How to Count Macros

Not all calories are created equal. Pay attention to the nutrition behind them and you'll find it easier to manage your weight.

What are calories and macronutrients?

We all know what calories are (or at least we think we do). You’ve probably spent much of your life checking the calories on food labels and trying to eat as few as possible. And yet we actually need them to live, thrive, and maintain a healthy weight.

Every body requires a certain amount of calories just to stay alive each day. This number is known as your Resting Metabolic Rate, or RMR. If you add in things like walking around, brushing your teeth, cooking, exercise and even digestion, that number will increase. This means to maintain your body weight you need to eat the equivalent of your total required calories in food every day. If you want to lose or gain weight, you’d need to create a caloric deficit or excess.

So what makes up calories in food? Macronutrients! The three macronutrients we need each day are protein, carbohydrates and fats. For protein, think poultry, meat, fish, dairy, and soy/tofu. Carbohydrate sources consist of breads, cereals, pasta, potatoes, grains, rice, chips, cookies, crackers and other baked goods. Dietary fats are primarily found in nuts and seeds, nut butters, avocado, oils, cheese, full- and low-fat dairy, junk food and fried foods.

When it comes to dieting, we tend to fall back on counting calories. The problem with this practice is that not all calories are created equal. We could have 100 calories worth of candy and 100 calories worth of chicken breast. Which one is more nutritious, more satisfying, promotes fat loss and fuels a healthy metabolism? If you fuel your body with the right amount of macronutrients, instead of counting calories, you should reach the optimal amount of calories your body needs for the day regardless of your goals.

How many calories, proteins, carbs and fats do you need each day?

First, determine how many calories you need each day. There are a number of free calorie calculators online, or you could just use this simple formula: divide your weight by 2.2, then multiply by 15–20 if you’re overweight, 20–25 if you’re of normal weight or 30-35 if you are underweight or an athlete. For a 150-pound woman who wants to lose a few pounds, she would need 1,400–1,500 calories per day (150/2.2 = 68 x 20 = 1,360; round up to 1,400 calories per day).

Next, determine your ratios. Start with something general like 40/30/30, then tweak your ratios based on how your body responds. This means that 40 percent of your daily total calories should come from carbohydrates, 30 percent from protein and the remaining 30 percent from fats.

To find the amount of protein, carbs and fats you need daily, multiply your total daily calorie requirements by each percentile.

For instance, using a 1,400 calorie diet: .40 x 1,400 = 560 calories worth of carbs; .30 x 1,400 = 420 calories worth of both protein and fats. Remember these numbers:

  • Protein = 4 calories per gram
  • Carbohydrate = 4 calories per gram
  • Fat = 9 calories per gram

Now divide each total calories for the given macronutrient by 4 or 9, respectively, to find out how many grams of each macronutrient you need each day. Our 1,400-calorie diet would look like this:

  • Carbohydrate = 560/4 = 140 grams of carbs per day
  • Protein = 420/4 = 105 grams of protein per day
  • Fat = 47 grams of fat per day

How do you add macronutrients in your diet?

Spread these numbers throughout the day over the course of three meals and a snack or two. Then start using food labels and online food databases to help you determine what macros make up your favorite foods and the appropriate portion sizes. You can create your own meal plan from there.

Don’t go crazy along the way with calculations. Get as close as you can to your macros and when you’re away from home, do the best you can to pick foods off the menu that fit your macros and eyeball portions. Though it may seem like a lot of work right now, you’ll quickly get the hang of it and become a macro pro in no time.

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