One of the best ways to diet is to track macronutrients. While counting calories is an effective way to help you track how much you eat, it doesn’t tell you the source of your calories. When you count macronutrients, you have more control over what and how much you eat. This can prevent you from restricting entire food groups and can contribute to greater success with weight management.
This article is a step-by-step guide that details how to track calories and macronutrients. You’ll learn how to use macronutrients to help you set and manage your health goals, and expose yourself to new foods.
What are calories?
First things first – a calorie is a unit of measurement of energy. In the context of nutrition, calories refer to the amount of energy obtained from foods and drinks. The body uses calories for various functions such as fueling physical activity, maintaining body temperature, and supporting cellular processes. If you want more of the science – calories are the heat released when a chemical bond (like in a sugar molecule) breaks during digestion.
When you understand calories, you understand how food contributes to weight gain. A pound of fat contains 3500 calories; so as a rule of thumb, you would need to expend 3500 calories to lose one pound.
This brings us to the concept of energy balance, which is usually referred to as “calories in versus calories out”. This is ultimately the starting point for understanding how to track your calories.
Our daily caloric needs vary based on factors such as age, gender, weight, height, and physical activity level. When you eat more calories than you need, you can gain weight (calorie surplus). When you eat fewer calories than you need, you can lose weight (calorie deficit). But you may not gain exactly one pound for every 3500 calories you consume – your body needs to use some of that energy right away to fuel digestion and basic functioning. We’ll discuss this concept, and how to estimate your energy needs, in more detail shortly.
The next step in tracking how much you eat is knowing where your calories come from. Macronutrients contain calories as potential energy, but not all calories are the same. Let’s explore macronutrients and calorie composition.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the main, energy yielding components of food. Your body needs these in large amounts. There are three main macronutrients, plus one that isn’t really a nutrient. These are what you will track:
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose, the primary source of energy. One gram of carbohydrates provides 4 calories.
Carb Sources: Carbs come in different shapes, sizes and proportions. There are ‘simple’ and ‘complex carbs, and also fibers. This has to do with the size or length of the carbohydrate structure:
- Simple sugars are those found in fruits candy, pastries, sodas, fried foods, and cereals. They consist of just a few sugars bound together and are readily used for energy. But this means they can contribute to weight gain.
- Complex sugars are those found in whole grain foods or starchy kinds of pasta, vegetables, some fruits, oats, beans, and lentils. They are much larger than simple sugars and thus take a bit longer to digest, and tend to keep us feeling full for a while.
- Fiber is a sort of complex carb that is difficult to break down and often slows digestion. Fiber has no calories. But it helps with digestion, can reduce cholesterol, and promotes a healthy gut ecosystem.
Proteins: Proteins are essential for building and repairing tissues in the body. Protein comprises all soft and connective tissue (skin, muscle) in your body. DNA is protein. Enzymes that catalyze chemical reactions are proteins. Protein is also used to create many hormones that regulate energy balance, mood, and basic mental processes. One gram of protein provides 4 calories of energy.
Protein Sources: protein is abundant in animal sources, but you can find high-quality protein in nearly every food. Here are the main dietary protein sources:
- dairy products
Don’t obsess about eating only animal protein. The protein found in plants and other non-meat sources is generally high quality and highly digestible. Plant protein sources are also usually loaded with other nutrients not found in animal sources.
Fats: Fats are essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and provide energy. Fats make up the structure of every cell in your body and they create tons of hormones that regulate functions from immune responses to menstruation. Fats are the most energy-dense nutrient. One gram of fat provides 9 calories.
Fat comes in a few different forms, usually described as solid or liquid at room temperature. This has to do with the shape of the fat molecule. Most fats are good for us and promote healthy functioning, but some tend to contribute to poor health:
- Good Fats: these generally consist of polyunsaturated fats found in oils, seafood, nuts, and seeds. These tend to help regulate blood pressure and immune responses. Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA).
- Fats to Avoid: these are fats associated with poor heart health and immune dysregulation. They include saturated fats (butter), vegetable oils, canola oil, margarine, and hydrogenated fats. Common sources include fried foods, animal meats, and butter.
Alcohol: Alcohol is technically not a nutrient as it provides no nutritional value to our diets, but it does provide 7 calories per gram. We refer to these as empty calories. Alcohol also exerts powerful influences on liver function and fat metabolism, so it can actually promote weight gain beyond the calories it supplies. We won’t include alcohol in our macro counting strategy as it is not needed to maintain function, but you’ll need to account for it if you drink.
These are the macronutrients. It’s important to note that there is no bad macro. Sugar is not inherently bad for you; fat doesn’t actually make you fat; protein isn’t the most important nutrient. Macronutrients provide us with the energy we need to live, plain and simple.
What matters is how you distribute your macros throughout the day. A thoughtful, balanced diet will contribute to sustainable weight loss and good health, and a positive relationship with food overall.
Understand Energy Requirements
We use macronutrients and calories to quantify how food contributes to your energy requirements. We can determine how much energy you need by measuring your total energy expenditure in a given period. Your energy expenditure is a product of three primary components:
- Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR): the amount of energy used to sustain basic functions at rest (as when you are just waking up); this makes up 50-70% of total energy expenditure.
- Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): believe it or not, your body expends a good amount of energy during digestion, almost 10% of your daily intake.
- Physical Activity Level (PAL): this is the most variable, and has four groupings – sedentary, low active, moderately active, and very active.
Macronutrients and Weight Management
There are a few things to keep in mind when considering tracking your macros for weight loss or muscle gain:
- The primary driver of weight loss is a calorie deficit. You can achieve a calorie deficit by reducing your calorie intake, or manipulating specific macronutrients.
- The easiest macronutrient to adjust is carbs. Carbs are highly abundant and tend to make a large proportion of most meals. Carbs also directly influence your insulin levels, as well as other hormones involved in hunger and satiety.
- Fats do not contribute to weight gain as readily as carbs. Fats have twice the energy density of carbs or proteins, but they metabolize in an entirely different way and don’t stimulate insulin as carbs do.
- Both protein and exercise stimulate muscle growth. Resistance training is the primary driver of strength adaptations, and protein is the limiting factor in muscle hypertrophy. Protein converts to glucose when blood sugar is low. Thus higher protein intakes are key during calorie deficits.
Calories or Macros – Which Should You Track?
Tracking calories and tracking macros are almost one and the same. When you track macros, you are tracking calories; but you are tracking calories derived from each macronutrient relative to the others.
When you know how many calories each macronutrient contributes, you can more easily adjust what you eat without restricting foods or missing out on important nutrients. You can focus on one nutrient over another to ensure you lose weight at a healthy rate and can preserve muscle mass while losing fat.
When you track calories, you get no insight into the source of your calories. You simply get the total number of calories you’ve consumed. You can adjust your calories, but this won’t help you understand where your calories are coming from, or what exactly you should eat less of.
Now we’ll talk about how to determine your energy needs, set calorie goals, and adjust your macro intake to meet your goals.
Estimating Energy Requirements and Tracking Macros
To begin tracking macros, you must first establish your daily energy needs to maintain your current weight. Fortunately, you can do this with simple online calculators. These are my favorites:
- Omni Calculator: I really like this calculator. It’s simple and provides a ton of scientific references and resources for different demographics including children and pregnant women.
- TDEE Calculator: Another great tool, this calculator has super useful information for people who intend to go further with tracking macros. It provides tips for macronutrient distribution and realistic goals for weight gain or loss.
- MyFitnessPal: this app is an all-in-one diet tracker that helps you set health goals, determine energy needs, and track your diet. A massive database powers this app consisting of user-submitted and validated foods and meals complete with macro and micronutrient details. I recommend you use this app to track your macros.
These calculators come from the Estimated Energy Requirements established by the Centers for Disease Control to standardize how we calculate energy needs.
As we move toward tracking macronutrients and calorie intake, try to become familiar with food labels. There are lots of tools designed to help you track your dietary intake, but there’s nothing more present and ubiquitous than a food label. The USDA requires food labels on all packaged foods, and these labels must contain a number of nutrition facts. As a trainer and nutritionist, I encourage all my clients and friends to look at food labels – they tell you what you’re eating and enable you to compare options so you can make more informed decisions about what you eat.
Here is a diagram of a food label:
Knowing how nutrients contribute to total calorie intake, let’s use this label to understand the total calories listed:
(9g fat x 9 cal/g) + (34g carbs x 4 cal/g) + (15g protein x 4 cal/g) = 280 calories.
Try to get comfortable with food labels. They tell you almost everything you need to know and make tracking macros about as easy as it gets.
Once you’ve determined your energy requirements, set a goal. Below are strategies for adjusting calorie intake for both fat loss and muscle gain. This is where we start to pay attention to how much we’re consuming, and what changes we need to make.
- Weight loss: if your goal is to lose fat and maintain lean (muscle) mass, you must create a calorie deficit. You should aim to lose no more than a pound per week. I recommend aiming to lose no more than 1 pound per week. This is sustainable and noticeable. This works out to consuming ~3500 fewer calories per week, or 500 calories per day, below maintenance (from above).
- Weight gain (lean muscle): Hypertrophy fuels muscle gain and this comes from intense strength training. To promote consistent muscle gain, you need to be in a slight calorie surplus, with a focus on protein intake. The general consensus is to increase calorie intake by 200-400 calories above maintenance per day. More crucially, you should aim to consume at least 1 gram of quality protein per pound of body weight.
Now that you have your goal, it’s time to start tracking and adjusting macros. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) established the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) to guide dietary composition. The current AMDR for all bodies are:
Of note, try to limit saturated and trans fats (butters and hydrogenated oils), and look for high fiber foods (3g or more per serving).
The standard AMDR helps guide us as we make adjustments to our macronutrient intake. I prefer to adjust my carb intake as that tends to be the biggest source of calories, and make adjustments to the other nutrients accordingly. I recommend one of two strategies for adjusting carbs – moderate carb (30% protein, 35% fat, 35% carbs), and low carb (40% protein, 40% fat, 20% carb). I like these because they tend to allow for greater protein intake and a fixed fat intake. Plus, and to be completely honest, carbs are the most disposable macro – it’s easy to eat more than you need, or want, to; but also easy to reduce.
Below I’m using a hypothetical female – 5’5”, weighs 150, and exercises twice per week (low active). Her maintenance calories are 1,927 calories per day. Let’s get to work:
For weight loss, our subject will reduce her total calorie intake by 500 cal/day. This leaves 1,427 calories per day.
|Moderate Carbs (30, 35, 35)||125g||55g||107g|
|Low Carbs (40, 40, 20)||63g||71g||143g|
We’ll use the same 1,927 calories for maintenance and make adjustments for our subject to focus on lean muscle gains. She will add ~500 calories per day, bringing her total energy intake to 2,427 calories.
|Moderate Carbs (30, 35, 35)||212||94g||182g|
|Low Carbs (40, 40, 20)||121g||108g||243g|
I prefer to use the above macronutrient distributions for tracking. It’s easy to modify from the reference AMDRs. You can also quickly do the math when looking at a food label. I prefer this over assigning distributions based on body weight – that seems to be more arbitrary and less flexible. Plus this gives you a bit more insight into the proper make up of your foods.
Of note – protein is the one nutrient you should not adjust too much. Research consistently shows that 0.8-1.2 grams per pound is the sweet spot.
When you count macros, you have an opportunity to increase dietary diversity while still watching what you eat. I discourage people from avoiding entire food groups as you may miss out on vital nutrients.
Of course, you should limit sweets and alcohol because they contribute a lot of empty calories that are easy to replace with more wholesome foods.
I don’t advocate setting a proportion of ‘good’ to ‘fun’ foods, because that’s subjective, and I think it may lead to compulsive eating or obsessive habits. Follow the moderate or low carb ratios outlined here and make adjustments accordingly.
The most important predictor of successful weight loss is consistency. But don’t take this to mean persistent dieting. I recommend dieting for no longer than two months at a time. When I work with clients I help them set weight goals that include both fat loss and strength adaptations. I create exercise and dieting cycles that last 1-2 months and overlap. We lose weight in cycles and plateau and even rebound, with excessive, prolonged dieting.
Expectations and Tips
Now that you have an understanding of how to track your macros, let’s examine some myths about dieting and weight loss to keep you focused and informed.
- Set realistic goals: I can’t stress this enough. I think 1-2 pounds of weight loss per week is ideal. Anything more than this is unsustainable, except in rare cases. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing lean muscle mass.
- Losing fat is more important than gaining muscle: No. Losing fat tends to be easier and more noticeable than gaining muscle, but it’s not more important. Of course, less body fat lowers your disease risk, but so does greater muscle mass. Lean muscle is also more metabolically active, so it promotes higher resting metabolism. Muscle mass promotes strength and agility and decreases your risk of joint injuries. If you want to look and feel good, you should focus on losing fat and gaining muscle.
- Dieting is better than exercising: Wrong again. Both are equally effective for losing weight, but they’re better when practiced together. When you restrict calories, you force your body to rely on stored energy (as fat). With exercise, you increase your caloric expenditure. I think the best weight loss program involves a healthy mix of both, or at least cycles between either. When you combine both you get the best of both worlds and you get to see how they influence each other. I always tell my clients to begin a strength training program before dieting.
- Protein is the most important nutrient: The most important nutrient is all of them. Carbohydrates are not as essential as your body can make them from fat and protein. Fat is important for every cell in the body and acts as a massive source of energy reserve. Protein is crucial to building tissue like muscle or hormones, but it also can convert to sugar and become fat. That said, cutting carbs is easier and more sustainable than cutting protein.
- Animal protein is superior to plant protein: Technically, yes. Animal protein is complete, meaning it has the proper proportions of all the vital amino acids. Only a handful of plants are complete proteins (soy, for example). But you can create complete proteins by combining different sources. My point is that you shouldn’t rely only on animal protein; try to use this as an opportunity to diversify your dietary intake, which is better than sticking to a single source.
- All carbs are the same: Nope. There are three types of carbs: simple, complex, and fiber. We broke this down at the beginning of our article, but it’s important to know the difference. You should try to reduce your intake of simple or added sugars, and increase your intake of fiber. Carbs contribute to weight gain as they influence hunger hormones and insulin. You’ll see this as you adjust your intake.
- Limit alcohol: Alcohol is a major contributor to central adiposity in both men and women. Alcohol is considered to be empty calories, as it contains no real nutrients. I advise observing your drinking patterns and making adjustments as needed.
Tools for Tracking Macros
Here are a few resources to help you make the most of tracking your macros:
- Food labels: your number one resource for understanding your daily nutrient intake. You’ll know firsthand what exactly is in your food, from the source. You can also use food labels to make ad hoc adjustments to your macros.
- MyFitnessPal: as mentioned above, this is my favorite diet tracker. I’ve used this in the nutrition courses I’ve taught, and I use it with my clients to help them understand their dietary intake. The app is free and connects you to a massive, user-supported database of foods.
- Meal Preparation: this is a great way to help you add some consistency and discipline to your diet. I don’t recommend doing this for every meal, but I’ve found it’s helpful for simpler or more routine meals.
- Measuring cups/spoons: These are great for understanding serving sizes. Volume is generally how to portion food servings, and measuring cups/spoons can help you relate portion sizes and weights. I don’t recommend using a scale – I think they make counting macros too obsessive and accurate and contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food. Ultimately, a few grams here or there are not going to have that much of an effect on your progress.
- Salads: once the preferred meal of the fashionably thin, salads are a great weapon in your macro counting arsenal. Salads are usually less calorie dense than other foods, they expose you to a whole variety of new flavors, and they’re generally rich in nutrients. Plus, if you don’t feel comfortable in the kitchen, a salad is a great place to start.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few common questions about macronutrients and tracking them for weight loss.
Q: What macros work with Keto?
A: The keto diet is characteristically high in protein and fats, and low or completely lacking in carbs. The reasoning for this is that when you consume no net carbs, your body goes into a state of ketosis. Ketosis is a metabolic state defined by low blood sugar and an abundance of ketone bodies, which the body uses in lieu of glucose. The keto diet can be effective for weight loss and embraces macro tracking.
Q: What is the best macro breakdown for weight maintenance?
A: The best breakdown is whatever you’re currently doing that is helping you maintain your weight. That said, the Institute of Medicine recommends 40-65% for carbs, 10-35% for protein, and 20-35% for fat.
Q: How about for weight loss?
A: Research suggests that it doesn’t matter, so long as you maintain a calorie deficit. Low-carb approaches are the easiest to put in place and the most effective. Plus, you tend to be able to preserve muscle mass by not sacrificing protein intake. The moderate carb breakdown (30, 35, 35) is the best place to start.
Q: What macros work best for trying to gain muscle?
A: Protein is king for hypertrophy, but up to a limit. The currently accepted guidance is 0.8 – 2.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Muscle growth is not limited by protein intake, it’s limited by the body’s physical capacity for putting down new tissue. This is is a product of genetics, training frequency, and recovery speed. Beyond protein, you should aim to maintain a positive energy balance of ~15-25% beyond maintenance. The most important factor for muscle gain is high-intensity strength training.
Q: What macros should a person over 40 be shooting for?
A: People over 40 should pay more attention to their carbohydrate intake. How much depends on their actual age, weight, and physical activity level, but 35-50% of total energy intake is a good reference. Sarcopenia (muscle wasting) is common with aging, so people over 40, and especially those over 60, should increase their protein intake to reduce the likelihood of muscle wasting.
Q: Why count macros instead of calories? Should a person do both?
A: You should track macros over calories as you have more control over the source of your calories. So, in effect, when you track macros, you are also tracking calories. You can count calories to produce a calorie deficit, but you may compromise your macronutrient intake. This is especially concerning when you are dieting while engaged in consistent exercise.
Zach Pierce is an experienced blogger and personal trainer. He served in Army infantry, during which time he deployed in support of OEF and OIF. After the military, he pursued an M.S. in nutrition and immunology as well as a Master’s in Public Health, both from the University of California, Davis. There he studied the relationships between gut bacteria, diet, and immune function. He became a CPT shortly after to help bridge the gap in knowledge between formal nutrition and practical fitness. He currently works in clinical research and trains individuals and small groups at the YMCA. He prefers to focus on beginner fitness enthusiasts, traditional strength training, and endurance performance.
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