If you’ve been following or even considering a low-carb diet, you’ve probably heard the phrase “count your macros.”
Your macro intake can have a significant impact on your fitness goals and even affect your basal metabolic rate and energy expenditure.
However, finding the right balance for you can be a challenge due to the fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to macro ratios.
But first, let’s take a look at what macros actually are.
The word “macros” is short for macronutrients.
Macronutrients are essential building blocks of your body that you get from food. They’re also the part of your food that directly converts into energy (or fuel) for your body. In fact, the calories in the meals that you eat all come from one of the three macronutrients; fat, protein, or carbohydrates.
Each of these three macronutrients plays their own essential roles in your body:
The protein in your food contributes four calories per gram of protein.
Once digested in your GI (gastrointestinal tract), protein is broken down into smaller units called amino acids. Some of these amino acids are labeled “essential” because your body can’t make them on its own. However, even non-essential amino acids play a crucial role in your body.
Amino acids are either converted to energy, or they can play a wide role of vital functions to keep your body working smoothly. They have roles in your immune system, structure, and function of your tissues, they act as messenger molecules, and they play a crucial role in the function of your DNA — to name a few[*].
Animal products tend to be high in protein; some examples are beef, turkey, chicken, eggs, pork, bison, and lamb.
The carbohydrates in your food contribute four calories per gram of carbohydrate. However, this calculation isn’t as straightforward as it is for protein, and that’s due to a little something called fiber.
Fiber falls under the carbohydrate umbrella due to its chemical makeup. However, most fiber moves through your body unabsorbed. Therefore, although it technically contains four calories per gram, your body will never be able to access that energy for fuel.
This is where the concept of “net carbs” comes in. Net carbs are the total carbs in a meal or snack that your body can actually use for energy. Resistant starch and sugar alcohols also act similarly to fiber in the digestive process and are often rolled into the net carb calculation as well. To calculate net carbs simply subtract the total fiber from the total carbohydrates[*].
Carbohydrates that are absorbed enter your bloodstream as monosaccharides (single carbohydrate units, mostly glucose), and are either sent to your cells to be used as fuel, sent to your glucose storage units (glycogen), or they’re stored as fat[*].
High carbohydrate foods fall into the plant-food category. Some examples: rice, wheat, sugar, rye, millet, and starchy vegetables like potatoes and squash.
The fat in your food contributes nine calories per gram of fat. That’s over twice the calories of carbohydrates and protein.
Fat plays a crucial role in several processes in your body. In fact, every cell is surrounded by a membrane of fat that serves to protect the cell and allow waste out and nutrients in. Fat is necessary for the absorption and assimilation of fat-soluble vitamins and phytonutrients, it plays a role in hair and skin health, the production of hormones, and protection of your organs[*][*].
There are a few different categories of fats, broken down by their chemical structure. The fats that occur naturally and should be the main focus of your diet include; saturated fat, monounsaturated fat (omega-9), and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3, omega-6).
Some authorities still cling to the idea that saturated fats should be limited or avoided altogether. However, the research on this subject is heavily debated with claims that saturated fat is harmful quickly losing ground[*][*].
One fat that you should watch out for is trans fat. While trans fat does occur naturally in very small amounts in some animal products, most trans fats in the US comes from food processing. Unlike saturated fats, trans fats may actually pose a potential danger to heart health[*]
While many states are outlawing trans fats altogether, it’s always wise to look for them on the label of packaged foods. They’re often labeled as “partially hydrogenated oil”[*].
Some common sources of healthy fats include olive oil, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, grass-fed ghee, tallow, lard, and avocado oil.
Many people confuse the concept of counting calories with counting macros. Although both require that you pay close attention to the food you’re eating, they have very different benefits.
While calorie counting will give you a general idea of how much energy you’re taking in per day, counting your macros lets you know how that energy is working in your body.
For instance, if you count calories and limit your energy intake to 1300 calories a day, all you know is that you took in 1300 calories. If the majority of those calories came from carbohydrates, you could be doing a number on your blood sugar without realizing it. You would also be losing out on nourishing fats and protein.
On the other hand, if you aimed to count your macros, you could set yourself up to consume X amount of fat, protein, and carbs a day. This would ensure that you would be getting the building blocks you need, the fuel to support your cells, and nourishment to keep your body going.
As mentioned above, each macronutrient has its own incredibly important roles to play in your body. Making sure you have an ideal macronutrient ratio sets you up for optimal nourishment.
The concept of macros becomes doubly important on the keto diet. To put it plainly, you can’t get into a state of ketosis if you aren’t paying attention to your macronutrients. The reason for this is because of the role that carbohydrates play in energy metabolism.
As long as your blood has glucose from carbohydrates to work with, it won’t switch over into fat-burning mode[*]. Therefore, to enter a state of ketosis, you must limit carbohydrates.
On a keto diet, fat is your friend. Once you’re in ketosis, you can have as much fat as your heart desires and it won’t kick you out of keto.
Protein plays a middle ground. While some people like to keep their protein in the low to moderate range, others can have an abundance of protein and stay in ketosis.
Carbohydrates are the one macronutrient that indisputably needs to stay low on keto. AS mentioned above, unless carbs are limited, you’ll never enter ketosis.
Everyone’s body is different, which is where the concept of counting macros comes in. While it would be easy to say that you should have X amount of carbs a day, X amount of protein a day, and X amount of fat a day and you’re guaranteed to get into ketosis — unfortunately, that’s not the case.
There are general guidelines, however, which can be a great jump-off point[*]:
- Fat – 55-60%
- Protein – 30-35%
- Carbohydrates – 5-10%
Aside from the importance of counting macros to get into ketosis, there are other benefits to this diet strategy as well.
Specific Health Conditions
One health condition that benefits significantly from counting macros is diabetes. For diabetics, their body has a hard time processing carbohydrates.
Insulin is a key hormone that’s responsible for shuttling glucose out of your blood and into your cells to be used as fuel. People with diabetes either have cells that are not sensitive to insulin, or they don’t produce enough insulin to keep this process working smoothly.
Therefore, limiting carbohydrates can be a strategic way to keep their blood sugar from spiking too high[*].
Personalize Your Diet
Whether you follow a ketogenic diet or not, your basic macronutrient needs are going to vary depending on your age, activity level, and health status.
For instance, if you’re a competitive weight lifter training for a competition, you may need a high-protein intake in order to gain muscle. On the other hand, a software engineer whose days are mostly sedentary and doesn’t have a focus on muscle mass could probably stand for less protein[*].
Similarly, some long-distance runners need to up their carbohydrate intake before a big run to provide their body with sustained energy. However, this is not true for everyone, so creating a personalized plan is vital[*].
When you count your macros, you get to adjust as needed to find the perfect ratio for your unique body. Counting calories, or simply eating a whole foods diet won’t provide the feedback to fine-tune the way that macros do.
Enhances Diet Quality
If you want to pay more attention to the quality of your diet, counting macros is one way to go. Although it’s certainly not a guarantee, it’s likely that when you pay more attention to your diet, you’ll choose healthier options.
If you want to keep your macronutrients in range, that sugar-heavy donut isn’t going to look as enticing as the more balanced scrambled egg with cheese and veggies.
Some people can’t get over a weight-loss hump because their macros are consistently off.
This is especially true if you’re following a keto diet. If you want to reap the benefits of keto, you need to keep your macros in range.
While calories do play a role in weight loss, where those calories come from are equally important. For instance, switching out high-carbohydrate foods for protein-rich foods can help you feel more satisfied. In addition, protein enhances something called thermogenesis, which results in a higher calorie burn[*].
#1 Use a Macro Calculator
If you want to get a jump-start on figuring out your individual macro needs, then using a Macro Calculator can help you narrow down your optimal macro ratio.
The Perfect Keto Macro Calculator will take into account your age, height, weight, gender, activity level, and body fat mass to find the optimal number of calories you should be consuming each day.
From here, you can adjust your daily calorie needs for weight gain or weight loss.
Once you have an idea of what your daily caloric needs are, you can break down your calorie ratio by carbs, fat, and protein.
#2 Know Your Nutrition Labels
Once you know what you’re aiming for, it’s time to implement. At first it may seem tedious to try to figure out the macronutrient ratios of your food, but you’ll catch on quickly, and many of your staples will become ingrained in your head.
Reading nutrition labels is essential for counting your macros. For any processed food, you can simply turn the package over and find the NLEA or nutrition label on the back. It will include a breakdown of calories per serving, along with fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
The nutrition label also includes the ingredients, giving you an excellent opportunity to make sure the food isn’t packed with additives or chemicals you haven’t heard of.
#3 Meal Prep
One of the easiest ways to stay in range with your macros is to formulate a meal plan. This is the best way to set yourself up for success. You can find recipes online that have the macronutrient breakdown already provided, making it easy for you to plan ahead and stay on track.
All of the recipes provided on the Perfect Keto recipe blog include a breakdown of calories, fat, protein, and net carbs per serving.
#4 Track Your Macros
Now that you know your macro ratio and know what to eat, it’s time to track.
You can track on your own using notes in your phone or a physical notebook. However, this may get tiresome quick.
Luckily there are apps that can help you track your macros, making the entire process much more efficient. My Fitness Pal has a wide range of foods already in their system, and it provides a daily breakdown of your macronutrients with options to personalize your goals.
Some people hit it just perfect on their first try with macros, but it’s very common that you may need to adjust them a bit to optimize your needs.
Maybe you need to up your grams of protein after you lift, or perhaps you do better with a modified diet that allows for more grams of carbs (examples below). It can take a week or two to realize that you need to adjust your macros for your needs.
If you realize that you aren’t feeling your best, slowly shift the ratio of your macros until you find the sweet spot.
Keep in mind that you may need to shift specifically for activity, and keep your original ratio when you’re not working out.
An important note: If you’re just transitioning into ketosis you will likely go through a week or so of “keto flu.” This is not a time to adjust your macros; it’s a normal process that your body goes through as you transition into fat-burning mode. If you find that the symptoms of keto flu continue beyond ten days, it may be time to adjust your macros — but first, check your ketone levels.
Once you’re fully transitioned into keto, you may want to play with a modified diet, especially if you’re an athlete. These two diets can provide you with energy for your workouts, while allowing you to stay metabolically flexible enough to reap the benefits of ketosis.
Cyclical Keto Diet (CKD)
Cyclical keto allows for strategic carb intake by having you follow a standard high-fat keto diet for five to six days, then switching to a high-carb low-fat diet for one to two days.
This restores your body’s glycogen and glucose, while allowing you to continue the keto diet for the majority of the week. This approach is a great choice for serious athletes who are continually running through their glycogen stores like bodybuilders or marathon runners.
It’s crucial to remember that when you go high-carb, quality still counts. If you get your carbs on your off-day from beer, cookies, and chips, you’re going to feel it the next day. Instead, opt for foods like whole grains and starch-heavy vegetables.
Targeted Keto Diet (TKD)
The target keto diet is similar to the cyclical keto diet in that it allows you to eat more carbs. The difference is that with this targeted approach, you’re eating carbs either before, after, or during a workout.
With the TKD, you can take a very individual approach, and depending on your exercise plan, eat more or less carbs to fuel you. This is an excellent option for fitness enthusiasts that are going for a challenging workout like Cross Fit, a long hike, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Takeaway: Track Your Macros
Whether your goal is fat loss, blood sugar regulation, or to increase lean muscle mass, macro counting can be a superb way to help you achieve what you’re looking for.
With the added benefit of keeping you aware of the food groups you’re consuming, counting macros is an excellent way to stay on track with an individualized approach to your body.