When you look at a nutrition facts label, the first number you probably see is the calorie count. Watching your calorie count is a good way to meet health and fitness goals, but to dive deeper, understanding macronutrients is helpful.
Counting macros can show you what food combinations make you feel and perform your best, as well as help you shift your eating habits to healthier patterns for the long-term.
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients are molecules we need in large amounts, or the main nutrients we need to simply survive. Micronutrients, in contrast, are substances required in much smaller amounts, such as vitamins, minerals and electrolytes.
The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Despite fad diets, you do need all three: Cutting out any one macronutrient puts you at risk for nutrient deficiencies and illness.
Carbohydrates give you quick energy. When you eat carbs, your body converts them to glucose (sugar) and either uses that sugar immediately or stores it as glycogen for later use, often during exercise and in between meals.
Complex carbohydrates — like starchy vegetables and whole grains — also promote digestive health because they're high in dietary fiber.
Protein helps you grow, repair injuries, build muscle and fend off infections, to name a few functions. Proteins are made of amino acids, which are the building blocks of many structures in your body. You need 20 different amino acids, nine of which are essential amino acids, meaning your body can't produce them on its own and you must obtain them from food.
High-protein foods include poultry, beef, fish, soy, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products. If you stick with a plant-based diet, some starches, vegetables and beans are also good sources of protein.
Dietary fat is required for your body to do its many jobs. You need fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), to insulate your body during cold weather and to go long periods of time without eating. Dietary fat also protects your organs, supports cell growth and induces hormone production.
Calorie amounts in macronutrients
Each macronutrient corresponds to a specific calorie amount per gram:
- Carbohydrates have four calories in each gram
- Proteins have four calories per gram
- Fats have nine calories per gram
Recommended macronutrient intake
Every person is different, and as such, every person's preferable macronutrient intake will be different. However, the federal dietary recommendations suggest this macronutrient ratio:
- 45 to 60 percent carbohydrate
- 20 to 35 percent fats
- Remainder from protein
The federal suggestion is based on the fact that carbs serve as the body's main fuel source, and are the easiest macronutrient for the body to convert from food into energy. The metabolic processes for fat and protein are much more complex and take longer, which wouldn't serve you well when you need quick energy.
Your macro ratio depends on your health and fitness goals, as well as how your body responds to particular foods. For example, many people thrive on a low-carb diet, but the thought of a low-carb diet for myself makes me shudder. I perform at my best when I eat about 50 percent carbohydrates.
Similarly, you may do well on a high-protein diet, while someone else might experience digestive discomfort from consuming too much protein.
How to calculate your macros
Now you know what macros are and how many calories they have. Next, you'll need to do some math. That's because your intake ratio is written in percentages but nutrition information is provided in grams. I'll use my macro intake as an example.
- First, you need to know how many calories you eat (or want to eat) each day. I eat roughly 2,300 calories per day.
- Next, determine your ideal ratio. I like to eat about 50 percent carbs, 25 percent fat and 25 percent protein.
- Then, multiply your total daily calories by your percentages.
- Finally, divide your calorie amounts by its calorie-per-gram number.
Here's how I would calculate my calories for each macronutrient:
- Carbs: 2,300 x 0.50 equals 1,150. I eat 1,150 calories worth of carbs each day (hello, extra slice of toast).
- Protein: 2,300 x 0.25 equals 575, so I get 575 calories worth of protein.
- Fats: 2,300 x 0.25 equals 575. I also get 575 calories comprised of dietary fat.
To calculate the actual gram amounts:
- Carbs (four calories per gram): 1,150 divided by 4 equals 287.5 grams of carbs.
- Protein (four calories per gram): 575 divided by 4 equals 143.75 grams of protein
- Fat (nine calories per gram): 575 divided by 9 equals 63.8 grams of fat.
If you don't like math, don't fret. The internet is home to a range of macronutrient calculators that will do the math for you.
The best macro calculators
Price: Free, but you must provide your email address to get your results.
IIFYM stands for "If It Fits Your Macros" -- a phrase and popular hashtag used by the macro-tracking community to refer to their flexible dieting approach.
This calculator is one of the most comprehensive available. It collects lifestyle and health information that many calculators don't, such as how active you are at work, what kind of cravings you have and whether you have any medical conditions.
Healthy Eater's macro calculator calculates your macronutrient ratio based on your age, gender, height, weight and activity level. You can customize your ratio based on whether you want to reduce your weight, lose 10 percent body fat, maintain or gain weight.
I like this macro calculator because you can see your ratio in terms of all day, three meals, four meals or five meals.
The Muscle for Life macro calculator is another very detailed calculator. It takes into account your weight, your body fat percentage, and your activity level. From there, this calculator determines your lean body mass (LBM), basal metabolic rate (BMR) and total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
The upside to this calculator is that you get a more accurate ratio because it considers more factors. The downside is that you need to know your body composition before using it.
You choose whether you want to gain, lose or maintain your current weight, and you can use the sliders at the bottom to adjust your ratio if the automatic recommendation isn't ideal for you.
How to track your macros
Your macro numbers aren't very helpful if you don't put them to use.
"Tracking macros" refers to the process of logging all your food throughout the day and breaking down your macro ratio to ensure you're eating according to your goals. It sounds scary, but again, the web comes to the rescue with a slew of digital tracking programs.
The best macro trackers
Price: Free or $9.99 per month
The free version of MyFitnessPal doesn't allow you to enter gram amounts for macros, only percentages. If you're comfortable with percentages only, then MFP is a great free option because of its bar code scanning feature and massive database of foods and drinks.
With a premium subscription, you can track by gram amounts and percentages, and you can see macro breakdowns for each meal and snack. A premium subscription also gets you extra features like food analyses (quality of what you're eating), food timestamps (when you eat what) and weekly reports.
MyMacros+ is another great app with a large food database and bar code scanning feature.
You can also track your body weight and enter custom foods for homemade recipes so you don't have to log the individual ingredients. My favorite thing about MyMacros+ is that it's usable without Internet, so you can track even when you're offline.
Tip: Food databases are helpful, but they often include multiple entries with different information for the same item, which can get confusing.
Price: $2.99 to download, $5.99 per month. Free version available.
The Cronometer tracker tracks vitamins and minerals in addition to macros. It also allows you to track important biometrics, such as blood pressure, cholesterol, sleep, mood, pulse and more — but you first need this information on hand to use the features.
If you do have access to that information, Cronometer provides insight into long-term trends and a clear snapshot of your overall health. Cronometer is impressive, it can be a bit overwhelming if you only want to track macros, and not the rest of the metrics it offers.
Should you track macronutrients?
Know that you don't need to track macros to be healthy,, build muscle or reach any other health goal. The only time you actually need to track macros is if your doctor told you so.
In fact, logging your every bite can be frustrating and time-consuming, but it's worth noting that you'll get pretty good at eyeballing portions if you make tracking a habit.
Tracking macros can definitely be useful for some things, such as preparing for a bodybuilding show or optimizing athletic performance. It can also be helpful if you want to implement "flexible dieting," or the practice of eating any foods you want, as long as they fit into your macronutrient ratio.
Additionally, many people enjoy tracking macros because it helps them understand what types of foods work best for their bodies. Give it a try to see if it works for your lifestyle, but don't feel like you ever need to track your macros.