By now you’ve probably heard the phrases “counting macros” or “IIFYM (if it fits your macros)” – but what do these mean exactly? What are the benefits of counting macros and how do you do it? Understanding macro counting can help you decide if it’s the right diet approach for you.
Counting Macros: The Basics
The old “calories in, calories out” way of eating is out. Why? People have realized that the relationship between nutrition and health goals needs to take more into consideration than just the calories on a package. Enter, counting your macros.
“Macros” is short for macronutrients. There are three main macronutrients, which are large nutrients that your body stores and uses for energy: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Your body needs all three of these to function. Micronutrients, on the other hand, are vitamins and minerals that your body typically needs in smaller quantities.
Counting macros is a flexible approach to dieting, which helps people achieve health and fitness goals without strict rules. This is essentially an “all foods fit” model, meaning that any food can work as it fits with your macronutrient plan.
That being said, the best way to meet health goals is to base your diet on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins.
Let’s take a closer look at the macronutrients.
Carbohydrates are fibers, sugars, and starches. They’re broken down into glucose and used for energy. Carbohydrates are found in many foods like grains, beans, starchy vegetables, fruits, and dairy.
Most professionals recommend getting 45-65% of your calories from carbohydrates, which offer 4 calories per gram.
Some carbohydrate-rich foods include:
- Brown rice
- Whole grain bread
- Sweet potatoes
- Butternut squash
Fats are found in animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs, as well as plants like nuts, seeds, and oils. Your body needs fat to perform many functions, such as make hormones, regulate body temperature, and absorb nutrients.
Fats provide 9 calories per gram and should generally make up 20-35% of your caloric intake.
Some fat-rich foods include:
- Egg yolks
- Flax seeds
- Coconut oil
- Soy or whole milk
Protein is found in both animal and plant foods, like beans, peas, nuts, seeds, eggs, and meat. Protein is needed for building muscle, producing hormones and enzymes, and strengthening your immunity.
Most people should get 10-35% of total calories from protein, which offers 4 calories per gram.
Some protein-rich foods include:
- Green peas
- Meat and poultry
- Egg whites
The Importance of Protein
Your protein intake should be properly set so you can reach your muscle gain and fat loss goals. You need to be extremely cautious that you do not eat too little protein when your goal is fat loss. Whilst in a proper deficit your body will hopefully turn to fuel your day to day activities by utilizing fat for energy and hopefully it will take very little amino acid from muscle. Unfortunately, when we lose weight we can’t prioritize fat being used for energy, they body will take whatever available source of energy is readily available. What we can do is try to minimize the the body using amino acids from muscles by keeping our protein intake high and lifting weights. Don’t try to get overzealous and eat at the lowest possible limit of your weight loss calorie range. Your body is rather smart and can only lose so much fat in a single day, so if you eat way under your RMR your body will take a lot more amino acids. If you are fairly lean under, 20% body fat your body will not want to lose fat, as we do need fat. Be patient with yourself and don’t go slashing calories to get a quicker result.
Why Should You Count Macros?
People often start counting macros to achieve a goal like losing weight or increasing muscle mass. Counting macros has several benefits:
It might help you eat better
Counting macros shifts the focus from the caloric content of foods to their nutritional quality.
It can help you become more aware of where your macronutrients come from in a day. This awareness can help you make healthy shifts in your diet.
For instance, a sugary milkshake and a smoothie made from whole fruits and vegetables may have the same calorie content, but the smoothie offers more nutrition. The two will also vary in macronutrients.
It can support weight loss
Again, rather than focusing on calories (which could still allow for a diet high in unhealthy foods), counting your macros sets out a specific nutrient plan for you. This can help you be successful if you want to lose weight in a healthy way.
It may help you build muscle
Different fitness goals may require different ratios. Someone who wants to build muscle would likely focus on protein intake. Counting macros allows you to follow a plan in which you can clearly understand and meet your protein needs. Furthermore, it can help you choose high quality proteins.
It’s easier to follow then most diet plans
Counting macros isn’t meant to be restrictive. This approach can work for many types of diets. Whether you’re plant-based, keto, paleo, gluten-free, or oil-free, counting macros can work for you without having to change the core of your diet.
Do know that a myriad macro splits can lead to weight loss/ fat loss. There are no perfect or magic macros. The goal is to find a ratio that supports your goals and that you are to stick with.
How To Count Macros
Step 1: Calculate Your Calorie Needs
The easiest way is to book an RMR test at Elite Body Data or a facility that is located where you live. The data on the report with allow you to know where your calories need to lose weight, gain weight or maintain weight.
Here is a sample report:
The above sample report, shows us that this client has a RMR of 1771. FYI: The RMR number is also within the clients weight loss calorie range. This is confirmed when you look at the purple box titled Weight Loss Zone.
You can see that the clients RMR number appears in the weight loss zone section. This client can eat 1417-1771 calories. BUT they can actually eat 2,000-2,100 to lose weight. If this client wanted to maintain their weight they would eat 2486. If they eat less than their maintenance calories of 2,486, they will lose weight. You should only cut calories down to 1900, 1800,1700 and so on after weight plateaus. Example: Spend 8 weeks eating 2000 weight loss drops first 7 weeks and then stalls, you could then cut calories down 1950, eat 1950 until you stop losing weight and then eat 1900 and the process continues. At some point you will want to take diet breaks and/or stop cutting calories when you reach weight goal, in these instances you’d want to learn your new maintenance calories and eat that amount for a while. You should not keep cutting calories forever and ever.
If they want to gain weight they would eat anywhere from 50 to 500 calories more that 2486 calories. By having this data you can automatically skip to step 2.
FYI: The maintain goal in the blue is the range that this client would eat after they reached their goal weight. At the end of their weight los journey they will be smaller than when they started, so they now no longer need 2486 to maintain their weight.
If you don’t have the financial resources to purchase an RMR test or you can’t locate a facility, that is ok keep reading so you can calculate on your own.
How To Calculate Your Calorie Needs On Your Own
First: Determine Your REE
The first things to determine are your resting energy expenditure (REE) and your non-resting energy expenditure (NREE). These reflect the amount of calories your body burns while at rest, and while active, respectively.
Once you know your REE and NREE, you will add them together to determine your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), the total calories you burn during an average day.
There are several equations that can help you figure out your clients energy needs. One is the Mifflin-St. Jeor, which research shows to be the most reliable and predictable equation to predict resting metabolic rate, with the least amount of error.
Mifflin-St. Jeor Equation
Males: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
Females: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161
Second: Determine Your Activity Multiplier
Once you have this number, you need to multiply it by an activity factor below, based on how active you are on an average day.
- Sedentary: x 1.2 (minimal exercise, e.g. a desk job)
- Lightly active: x 1.375 (light activity, 1-3 days per week)
- Moderately active: x 1.55 (moderate activity, 6-7 days per week)
- Very active: x 1.725 (hard exercise every day, or exercising twice per day)
- Extra active: x 1.9 (strenuous exercise more than twice per day, or training for an intense event like a marathon or triathlon)
This gives you your TDEE.
If this calculation makes your head hurt, the most accurate way to figure out calorie needs is through metabolic testing. This will give you a number that matches you as an individual, rather than relying on an equation.
For weight loss, your caloric intake should be less than your energy expenditure. A general guideline is to take your TDEE and reduce it by 15-25%. On the other hand, a macro plan in which you eat more than you expend can help build muscle or gain weight. A general guideline is to add 5-15% to your TDEE.
Step 2: Determine Your Macronutrient Ratios
The average adult has the following macronutrient requirements:
Carbohydrate: 45–65% of total calories
Fat: 20–35% of total calories
Protein: 10–35% of total calories
However, ratios can vary significantly between people and depend on individual factors. A long distance runner would probably need a higher carbohydrate ratio, while someone on a ketogenic diet would increase their fat and reduce their carbohydrate intake. People with weight loss or gain goals will have different ratios as well.
Weight Loss: Aim to eat on the lower end of the macronutrient requirements
Muscle Gain: Aim to eat on the higher end of the macronutrient requirements
For a more in-depth explanation of how to set macronutrients, sign-up to receive notifications about my soon to be released e-book, A Step-By-Step-Guide-To Setting Up Nutrition Macros!
Example Macronutrient Plan
Below is a plan for someone who calculated their calories and macros to build muscle.
They can eat 2400 calories and they decided to aim for 50% carb, 20% fat, 30% protein.
2,400 calories x 0.5 = 1,200 calories from carbohydrates per day
1,200 calories/4 grams per calorie = 300 grams of carbohydrates per day
2,400 calories x 0.2 = 480 calories from fat per day
480 calories/9 calories per gram = 53 grams of fat per day
2,400 calories x 0.3 = 720 calories from protein per day
720 calories/4 calories per gram = 180 grams of protein per day
You can also try the IIFYM macro calculator here.
Step 3: Decide How You Will Track Your Macros
How you want to track macros is up to you, but there are a few considerations to make.
Should You Track, Manual or Electronically?
Decide how you want to record your macronutrient intake. Do you prefer pen and paper or an electronic tracker? If you lean toward the latter, there are plenty of apps that can be helpful for this:
Step 4: Learn How to Read a Food Label
You can manually calculate macros using nutrition labels. The key information you need includes: serving size, total fat, total carbohydrate, fiber, and protein.
Step 5: Learn How to Use a Digital Food Scale
To get the most accurate macronutrient calculations, you can weigh your food on a digital scale. Zero the scale and set it to either ounces or grams. Place the food on the scale and record the weight. Then use a nutrient database, such as FoodData Central, to determine the macronutrient content.
There’s not one right way to track your macros. Keep in mind that you don’t need to meet your ratio every single day in order to be successful. Do the best you can, as this plan is designed to have some room for flexibility.
When Should You Adjust Your Macros or Take a Break From Dieting
So you have gotten an RMR test or taken the time to calculate your calorie needs following the steps above.
If your goal is fat loss and you haven’t seen the scale drop for a many weeks or months, you are wondering: 1. Why this is happening? and 2. How do you fix it?
Why this is happening:
There are many reasons. One reason this might be happening, is that your body has a tendency to fill fat cells with water when you shrink your fat cells. Since we don’t lose or burn off fat cells, we shrink them your bodies reaction is to refill them with water. When this happens you may feel defeated because you could be losing fat, but the scale isn’t changing due to the bodies natural reaction to fill the cells up with water. Book a body fat test so you can know if you are losing or gaining , muscle, water and fat. Check out our blog post, 8 Fat Loss Mistakes that are Stopping Your Progress for that Summer Bod, to learn why we recommend you track your body fat.
Here is what you need to do to fix it:
1. Make sure you are truly in a deficit(but not to harsh of a deficit), confirm this by accurately tracking your food.
2. Make sure you are consistent with your activity.
3. Make sure you are drinking enough water.
4. Make sure you are also taking pictures each week to see if the photos corroborate what the scale is telling you.
5. Make sure you are sleeping a good amount consistently.
6. If you have been dieting for 10-16 weeks and your weight stalls after consistently following 1-5, it is time for change.
7. Opt for a 5 to 7 day break from your diet where you add 300-500 calories to your diet each day. The number you choose should be added to your RMR test data or your calculated number. Example: If your RMR report shows 1550, aim to eat 1850 calories a day for 5-7 days. Sometimes a break is what your body wants and not lower calories.
If you got through 7 and that your weight doesn’t begin to drop 24-72 hours after your 5-7 day break you should then consider cutting your calories slowly from your break calories. If you do cut your calories in increments of 25-75 calories from carbs or fats every week until you are back in a deficit. Please don’t cut both at the same time. Pretty please don’t double down and cut hundreds at a time. I urge you to increase your protein slightly when you cut your carbs or fats.
For a more in-depth explanation of how to tweak macronutrients, sign-up to receive notifications about my soon to be released e-book, A Step-By-Step-Guide-To Setting Up Nutrition Macros!
If your goal is muscle gain and you experience stalls along the way, you definitely need to sign-up to receive notifications about my soon to be released e-book, A Step-By-Step-Guide-To Setting Up Nutrition Macros, to learn what to do when your muscle gains stall.
If the idea of counting macros still seems intimidating, Elite Body Data can help. Call today to schedule your body data testing, so we can get the data you need to create a macro plan customized to you and your goals.