How “Counting Your Macros” Can Work Better for Weight Loss
June 22, 2021
Calories in, calories out. If you’ve ever tried to slim down, you’ve likely heard this phrase—and you’ve maybe even found its limits. The truth is, a weight loss journey is about much more than simply how much or how little you’re eating. What’s more important for weight management is the overall health of your diet, and making small changes that add up to you feeling good in your body for the long haul.
That said, many people—especially those at the beginning of their journey—often do find some benefit in having a tracking system that helps them be more mindful of their diet choices, explains Libby Mills, R.D.
Enter, “macros” tracking. A growing number of people today are counting their “macros”—or macronutrients—to understand not just how much they eat, but what they’re eating. “Macros tracking is not about just paying attention to your calorie range,” Mills says. “It’s about paying attention to where those calories are coming from.”
Getting the right type of nutrients to fuel your activities and keep you healthy is just as important for weight loss—and your overall well-being. Ahead, everything you need to know about counting macros.
What are macros?
“Macros” is short for the word “macronutrients.” It refers to the body’s main essential macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Protein sources, for example, include eggs, fish, meat, lentils, cheese, and tofu. Carbs include rice, oats, whole grains, starchy vegetables, and fruits. Fats include oils, nut butters, avocado, dark chocolate, and nuts and seeds. (Tip: Some foods can be sources of multiple macros, like nuts and seeds, which contain both protein and fat.)
The big difference between counting calories and counting macros is that when counting calories, those calories can come from anywhere. If you’re counting calories and are targeting 2,000 calories a day, you might eat 1,000 of the calories in fat and another 1,000 in carbs without any protein. Counting macros helps you ensure your body gets a healthy amount of nutrients.
How do I count them?
You can count macros the same way you count calories. Use a nutrient database (and/or check labels) to understand the nutrient content of the foods you’re eating. And keep track. The easiest way to track macros is through an app or online calculator—most of these not only calculate your macros for you but also come with a nutrient database for various foods, like proteins, vegetables, and even restaurant meals.
The tricky part of counting macros is deciding how much to target for each, Mills says. Everyone’s goals will be different, but each macro category will have its own percentage within your overall calorie goal. A typical breakdown is to devote around 50% of your calories to carbs, 25% to fat, and 25% to protein. (If you have specific goals, like controlling blood sugar for diabetes, you can reduce carbs and increase fats and protein. Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help you find the right balance for you.)
You can also do the calculation yourself. Macros are calculated using grams per carb, protein, or fat. So if your target is 2,000 calories overall and you’re working toward 50% of macros dedicated to carbs, then you do a simple calculation.
There are 4 calories per gram of carbs, 4 calories per gram of protein, and 9 calories per gram of fat.
For example, here’s the calculation for 50% of macros dedicated to carbs on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet:
- 50% of 2,000 calories = 1,000 calories of carbs per day
- Total grams of carbs per day = 1,000/4 = 250 grams
Using this calculation for each macro category will help you determine what ranges to eat within, keeping in mind that you don’t have to hit each dedicated number exactly.
Is counting macros right for me?
The key thing to understand about counting macros is it’s a tool for revealing holes in your diet that you might not see otherwise. Counting them can be motivating because it’s a fresh way of looking at food, Mills says. It’s great for people who have been frustrated by counting calories or who start to feel sluggish or hungry when they try to eat healthier.
On the flip side, some find it overwhelming. “To count macros, you do have to look at labels a little closely,” Mills says. “You need a system to stay on track.”
Counting macros (like counting calories) is not something you should plan on doing forever. Rather, try to spend a week or two on it. Learn what you can about your choices. Pay attention to how any changes to your diet make you feel. Then, from there, try to bring those learnings into your everyday life moving forward. (Important: If you find counting macros is becoming obsessive or leading you to over-restrict, stop. A more intuitive approach might be better for you.)
In the end, counting macros, like counting calories, should be thought of as a way to be more mindful of what you’re eating, Mills says. “By counting macros, you’re becoming more aware of what types of foods you’re eating, and how they fit into your daily plan.”
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