How and Why to Count Macronutrients Instead of Calories

Nutrition and healthy eating seem to come down to math – whether you’re tracking calories, WW scores, or macros. Short for macronutrients, macros refer to carbohydrates, fats and proteins – the three main components of any diet. Choosing the right proportions will make eating right much more effective, especially when simple calorie restriction does not help.

One of the problems of the traditional calorie counting is that it does not account for what you eat, but only the number of calories. Sure, portion control alone can work for a while, but if you don’t switch to eating the right foods – foods that leave you full or even full when you’re in a calorie deficit – your self-control will eventually fail.

To start eating more of the right foods , it may be helpful for you to focus on macronutrients rather than calories. Some people do well on low-carb, high-fat diets, while others prefer high-carb, low-fat diets. Creating (and achieving) targeted macronutrients allows you to determine which one is best for you and then stick to that type of diet without having to completely tarnish and eliminate fat or carbohydrates.

Three main macronutrients

There are three main macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Alcohol is also a macronutrient that we have covered in detail here . Let’s take a look at each macronutrient to get a general idea, and then calculate how many grams of each we need each day.


Calories: 4 calories per gram.

Review: Arguably the king of the world of fitness nutrition, protein is primarily associated with muscle building and is mainly found in foods such as meat and dairy. However, its applications go beyond muscle growth: it is a major component of organs, bones, hair, enzymes, and almost every other type of tissue in your body.

Proteins are made up of amino acids , many of which the body can produce on its own. However, there are nine amino acids that are strictly necessary for the normal functioning of the body that your body cannot biosynthesize. They are (aptly) called essential amino acids and can be found in all meat sources. Unfortunately for vegetarians and vegans, it’s rare to find the full nine foods in legumes and grains, so you’ll need to make sure you’re eating plenty to get them all.


Calories: 4 calories per gram.

Review: The dietary industry’s relationship with carbohydrates is volatile at best. While it’s technically the only macronutrient your body can survive without, it wouldn’t be fun to do so. Carbohydrates are the most readily available source of energy for your body and are broken down into glycogen (used by the muscles and liver) and glucose (used by the brain).

In common nutritional language, carbohydrates are generally divided into simple and complex . Two classifications refer to the length of the carbohydrate molecules. The shorter the chain of molecules, the easier it is for your body to break down, so it’s “easier” – it’s mostly sugars. On the other hand, larger molecules like starch are “complex” because it takes your body longer to break down into beneficial components.

In the world of macros, a carbohydrate is a carbohydrate, whether it comes from sugar or starch. To be clear, we do not advise relying on cakes and candies to achieve your goals. In fact, after doing some macros counting, you’ll notice that you’re likely to gravitate towards complex carbohydrate sources for satiety. But freedom of choice is there, and loosening the line between “good” and “bad” food is important for developing a healthier relationship with what you eat.


Calories: 9 calories per gram.

Review: Fat is a key ingredient in major nutritional supplements such as Nutella, bacon, and peanut butter. More seriously, fat often gets a bad rap for being the most nutritious nutrient. But fats are very important for the normal functioning of the body, serving as the basis for important hormones, nerve isolation, skin and hair health, and more.

There are many different types of fat , from saturated to monounsaturated to polyunsaturated. Of these, three main ones to worry about are trans fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and omega-6 fatty acids.

Trans fats , colloquially known as “frankenfats”, have consistently been shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease and should generally be avoided. They are usually found in packaged foods and various brands of margarine.

The latter two, however, are known as essential fatty acids. Like essential amino acids, your body cannot produce them on its own, so you must get them from your diet. Omega-3s can be found in oily fish, flax, and walnuts (note that these are more readily absorbed from animal sources), while omega-6s are found in almost all types of vegetable oils.

Figuring out your macronutrient needs

You can determine which macronutrients to target in a few simple steps:

Find your calorie needs

To summarize, the number of calories you need per day depends on your age, gender, weight, muscle mass, and activity level. If you eat more, you gain weight, and less, you will lose weight.

You can use a calorie calculator to calculate the exact amount, but keep in mind that these are usually very rough estimates; they do not take into account many factors that affect energy expenditure, such as body fat percentage or specific daily activities.

The best method is to keep track of what you eat for about a week. If you are not gaining or losing weight, this will give you a good idea of ​​your daily calorie needs.

For a moderate rate of weight loss, that is, about one pound per week, you must create a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day.

For more information, we’ve looked at finding your calorie requirements for maintenance and weight loss here .

Divide calories by macronutrients

There are two ways to determine your target macronutrients. The simplest method is to distribute the calories to each nutrient according to the percentage division. The most common split is 40:40:20 , meaning 40 percent of your calories are protein, 40 percent carbohydrates, and 20 percent fat.

Hence, calculating how many grams of each macronutrient you need is a matter of simple arithmetic. For example, let’s say your target calorie intake is 2,000 calories per day. You decide to split your macros according to the 40:40:20 split. From there use the following calculations:


  • 40 percent of your calories are consumed in carbohydrates.
  • 2000 x 0.4 = 800 calories.
  • There are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, so the total amount is 200 grams of carbohydrates (800 ÷ 4 = 200).

Repeat the process for proteins and fats.

Other popular percentages are 33:33:33 ( equal calories from each macronutrient) and 40:30:30 (40 percent protein, 30 percent carbs, 30 percent fat).

Alternatively, you can calculate the protein you need and then replenish the rest of your calories with carbohydrates and fats, depending on your eating habits. For example, if you are a 160 pound woman looking to lose up to 120 pounds, you might determine that you need 1,500 calories and 120 g of protein. By subtracting calories from protein, you have 1,020 calories between fat and carbohydrates (1,500 calories total – 480 calories from protein = 1,020 calories). You decide you want to split them equally between carbs and fats, 510 calories each (1020/2 = 510), and you end up aiming for about 55 grams of fat (510/9 = 56.7) and about 125 grams of protein ( 510/4 = 127.5).

What to do if your macros don’t work

These goals may not work right off the bat. Each person’s requirements are unique and depend on your background, preferences, and daily activities, so check them over for a few weeks. If you run into problems, change them as needed.

Here are some troubleshooting tips based on the most common issues my clients and I have encountered.

If you are not losing weight

If you think you’re sticking to your macros, but the scale doesn’t move, it’s usually for two reasons: you’re tracking them incorrectly, or overestimating your calorie needs.

For the first, try tracking your intake by weighing your food. It is easy to be wrong when measuring volume because it is easier to be fooled. Let’s be honest: A heaping tablespoon of peanut butter is still technically a tablespoon in rough terms.

But if you’re sure you’re keeping track of everything and not eating everything back on cheat days , cut your calories (and macros) by about 5-10 percent and see how you do it.

However, if you are insulin resistant, try decreasing your carbohydrate intake and increasing your fat intake while keeping your total calories at the same level.

If hunger is a problem

First, discern whether this hunger is physiological or psychological . If hunger is a problem, try intermittent fasting to go without food for longer.

Your diet needs to be steady, so if physiological hunger becomes an issue in the first few weeks, you won’t last long. Make sure your target calories are not too low and you are getting enough protein . If all of this is under control and you are on the diet for only a few days, see if the hunger is gone by the second week.

If all else fails, increase your calories evenly by 10 percent from carbs and fats. If you are in a corresponding calorie deficit, physiological hunger should not be a big problem in the beginning.

If your macros are limiting your social life

The unfortunate truth about dieting is that you can’t eat absolutely everything you want. But you still need to have enough variety to not get bored and allow yourself to eat sugary foods and drink alcohol from time to time, all the while reaching your macro goals.

If you are constantly struggling to meet your macronutrient budget due to a relatively social lifestyle, switch protein to carbohydrates and fats while keeping your calories the same. This should allow you more flexibility in your diet choices.

There are other nuances of targeting macronutrients, such as tracking macronutrients while eating out and reading food labels. Fitness coach Mike Vacanti has a pretty detailed guide if you need additional resources, but these basics should be enough to get you started. If you have been struggling with simple calorie counting before and are looking for something different, try macros.

This story was originally published on 5/26/15 and updated on 10/7/19 to provide more complete and up-to-date information.


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