Probably one of the more polarizing subjects in nutrition and fitness is whether counting macros is the best system for losing body fat.
This article is not about which system is the best. The best system is the one that you will stick to consistently for a long time, in order to meet your goals.
If you are a numbers person, like detailed plans, and/or enjoy being a nerd, then counting macros might before you. Just kidding about the nerd thing. There isn’t any correlation between macros and whether you think Greedo shot first (he didn’t).
I want to forewarn you that there are entire books written on counting macros and how to figure out the most appropriate numbers for yourself. This article will attempt to boil things down to basics, but feel free to contact me with questions if you’re still stuck.
What are Macros?
“Macros” is short for macronutrients. Macronutrients are the main sources of calories in the human diet and they are categorized by what they break down to after you digest them. The macronutrients are:
- Carbohydrates yield 4 calories per gram
- Protein yields 4 calories per gram
- Fat yields 9 calories per gram
- Alcohol yields 7 calories per gram
How much of each of these categories you eat can have a pretty big influence on your body composition (how much fat vs muscle you carry on your body).
Carbohydrates are the main energy source for the cells in your body, particularly if you are active.
The problem is, for some people, some carbohydrates are tasty and easy to consume in excess of calorie needs.
Sources of carbohydrates include:
- starchy vegetables (ie: potatoes and beets)
- refined sugar (soda, sweets and desserts)
Some carbohydrates are stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen, which is the storage form of this molecule. Free floating carbohydrates in your blood are called glucose.
How much carbohydrate do you need?
Everyone seems to have their own opinion on this and there’s research to support most of those opinions, although the main body of research supports that carbohydrates are not harmful at all for the majority of people, and they are, in fact, very necessary for athletes.
Your carbohydrate needs will vary primarily based on your height, weight, age, gender, activity level and lean body mass. This means that a triathlete in his mid-20s that’s 6’3″, 200 lbs and 10% body fat will need more carbohydrates than your grandma.
A good way to figure out your carbohydrate needs is to use an equation based on your lean body mass.
Lean body mass can be figured out as long as you know your total weight and your body fat %.
total body weight – (%body fat x total body weight) = lean body mass
Here is a pretty standard one that many coaches use: 1-2 grams per pound of lean body mass (2-4 grams per kg of lean body mass)
Protein is the building block of muscle. Protein in your food provides those building blocks, but also helps you prevent muscle loss when you are in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn, in order to lose fat).
Protein is also more satiating than carbs or fats. Satiating means it makes you feel fuller, longer. This is a quality unique to protein because of two things:
- Protein is hard to digest. It requires more energy than fat or carbs to digest and it takes longer to digest than the other macronutrients. This actually burns more calories in some cases than the calories you’re absorbing from the protein.
- Protein in your small intestine triggers the release of a hormone called cholecystokinin that signals your brain to shut off your hunger signals. This suppresses your appetite.
Common sources of protein are:
- Beef and other red meat (buffalo, venison, elk, etc)
- Chicken and poultry (turkey, duck, quail, etc)
- Fish and seafood (including shellfish)
- Powdered protein supplements
- Some nuts and nut butters
- Some soy products like tofu
Not all protein sources have the same amounts of protein per ounce and not all of them have the same ratios of protein to carbs or fats. This is important to remember when counting macros. But we’ll get to that later.
How much protein do you need?
Here’s a common source of debate. Interestingly, some studies have shown that the old ‘0.8 gram per kg of body weight’ actually does work, even for bodybuilders in a calorie deficit.
Most research seems to favor the range of 1.0-1.5 grams per kg, especially for intense training and building new muscle.
There are myths that eating too much protein can harm your kidneys, but unless you have kidney failure, a high protein intake will not cause you problems.
Fat is a critical nutrient that is used to absorb and store vitamins, manufacture hormones and even help you make cell membranes, among other things.
Food sources of fat include:
- Nuts and nut butters
- Oils (olive, coconut, corn, soybean, canola, etc)
- Butter and ghee
- Some meat (higher fat meats include ground beef, pork and skin-on poultry)
- Some fish (notably coldwater fish like salmon and anchovies)
How much fat do you need?
Again, this varies based on your training needs, dietary preferences and goals. A pretty wide spectrum of fat intake can exist, then.
I typically don’t like to put athletes under 20% of total calories and typically don’t like to put them over 40% of total calories, with very few exceptions. This is also usually true for non-athletic clients. So, I will commonly start with somewhere like 30% of total calories.
I usually don’t base fat intake on grams per pound of bodyweight, but on whatever is left over after I fill in carb and protein needs first (more on that later).
This fourth category of macronutrients that yields calories only applies to some of you. If you don’t drink, you can skip past this.
If you do drink, you need to be aware of how much you’re drinking and just what it contributes to your overall calorie intake.
The very nature of alcohol virtually ensures that you will forget about how much you consumed, and by default, not care about the calories.
Arm yourself before a night out with the basic knowledge that 1 gram of alcohol contains 7 calories.
The highest calorie drinks are usually:
- Craft beers and ales (300-400 calories each)
- Large cocktails (pina coladas, Mai Tais, etc) (400-700 calories each)
- Full-bodied traditional beers (200-400 calories each)
Some of the lower calorie drinks are:
- Shots 70-100 calories each
- Cocktails with diet or sugar-free mixers (100-200 calories each)
- Martinis (150-200 calories each)
Just realize that if this is you, your results will usually suffer and it will take you longer to reach your goals.
Apart from making you seem more appealing to the opposite sex and blurring the harsh realities of life, alcohol is not a necessary calorie source, so if you can forego it 99% of the time while trying to lose body fat, do so.
The Main Points: All calories come from either carbohydrates, protein, fat or alcohol. Different foods have differing amounts of these macronutrients and can vary widely. Your body composition will change in response to the amounts of these macros you consume consistently. With the exception of alcohol, all of these are necessary for good health.
How Do I Count Macros?
First, realize that counting macros is not for everyone. If you’re brand new to losing body fat, starting from being mostly sedentary and are not very familiar with what foods are carbs, protein and fat, counting macros might not be for you.
But if you fall into one of these categories, this may be a diet strategy you can work with:
- Figure or physique competitor: Someone training for a bodybuilding, physique or figure competition or show. Macros matter, as well as nutrient timing, for the vast majority of these people.
- Someone who is already of normal body weight but wants to get shredded: For instance, if you’re currently a female that’s already under 20% body fat and want to get to around 15%, counting macros could be a solution.
- Someone who needs some direction on how much protein or carbs to eat: Do you think you eat enough protein but aren’t actually sure? Counting macros can give you an objective measure of your intake.
- Someone who has poor dietary restraint, despite eating relatively healthy foods: Even though you may follow a mostly sound nutritional plan based on lots of veggies, lean proteins and complex carbs, you may still be overeating and failing to see fat loss because of it.
So here’s where to start:
Find Your TDEE First
Figure out how many total calories you need every day to stay exactly where you are now. This number will be called your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) and it will be what you will base all other numbers off of.
To do this, first find your BMR (basal metabolic rate):
Women BMR = 655 + (9.6 X weight in kg) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in yrs)
Men BMR = 66 + (13.7 X weight in kg) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in yrs)
And then multiply your result by an activity factor:
Little or no Exercise/ desk job
TDEE = 1.2 x BMR
Light exercise/ sports 1 – 3 days/ week
TDEE = 1.375 x BMR
Moderate Exercise, sports 3 – 5 days/ week
TDEE = 1.55 x BMR
Heavy Exercise/ sports 6 – 7 days/ week
TDEE = 1.725 x BMR
Very heavy exercise/ physical job/ training 2 x/ day
TDEE = 1.9 x BMR
A note on using Activity Factors: Unless you are very athletic and have a high lean body mass, you are probably not as active as you think.
If you have a desk job where you sit 8 or more hours a day, and the time you spend in the gym is about 1 hour a day, for maybe 4-5 days a week if you’re lucky, you’re actually ‘Lightly Active’ and not ‘Moderately Active.’
If you have a physically demanding job where you walk the equivalent of 4 miles or more (9,000+ steps) per day PLUS go to the gym, then you’re ‘Moderately Active.’
I’ll use myself as an example so you can see how this works:
BMR = 655 + (9.6 X 69kg) + (1.8 x 69cm) – (4.7 x 33 yrs) = 1286.2 calories
TDEE = 1286.2 X Activity factor 1.55 = 1993 calories
So, my TDEE is around 2,000 calories a day.
Here are two websites you can use that will do it for you if you plug in your numbers:
What does TDEE mean?
TDEE is the amount of calories you would burn if you were to neither gain nor lose weight, assuming you continue to stay as active as you are at your current age, height and weight.
If you want to lose body fat, you eat less calories than your TDEE and if you want to gain muscle, you add calories to your TDEE. A basic place to start with adding or subtracting is +/- 20%. Take 20% off the TDEE to lose body fat, or add 20% to the TDEE to gain muscle. (This is obviously very simplified and will need to be adjusted as you progress).
Figure Out Your Macros
Now that you know how about many calories to eat per day for your goals, you need to figure out the ideal ratio of macros within that calorie total.
Here’s where there’s variance in personal opinions on which ratios are the best. I’ll give you my opinion, but honestly, experiment with what works for you. Not everyone sees the same results on the same ratio.
Figure out your protein first. It is the most important macro to determine.
I prefer to put protein at 1.5-2.5 grams/kg of body weight, or 35-40% of calories for people who lift often and have a goal of gaining muscle. If you are going to be in a pretty big calorie deficit, then you need more protein compared to only being in a smaller calorie deficit.
In my example, I would need a minimum of 103.5 – 138 grams/day of protein. Remember protein is 4 calories per gram, so:
103.5 x 4= 414 calories
138 x 4 = 552 calories
I need between 414 – 552 calories from protein.
If you’re just maintaining muscle, 20-30% of calories from protein is fine.
I prefer 2-3 grams/kg body weight for most athletes for carbohydrates, with the exception of those who train very intensely for something like professional sports. They might need more.
Around 30-40% calories from carbs, provided that you lift weights frequently and intensely (4-5 days/week), or put some major miles in on cardiovascular or endurance activities is usually fine.
If you’re an average Joe or just getting started with exercise, I like somewhere between 25-35% calories from carbs.
In my example, my carbs should range between 138 – 207 grams/day minimum (based on 4 calories per gram) or 552 – 828 calories/day from carbs.
And for fat, I prefer about 30% of total calories, with a couple exceptions. If you’re already very lean and cutting to get ultra lean, for instance for a bodybuilding show, 30% may be a little too high for some.
If you’re eating less carbs overall, you may want more fat, so 35-40% wouldn’t be out of the question.
Now, if I take the average of both of the protein and carbohydrates that I’ve already figured out and subtract those from my TDEE-20% for fat loss (which is 1600 calories/day), I have 427 calories left to play with for fat intake.
If fat is 9 calories/gram, then I can eat 47 grams of fat per day.
Macros in Foods
The foods you eat will rarely be pure macros. This means there are not very many things that are only carbs, only protein or only fat.
Most foods you’ll eat often are a combination of the three, so when you are tracking these foods, keep track of all the macros, not just the main ones.
For instance, brown rice is mainly a carbohydrate, but it does contain a little bit of protein, which contributes to your overall daily protein intake.
Chicken is mostly protein, but there is some fat in it, and it can have a lot of fat, depending on whether you eat the dark meat vs light meat, or if you include the skin.
Using an app is the best way to account for all the macros in the food you are eating.
The Main Point: Figure out your TDEE, then decide what ratio of protein, carbs and fat is appropriate for your goals. How often and how intensely you exercise, along with your fat loss or muscle gain goals, will determine how much of each category you need.
You’re probably sitting there confused and asking, “But what do I eat?”
Mostly, whatever you want, as long as it fits into your macros. That’s the beauty of counting macros. For the majority of people, the food sources won’t matter as much as the food quantity and servings.
How Does This Translate To Food?
The best way to learn is to jump in and start tracking your food for a few days before you change anything to see where you’re at now, then take a look at your numbers.
Here are some ranges to plug in if you’re mostly just looking to lose bodyfat and tighten up, without a specific sport, physique goal or deadline:
40% calories from carbs
30% calories from protein
30% calories from fat
If you’re an average person without a nutritionist, dietitian or coach calculating your macros and a meal plan and you enter every single thing you eat, all day for three days, you’ll probably find this:
- You don’t eat enough protein based on your calculated macros
- You eat too many carbs based on your calculated macros (usually from dining out or packaged foods)
- You eat too much fat (usually from dining out or packaged foods) based on your macros
Make adjustments where needed and continue to track. As you get closer to those original macro goals, you’ll notice pretty big changes.
Need some basic tips to help you plan?
- Put more protein and carbs in the 1-2 meals immediately following your workout
- Keep your higher fat meals away from the peri-workout period (just before, during and after)
- Use protein shakes as snacks or post-workout meals to supplement your food protein
Here are some things I suggest you use for the first few weeks, consistently, until you feel very confident:
- an app (FitDay, MyFitnessPal and LoseIt are all excellent options)
- a food scale (one that measures both ounces and grams)
- measuring cups
- measuring spoons
Do not “eyeball” or guess your serving sizes.
Be prepared to be uncomfortable. Losing body fat or building muscle by sticking with a plan is not easy. If it were, we would all be doing it effortlessly all the time.
Don’t be afraid to hire someone to do this part for you if you’re ultra confused. If you like to read the science and do things yourself, I recommend buying The Renaissance Diet.
Don’t change your macros if you don’t see results in 2 weeks. This stuff can take weeks or months.
The important part is to avoid ‘paralysis by analysis.’ You can read the Internet all day long and come up with 100 different opinions. Pick something and do it. Do it consistently for at least 60 days. 60 DAYS, OKAY?