, the CDC defines a “standard” drink as:
- One 12-ounce beer with 5% alcohol content
- One 8-ounce malt liquor at 7% alcohol content
- One 5-ounce glass of wine at 12% alcohol content
- 5 ounces of hard liquor (bourbon, whiskey, vodka, etc.), which has 40% alcohol by volume (~80 proof)
Every gram of alcohol contains seven calories.
How Do You Count Macronutrients?
Determine Your Current Calorie Needs
Before you can begin counting your macronutrients, it helps to know what your daily calorie needs are.
You can estimate this by calculating your total daily energy expenditure, which is an approximation of how many calories you burn per day, including exercise.
To determine how many calories you need to lose weight or build muscle, click here
Track Your Macros
Tracking macros is quite simple.
It all boils down to logging ("recording") what foods you eat each day, as well as how much of those foods you eat.
You can do this by recording the foods you eat on a website or smartphone app. You could also go “old school” and write them down on paper, too.
By and large, the most convenient way to track macros for most people these days is using an app specifically designed to track macros such as MyFitnessPal, Lose It! or My Macros +.
These apps are user-friendly and also feature a barcode scanner that automatically puts in the macronutrients and total calories from a serving of whatever food you scan.
Besides a macro tracking app, you’ll also want to purchase a digital food scale to help you track your macros.
Food scales are very affordable, with some costing as little as $20.
Having a food scale allows you to track how much of each food you eat more accurately.
If you’re using a macro tracking app like MyFitnessPal, as you log your meals, it will keep track of your macro intake as well as how many total calories you are consuming each day so that you know whether or not you are consuming enough total calories and macronutrients each day or not.
Finally, realize that it’s OK if you do not hit your macronutrient targets each day precisely. Nutrition facts panels have some tolerance and are not 100%.
As such, do not “freak” if you’re over or under your macros by a few grams each day. You can still achieve your performance and physique goals.
What Macronutrient Ratio Works Best for Your Lifestyle?
Despite what you may read on the blogosphere or hear on various podcast outlets, no one macronutrient ratio is right for all individuals ad infinitum.
The macronutrient ratio that works best for you depends on several factors, including (but not limited to your):
- Physical Activity Levels
- Pre-existing Medical Conditions
Assuming you’re in otherwise good health, individuals who engage in regular bouts of intense training usually benefit from a higher carbohydrate intake than those who are more sedentary.
The reason for this is that glucose (as blood sugar and glycogen) serves as the primary energy substrate ("fuel") for intense physical activity (resistance training, MetCons, sprinting, etc.). Even moderate-intensity exercise uses a fair amount of carbohydrates for energy production. <7>
Fatty acids (fat) provide the bulk of energy needed during fasted and low-intensity exercise. However, as the level of intensity increases, the rate of fat oxidation is not rapid enough to satisfy the demand for ATP. <7>
What this means is that if you perform considerable amounts of moderate to high-intensity exercise each week, you will benefit from consuming a higher carbohydrate diet, at least if you want to perform to the best of your abilities.
A higher carb diet supports athletic performance, glycogen replenishment, exercise recovery. It may even help promote muscle growth since carbohydrates raise levels of insulin, a hormone that possesses anti-catabolic properties.
Since muscle growth is determined by muscle protein synthesis outpacing muscle protein breakdown, anything that enhances muscle protein synthesis or limits protein breakdown supports muscle growth.
The current Dietary Guidelines suggest the following macronutrient breakdown <8>:
- Carbohydrate: 45-60%
- Fat: 20-35%
- Protein: Remainder
However, as we mentioned before, there is no one-size-fit-all macronutrient ratio for every individual.
Some people feel better eating a higher proportion of their calories from carbohydrates, while others function better, going the low-carb, high-fat route.
The one macronutrient that stays relatively the same is protein.
As we mentioned above, if you're looking to optimize performance and body composition, you want to consume ~1 gram per pound of body weight per day.
How you break out the carbohydrate and fat macros is a function primarily of activity levels and personal preference. The more moderate-to-high-intensity exercise that you perform, the more carbohydrates you will likely need to eat to support training, recovery, and growth.
Determining what macro ratio works best for your lifestyle will take a bit of personal experimentation to figure out what amounts of each macronutrient have you feeling and performing your best.
How Do You Track Macros and Calorie Intake?
Before you start tracking your macros and calorie intake, it helps to have a rough idea of how many calories you need to eat each day to maintain your weight.
For example, let’s say that you weigh 130 lbs. and have already calculated your TDEE, which is estimated to be 2400 calories per day.
Now, we need to go about setting your macronutrient goals for the day.
First, we start with protein as it is the most important macronutrient when it comes to determining body composition.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll set it at 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
This means that you should aim to consume 130 grams of protein per day (give or take a few grams either way).
The next macronutrient we set is fat.
Fat is usually set between 0.3-0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight.
Assuming you prefer to eat a higher percentage of your calories from carbohydrates, we'll set fat to 0.4 grams per pound.
Fat macro: 130 lb. * 0.4g/lb. = 52 grams of fat
To determine your carbohydrate macronutrient needs for the day, you subtract your protein and fat macros from your total daily calorie needs.
First, we need to convert protein and fat macros to calories.
- Protein Calories: 130g * 4 calories/gram = 520 Calories
- Fat Calories: 52g * 9 calories/gram = 468 Calories
We now add these two numbers together and subtract them from 2400 calories.
These remaining calories are the total number of calories you can consume each day from carbohydrates.
- Remaining Calories After Subtracting Protein and Fat: 2400 - 520 - 468
- Calories for Carbs = 1412
- Carb Macros: 1412 calories / 4cal/g = 353 grams of carbohydrate
Therefore, our example gym rat would consume:
- Protein: 130 grams
- Carbohydrate: 353 grams
- Fat: 52 grams
To start tracking your macros, all you would need to do is open up your preferred macro tracking app on your phone and begin logging each food that you eat. As you enter each food, you'll be able to see how much of each macronutrient you have consumed.
Having an idea of what macros you need to eat each day can help you make better food choices to support your performance and physique goals.
Tracking macros is an easy way to make sure you are eating in accordance with your performance, physique, and health goals.
There are several high-quality macro tracking apps available to help you log your daily food choices.
Before you start tracking your macros, it helps to know how many calories you need to eat each day, and then divide those calories across the three main macronutrients (protein, carb, and fat).
One of the most significant benefits of tracking macros is that you can decide which foods you want to eat to satisfy your carbohydrate, fat, and protein targets. You no longer have to follow cookie-cutter diet plans that have you eating nothing but brown rice, chicken, tilapia, and broccoli.
Finally, realize that it is OK if you are off of your macro goals by a few grams each day. You can still achieve your desired performance and physique results.
- Prentice, A. (2005). Macronutrients as sources of food energy. Public Health Nutrition, 8(7a), 932-939. doi:10.1079/PHN2005779
- Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 15, 10 (2018) doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
- Aragon, A.A., Schoenfeld, B.J., Wildman, R. et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 16 (2017) doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0174-y
- Carreiro AL, Dhillon J, Gordon S, et al. The Macronutrients, Appetite, and Energy Intake. Annu Rev Nutr. 2016;36:73–103. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-121415-112624
- Iqbal MP. Trans fatty acids - A risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Pak J Med Sci. 2014;30(1):194–197. doi:10.12669/pjms.301.4525
- Rusyn I, Bataller R. Alcohol and toxicity. J Hepatol. 2013;59(2):387–388. doi:10.1016/j.jhep.2013.01.035
- Mul JD, Stanford KI, Hirshman MF, Goodyear LJ. Exercise and Regulation of Carbohydrate Metabolism. Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2015;135:17–37. doi:10.1016/bs.pmbts.2015.07.020
- "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines." Home of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion - Health.gov, health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/