The Beginner’s Guide to Macros

Christmas Dinner by George Redgrave

Counting macronutrients doesn’t have to be complicated.

If you’ve been digging into information on weight loss – especially information by people more active in the fitness side of things and less in the selling diet fad books side of things – you’ve probably heard of macronutrients (macros for short because we’re lazy).

It can be bewildering at first because it’s seems like a lot more nutritional information you have to digest, but thankfully it’s not as hard as it sounds. If you have no clue what people are talking about when they discuss counting macros, or if you’re just not sure where to start in getting control of your diet, this is the best place to start.

What are Macros?

Macros are essentially the biggest unit of nutrition (some may call it splitting hairs, but Calories are a unit of energy – not nutrition – so they don’t count). They’re the foundation of the pyramid, the most very basic building blocks for keeping you alive and making all that fleshy stuff and bones and organs you like so much.

There are three main macronutrients, though some people separate them into five categories. The three main ones are:

  • Protein

  • Fat

  • & Carbohydrates

The other two, depending on who you ask, are alcohol and fiber. Strictly speaking they probably should be considered as separate macros from everything else but we aren’t going to worry about that here. For right now, just consider alcohol and fiber to be carbohydrates and leave it at that.

One of the defining characteristics of macronutrients is that they’re the only things that have calories.

Micronutrients, like all your vitamins and minerals, possess zero calories. While important for different reasons, we’re not going to worry about them at all for right now – just the macros.

So let’s take a look at some of the different macros individually.

Protein

We’ll start with protein because, while there’s probably no actual most important macro, a lot of people would argue protein deserves that distinction – particularly in the health and fitness community.

What is it?

Protein is the basic building material of just about everything in your body. It helps us build more muscle, retain muscle on a caloric deficit, recover from our workouts more quickly and has the highest satiety factor while simultaneously requiring the most energy to digest reducing it’s caloric impact.

The official calorie count for protein is 4 calories per 1g of protein, and for our purposes that’s what will go with, but you should know that because of the energy spent digesting protein it’s really closer to the 3 calorie range.

Where do I get it?

Primarily meat, fish, eggs, dairy and protein powders. You can get it from plant sources if you absolutely insist on being a vegetarian or vegan – but you should know that those sources are poor and you’re unlikely to be as healthy or have as easy a time of things as your omnivorous companions.

I’m always favorable to macro sources that are whole foods (as in, unprocessed stuff, not things from that particular store) though meat can be expensive and inconvenient to prepare at times, so protein powders and shakes are an acceptable supplement in order to make sure you hit your targets.

Do check your food to make sure it’s a good source of protein even if you’ve been told it is. I often hear beans and nuts recommended as good protein sources when really nuts are almost entirely fat and beans are made up of substantially more carbohydrates than protein. Always be skeptical and double check, a lot of ‘high protein food’ claims are mostly marketing. In general, you can never go wrong with meat and whey though.

How much do I need?

In general a good range to shoot for if you’re trying to bulk up is in the range of .8 to 1g of protein per pound of lean body mass (that’s about 1.8 to 2.2g per kg for the rest of the world) every day. If you’re on a cut and trying to maintain your muscle mass while dropping fat you’re going to want it a little higher to ensure you preserve as much lean mass as possible. In that case you’ll want to bump it up to about 1 to 1.3g of protein per pound of lean body mass (2.2 to 2.8g per kg).

Note that these ranges are based on your lean body mass. That means your bodyweight minus your bodyfat. You do this by finding your bodyfat percentage and then subtracting that weight from your total body mass. For example, a person who weighs 200 lbs. at 20% bodyfat would have a lean body mass of 160 lbs. and would likely be on a cut so would shoot for between 160 to 208g of protein per day.

It should also be mentioned that while there are rumors out there of how too much protein will damage your kidneys – they’re false. There are no studies substantiating the claim that high protein intake damages kidney function. One study even showed no kidney damage on a diet of 1.27g per pound of bodyweight (not lean body mass) per day. That would be 254g per day for our example person above. So don’t worry about getting too much.

Why have upper limits on the ranges then? Primarily because after a while while more protein isn’t harmful, it’s not really helpful either. It’s also expensive – meat isn’t known for being cheap and even whey powders can be pricey – and takes up room in your diet that can crowd out our other two macros. With the diminishing returns going overboard isn’t really going to help a lot, even on a bulk.

Fat

Fat’s the enemy isn’t it? Causes heart disease, Ancel Keys and all that. Hence all the products shouting about being low fat right?

Well, no.

What is it?

Fat is essential nutrient required to keep your brain and just about everything else running smoothly.

The reasons for why the low fat craze was a terrible idea sparked by bad science that was hyperbolized by an ignorant media deserve an article of their own. Fats are required to live and are necessary for brain function, vitamin absorption and hormone regulation among other things. In fact, one of the most immediate side effects of a low fat diet is a severe drop in testosterone production and sex drive.

They’re also the most energy dense of the macronutrients coming in at 9 calories per 1g of fat.

If our muscles can be said to be fueled by carbs and built by protein, your brain can be said to be fueled by carbs and built by fat.

Where do I get it?

The best places to get quality fats are from fatty meats (bacon anyone?), most dairy, nuts / nut butters and oils. Avocados are also a good source of them and the only fatty food that is probably considered a fruit.

For the purposes of this article we’re only going to worry about fat as a whole, but it should probably be noted that overall there are better and worse sources of fat. Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated and Saturated fats are all fairly good for you in the proper amounts of each. Trans fats, or hydrogenated fats, however are absolutely terrible for you and should be avoided at all costs. Thankfully the bad kind don’t occur on their own in nature, we have to make them, so as long as you stay away from stuff in packages you’ll be fine.

How much do I need?

That depends again on your goals. If you’re trying to bulk up making your diet consist of around 20 to 30% fat in calories is a good range to aim for. That means if you’re shooting for 2,500 calories per day (potentially a little low for a bulk for most people but the math’s easier) that would be 400 to 600 calories per day coming from fat. Divide those by 9 (because of each gram of fat having 9 calories) and you get about 55g to 83g of fat per day.

Conversely if you’re on a cut I would recommend keeping it a little lighter. Keeping your caloric intake low on a cut is important and with fat coming in at 9 calories per gram it’s easy to get carried away and go way over your calorie target. You don’t want to go too low either though or you’re going to tank your hormone production and feel horrible.

A good range to shoot for then while on a cut is between .4 to .6g per pound of lean body mass (.9 to 1.3g per kg). That should allow you to keep your calories in check without impairing hormone function and suffering all the detriments of an excessively limited fat intake.

Carbohydrates

Surely if fat isn’t the enemy carbs are right? Shouldn’t everyone be low carb and gluten free? Isn’t Paleo the best thing ever?

Again, it’s not exactly that simple. Though the long explanation is going to be saved for another article.

What are they?

Technically speaking carbohydrates are the one macronutrient that you don’t absolutely need to survive (with the possible exception of alcohol if you count it separately from carbs). If you don’t eat any fat you will get very ill (sometimes called rabbit starvation), if you don’t eat any protein the same thing will happen. Eventually both of these things can kill you.

If you don’t eat any carbs you’ll feel crappy for a few days while your body adjusts and the it’ll start using gluconeogenesis to turn other macronutrients into glycogen and you’ll be fine.

So why eat them at all? Well for on thing like fats they have a generally positive effect on hormones that’s hard to replicate through other means. Additionally they’re the easiest way to replace muscle glycogen effectively, and if you’re going to be training hard (you are going to be training hard, right?) then you’re going to want at least a little carb intake to help you through it.

Outside of all of that, honestly, carbs are tasty. You don’t have to punish yourself to be healthy.

Where do I get them?

From almost any food that’s considered unhealthy or which makes your Paleo and Atkins friends turn white with horror when you raise to your mouth.

Joking aside, carbs come from grains, starches, vegetables and sugars. Alcohol too for our purposes since, while technically unique, it behaves close enough to how carbs do to be counted that way. There are complex carbs (vegetables and greens) which are somewhat better for you and simple carbs (sugar, refined grains etc.) which are somewhat worse for you. There’s also dietary fiber which we’re including here but can also be considered technically separate.

Run of the mill carbs, both simple and complex, weigh in at 4 calories per 1g of carbohydrate. Alcohol on the other hand being so energy dense (we do use forms of it to fuel cars you know) comes in at 7 calories per 1g. Dietary fiber lands on the other end of the spectrum. Soluble fiber (stuff you can digest) comes in at a mere 2 calories per 1g. Insoluble fiber, which you cannot digest, comes in at 0 calories per 1g. Because you can’t digest it.

How much do I need?

You need just enough to fill out the rest of your calories after you’ve figured out your protein and fat intakes. Once you’ve added up your protein (x4 calories per gram) and your fat (x9 calories per gram) subtract that number from your total daily calorie target. Then divide that by 4 (because there are 4 calories per 1g of carb) and you’ve got your target carb intake.

On a side note regarding our two extra additions to this category – keep your alcohol intake reasonable. There are benefits to a little alcohol consumption, but too much will damage your testosterone levels, your brain, your liver and probably your life in general. Enjoy in moderation. Fiber you definitely want to make sure you include as the right amounts will help make you feel full, keep cholesterol low and keep things in your digestive track moving smoothly.

You should shoot for at least 20g of fiber per day to reap all of the benefits from it. Don’t let your fiber intake exceed about 20% or so of your total carb intake though or you might be in for gas, constipation and bloating.

You need just enough to fill out the rest of your calories after you’ve figured out your protein and fat intakes. Once you’ve added up your protein (x4 calories per gram) and your fat (x9 calories per gram) subtract that number from your total daily calorie target. Then divide that by 4 (because there are 4 calories per 1g of carb) and you’ve got your target carb intake.

On a side note regarding our two extra additions to this category – keep your alcohol intake reasonable. There are benefits to a little alcohol consumption, but too much will damage your testosterone levels, your brain, your liver and probably your life in general. Enjoy in moderation. Fiber you definitely want to make sure you include as the right amounts will help make you feel full, keep cholesterol low and keep things in your digestive track moving smoothly.

You should shoot for at least 20g of fiber per day to reap all of the benefits from it. Don’t let your fiber intake exceed about 20% or so of your total carb intake though or you might be in for gas, constipation and bloating.

Learning How to Count

Hopefully you know how to count in general. If not I’ll wait while you go watch some Sesame Street and brush up a bit.

The trick to counting macros though is two-fold. The first problem is that if you don’t know what you’re looking for, what’s important and what’s useless information a nutrition label can be kind of confusing. The second problem is that a lot of food, specifically a lot of the generally healthy food which you should be eating more of, does not come with nutrition labels.

We’ll start with the foods that come with nutrition labels because they make it significantly easier to figure out your macros accurately. After all you just have to be able to read and do basic addition.

Food with nutrition labels

So what’s the important stuff on a nutrition label? In order from top to bottom on the label:

  • Total Fat – This is what you count as your fat.

  • Total Carbohydrate – This is what you count as your carbs.

  • Protein – This is what you count as your protein.

Technically you also need to pay close attention to the serving size. We’ll get to more on that in a moment though. So what all on the nutrition label can you ignore? Everything else.

  • Saturated / Unsaturated Fat – Not important and these add up into that total fat category you’re counting. I would potentially advise keeping an eye out for trans fats (which should be avoided entirely), but that’s about it.

  • Cholesterol – Vilified for years even though there’s no good research to show there’s anything wrong with dietary cholesterol. Don’t worry about it.

  • Sodium – Unless you have very high blood pressure there’s no need to worry about it at all.

  • Dietary Fiber – Included in the total carbohydrate count. I do recommend getting a bit of fiber as noted above, but in general it’s usually not worth counting on its own.

  • Sugar – This is also included in that total carbohydrate count and can be ignored. I won’t get into it too much here, but sugar is not evil, toxic or poison. Count your total carbs and don’t worry about sugar for right now.

  • % Daily Value – This is how much the government recommends you get of this nutrient assuming you follow a 2,000 calorie diet. Not only would it be insane for everyone to follow a 2,000 calorie diet due to the countless differing variables from person to person but, even if you’re on a 2,000 calorie diet, the recommended ratios of macros are awful in my opinion so I wouldn’t recommend following it anyway. Do everyone a favor and ignore it until it goes away.

  • Vitamin A, C, Magnesium, Zinc, etc. – All these little extra things are your micronutrients, your vitamins and minerals essentially, and don’t add any calories. Might be interesting for you to know, but it’s not worth worrying about for right now.

  • Calories – Most people are surprised by this one, but you don’t need to count the calories if you’re counting your macros. That’s because the only things that have calories are macros. So if you know how many of each macro you’re getting and how many calories per macro as listed above, you know your calories.

Now you know what’s important and what’s not, you just need to count up the important stuff and multiply it by the number of servings you had. This is where paying attention to the serving sizes on the label and owning a food scale will come in handy.

If you really want to accurately measure your macros, you must have a food scale. I’ll give you some general eyeballing estimation figures you can use in a pinch but they’re not super accurate. You also can’t measure things by number and volume because those amounts can vary wildly between things of equal weight.

Anyone who’s done any baking knows that a loose cup of flour and a packed cup of flour are two very different amounts which is why recipes always give you the amounts of things like that in weights (at least, competent recipes). Similarly, even using the measuring lines they give you or an actual tablespoon, you may measure out five tablespoons of butter and have amounts ranging from 10 to 20 grams that all look the same. Since a single serving of butter (and one precise tablespoon) is 16g this can throw your macros and calories way off.

For a single serving of butter like that it would only be off about 50 calories, but over the course of multiple foods across multiple meals across multiple days you can wind up severely off your macro targets and by extension make zero progress.

You can get a digital food scale off Amazon for around $25. Even less if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of functionality. Once you’re in the swing of it weighing your portions out only takes an extra minute each meal too, so it’s no real inconvenience. In my experience the kind of people who whine about having to buy a scale and weigh food are the people that make up excuses to skip workouts and the people that never make any progress – accept it.

Food without nutrition labels

So what do you do if the food you’re eating doesn’t come with a nutrition label? The easiest place to start is by turning to the Internet.

Websites and apps like MyFitnessPal and LoseIt! are built specifically to help you track the nutrition content and macros of what you’re eating. Just look your food up, enter in the amounts you ate and you’re good. Nutrition Data is another option if you just want to look something up.

The relevant apps also let you scan bar codes to pull up nutrition information on and log the food you scanned making it even easier to log the stuff with labels too.

So what if you’re eating out at a restaurant or are just seriously too lazy to measure things properly and see actual results?

The basic estimation guidelines are as follows:

  • 3.5 ounces or 100g or so of raw meat (including fish) is about 20g of protein. One average chicken breast is about 20g of protein, a 6 oz steak (a bit more than the size of your fist) is about 40g of protein.

  • 70g of uncooked rice is about 50g of carbs. This will be about 1/2 a cup of uncooked rice or a big mounded handful. Cooked it’s going to vary by water amount. Pasta is the same. One slice of standard white bread is 20g of carbs.

  • Greens and green vegetables can be counted as having 0g of carbs. Technically they’ve got some, but if you’re just ballparking the numbers there’s no point worrying about them because they’re so small.

  • Go easy on the sauces. If it’s vinegar or water based don’t bother counting it. If it’s fat based including things like butter, olive oil or mayo you can consider each spoonful to be about 15g of fat.

  • Eggs are 6g of protein per egg.

Whether you’re estimating or being precise (you should be precise) you can also use Fitocracy’s macro tracking app to keep things noted down. It doesn’t include foods to look up, but it lets you enter things manually and see where you’re at as you go through the day.

Hopefully all of this has you all set on what macros are and how to start tracking them. If you have any additional questions leave a comment! If you want a little more in-depth assistance getting your macros down I do offer coaching packages, just send me an e-mail or stop by our coaching page if you’re interested.

Photo Credit: George Redgrave

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com