What Are Macros? And Should You Be Counting Macros in Food?

Counting macros is popular among bodybuilders and dieters, but is it something you should be doing, too? Here we explain what macros are, how many macros you should be eating each day, and whether counting macros can help you lose weight.

If you've heard the term "macros" before or even some rumblings about a macro counting-type diet, but don't know what it is, we've got you. We break it down and answer your questions. What are macros? What is a macro counting diet anyway? Should you be counting your macros? Spoiler alert: It's not as complicated as you might think. Whatever dietor eating pattern you're already following might even be taking macros into consideration and adjusting the ratio of macros you eat. It's really all semantics. If you haven't heard of macros, perhaps the terms carbohydrate, protein, and fat feel more familiar. Here are the details.

overhead shot of healthy foods avocado, salmon, beans, nuts on slate background
AlexRaths / Getty Images

What Are Macros?

Macros—also known as macronutrients—are exactly what their name implies. Macro means large, so macronutrients are the nutrients that your body needs in, well, large amounts. There are three macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

Each macronutrient is measured in grams, but the calories per gram of each macronutrient isn't the same. Protein and carbohydrates have 4 calories for every gram. Fat, however, has 9 calories for every gram. If you've ever heard that fat is more nutrient dense than carbs or protein, this is why—each gram of fat has more than twice as many calories.

Other familiar nutrients like fiber, vitamins, or minerals such as potassium, calcium, etc. are considered micronutrients. They're nutrients that your body still needs, just in smaller doses.

How Much of Each Macro Should You Be Eating Each Day?

The amount of protein, carbohydrate, and fat you should eat every day varies person to person. Factors like your gender, body size, body weight, and fitness or weight goals all influence how much of each macro you should aim to eat.

That said, there are general parameters (put out by the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans) for each macronutrient:

Protein

Aim for 10% to 35% of calories from protein each day. (That's 200 to 700 calories or 50 to 175 grams per day for a 2,000-calorie diet.)

Protein is important because it's the main structural component of all of the cells in your body. It's needed to build cells and repair them, among other key body processes.

Carbohydrate

The largest portion of your diet is dedicated to carbs. The recommendation is to get 45% to 65% of daily calories from carbs. (That's 900 to 1300 calories or 225 to 325 grams per day for a 2,000-calorie diet.)

Your body prefers carbohydrates and likes to use them as a primary energy source—especially your brain.

Fat

Each day 20% to 35% of your calories should come from fat. (That's 400 to 700 calories or 44 to 78 grams per day for a 2,000-calorie diet.)

Saturated fats (the less healthy fat found mostly in animal meats and full-fat dairy), however, should be limited to less than 10% of calories

Fat is needed to make key compounds—such as hormones—and also help your body absorb essential fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Food Sources of Macros

Most foods have a mix of macronutrients (and micronutrients, too), and don't deliver just one type of macro. Take chicken as an example. We consider chicken a source of protein, right? But there's also fat in chicken. Or look at a whole grain like quinoa—it's mostly carbohydrate, but it's also a good source of protein and fat.

Foods high in protein:

  • Beef, poultry, pork, and other animal meats
  • Eggs
  • Fish and seafood
  • Dairy
  • Legumes such as lentils and beans
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds

Foods high in carbohydrate:

  • Grains (both whole and refined), such as rice, bread, and pasta
  • Fruits
  • Dairy products, including milk and yogurt
  • Legumes
  • Starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes

Foods high in fat:

  • Oils, butter, and ghee
  • Nuts and seeds and their butters
  • Avocado
  • Oily/fatty fish such as salmon and tuna

Should I Be Counting Macros?

Some people prefer to count their macros instead of counting calories. And proponents of counting macros say there are a few benefits behind this way of eating.

For example, people who follow the IIFYM diet (If It Fits Your Macros) say that counting macros is a more flexible eating pattern than counting calories. Once you've calculated your macros target, you only need to keep track of your grams of carbs, proteins, and fats each day (and stay within your target, of course).

Another touted benefit is that counting macros encourages healthier eating. You'll be looking for foods that are sources of healthy carbs and protein to fit within your macros versus leaning on processed snack foods to get through the day.

A Macro Counting Diet Is Similar to Other Popular Diets

There isn't a clear-cut definition (or meal plan) for the so-called "Macro Diet." It's mostly just a way of tracking what you eat. The only true diet that's focused on just counting macros is IIFYM.

That said, the tenets of some of today's most popular diets (think: the various low-carb diet options, or keto, which is very low carb, and high-protein diets) or even the (old school) low-fat diet, are rooted in counting macronutrients—or at least one main macronutrient.

Counting macros is also a way of eating that aligns with other (science-backed) healthy diets like the Mediterranean Diet, a Flexitarian Diet, and also vegan or vegetarian diets. You can follow those diets and count macros.

Also, eating a "moderate macronutrient" diet can help with weight loss, according to a study published in BMJ in April 2020. The study was a meta-analysis that compared so-called moderate macronutrient diets like the Mediterranean Diet, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers (and more) to a low-carb diet, a low-fat diet, and a standard diet. Researchers found that moderate macronutrient diet followers lost weight and maintained it at 6 and 12 months, although slightly less than the more extreme diets (low-carb, low-fat). Still, compared to a standard diet, the moderate macronutrient diets were successful.

Macronutrients are essential nutrients—you need carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to fuel your body. But macro counting isn't a must-do. If it works for you, go ahead. And if you prefer another eating pattern, follow that one because counting macros is really just another diet.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles