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As a weekend warrior, dedicated gym go-er, or even causal health food enthusiast, you’ve probably heard the word “macro” thrown around. “If it fits your macros” is a popular phrase used by those who count or balance their macros to help them achieve or maintain a healthy weight or weight goal. So, what are macros, and how does this latest diet craze work?
Simply stated, macros is short for macronutrient, and are the main building blocks of the diet. The three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat.1 They are considered macronutrients because the body needs each one in relatively large amounts to supply the body with energy.1 For contrast, micronutrients are vitamins and minerals – still important, but needed in much smaller amounts to function. 1 Understanding the purpose of each macronutrient can help focus your eating habits to help you lose weight, maintain a healthy weight, or even build muscle – without the usual restrictions associated with dieting. Here, we’ll discuss how the macro diet works, how to track your macros, and how to tailor your macros to fit different diets and goals.
The macro diet, or more popularly flexible dieting, is based around counting or balancing macros based to meet your calculated daily goal. It’s called “flexible” dieting because the foods that make up these macros don’t matter – “if it fits your macros”, or fits within your daily macro allowances, it’s allowed.1 This gets rid of a lot of the guilt and stress felt when trying to stick to conventional, food-restrictive diets. If you want to eat a cookie or have that burger, simply find its protein, fat and carb values, plug it into your day, and adjust the rest of your meals accordingly! Counting and planning your meals around macro values does have a learning curve, but once you get used to it, you start to learn and memorize the values of your favorite meals and can create daily menu plans quickly and easily.
How to Count Macros
Macros are split into percentage of total intake per day. For example, a standard macro split for maintenance could be 40% protein, 40% carbs, and 20% fat. So how do you go about meeting those goals?
The first step to flexible dieting is to generate your daily macro targets. To do this, you first need to find your TDEE, or total daily energy expenditure.1 This is the total number of calories (energy) your body needs to function during its daily routine, and is calculated using a formula that includes variables for your age, weight, height, and level of activity. Many online calculators are available to help you find this, but the formula is simple:
- Men = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age) + 5
- Women = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age) + 161
This will give you the total calories used when completely at rest, or sitting on the couch doing nothing all day. These calories are burned while keeping all your basic bodily functions working – breathing, heartbeat, liver functions etc. To find your TDEE, multiply that number by your activity level1:
- Little to no exercise = x 1.2
- 1 – 3 days of exercise per week = x 1.375
- 6 – 7 days of exercise per week = x 1.55
- Exercise every day = x 1.725
- Exercise twice a day or more = x 1.9
Now you have the number of calories you need to consume every day to maintain your current weight, without changing any of your habits. Using this number, you can split up your calories into how many you need from protein, fat, and carbs. If we use the split mentioned in the beginning of this section, and used a TDEE of 2,000 calories, your macros would look like this:
- Calories from Carbs = 800
- Calories from Protein = 800
- Calories from Fat = 400
Calories are not a functional way to count your macros, so we convert them to grams:
- 1g of protein = 4 calories → 800/4 = 200g
- 1g of carbs = 4 calories → 800/4 = 200g
- 1g of fat = 9 calories → 200/9 = 44g
Your daily macro targets are now set, and you can work on choosing foods and building meals to meet them. For example, a 136g skinless, boneless chicken breast has 26g of protein, 1g of fat (rounded down), and 2g of carbs.2 Subtract those values from your daily goals, and you still have 174g of protein, 198g of carbs, and 43g of fat to eat. You can fill these values with salads, fruits, veggies, sauces etc. Remember, this is flexible dieting!
There are many apps online that help you to track your macros, with charts to plug in your meals, and even databases of food to help you calculate and build your meals. However, excel spreadsheets can also be helpful in helping you to see your meals at a glance, and become aware of the macro values of your favorite foods and meals. A basic excel worksheet will look like this:
|3 slice bacon||0g||9g||10g||86|
|1 pc toast||15g||2.7g||1g||79|
|1 tsp butter||0g||0g||4g||34|
|Chicken breast 136g||2g||26g||1g||140|
|Spinach (3 cups)||4g||3g||0g||23|
|Tomatoes (1 med)||5g||1g||0g||22|
|Olive oil (1 tbsp)||0g||0g||14g||119|
This is how you would record all your meals throughout the day. Notice that everything needs to be recorded, including the butter on toast, to the dressing on a salad. Track every component of every meal, and you will start to see patterns of where you struggle to meet your macros and where you need to cut back. Eventually, you’ll learn how to balance your meals easily to meet your goals. Remember, calorie counting is not as important as hitting your macros. Because of the calorie worth of each macro, you should end up relatively close to your calorie limit when you’re in line with your macros.
Keto Macro Calculator
If you’re following a keto diet, your macros will look quite a bit different from the 40 – 40 – 20 split used in the previous examples. The keto diet is focused on high fat, moderate protein and very minimal carbs.3 However, the same principals of calculation and tracking can be applied, just with a different macro ratio. For a standard keto diet based on 2000 calories a day, your macro targets would look like this3:
- 70% fat = 1,400 calories = 155g of fat per day
- 20% protein = 400 calories = 100g of protein per day
- 10% carbs = 200 calories = 50g per day
This split uses the absolute limit of allowed carbs to keep the body in ketosis, and could be adjusted to allow for either more fat or more protein instead.4
Macros for Weight Loss
To calculate your macros for weight loss, subtract roughly 20% from your TDEE. If subtracting 20% brings you below 1,200 calories for women and 1,800 for men, don’t cut as many calories to make sure your body still gets enough energy.5 With your new weight loss calorie intake, try splitting your macros to include more protein and fat, and less carbs.6 A suitable split could be 40% protein, 20% carbs, and 40% fats. When splitting your macros for weight loss, it’s important to remember that fat is not the enemy. Strength training and muscle building are helpful for weight loss, and healthy fats play an important role in testosterone production, a key hormone needed to build muscle.7 To help support your natural testosterone production, try adding a testo support supplement like HF Labs Delta Prime to your daily routine. Once you reach your goal, reassess your TDEE with your new weight, and adjust your macros accordingly. You can also play around with your percentages until you find the mix that works best for you.
- 1 Ferriera, M. (2018, April 25). 6 Essential Nutrients and Why Your Body Needs Them. Healthline. Retrieved May 10, 2018 from https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/six-essential-nutrients. View link.
- 2 USDA. (n.d.). Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts. Retrieved May 11, 2018 from https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/36810?manu=&fgcd=&ds=&q=BONELESS%20SKINLESS%20CHICKEN%20BREASTS,%20UPC:%20072745068614. View link.
- 3 Harvard School of Public Health. (n.d.). Diet Review: Ketogenic Diet for Weight Loss. Retrieved on May 10, 2018 from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-weight/diet-reviews/ketogenic-diet/. View link.
- 4 Palsdottir, H. (2017, June 3). What is Ketosis, and Is It Healthy? Healthline. Retreived May 10, 2018 from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-ketosis. View link.
- 5 Corleone, J. (2017, July 18). How to Use Your BMR to Lose Weight. LiveStrong.com. Retrieved May 10, 2018 from https://www.livestrong.com/article/266994-how-to-lose-weight-with-bmr/. View link.
- 6 Hession, M., Rolland, C., Kulkarni, U., Wise, A., & Broom, J. (2009). Systematic review of randomized controlled trials of low‐carbohydrate vs. low‐fat/low‐calorie diets in the management of obesity and its comorbidities. Obesity reviews, 10(1), 36-50. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2008.00518.x
- 7 Lambert, C. P., Frank, L. L., & Evans, W. J. (2004). Macronutrient considerations for the sport of bodybuilding. Sports Medicine, 34(5), 317-327. PMID: 15107010