Counting macronutrients, which involves counting the amount of carbohydrate, fat, and protein that you are consuming, has become a popular method to monitor nutritional intake, reach desired health outcomes, and maintain a healthy and balanced diet.
Foods are essentially made up of different ratios of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. We need to eat a combination of all three of these macronutrients to meet our nutritional needs and support bodily functions. But sometimes depending on our health goals, we may want to focus on certain macronutrients over others, or ensure we have the right type of a macronutrient in the diet. Counting macronutrients, ‘macros’ for short, can help you reach your health goals. Whether you’re looking to improve your diet, gain muscle, manage your weight, or improve your cardiometabolic health, counting macros may be the solution. (7)(9)(10)
Benefits of counting macros
Though studies have traditionally focused on how the overall intake of calories affects our health, other recent research demonstrates that the ratio of macronutrients (carbohydrates:fats:proteins) can influence cardiometabolic health, body composition, and longevity. (9)(17)
Certain macronutrient ratios may improve cardiovascular and metabolic health. For example, the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which was developed as a method to lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health, recommends a low to moderate-fat approach, with an emphasis on lean proteins and fiber-rich carbohydrates (e.g., fruits, vegetables, whole grains). (3)
Moderate to low-carbohydrate diets are commonly recommended for individuals with diabetes or prediabetes as they may help regulate blood glucose (sugar) and blood lipid levels, as well as prevent or mitigate the risk of diabetic complications. (6)
Body composition and weight management
Counting macros is a popular method for weight loss and weight management. Research has shown that certain dietary patterns and macronutrient distributions can help individuals reach their goals. For example, low-fat diets may be beneficial for modest, sustained weight loss, whereas high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets may produce faster, more significant weight loss results. (7)(10) High-protein foods and diets are generally more satiating, helping you feel fuller for longer after a meal and thus preventing overeating. (16)
Macro counting is also used by many athletes and individuals attempting to gain muscle mass or boost athletic performance. This may include adjusting macronutrient ratios to increase protein or carbohydrates, depending on their fitness and body composition goals. (11)(21)
Some research suggests that macronutrient distribution plays a more significant role in longevity than does total caloric intake, suggesting that what you eat may be more important than how much you eat. (18)
Although extensive evidence exists to suggest the importance of high protein intake in aging adults, (1) conflicting research proposes that a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet may promote longevity. Residents of the Japanese island of Okinawa, who are among the longest-living people in the world, follow this type of dietary pattern, consuming approximately 85% and 9% of their total calories from carbohydrates and protein, respectively. (12) Unlike many North Americans, Okinawans and other Asian populations eat an abundance of vegetables and other high-fiber foods as their main carbohydrate sources. (19)(20) Diets high in fiber have been shown to contribute to lower risk of certain chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. (5)
How to count macros
The steps to calculating your macronutrient intake are outlined below.
Step 1: Determine your caloric needs
Your age, sex, weight, height, and activity level all play a role in determining optimal macronutrient ratios to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. Your optimal macronutrient intake also depends on your desired outcome. To simplify the process, there are a number of diet tracking wellness apps and online calculators that allow you to easily record and understand your daily macronutrient ratio and overall calorie intake. However, this should be used in conjunction with proper consultation with a healthcare practitioner who has nutritional expertise. Examples of highly-rated apps currently available on the App Store and Google Play Store include:
- Lose It!
If you choose to manually calculate your macronutrient intake, the first step in determining the number of macros you need is to calculate your caloric needs. The simplest way to do this is to use an online calorie calculator that calculates your resting energy expenditure (REE) or basal metabolic rate (BMR). (15) These online calculators are available for free on many websites and mobile apps and help you 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 activity level.
It is important to note that these calorie calculators are based on statistical calculations that apply to the average population. While they may be useful for estimating caloric needs, your healthcare practitioners can provide more accurate caloric assessments. (4)
Step 2: Consider the appropriate macronutrient ratio for you
The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) represents the recommended macronutrient ratios for the average population according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans outlined by The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine (IOM). The recommended macronutrient ratios according to the AMDR is as follows:
- Carbohydrates: 45 to 65% of caloric intake
- Protein: 10 to 35% of caloric intake
- Fat: 20 to 35% of caloric intake (19)
As an example of demonstrating how to count your macros using the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations, assuming that you were ingesting 2000 calories per day with a macronutrient breakdown of 55% carbohydrates, 15% proteins, and 30% fats, you could determine the following:
- 2000 cals * 0.55 = 1100 calories; 1100 kcal/4 calories per gram = ~275 g of carbohydrates
- 2000 cals * 0.15 = 300 calories; 300 kcal/4 calories per gram = ~75 g of protein
- 2000 calories * 0.30 = 600 calories; 600 kcal/9 calories per gram = ~66 g of fats
The amounts of each macronutrient outlined above represent the amount of each macro that you will need to ingest on a daily basis to meet your optimal ratio. Note that each gram of carbohydrate and protein contains approximately 4 calories and each gram of fat contains 9 calories. (19)
Considerations for special populations and diets
Keep in mind, different populations may need to adjust their macronutrient ratios to meet their specific needs. For instance, athletes have different macronutrient needs than sedentary populations as they often expend more energy and have greater nutrient requirements for proper recovery. (13) It has been recommended that athletes primarily consume 5 to 12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight and 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, depending on the level of physical activity. (13) In general, athletes are recommended to break down their macros into the following ratios:
- Carbohydrates: 45 to 65% of caloric intake
- Protein: 10-35% of caloric intake
- Fat: 20-35% of caloric intake (13)
Notice that athletes are often advised to increase protein intake, reducing carbohydrates and fats, though this can also depend on the nature of their sport (e.g., endurance vs. sprint sports). Ingesting a higher ratio of protein can be challenging for certain individuals, such as vegetarians or vegans, since many protein sources are animal-based. However, there are many plant-based protein options that can be incorporated into a properly planned diet, which will assist in meeting protein requirements.
Other diets may suggest varying macronutrient distributions depending on desired outcomes. For example, the ketogenic diet, which emphasizes a high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carbohydrate approach for weight loss, may have a macronutrient distribution similar to the example below:
- Carbohydrates: 5 to 10% of caloric intake
- Protein: 30 to 35% of caloric intake
- Fat: 55 to 60% of caloric intake (14)
In a high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet, glucose stores are depleted, which results in the body utilizing fat stores for energy instead. This dietary pattern has been shown to promote weight loss, however long-term effects and likelihood of adherence to the diet are not well understood. (14)
Step 3: Measure and track your macros
The final step to counting your macros is to track the weight of each food and beverage that you consume, using a food scale. You can also use the nutrient labels that appear on most food products to calculate the number of grams and calories of each macronutrient you are consuming. The mobile apps mentioned previously can be especially helpful for tracking foods that don’t have food labels, such as fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry. These apps also make it easy to track multiple ingredients used in homemade meals and recipes. For help understanding a nutrition facts label, refer to the diagram below:
If you had a ⅔ cup serving of the food (55 g), you would have ingested 8 g of fat, 3 g of protein and 37 g of carbs (33 g 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: 8 g * 9 kcal/g = 72 calories
- Protein: 3 g * 4 kcal/g = 12 calories
- Carbs: 33 g * 4 kcal/g = 132 calories
- Total = 216 calories
Remember, these calorie counts per gram are approximations and can vary 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 an online food macro calculator or food journal 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 your caloric intake and your goals. Also, keep in mind that there’s a lot more to nutrition than the ratio or simply counting macronutrients; it’s just as important to consider the type and quality of protein, carbs, and fats you’re consuming.
For more information about macronutrients, visit the Fullscript blog.
The bottom line
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. If you’re a patient, speak to your integrative healthcare provider to determine if counting macros is right for you and your health goals.
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