If you’re thinking counting macros is about what you should eat to meet your daily nutritional needs, you are on the right track. And if you’re looking to learn more about the main source of energy in your body, look no further… you can count on us!

Who doesn’t love food? We eat when we’re hungry, we eat when we’re bored, and we eat sometimes just for the sake of the taste of food itself! Most importantly, however, we eat to fill the nutritional needs of our bodies so that we can function on a daily basis. This is where counting macros becomes a significant consideration.

As our appetites need to be satisfied throughout the day, so does our need for macronutrients, (or for short, macros). Macronutrients are the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that we consume in our foods and liquids. Compared to micronutrients, which are substances that we need to ingest in trace amounts (such as vitamins or minerals) but yield no energy, macronutrients are the main source of our energy.

Counting macros (i.e., counting the amount of carbs, fat, and proteins that you are ingesting) has become a popular mode to monitor your nutritional intake and maintain a healthy and balanced diet.

Macronutrients consist of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

What are macros and calories?

As mentioned, macros are the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that we ingest to meet our daily caloric intake.

To learn about counting macros, we need to understand the concept of a calorie. Most commonly, people understand that the term “calorie” is used to describe the energy that we gain, use, and/or store after consuming and digesting various foods and liquids. While the term is often vilified in the media as the source of weight and fat gain, calories are arguably the most important nutritional elements of our existence, other than water (which in opposition, contains zero calories!).

As a simple science, the more calories that you ingest, the more that you will store unless you burn an equal or greater amount. When more energy is stored than is spent in the body, you gain weight. Conversely, when more energy is spent than is ingested, you lose weight. If the amount of energy that you ingest matches the amount of energy your body spends, your weight will be static.

You can either use a complicated equation (1) or a calorie calculator (2) (which are free online and available through various apps) to calculate your energy expenditure. Either method allows you to calculate the number of calories that you would need to meet your daily intake per day based on your age, sex, weight, height and perceived exercise level.

Similarly, a BMR calculator (Basal Metabolic Rate) (3) can be used to estimate your caloric needs even if you did not move all day. It is important to note that these calorie calculators are derived from statistical calculations that can apply to the “average population” and while they may be useful for estimating caloric needs, for more accurate caloric assessments, they should be used in conjunction with consultation (4) from healthcare practitioners who have nutritional expertise.

measuring food on a scale to measure the weight of it

Calories come from 3 main sources: Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins.

But where do calories actually come from?

Calories come from three main sources (5): carbohydrates, fats, and proteins (Macros).
Each macronutrient contains a different number of calories per gram:

  • carbohydrates contain approximately 4 calories per gram
  • fats contain approximately 9 calories per gram
  • proteins contain approximately 4 calories per gram.

Though studies have traditionally focused on how the overall intake of calories affects our health, other recent research has been published that demonstrates that the ratio of macronutrients (6) (carbohydrates: fats: proteins) is most important in relation to certain health metrics such as cardiometabolic health and aging.

These types of studies have led to a number of diets such as the Keto Diet that focus on controlling the ratio of the macros as a means of enjoying a healthy lifestyle while meeting dietary needs. A “macros diet” does not focus on counting the calories that you ingest, but rather on the proportion of macros that you eat. It requires fitting the ratios of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into your total caloric intake based on the breakdown of their respective calories per gram (i.e. 4 cals/gram, 9 cals/gram, etc).

The World Health Organization’s recommended breakdown of macronutrients from population statistics.

How to count macros

Understanding the difference between calories and macros can lead us to the following questions: how many macros should I eat; or, what should my macros be? And the answers to these questions are… well… it depends!

In general, the steps to calculating your macros are as follows:

  1. Determine your caloric needs, based on your goals (calculators above)
  2. Use a macros calculator or follow population-based guidelines to break down the optimal source of your calories and adjust macro ratios within recommended guidelines to meet your goals
  3. Measure the weight of the foods and liquids you consume to determine the macros you ingest with each meal

Similarly, as to your caloric needs, your age, sex, weight, height, and activity level will play a role in determining optimal macronutrient ratios to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. Your optimal macros intake also depends on the dietary goal (i.e. maintaining, gaining or losing weight). You can use a macro calculator (7) in order to estimate your macronutrient ratios, though again, this should be used in conjunction with proper consultation with a healthcare practitioner who has nutritional expertise.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published an extremely useful table (8) (see below) detailing ideal macro ratios to maintain population-based nutrition goals to prevent chronic illness from diet-related causes. It is important to note that the information in the table does not specify the total amounts of calories individuals should ingest, and does not detail micronutrient needs, which are both independent factors for predicting health outcomes.

The World Health Organization’s recommended breakdown of macronutrients from population statistics. *full chart with all info

As a summary, the WHO recommends that the average population should break down their macronutrient intake into the following ratios:

  • Carbohydrates (55-75% of caloric intake)
  • Protein (10-15% of caloric intake)
  • Fat (15-30% of caloric intake)

As an example of demonstrating how to count your macros using the WHO’s guidelines and assuming that you were ingesting 2500 calories per day with your macros set to 55% carbohydrates, 15% proteins, and 30% fats, you could determine the following:

  • 2500 cals * 0.55 = 1375 cals. à 1375 cals/4 cals per gram = ~344g of carbohydrates
  • 2500 cals * 0.15 = 375 cals. à 375 cals/4 cals per gram = ~94g of protein
  • 2500 calories * 0.30 = 750 cals. à 750 cals/9 cals per gram = ~83g of fats

…And Voila! These weights now represent the amount of each macro that you will need to ingest to meet your optimal ratio!

The final step to counting your macros is to count the weight of each food and beverage that you consume, using a food scale. You can use the nutrient labels that appear on most food products in order to calculate how many grams (and therefore calories) of each macronutrient you are consuming. For instance, with the nutrition label below, you could determine the following:

Nutrition Facts label with a red circle around serving size and serving per container to explain macros

You can use the nutrient labels that appear on most food products in order to calculate how many grams each macronutrient you are consuming.

If you had a half cup of this food (55g), you would have ingested 7 grams of fat, 7 grams of protein and 32 grams of carbs (27 grams apply when calculating calories as you can subtract the dietary fibers). For simple calculation, keeping the calorie estimates for each macronutrient can be done as follows:

  • Fat: 7g X 9 cal/g = 63 cals
  • Protein: 7g X 4 cal/g = 28 cals
  • Carbs: 27g X 4 cal/g = 108 cals

Total = 199 cals

Remember, these calorie counts per gram are approximations and can vary (9) by a few decimal points from food source to food source, so your final caloric calculations may slightly differ from the amount displayed on the nutrition label.

If you don’t want to do these calculations, you can always find a food macro calculator (10) which can tell you the amount of each macro in specific foods and beverages based on weight as well. You just need to make sure that the overall proportion of the macros that you ingest aligns with the overarching goals for your caloric intake.

Keep in mind, different populations may need to adjust their macronutrient ratios to meet their specific needs. For instance, athletes have different macronutrient (11) needs than inactive populations as they often spend more energy and require adequate nutrients for proper recovery. It has been recommended that athletes primarily consume 5-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight and 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight depending on the level of physical activity. In general, athletes are recommended to break down their macros into the following ratios:

  • Carbohydrates (45-65% of caloric intake)
  • Protein (10-35% of caloric intake)
  • Fat (20-35% of caloric intake)

Notice that athletes are often recommended to alter their macronutrient needs to ingest more protein, reducing ratios of carbs and fats, though this can also depend on the nature of their sport (i.e. endurance vs sprint sports). Ingesting higher ratio of proteins can be challenging for certain individuals such as vegetarian or vegans since many protein sources are animal based. However, there are many plant-based protein options that can assist you to meet these ratios.

All in all, the healthy way to go about counting your macros requires determining your caloric needs based on your physiological characteristics and goals. You then determine the amount of carbs, fats and proteins in each food and liquid that you ingest, using nutrition labels and weights, and match these ratios with your predetermined macro goals!

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