How To Start Counting Macros For Weight Loss (+How To Calculate Macros & Calories)

 

Written by: Liz Brown - Jan. 10, 2020

counting macros  

If you’ve ever been on a weight loss journey before or spent time in a gym, you’ve likely heard about people “counting macros” to lose weight. It’s a relatively simple concept that involves counting your macronutrients (macros) and tracking the calories you eat from specific foods in order to hit a certain goal. Macro counting can help you lose weight, gain muscle, as well as reach a variety of different health goals. But, how does it work and how do you know what macros you need? If you’re new to macro counting it can feel a little confusing, but don’t worry, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about counting macros so you reach your weight loss goals!

Here’s what we’ll cover: 

counting macros for weight loss

What Are Macros?


What are macros? As a Personal Trainer, I’ve heard this question more times than I can remember. The term “macros” is a shortened version of the word “macronutrients” and includes the three main suppliers of nutrients needed in our diets: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. 

Carbohydrates


Carbohydrates often get a bad rap in the health and fitness industry for causing unwanted weight gain. But the reality is that carbs are a primary source of food your body uses for energy, so it’s crucial to include them in your diet. Carbs produce 4 calories per gram and typically make up the largest portion of a person’s daily calorie consumption. It is recommended that 45-65% of your daily caloric intake come from carbs, but individual needs may vary. [1]

There are two types of carbs: simple carbohydrates (like sugar, honey, and high-fructose corn syrup) and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbs include starches (like rice, potatoes, and bread) and dietary fiber (found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains). [2

Protein


Protein is essential in our diets because it contains amino acids that function as a cell’s “building blocks.” Our bodies are filled with cells and they need certain amino acids in order to grow. There are 20 different types of amino acids that play an important role in the body. Amino acids are separated into two categories: essential and non-essential. Non-essential amino acids can be created within the body while essential amino acids must be obtained through your diet. This is why getting enough protein in your diet is crucial! [3]

What most people don’t realize, however, is that there are two kinds of protein: complete proteins and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins come from animal sources (like red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt) and contain all 9 essential amino acids, while incomplete proteins (like nuts, seeds, beans, rice, and grains) come from plant sources and only contain a select few of the essential amino acids. [4

When it comes to macro counting, the type of protein you eat doesn’t necessarily matter because all protein provides 4 calories per gram, but it’s important to remember to include enough complete proteins or a variety of incomplete proteins in your diet. These are called complementary proteins. A complimentary protein is a combination of two incomplete proteins that, when eaten together, provide all nine essential amino acids (like beans and rice, for example). It is recommended that 15-25% of your daily caloric intake come from proteins, but individual needs may vary. [5]

Fat


Dietary fat plays an important role in protecting your organs, regulating hormones, nutrient absorption, and cholesterol levels, helping with skin health, and even keeping your body warm. There are many types of dietary fats including saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. Similar to proteins, the type of fat you eat doesn’t matter much when it comes to counting macros because all fat provides the same number of calories per gram. Unlike protein and carbs, however, fat provides 9 calories per gram—which makes it the most calorie-dense macronutrient and the easiest to over-consume. It is recommended that 20-30% of your daily caloric intake come from fat, but individual needs may vary. [6]

what are macros

How Does Macro Counting Work?


Macro counting is a popular dieting approach, not just for its effectiveness in practicing better portion control, but because it’s extremely versatile and individualized, which can often lead to better results. It’s important to remember that your macros are unique and specific to you, your lifestyle, and your goals. But, how does macro counting work exactly?

Most diets involve a form of calorie counting in some way or another. But, macro counting takes the concept one step further and focuses on counting the macronutrients (total grams of carbs, fats, and proteins) you’ve consumed instead. So, you’re eating within your calorie goal and within your macro ratios. 

5 Ways Counting Macros Can Help You Lose Weight


Counting macros is more than just a diet. In fact, implementing this simple dieting approach can create long-term habits that can improve weight management overall! Here’s how…

1. Improves portion control


It’s no surprise that our society has a problem with portion control. Servings sizes continue to get larger and our appetites seem to just grow along with them! Portion distortion makes it easy for anyone to overeat—let alone makes it impossible to lose weight. But, macro counting teaches you what a true portion size looks like and how much food you should be eating for your body and goals so you can lose weight.

2. Offers flexibility and customization


One thing that really bugs me about traditional “diets” is that they’re often very restrictive or overly complicated. In my opinion, you shouldn’t have to think too hard about whether you’re “allowed” to eat something, or not. I feel like if you want to make a change that you can keep up with over the long term, it should be simple. With macro counting, you can essentially eat whatever you want as long as it fits your macro ratio. Now, I’m not suggesting that instead of eating healthier foods you eat Pop-Tarts and burgers because food quality is important! But, when you’re counting macros, having a little treat here and there won’t throw a wrench in your progress. Similarly, it’s customizable so it can be used in conjunction with other diets like Keto, the Zone diet, or even Atkins. 

3. Helps you make good, informed food choices 


Being mindful of your food choices can sometimes feel like a chore. It can even cause you to crave unhealthy foods more than you normally would because, let’s face it, dieting can often make you “want what you can’t have.” Focusing on counting macros gives you the freedom and flexibility to eat a variety of foods without overthinking it. But after a while, you naturally start to make healthier choices because you are subconsciously aware of what you’re eating. 

4. Holds you accountable


Similar to keeping your portions in control, macro counting also holds you accountable. In a way, it’s like having a personal nutritionist. When you’ve been eating too many carbs, for example, and you’re close to exceeding your macros for that day, tracking your macros will bring it to your attention so you can slow down. You might even be neglecting a particular macronutrient and you need to eat more of it. Either way, counting macros holds you accountable and keeps you on track. 

5. Creates healthy eating habits


One thing that most diets don’t do is offer long-term sustainability. When people start a diet, it’s typically because they have a short-term goal they want to achieve. Whether it’s to lose 10 lbs or even 50 lbs, people start a diet with the mindset “Once I achieve my goal, I can go back to my normal eating habits.” Well, counting macros is different. It focuses more on eating behavior so you can develop healthy habits even after you’ve stopped counting macros. But, counting macros can be considered a type of “diet” that you can sustain over the long term—so if you enjoy it, keep it up!

macro counting for weight loss

How To Calculate Macros 


As complicated as it may seem, counting macros is actually very simple. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Determine your calorie needs


When it comes to weight loss, understanding your specific calorie needs is crucial. But first, you need to know your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR refers to the number of calories that your body burns in a resting state on a given day. It’s important to remember that this is not the number of calories you need to be eating for weight loss. This number is simply telling you how many calories your body burns to keep you alive. For example, it takes energy to pump blood throughout your body, metabolize your food, and even breathe. So your BMR reflects the calories you burn “at rest.” 

How to calculate your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate)


To calculate your BMR, you need your scale weight, height, and age. Men and women use different formulas so depending on your gender, make sure to use the correct formula for you. The most common way to find your BMR is to use the Harris-Benedict Equation. Simply input your weight, height, and age into the formula and it will give you your BMR. [7] You can also use the BMR calculator here.

BMR Formula For Women:

  • BMR = 655.0955 + (9.5634 x weight in kg) + (1.8496 x height in cm) – (4.6756 x age in years)

BMR Formula For Men:

  • BMR = 66.4730 + (13.7516 x weight in kg) + (5.0033 x height in cm) – (6.7550 x age in years)

Example:


In this example, I am a 30-year-old female who weighs 140 lbs and is 5’ 3” tall. First, I need to convert my height to centimeters and my weight to kilograms and then use the formula to determine my BMR.

  • BMR = 655.0955 + (9.5634 x weight in kg) + (1.8496 x height in cm) – (4.6756 x age in years)
  • BMR = 655.0955 + (9.5634 x 63.5029) + (1.8496 x 160.02) – (4.6756 x 30)
  • BMR = 655.0955 + (607.303634) + (295.972992) – (140.268)
  • BMR = 655.0955 + (607.303634) + (295.972992) – (140.268)
  • BMR = 1,418 

Once you know your BMR you can calculate your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). 

How to calculate your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure)


TDEE refers to the number of calories you need to consume (based on your activity level) to maintain your current weight. Now, unless you wear a heart rate monitor all day long, it can be tough to determine your exact activity level. So, researchers came up with a set of “activity multipliers” known as the Katch-McArdle multipliers. These gauge, on average, the number of calories you burn on a daily basis including your activity. Use this online calculator to find your TDEE!

To calculate your approximate TDEE, simply multiply these activity factors by your BMR:

  • Sedentary (little to no exercise + work a desk job) = 1.2
  • Lightly Active (light exercise 1-3 days / week) = 1.375
  • Moderately Active (moderate exercise 3-5 days / week) = 1.55
  • Very Active (heavy exercise 6-7 days / week) = 1.725
  • Extremely Active (very heavy exercise, hard labor job, training 2x / day) = 1.9

Once you’ve identified your activity factor, use the Mifflin-St. Jeor Equation to determine your TDEE. [8]

TDEE Formula

  • TDEE = (energy multiplier) x BMR

Example:


In my example, let’s say that I am lightly active. Based on the activity multipliers, I should use 1.375 in the TDEE formula and my BMR, which is 1,418.

  • TDEE = (energy multiplier) x BMR
  • TDEE = (1.375) x 1,418
  • TDEE = 1,950 

Woohoo! So, after using the formula, I’ve learned that in order to maintain my current body weight at my current activity level, I need to consume around 1,950 calories per day! Take a moment to work through these equations yourself to determine your own calorie needs! Feel free to skip Step 2 if your goal is to maintain your current body weight. 

how to calculate macros

Step 2: Determine your calories for weight loss


If your goal is to lose weight, your calorie needs will need to be adjusted to reflect a calorie deficit. The only way to “lose weight” is to burn fewer calories than you consume. Since the TDEE formula already takes your daily activity into account, reducing your calorie intake from your maintenance calories is the best way to lose weight with your diet. 

How many calories do I need to eat to lose weight?


Before we determine how many calories you need to eat to lose weight, it’s important to remember not to consume fewer calories than your BMR calories. When you eat too few calories, you’re more likely to gain any lost weight back because your body still requires a minimum number of calories to function. So, when you eat fewer calories than your BMR, your body finds calories to function from other places, like your muscle! Similarly, when you’re not giving your body enough calories to function, it starts storing your calories as fat! Because fat is 9 calories gram, and the most nutrient-dense macronutrient, it’s the fastest way for your body to get more calories. Even if you eat protein, your body will store it as fat simply because it needs the calories to survive.

In order to lose 1 pound of fat, you need to eliminate 3,500 calories. A safe and sustainable recommendation for weight loss is to aim to lose about 1 lb per week as long as the total calories remain higher than your BMR. Anything more than this can sometimes be very difficult to maintain over the long term. Because there are 7 days in a week, this would mean that you need to reduce your maintenance calories by 500 calories per day. 

Example:

In my example, my TDEE is 1,950 calories. If I wanted to lose 1 lb per week, I need to reduce my daily calories by 500 per day. This means that the number of calories I would need to eat every day to lose 1 lb a week is 1,450 calories.

Since this number is higher than my TDEE, I will be able to lose weight and still keep it off. If your weight loss calories are lower than your BMR, consider reevaluating your goal to lose only 0.5 lb per week. 

counting macros for beginners

Step 3: Decide your macronutrient breakdown


After determining your weight loss calories, next you’ll need to decide on your macro ratio. The acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDR) created by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommend that people get: [9]

  • 45–65% of their calories from carbs
  • 20–35% of their calories from fats
  • 10–35% of their calories from proteins

Depending on your personal needs and dietary preferences, choosing a macronutrient ratio that fits these ranges can help you lose weight. If you prefer low-carb diets, select a carb ratio closer to 45-50%. If you’re on the Keto diet or prefer high-fat diets, you can adjust your fat intake to be on the higher end, around 30-35%. If you’re trying to gain a little bit of muscle, a higher protein intake within the range is appropriate, around 30-35%. Just make sure that everything adds to 100%!

How many calories do I need for weight loss

Step 4: Determine how many grams to eat based on calories 


Knowing your macro distribution by percentage is only one piece of the puzzle. Since we measure calorie intake by grams, you need to know how many grams of each macronutrient reflects your ideal ratio. Something important to remember:

  • Carbs are 4 calories per gram
  • Protein is 4 calories per gram
  • Fat is 9 calories per gram

Use the calorie reference above to calculate grams of each macronutrient by your target calories using the equation below:

  • Grams of macronutrient = (total number of calories x % macronutrient in decimal form) / calories per gram for macronutrient

Example: 

Let’s say, based on my personal needs, my ideal macro ratio will be: 

  • 40% carbs
  • 30% fat
  • 30% protein

Here’s how I would calculate my carbs based on my calorie needs of 1,450 calories:

  • Grams of carbs = (total number of calories x % carbs in decimal form) / calories per gram for carbs
  • Grams of carbs = (1,450 x .40) / (4 calories/gram)
  • Grams of carbs = (580) / (4)
  • Grams of carbs = 145 

So, I would aim to eat 145g of carbs per day. You will also need to complete this step to determine your protein and carb intake.

Start tracking your macros 


Once you know your macro ratio and calorie needs, you can start tracking! I recommend downloading a calorie tracker app, like My Fitness Pal, to keep track of everything electronically. If you prefer to log everything manually, you need to look at the food label and write down the total number of carbs, fats, and proteins you’re eating based on your serving size. Simply add them up throughout the day and stop eating that particular macronutrient once you’ve reached your goal! 

how to start counting macros

5 Tips For Counting Macros


Once you get the hang of it, counting macros is actually pretty simple. Here are some tips to help make the transition a little bit easier. 

  • Be realistic when setting your goals—The results you can expect are directly related to the goals you set for yourself. If you are unrealistic, it can make the process a lot harder and potentially unenjoyable. Setting unrealistic goals can also cause weight rebound once you’ve stopped dieting or counting macros.
  • Use a calorie tracking app—As mentioned above, tracking your macros can become tedious if you do it manually. Using a calorie tracker app will make it super easy to do and will only take a minute or two to log before you can dig in!
  • Make adjustments until you find the right ratio for you—Sometimes the first macro ratio you start off with might not be a great fit for you or your goals. Depending on your activity level and exercise preference, you might need to make adjustments until you find something that works for you. For example, if you’re someone who loves to run long distances but your carb ratio is on the low end, you might feel fatigued and hungry a lot. Endurance activities, like running and cycling, require a lot of energy, specifically energy from carbs. So, you might need to adjust your carbs to reflect the higher end of the percentage ratio in order to feel good and sustain it over the long-term. Continue making adjustments until it feels right. Remember, it’s different for everyone!
  • Reevaluate your calories and macros after 6-weeks—Macro counting is designed to get you results. If you’ve been seeing results and losing weight after a few weeks, you might need to recalculate your calories and macros to reflect any weight loss or any adjustments in your daily activity. This ensures that you continue to see results and that you’re eating is up-to-date with your lifestyle and progress.  
  • Find macro-friendly supplements—When you’re trying to lose weight, a great way to accelerate your results is to take supplements. The problem with a lot of supplements is that they can sometimes be packed with garbage that isn’t listed on the food label. Finding macro-friendly supplements with simple and pure ingredients can make tracking a lot easier. My favorite macro-friendly supplement is collagen. Pure collagen powders, like SkinnyFit Super Youth, provide only what you need and leave out all the junk. Many collagen supplements on the market stuff their products with fillers and additives, but not Super Youth. The 5 types of collagen in Super Youth help to smooth skin and reduce wrinkles, ease joint pain and strengthen joints and muscles, and heal gut issues to improve digestion. Supplements like Super Youth collagen make counting macros easy because the formula is simple and effective! If you’re using a calorie tracker app to count your macros, all you have to do is scan the Super Youth barcode and voila! Everything adds automatically! 
macro-friendly supplements

The Bottom Line On Macro Counting For Weight Loss


If you want to lose weight, counting macros can be an excellent tool for monitoring your diet, especially if you’re looking for long-term results. It’s important to remember, however, that calorie and macro needs for weight loss are different for everyone so adjust accordingly. I know it might feel overwhelming at first, but taking it one step and one day at a time will make it so much easier! After a little bit of practice and repetition, eventually counting macros will feel natural to you! Good luck!

READ NEXT: What To Eat Before & After A Workout (How To Use Food As Fuel)

 

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