How to count macros for weight loss and why registered dietitians often consider it a better method than calorie counting

How to count macros for weight loss and why registered dietitians often consider it a better method than calorie counting
Counting macros helps keep track of where your nutrients come from.vgajic/ Getty Images
  • Counting macronutrients can be an alternative option to calorie counting.
  • To count macros, monitor how many grams of carbs, protein, and fat you consume daily.
  • Some people prefer to count macros because it allows them to track their nutrient content (i.e. where they're getting their energy from).

Macronutrients (or macros) are the kinds of nutrients that y our body needs in large amounts to provide energy. Think carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Some people prefer to track their macros, rather than calorie intake, when improving their diet.

"Macronutrients contribute calories, so by tracking macronutrients, you are essentially counting total calories intake as well," says Emily Field, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian with a private practice in New York City. Macro counting (sometimes called "flexible dieting") is often considered more beneficial than calorie counting because it takes into account where the calories are coming from.

For example, small servings of a chocolate chip muffin and a fillet of steamed salmon are both roughly 275 calories, but they're not equally healthy and they don't have the same amount of nutrients. Macro counting helps you make that distinction whereas calorie counting does not.
Here's what you need to know about counting macros and how you can calculate the recommended intake for weight loss.

How do I figure out macros?

"Counting macros means that you are simply adding up the total number of grams of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins of the food items that you are consuming per meal or per day," says Andrea Marincovich, RD, registered dietitian and founder of The Realistic Dietitian.

To start counting macros, you need to figure out your caloric needs and set your ideal macros distribution. Once you set your calorie and macro goals, then you can start paying better attention to where their calories are coming from.

Calculate how many calories you burn

First, you need to calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) or the total number of calories that you burn in a day, which accounts for your resting energy expenditure (REE) and activity level. You can compute your TDEE using the Mifflin-St Jeor formula, an equation for REE that was developed in 1990:

  • Women: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) - 161
  • Men: (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) + 5
Next, consider your activity level. For example, people who are lightly active generally exercise one to three days a week, compared to moderately active or very active people who exercise six to seven days a week or twice a day. Multiply your TDEE with the multiplier based on your current daily activity level:
  • Sedentary: x 1.2
  • Lightly active: x 1.375
  • Moderately active: x 1.55
  • Very active: x 1.725
  • Extremely active: x 1.9
The number you end up with is your TDEE or the number of calories that you need every day.

Establish your ideal macro distribution

"Macronutrient needs, or targets, are determined by variables like sex, age, weight, height, and physical activity level," says Field. Here is the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR), according to the Food and Nutrition Board:

  • Carbohydrates: 45%-65% of total calories
  • Protein: 10%-35% of total calories
  • Fat: 20%-35% of total calories

It's a broad range, so you can adjust the macro ratio depending on your dietary preferences. For example, a strength-training athlete can increase their protein and carbohydrates, while a person monitoring their blood sugar might want to reduce their carbohydrate percentage and increase their fat intake instead.

Compute your macro intake

After establishing your TDEE and ideal macro ratio, you need to compute the number of macros you need in order to fulfill your TDEE, or any particular caloric target. Each gram of macronutrient produces a specific number of calories:
  • 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
  • 1 gram of fat = 9 calories

Calculating macros is often confusing at first and it may take some time to adjust, even for experienced calorie counters. Here is a sample computation for an individual intending to consume 1,500 calories a day composed of 45% carbohydrates, 20% protein, and 35% fat:

  • Carbohydrate: 45% x 1,500 calories / 4 calories = 168.75 grams per day
  • Protein: 25% x 1,500 calories / 4 calories = 93.75 grams per day
  • Fat: 30% x 1,500 calories / 9 calories = 50 grams per day

With these proportions, here's how a day's meals might look like:

  • Breakfast: 6 baby carrots, 1 slice of skim mozzarella cheese, 1 tbsp olive oil mayo, 1 tbsp light dressing, 2 slices of whole-grain bread, and a can of tuna
  • Lunch: 2 small slices of garlic bread and a choice of pasta with cream sauce and poultry
  • Dinner: A medium slice of beef pot roast, 1 cup of brown rice, and ½ cup of green beans
This example has about 162.61 grams of carbohydrates, 90.40 grams of protein, and 53.59 grams of fat, which comes close to the intended macro intake. "For the most part, getting even close to your macro targets on a regular basis will produce results. Perfection is not required for macro tracking to work," says Field.

How do I calculate macros for weight loss?

"By counting macros and getting enough protein, fat, and carbohydrate to support your body, you can eliminate 'hangry' feelings, cravings, and low energy as you lose weight," says Field.

People often track their macros intake to meet their nutrition and fitness goals. However, if your objective is to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than your TDEE to have a calorie deficit, which results in weight loss. You can eat the foods you like as long as you hit your macronutrient targets consistently. It's important to increase physical activity and maintain a healthy diet as well.

The US Department of Agriculture has a calculator that will help you determine the average dietary needs based on age, height, weight, sex, and activity level, but it's best to consult a registered dietitian to determine your individual requirements.

"Counting macros is a diet in its own right where an individual consumes balanced meals composed of food items that they select," says Marincovich. Regardless of which macros you choose to reduce or prioritize, you can lose weight as long as there is an overall caloric deficit.

Insider's takeaway

By tracking macros such as carbohydrates, protein, and fat, you can monitor where your daily intake of calories are coming from. Calories aren't always indicative of nutritional content, so some individuals monitor their macros intake instead. To count macros, you calculate the number of calories that you burn per day (or your total daily energy expenditure) and then set a macro ratio that works with your lifestyle and dietary preferences. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn every day.

"It's not hard to count macros, but it does take effort and energy, which can make it hard for some people. Learning to count macros is a behavior change," says Marincovich. It can be overwhelming to establish a whole new way of looking at food and putting together meals, but there is definitely a learning curve to it, she says.

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