Everything you need to know about getting started with how to count macros. From what macronutrients are, how to calculate and count macros, tips, and how it can be a helpful and effective way to reach your goals for building muscle, losing fat, and learning how to fuel your body.
Tracking macros, counting macros, #iifym (if it fits your macros), flexible dieting… whatever you want to call it, you probably have heard the term macros when talking about nutrition.
I learned about tracking macros almost 7 years ago. I’ve tracked consistently for periods of time, then taken long breaks, and now tracking here and there. It has totally changed the way I fuel my body and approach food. You can read more about my health and fitness journey and also how I got into tracking macros.
Long story short, counting macros has shown me just how much food I should be eating after a decade of under-eating and restricting, how I can incorporate all foods and no foods need to be off-limits or “good” and “bad”, helped me get my period back, achieve a better body composition, and learned the serving sizes I need.
In this post, I’m going to do a deep dive into what tracking macros is, how to calculate your macros, how to count macros, how to approach it for different goals, some tips, and more. If you think tracking macros might be for you but would like some more accountability or guidance, check out my nutrition coaching.
If you have any more questions, please leave a comment below for me to answer them.
Me in 2015 and in 2020 at the same weight. Please note that way more goes into this picture than just tracking macros, but it did play a role. It also has to do with being consistent with my diet, a dedicated strength program, and nutrition periodization.
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the nutrients that serve as the primary building blocks of the body and as fuel for energy production. The three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Macronutrients are what make up calories, or the energy we consume.
Protein and carbs have 4 calories per 1 gram. Fat has 9 calories per 1 gram.
- 200 grams of chicken breast = 225 calories with 45 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat
- 100 grams of sweet potato = 88 calories with 20 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein
- 20 grams of natural peanut butter = 126 calories with 5 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbs, and 10 grams of fat
We can also include water as one of the main macronutrients, but it doesn’t have any calories. Alcohol does have calories and is not included in protein, carbs, or fat. We will discuss alcohol further in the article.
Lots of foods will contain 2 or even all 3 macronutrients! Looking at nutrition labels can help with understanding the breakdowns of different foods if you are unsure.
Here is a quick breakdown of each macronutrient and some of the functions they do in the body. This is by no means a complete list, but as you can see, it’s important to get different macronutrients.
- uses – building blocks of our body (provide structure and function), builds and repairs muscles, an essential building block of enzymes (act as the managers and catalysts for all biochemical processes in the body), help with blood sugar balance (having stable energy) by slowing down the absorption of carbs, digest slowly and help with feeling full, help with digestion by signaling the stomach to release stomach acid, crucial for the production of some hormones, important transportation component of the blood, help with fluid balance, and more
- examples – eggs and egg whites, chicken, turkey, pork, beef, turkey, venison, bison, lamb, deli meat, seafood, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, protein powder, tofu, tempeh, seitan
- uses – our body’s preferred source of energy, the immune systems’ preferred source of fuel during an active infection, needed for our brain and red blood cells to function, help fuel our gut microbiome for great digestion, a great source of vitamins and minerals, help ensure regular elimination of waste, and more
- examples – bread, potatoes, winter squash, pumpkin, plantains, rice, quinoa, lentils, pasta, oats, vegetables, fruit, beans, tortillas cereal, granola, maple syrup, honey
Technically, carbohydrates are not considered essential as the body can make them from protein and fat. However, they play numerous important roles in the body and should be included in a well-balanced diet. Not only that, they are delicious.
- uses – help absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), increase satiety (fullness), help regulate digestion, is a great source of high-calorie energy ideal for long and low-intensity activities, build cell membranes and certain hormones, a protective lining for organs, and more
- examples – oil (olive, coconut, avocado, etc.), butter or ghee, nuts, seeds, nut butter, coconut milk, avocados, olives, beef, salmon, whole eggs, bacon, full-fat dairy, cheese
What is macro tracking?
“Tracking macros” simply means logging the food you eat (either by computer or in an online app) to see the breakdown of protein, carbs, and fats you are consuming.
We will break down everything on how to count macros below.
Should I count calories or macros?
Counting calories and counting macros have some similarities: you are tracking overall energy intake (daily calories), but with tracking macros, you are taking it a step further and tracking protein, carbs, and fat.
As you have learned, protein, carbs, and fat are the main macronutrients and makeup calories. While calories are important in the grand scheme of energy balance, macros are just as important.
Let’s use an example – say someone is eating 2000 calories. If they’re only tracking calories, they could just eat candy, chips, and bagels* all day and hit their calorie goal. Eating just those foods all day probably won’t make you feel your best though.
When tracking macros, you need to get a variety of foods to hit your protein, carb, and fat goals. That means eggs, chicken, and fish for protein, rice, potatoes, fruits, and veggies for carbs, and avocado, olive oil, and nuts for fat. And you can totally include some candy, chips, and a bagel too.
Food quality matters and by looking at macros, we are going to bring in a variety of foods and more micronutrients. Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) serve as the primary co-factors for proper physiological function and also as structural building blocks.
Macronutrients and micronutrients work in synergy with other available nutrients for optimal health. The more we get from food, the more we have to go around, and the better the body will function.
Energy balance is important but counting macros can be superior to just counting calories as you are focusing on specific macronutrients for your goals. This is going to help with energy levels, blood sugar balance, digestion, body composition, sleep, athletic performance and recovery, hormone production and function, and more. Calories alone just focus on body weight.
*Please note there is nothing wrong with candy, chips, and bagels, and all foods can be enjoyed in an overall and nutrient-dense diet.
Check out my guide on how to build a balanced plate!
Tools needed for counting macros
Counting macros requires a food scale so you can weigh and measure your food and enter it into a food tracking app.
- Digital Food scale – you will need to weigh and measure your food and a food scale is the most accurate and easiest way to do this. I have had this food scale for almost a decade and it still works great.
- Food tracking app – after you weigh your food, you enter it into an app and it will track your macros and calories for you. There are plenty of apps to pick from (Cronometer, MyFitnessPal, My Macros+, and more). My personal is Cronometer and I talk more about it below.
Besides that, all you need is food!
Counting macros calculator
If you aren’t working with a coach, two of my favorite places to get starting numbers are TDEE calculator and Precision Nutrition. I suggest doing them both and then comparing.
- TDEE Calculator – enter your gender, age, weight, height, activity level, and body fat percentage (if you know it) and it will give you calories and macros for maintenance, cutting, and bulking. They also give you numbers for low, moderate, and high carbs.
I find that this one is on the lower side, especially if you have a lean frame with more muscle mass. For example, it tells me I should be eating 1920 calories to maintain my weight, but I know I can eat 2100-2300 calories and maintain. If you enter in your body fat, it will be a little more accurate, but I find most don’t know that.
- Precision Nutrition – enter your age, gender, height, weight, goal, preferred eating style, standard macronutrient ratio (or a custom one if you have it), how many meals you eat, activity, and workouts. It will give you calories, macros, and suggested hand portion sizes depending on the goal you pick. You can also download a complete guide.
I really like this calculator and find it is pretty accurate as it asks for much more information. I recommended picking ‘improve health’ as a goal to give you your maintenance calories.
Please note – while you can pick different goals in each calculator, I always suggest figuring out your maintenance calories when you first start tracking. Your maintenance calories are your homeostasis point and they are the total calories required to maintain your weight in your current stage of life. It is also where you usually feel really good. They are going to depend on a lot of things like height, weight, body composition, activity level, dieting history, genetics, and more.
It’s also important to know that maintenance calories are a range and not one set number. Figuring out your maintenance calories can give you a baseline for where you should be and then you can adjust according to your goals. You should be eating at maintenance calories most of the time and spending short time periods in a calorie deficit or surplus when desired.
How to determine your macros/numbers
A good starting point to determine your numbers is using one of the online calculators mentioned above. That being said, we need to remember it is just a computer and a starting place. It doesn’t know your body like you know your body and we need to listen to our body along the way.
Your macro ratio is going to be unique for you and bio-individuality is king. How one person eats is not going to be how you eat. Some like more carbs and a little less fat. Others like more fat and fewer carbs. Some enjoy a balance of both. We should absolutely be paying attention to how food sources and qualities make us feel.
Some of the numbers online calculators spit out are a little ridiculous too. For example, if using TDEE calculator from above and doing a low carb approach, it has me eating 192 grams of protein. For someone that weighs 127-129 pounds, that is ridiculous.
Whichever way you start, you want to make sure the numbers feel good for you and are realistic (you will see as you go). If you are currently eating 100 grams of protein and you set your numbers to be 150 grams of protein, it’s going to feel super hard.
I suggest sitting at numbers for a least 2 weeks and seeing how they feel. Then you can adjust depending on how you are feeling.
How to count macros
- Figure out the number of calories you need. They are plenty of ways do to this – like figuring out your BMR (basal metabolic rate) and adding your activity (exercise and non-exercise) on top of that or just figuring out your total daily energy expenditure. There are different formulas you can use, but I find using a good online calculator is the easiest. See above for two recommendations for calculators.
- Figure out your macronutrient breakdown. Either use a breakdown given to you by a calculator or set a custom breakdown depending on how you like to eat. A good starting place is 40% of calories from carbs, 30% from protein, and 30% from fat and adjusting from there. Or .8-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight or lean body mass and then adjust carbs and fat from what is left depending on your preferred style of eating.
- Start tracking by weighing and measuring your food and logging it. To weigh and measure your food, simply use your food scale to weigh food, search for it in your app, and then enter it into the app you are using. I find it is best to weigh in grams and ounces.
For example, say you are eating a snack of yogurt, granola, and strawberries. You would want to weigh each amount of yogurt, granola, and fruit and enter it into your app. Example: 5 ounces of yogurt, 15 grams of granola, and 30 grams of strawberries.
As you go about your day, continue to enter the food you are eating and try to hit your goals. How exact you want to be is up to you. Some people like to weigh or measure everything they are eating while others estimate some things. I suggest finding what works for you. When starting out, it can be helpful to weigh most things until you have an understanding of the serving sizes you like.
- Adjust as needed. I suggest sitting at numbers for a least 2 weeks and seeing how they feel. Then you can adjust depending on how you are feeling and your specific goals.
How to count macros for weight loss/fat loss?
To track macros for weight loss/fat loss, you need to be eating less than your current maintenance calories/total daily energy expenditure.
To do this, you would go into a calorie deficit or a reduction of calories for a dedicated period of time. It’s important to note that you can’t diet forever. If you under-eat for too long, you can face some serious repercussions with your metabolism slowing down, hormones abnormally functioning, thyroid downregulating, and more.
While everyone is different, to count macros for weight loss, I recommend a small deficit of 10% to start out with and then track progress from there. Some people will have success with this, while others will have to dig deeper into a deficit and reduce their calories further. It will all depend on your dieting history.
You will want to keep protein high and take calories away from carbs and fat. Which one you reduce will depend on how you like to eat.
How to count macros for muscle gain?
For the best results to gain muscle, we should be eating a little more than our body currently needs.
Our body is not really worried about building muscle when we aren’t eating enough. Yes, it can happen, especially if you are new to working out, but it has better things to focus on. We can even lose muscle mass during times of undereating if we aren’t careful.
Counting macros can help ensure we are eating enough to support our body in our workouts and for building muscle. To count macros for muscle gain, you first want to make sure you are eating at your maintenance calories goal. You should be eating close to your body weight or even a little more in grams of protein and getting enough carbs to fuel your workouts.
From there, you can go into a surplus where you are eating a little more than needed to help ensure muscle gain. This can be anywhere from a 3-10% increase depending on where you are starting. You will want to keep protein high and add calories to carbs and fat. Which one you increase will depend on how you like to eat and your workout style.
Some people will see good results from this, while others will have to add more and increase calories. It will all depend on your goals, body composition, and history.
It’s important to note that with eating more and focusing on muscle gain, you will probably gain some fat. There is no way around that, but in the end, it will help set you up for a better body composition when you adjust back down.
How to count macros and make recipes
One of the most common questions or concerns I get with tracking macros is being able to make recipes. No one wants to eat boring chicken, broccoli, and rice every day and that is not what tracking is about.
When making a recipe, you can do it two different ways:
- Enter the recipe into your food tracking app. Most apps will have features where you can enter ingredients to create a recipe and then break it up by servings. If it is a recipe you are going to create again in the future, I suggest doing this.
- Estimating. Tracking macros doesn’t require perfection and if you create a recipe and know you will never make it again, you can just estimate. You can weigh the ingredients individually beforehand and then guestimate the amount you had, or just estimate altogether.
How to count macros when eating out
For eating out, some restaurants have the macronutrients listed. Some even have great calculators on their websites that allow you to add/take away items to make them fit. This makes it so easy, but it is definitely not super common.
For logging, search for a similar entry on your macro tracking app and scan over it to see if it makes sense. For example, if eating ramen, there should be a decent amount of carbs in there from the noodles. If needed, adjust the serving size so it seems accurate.
You can also break down a meal individually and log it. For example, say you order a power bowl. You can log 4 ounces of chicken breast, 4 ounces of brown rice, 1 ounce of goat cheese, 2 ounces of nuts, 1 tablespoon of oil, and so on. This way is easier once you have tracked for a while and have an understanding of what portion sizes look like.
Both of these are just estimates though. The key is not perfection, but rather just getting an idea of what we are eating so we can plan the rest of the day appropriately.
That being said, we can’t and don’t always need to track every single meal. I also think it’s good for the soul to be a little spontaneous with going out to eat, having fun, and taking a break from tracking. One meal of not tracking will not derail your progress if you are consistent.
How do you track alcohol macros?
Alcohol is its own macronutrient and needs to be tracked differently. You will want to use carbs and fat macros to cover your booze. To calculate alcohol, you will take the calories of the drink and either divide by 4 grams of carbs or 9 grams of fat. Protein should be prioritized and shouldn’t be used to cover drinks.
For example, if a drink has 100 calories, you will take 100/4 = 25 grams of carbs OR 100/9 = 11 grams of fat. Log either one or the other. Just depends on if you want to take away from your carbs or fat. Search for quick carbs or quick fat to add the right amount of grams.
Tips for counting macros
When you learn how to count macros, it can feel like a lot. Here are some tips to help:
- Plan ahead! If you want to do one thing for making counting macros easier, it’s planning. Either meal prepping or planning meals ahead can be a huge help. You can also enter meals beforehand in your tracker to make sure you are close to your goals.
- Make bulk meat for quick protein. I would say the hardest thing for most people to get accustomed to is eating more protein. This can take some time to get used to and some planning. Making sure you are spreading your protein throughout the day is vital. Having meat on hand can make a huge difference and keep you from having to consume a large amount of protein late at night.
- Tare and go. An easy weight to weigh your food is by putting your plate/bowl on your food scale and then as you add your foods, just tare the scale to reset it after each item. Then add your next item and it will weigh it.
- Keep it simple at first. Making super detailed and intricate meals with a ton of ingredients is going to make tracking macros a little harder at first. Stick to the basics – grill up some protein, pair with a roasted potato, some sautéed veggies, and serve with a dressing. I’m not saying eat boring food, but just making it easier on yourself when you start. Once you get the hang of tracking, you can totally make whatever recipes you like.
- Repeat meals if you like them. I have found most people are creatures of habits and we eat a lot of the same thing. If you have a handful of meals you really like, repeat them to keep logging easier when you start.
- Raw meat and cooked meat aren’t the same when tracking. Make sure if you weigh your meat cooked, you search in your tracking app for cooked meat. Raw meat and cooked meat will have different weights since meat losses water when it’s cooked. This can result in eating more than you are planning for if not careful. If you can’t find it, cooked meat weighs about 75% of raw meat (see conversion below).
- Try to be consistent. If you weigh your starchy vegetables raw, try to keep weighing them raw. Same with meat. Obviously, there will be exceptions (it’s easier to roast a bunch of potatoes and weigh them cooked throughout the week), but try to keep it consistent. If you weigh something cooked (like veggies or meat), I usually just take that weight divided by .75 to get the raw weight and log it that way. I find logging raw is more accurate, but up to you. This is more important with bigger items like meat and starchy veggies. Example: 6 ounces of cooked salmon – 6/.75 = 8 ounces raw.
Best macro counting app
There are a lot of macro counting apps out and they all have their pros and cons. From my personal experience, I have found that Cronometer is the best macro counting app. It is very data-driven and flexible, and unlike other apps, it doesn’t focus on weight loss. It is also the most accurate.
With other food tracking apps, they allow users to put in entries. With that, there will be tons of entries for the same food, and a lot of them are inaccurate. This is not the case on Cronometer and they verify every entry. This leads to it being the most accurate.
With Cronometer, you can easily adjust your macros, only set a calorie and protein goal (for flexible tracking), and also look over all your micronutrients. You can scan food labels, enter in your own custom foods and recipes, and track trends (calories consumed, body weight, biometrics, nutrition report, and more).
Pros and Cons
- learning how to fuel your body for your specific needs
- learning to build a balanced plate – with tracking you need to make sure you are getting protein, carbs, and fat at each meal. Check out my guide on how to build a balanced plate!
- can improve diet quality – tracking your food can increase your awareness of what you are consuming
- assist in specific body composition goals – whether it be in muscle gain, fat loss, or just body composition changes
- balance energy – getting a balance of protein, carbs, and fat sets us up for balanced and sustainable energy levels
- experience more food freedom – there is no “off-limits” food when tracking macros and for some coming from restrictive diets, you can learn how all foods can fit in a healthy way
- can feel restrictive for some – depending on where your numbers are, it may feel restrictive
- can be time consuming
- may lead to disordered eating thoughts or behaviors – while everyone is different, for some, it can bring about disordered eating thoughts or behaviors. This can be true if you have had a history of an eating disorder in the past, although not true for everyone.
- “if it fits” mentality – while no foods are off-limits, some might eat poorly just to see what they can fit into their macros.
The overall goal for counting macros
While I think tracking macros is a great tool to learn how to eat for your goals and your body, seeing how all foods can fit, and learning about portion sizes, it is not the end all be all. There are many different approaches and this is just one of them.
The goal is to not do it forever either. Once you have a good understanding of how to fuel yourself, you can move away from weighing and measuring your food and just eating more intuitively based on what you have learned from tracking.