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Tracking Macros vs. Calories: A Complete Guide

Counting calories isn’t the only way to get to your goals. As a matter of fact, if you’re aiming for specific body composition outcomes like building muscle or cutting body fat, drastically reducing caloric intake isn’t even necessarily the most effective. If you’re looking for the best way to optimize your diet to complement your fitness routine and get to your goals, you should definitely consider tracking your macronutrients as well.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about tracking your macronutrients, from the ways that it differs from calorie counting to how you can utilize this eating strategy to make better fitness progresss.

Nutrition 101: What’s The Difference Between Macros and Calories? 

Calories are units of energy. Your body uses this energy for everything, from activating your digestive system and powering your brain to fueling you during your biggest workouts and everything in between.

Your body’s tendency to store and lose body fat ultimately comes down to a concept called “energy balance.” If you consume more energy than you use, the excess gets stored in your body, usually as fat. Conversely, if you consume less energy than you need, your body then has to generate the necessary energy it needs by breaking down your stored fat tissue.

Because your energy intake can influence so much, counting calories has become an important piece of the puzzle for people with health and fitness goals, especially when the end game is weight loss or weight gain. However, counting calories can be difficult and may lead to obsessive or disordered eating. It often overlooks the importance of food quality and essential nutrients, which is why many prefer tracking macros instead.

However, calories aren’t the only nutrients that matter. In addition to calories, the foods in your diet also contain three major macronutrients (or, as we call them for short, “macros”):

  • Carbohydrates

  • Protein

  • Fat

Each macronutrient contributes a certain number of calories to the foods that you eat. But beyond just giving you the energy your body needs to function, each of these three key nutrients also plays a different and unique role in your body. By paying attention to your macros rather than (or in addition to) your calorie intake, you can optimize your diet to address all of your health and fitness goals in a more balanced, well-rounded way.

Macronutrients, explained 

Carbohydrates: The Energy Source 

Despite the bad press they tend to get, carbohydrates are not inherently bad. In fact, they’re a critical source of energy, and athletes of all levels often fill up on high-quality carbohydrates prior to a big workout or event for sustainable, long-lasting energy.  

Protein: The Building Blocks of Muscle

Trying to build muscle? Protein is the foundation! Muscle tissue structure is made primarily of protein molecules. When you do strenuous muscle-building exercises like weightlifting, your muscle tissues become damaged due to the stress. Then, when you eat enough protein, your immune system can use this essential nutrient to rebuild those muscle tissues to be stronger and more defined. This is why high-quality protein powders have become so popular, in order to supplement protein intake.

Fats: An Essential for Hormone Balance

Finally, the third macronutrient is dietary fat — and yes, it’s just as important as the other two macronutrients! Not only do dietary fats taste great, but they are also essential for building hormones, or your body’s “chemical messengers.” Without them, your body wouldn’t be able to carry out all of its essential duties like regulating your sleep, mood, and — most pertinently in this case — your body composition. 

Why focusing on macros is a more effective strategy for weight loss

You’ll often hear people say that your calorie intake (aka your energy balance) is the number one most important factor if you’re trying to lose or gain weight. And yes, there is truth in this statement. Calories are the biggest contributing factor to weight gain or weight loss.

However, your body composition can be affected by the macronutrients you’re eating, even if you’re watching your calories. For example, a higher-protein diet is often recommended for people who want to gain muscle mass since protein is such a critical nutritional key for triggering growth. One study found that people who ate a higher-protein diet saw better improvements in their lean body mass and loss of fat mass than people eating a lower-protein diet, even when both groups were following similar calorie deficits and exercise plans.

Calories alone also don’t guarantee that you’re eating a healthy diet with all of the nutrients that your body ideally needs to thrive. Some researchers have found that many packaged food products that are labeled as “light,” “diet,” or “low-calorie” are often heavily processed and contain high levels of ingredients like sodium or artificial sweeteners. Solely focusing on calorie count can lead to missing out on essential nutrients and making choices based on low calorie counts, which may result in consuming nutrient-light, ultra-processed foods.

Meanwhile, a study published in 2022 found that participants in a weight-loss program who paid attention to their macronutrient intake (in this case, focusing on high protein intake) while on a calorie restriction tended to eat a healthier diet than people who were instructed to eat a low-protein diet at the same calorie level. Of course, macronutrient tracking isn’t necessarily a guarantee that you’re following a healthy diet — there are still plenty of processed foods you can eat that will fit in your macro guidelines — but it can still guide you to make better choices than just counting your calories.

Focusing solely on calorie counting can also lead to disordered eating behaviors, as methodical tracking of macronutrients may become obsessive.

So yes, your macros matter — sometimes even more so than your calorie intake alone. When you understand how each macronutrient contributes to your overall calorie intake, you can better address your weight goals while still prioritizing your body composition and overall health. Maintaining a healthy weight through macro tracking and regular physical activity is essential for long-term weight control and overall well-being.

tracking macros on a phone

How to start tracking your macros to get to your goal 

Counting your calories is a bit more involved than simply tracking your macros. The good news is that if you’re already accustomed to counting calories, tracking macronutrients starts in the same place.

Start by calculating your caloric intake

If you’re used to tracking your calories, the first step of macronutrient tracking journey is going to look very familiar. You’ll need to figure out how many calories you need to consume per day, which is going to be based on a variety of factors like your current height, weight, fitness level, and goals. However, knowing exactly how many calories are consumed and absorbed can be challenging due to variations in individual metabolism and the accuracy of calorie estimates.

The easiest way to figure out your ideal calorie consumption level is to use an equation, plugging in your specific variables like your current height, weight, and activity level. The Harris-Benedict equation is a popular formula for figuring out how many calories you burn every day:

For men: BMR = ( 6.23762 × weight in pounds ) + ( 12.7084 × height in inches ) – ( 6.755 × age in years ) + 66.473

For women:BMR = ( 4.33789 × weight in pounds ) + ( 4.69798 × height in inches ) – ( 4.6756 × age in years ) + 655.0955

In addition to these estimates, you can even get really specific and consider taking a metabolic test at a hospital or lab.

How to adjust your macro needs based on your goals

Once you figure out your optimum calorie goals, you can now take this information and calculate your macro goals.

To manage weight effectively, it is often recommended to eat fewer calories. Reducing calorie intake by about 500 calories a day can lead to a gradual weight loss of about ½ to 1 pound a week, though this can vary based on individual factors such as body composition, gender, and activity level.

There’s no one “ideal” macro breakdown, and your own will depend on your specific goals. Some popular macro plans people follow:

Healthy macro breakdown based on the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  • 10-35% protein

  • 45-65% carbohydrates

  • 20-35% fat

High-protein macro breakdown for muscle gain:

  • 40% carbohydrates

  • 35% protein

  • 25% fat

Balanced macros for healthy eating and/or weight loss:

  • 40% carb

  • 30% protein

  • 30% fat

To figure out how this would work for you, take your estimated calorie needs and multiply by each macronutrient percentage. For example, if you determine that you need to eat 1800 calories per day and want to follow a high-protein diet, your calculations might look something like this:

  • 1800 calories x 40% carbohydrates = 720 calories per day from carbohydrates

  • 1800 calories x 35% protein = 630 calories per day from protein

  • 1800 calories x 25% fat = 450 calories per day from fat

Convert calories to grams: Understanding calories per gram

Finally, you’ll convert your calculated calories to grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Each gram of each macronutrient has a specific calorie value:

  • 1 gram of carbohydrates equals 4 calories

  • 1 gram of protein equals 4 calories

  • 1 gram of fat equals 9 calories

So, to calculate your macros:

  • 720 calories carbohydrates ÷ 4 calories per gram = 180 grams of carbohydrates per day

  • 630 calories protein ÷ 4 calories per gram = 157.5 grams of protein per day

  • 450 calories fat ÷ 9 calories per gram = 50 grams of fat per day

From here, you’ll be able to read nutrition labels, make meal plans, and make goals for your intake of each macronutrient. Remember, for weight loss, it is crucial to consume fewer calories than you burn to create a calorie deficit.

woman meal planning on phone

Meal planning tips for counting macros and counting calories

Because it is so dependent on the balance between three different metrics, macro tracking does not leave a ton of room for error. As a result, meal planning is one of the best strategies you can utilize for effectively counting your macros. Check out the best foods to meal prep for weight loss.

  • Plan out your entire day, down to the snacks and beverages. Take some time at the beginning of the week to map out your meal plan for the next few days. If you aren’t sure where to start, look up some of your favorite recipes and read the provided nutrition facts per serving, then work the rest of your day around these macros. Remember, you’ll want to include everything you eat and drink during the day, so don’t forget to factor in the macros in your snacks, beverages, and supplements.

  • Keep it fresh. Eating a wide variety of foods can ensure that you’re getting all of the nutrients you need without getting bored. Keep things interesting by incorporating different produce, protein sources, and snacks week by week.

  • Replace high-calorie foods. To improve weight control, replace high-calorie foods with lower calorie alternatives or meal replacement shakes. This can help you manage your calorie intake more effectively and support your macro tracking goals.

  • Weigh your foods. Estimating your macro intake by eyeballing your ingredients is a good start, but it’s also subject to human error. If you’re really set on sticking to your macros and eating fewer calories, start weighing your ingredients on an accurate scale. This information will help you adhere more closely to the right serving sizes and help you stick more closely to your guidelines.

Common challenges, and how to overcome them 

It’s too hard to track everything on my own for every single meal.  

Counting macros can involve a fair bit of math and plenty of attention to detail, so it can sometimes feel tedious keeping track of it all. In many cases, it’s much easier to use an app or program that calculates your macros for you. Some, like Cronometer and My Fitness Pal, even have barcode scanners that make it easy to plug in your macros during the day. Additionally, taking the time to meal prep at the start of the week will minimize a lot of the math later in the week. 

Oops, I ate something that threw my macros off for the day. Now what? 

Let’s face it: even the best-laid plans are sometimes subject to errors and deviation from the plan, and this is especially true when it comes to food. First, give yourself some grace. Flexibility is an important skill no matter what kind of eating plan you’re following because these things just happen. If you can, adjust your plan for the rest of the day (for example: if you used up your carbohydrate allowance during lunch, omit your grains and veggies during dinner). If it can’t be “fixed” for the day, simply carry on with the rest of your meal plan and get back on track the next day. You’re aiming for consistency, not perfection. 

weights with green fruits and a scale

Key Takeaways

  • The three main macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Each macro plays a different role in your body.

  • Calorie counting is a good place to start on your fitness journey, especially if you’re concerned about your weight, but counting your macros can help you make more healthy decisions that are better tailored to your goals.

  • There’s no one “ideal” macro breakdown. You’ll need to make goals based on your specific fitness needs, calorie intake, and activity level.

  • Planning ahead makes a huge difference in helping you stay in line with your macro goals, but it’s also important to be flexible.

  • The effectiveness of low-fat diets is debated among health experts, with some studies suggesting they are no more successful for weight loss than higher-fat or other macronutrient-focused diets.

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