With the large upsurge of people being drawn to the ketogenic lifestyle in the last few years, there has been increased talk of ‘counting macros’ by people who have never before counted a calorie in their life. Which is awesome! Not everyone likes keto, which is perfectly fine (people have more than earned their skepticism of trending diets), but keto has proven to be a gateway diet to better living; because even if people are not sticking with it for the long run, they are gaining an understanding of how important macros are to a balanced diet, and they can continue to apply this new found knowledge and live a better lifestyle after their keto experience.
Macros (macronutrients) are the primary nutrients we consume to fuel our bodies. They are Fats, Proteins, and Carbohydrates. While there are a lot of very important micronutrients in our food as well (vitamins, minerals, and other trace compounds), they don’t significantly contribute to our total calorie count like macronutrients do.
Why not Just Count Calories?
Counting your macro intake leads to much better results than just counting calories. Even if you are maintaining the right number of daily calories, if your macro ratio is too far off the mark, then your body won’t be in peak operating condition (won’t have the right fuel or tools it needs to function) and you won’t get the experience you desire. You will also be more likely to end up very hungry and having cravings that could lead to binge eating: this happens when your body doesn’t have enough of one of the macros to properly use the nutrients it has taken in from other macros, so you get intense cravings to encourage you to eat more of the foods that have the missing elements.
What do the Macros Do?
Carbohydrates: Carbs are the body’s preferred fuel source, and are needed to keep our brain and muscles working their best. However, it is important to get our carbs from the right source: you want complex carbohydrates, not simple sugars (broccoli not ice-cream: sad face). Even people on low carb or keto diets need to be getting their necessary carbs in unless they are prescribed otherwise by a trained and licensed medical professional.
Fats: Fat has gotten a bad rap, but eating fat doesn’t make you fat: going over your daily calories on any macro ratio will contribute to bulking up. Dietary fat is actually very important for absorbing vitamins and providing the body with essential materials that it cannot make on its own (fats are necessary). They also make food taste really, really good. Although, just like carbs, not all fats are the same. Industrial (man-made) tans-fats are poisonous (not an exaggeration) and do not need to be consumed by anyone, saturated fats are perfectly okay (found in meats, coconut oil, butter, cream, and cheese) but not considered the healthiest option, whereas unsaturated fats (olive oil, avocados, and nuts) are considered the healthiest option. As a fuel source, fat is our body’s secondary option when sufficient carbohydrates are not available- using a process called ketogenesis to generate ketone-bodies by oxidizing fat in the liver. Ketone-bodies are as efficient and effective a fuel source as glucose for many tissues, but we still need some carbs to keep our bodies at optimal performance.
Proteins: Proteins are digested into their basal amino acids, these are the building blocks that our bodies use in building and repairing our tissues, building muscles, and enzymes, and other nifty things. Protein consumption also helps the body to burn fat. As a fuel source, protein is the body’s emergency backup system, if there are not sufficient carbs or fats available to keep glucose levels up, then the body will use a process called gluconeogenesis to generate new glucose from protein. This is a need driven state, and not something that can be achieved just by overloading on protein. Gluconeogenesis is a starvation state and, while absolutely critical to our survival, is not a healthy place to be long term; the body will eat its own muscle tissue to survive if left with no other options.
How Does Food Translate to Macros and Calories?
If you read a nutrition fact label on a food item (you can Google nutrition facts for any food item), then you’ll find the three macros listed along with other nutrients. These are going to be listed in grams (g). We need to know what they are in calories. Each gram of nutrients contains a particular amount of energy potential that the body can use for fuel (i.e. calories).
Carbohydrates: 4 calories per 1 g
Fats: 9 calories per 1 g
Proteins: 4 calories per 1 g
For example 1 large egg has about 5 g of fat, 0 g of carbs, and 6 g of protein. So 1 egg has (5*9)=45 calories from fat, (0*4)=0 calories from carbs, and(6*4)=24 calories from protein.
Notice that fat provides more than twice the calories of carbs or proteins. Fat is a powerhouse of energy, and if you are already eating lots of carbs and a fair amount of protein, then you can easily go over your daily calories by eating too much fat. This is a common problem for people eating the Standard American Diet, and a significant factor in why dietary fat has achieved such a bad reputation.
An important note on Carbohydrates vs Net Carbohydrates (carbs or net carbs). Under Total Carbohydrates on a nutrition label you’ll often see subsections: fiber, sugar, sugar alcohols, etc. Not all carbs are easily digested and used for fuel by the body, such as fiber and sugar alcohols. So many people will subtract these (or a percentage of them) from the Total Carbohydrates, and the resulting number is the Net Carbs; these are the carbs from sugars, starches, and any other sources that the body will readily use for fuel. E.g. if a label lists total carbs at 10g, fiber at 8g, and sugar at 1 g- Then 10-8=2g of net carbs, 1g of which is clearly the sugar that is listed at 1g, and the extra 1g that is not accounted for could come from starches or other unlisted carbs.
So What Should Your Macros Be?
Not everyone fits the same macro requirements. Things that factor in to determining how many calories you need each day and how that should be divided among the macros include, but are not limited to:
- Activity Level
- Body Condition (Heart-Disease, Diabetic, Hypo/Hyper-Thyroid, Fatty-Liver Complications, Pregnant, Breast-Feeding, Postpartum, Menopausal, Pre-Menopausal, etc.)
Some of these factors play a part in the common equations that are used to estimate daily calorie goals, while others are too variable and under-studied to use. These more variable factors, the ‘body conditions’, need to be taken into account on an individual basis, and the macro ratios tweaked as needed by trial and error, and by talking with your doctor.
To determine where your total daily calories need to be, there are a few methods we’ll go over below.
How to Determine Your Daily Calorie Needs
Step one, quickly skim through my article on How to Calculate Daily Calories Yourself (link opens in a new tab), and if it gives you a headache, just use this nifty TDEE Calculator (TDEE means Total Daily Energy Expenditure), it will calculate your maintenance calories for you (maintenance calories are how many calories one would need to eat each day to maintain their current weight and activity level), be sure to take note of the ‘cutting’ calories it provides if your goal is to lose weight (alternatively, a popular weight-loss goal is about 80% of your maintenance calories, or a 20% deficit: to lose about 1 pound per week).
Dividing Calories into Macro Ratios
Once you know your daily calorie goal, the next question is how do you divide that into the appropriate amount of each macronutrient. How you macros are balanced is called a macro ratio. A macro ratio might look something like 30:30:40, fat:protein:carbs respectively, and this would mean that 30% of your daily calories come from fats, 30% from proteins, and 40% from Carbohydrates. The order of the macros is not always consistent, so be careful to take note of which macro goes with which percentage. When macro ratios are presented as percentages like this, then the three numbers within the ratio should always add to 100.
The percentage of each macro that an individual needs depends on what kind of diet they are on. Below I go over a few of the more popular diets and break down the common macro ratios for each. Important note: Macro rations are flexible to fit people’s needs, the ratios presented below are either the most accepted guidelines for a particular diet, or are approximations of the most common macro ratio for each diet.
The Glycolysis Diets (aka: what the normals are eating)
Glycolysis is the process by which our bodies turn the food we eat into fuel, or potentially fat for storage. Om nom Carbs! Carbohydrates are the body’s primary food source that feeds glycolysis. This is why too many sugary sweets will contribute so easily to weight gain.
Finding the right macro ratio in a diet has a lot to do with how your body uses the foods you give it. Below are some common examples of standard glycolysis based diets.
The Zone Diet
The zone diet is often considered the standard diet, the idea behind the zone diet is to eat a well balanced diet that consists of plenty of variety to provide your body with everything that it needs. The Zone Diet Macro Ratio is 30:30:40
30:30:40= 30% of your daily calories come from fat, 30% from Protein, and 40% from carbohydrates. 2000 calories a day breaks down to 600 calories or 67 g of fat, 600 calories or 150 g of protein, and 800 calories or 200 g of carbs.
The Body-Type Diets
One school of thought that builds upon the zone diet states that there are three types of people, or three body types, and that each one needs a different macro ration.
30:30:40 Type 1: aka Mesomorph: You fall into this category if you have no problems maintaining an average weight and physique, and build muscles easily when you put in the work. The zone ratio is ideal for this type, just try and balance your caloric intake fairly evenly, adjusting a little to personalize based on what works for your activity levels. 2000 calories a day breaks down to 600 calories or 67 g of fat, 600 calories or 150 g of protein, and 800 calories or 200 g of carbs.
40:35:25 Type 2: aka Endomorph: You fall into this category if you experience difficulty keeping fat weight off, are slow to metabolize carbs, and workouts and most diets seem to never work. The best balance here is a little more fat and protein, with lower carbs. This body type is an ideal candidate to try low carb diets like the keto diet, where your body won’t be using carbs as its primary fuel source. 2000 calories a day breaks down to 800 calories or 89 g of fat, 700 calories or 175 g of protein, and 500 calories or 125 g of carbs.
20:25:55 Type 3: aka Ectomorph: You fall into this category if you experience difficulty putting on weight. Metabolize carbs readily, always feel too skinny, and workouts and bulking efforts don’t often give the results you desire. Carb loading they say works best for this body type, be sure to get your fats and proteins as well, but carbs are your body’s primary fuel source, so that’s where you want to focus your diet. 2000 calories a day breaks down to 400 calories or 44 g of fat, 500 calories or 125 g of protein, and 1100 calories or 275 g of carbs.
The Mediterranean Diet
Approximately 35:20:45. 2000 calories a day breaks down to 700 calories or 78 g of fat, 400 calories or 100 g of protein, and 900 calories or 225 g of carbs.
You’ll notice that the macro ratios are not much different from the carb intensive standard diet, and very similar to the macro balance that most Americans are already consuming but with less protein. So, consuming foods rich in polyphenols, monosaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids, while avoiding omega-6 rich foods and not eating too much animal protein is the true success story of the Mediterranean diet, not really the macro ratio. The success of this diet really highlights how important it is to eat the right foods: not all fats, carbs or protein are created equal.
The Whole 30 Diet
The macros for the Whole 30 are… just kidding, if you count macros on this diet the trend-kids will literally yell at you, and belittle you. Because nobody can fit into, like, a box, man.
I kid, but seriously, the die hard believers of this diet do not count calories in any way, and insist that doing so only leads to failure. This diet is built around eating clean and finding which foods fit best with each individual, because the same thing doesn’t work for everybody.
It’s about following preset meal plans that are essentially just a modified elimination diet. So much so, that before doing the whole 30 I would highly recommend talking to your doctor about whether an elimination diet might benefit you, and what some of the potential risks are. It just makes sense to me that if you are going to do an elimination diet, then it would be better to do so the medically proven way rather than a trend diet method. But either way you decide to go, the same principles apply.
Ketogenesis is the process by which our bodies oxidize fat into ketone-bodies that we then use for fuel in place of glucose from glycolysis. First developed as a diet for children with epilepsy where medication was not a viable option (in short, shutting down glycolysis stops most seizures). It has branched out as a potential method for treating various other glucose related conditions, diabetes and glycemic conditions, but primarily is used now as a quick and extremely effective weight loss option. It has its limitations on this front though, particularly for people with liver conditions. Your liver does the oxidizing, and if you have a condition like fatty liver disease, then you will likely find a ketogenic diet to be very difficult to maintain.
The Medical (classic) Keto Diet
90:6:4- This is where keto began, officially as a 4:1 ratio (fat to protein+carbs), but with some allowances of 3:1. This diet is very restrictive and does cause very well documented complications if used long term. It is meant to be used in extreme situations where other treatments cannot be effective. Still, many people insist on using this macro ratio for their weight loss method. 2000 calories a day breaks down to 1800 calories or 200 g of fat, 120 calories or 30 g of protein, and 80 calories or 20 g of total carbs.
The Strict Keto Diet
75:20:5- similar to the classic medical keto, but with greater protein and a little more carbs included. This is a healthier (more sustainable) option than classic keto but can still be very restrictive. 2000 calories a day breaks down to 1500 calories or 167 g fat, 400 calories or 100 g protein, and 100 calories or 25 g carbs.
The Versatile Keto Diet
65:30:5- this is a very common macro ratio for people to use on a keto diet, it will still keep you in ketosis for most people, but allows for a very versatile and easily sustainable diet complete with real natural foods: meats, veggies, small fruits, dairy, nuts, and oils. 2000 calories a day breaks down to 1300 calories or 144 g fat, 600 calories or 150 g of protein, and 100 calories or 25 g of carbs.
The Cyclic Keto Diet or CKD
CKD is most often used by people who want the benefits of a keto diet, but are very much involved in strength training or bodybuilding, and are afraid that they won’t be able to perform as well on keto. Their solution is to go in and out of ketosis every week. To do CKD, one can choose any of the above three ketogenic options, combined with any of the above glycolysis options and eat these in a set cyclic schedule. Usually something like 5 days keto followed by 2 days glyco, and then repeat.
The Dubrow Diet
Much like CKD, this is a combination of other diets so there is not a specific macro ratio for it alone. It involves tiers with set food options until you reach the final maintenance stage which is a combination of the cyclic ketogenic diet (cyclic because it allows built in “cheat meals”, this is just CKD) and intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is a well proven method of weight loss used by many people on the zone and body type diets who are doing strength training or body building. Quite simply, intermittent fasting works by waiting before eating the first meal of the day, being sure to fast somewhere in the realm of 12 to 16 hours between your eating periods.
The Intermediate Diets
The intermediates are the low carb diets. These sometimes fall into ketogenic ranges, but for the most part are using glycolysis, but with greatly restricted carbs. These diets have been referred to as dangerous and non-sustainable by many people, and new research shows potential correlations with shorter life expectancy– note the word correlation, not causation. Much more research needs to be done.
Following a paleo diet isn’t about counting macros, and isn’t necessarily a low carb diet, but is low carb more often than not. Paleo means restriction from dairy, grains, and processed meats. The focus being on eating whole, naturally occurring foods, and avoiding foods that lead to inflammation or that have a high glycemic index.
Paleo is most often in the ballpark of 40:40:20. 2000 calories a day breaks down to 800 calories or 89 g of fat, 800 calories or 200 g of protein, and 400 calories or 100 g of carbs. A macro ratio that is very similar to the maintenance stage of the Atkins diet.
There is more than one form of the Atkins diet, very much like keto. But they all have the same basic structure: start off in ketosis and wean yourself off. There is no set macro ratio for Atkins, it is close to a 95:5 ratio of fats+protein:carbs in the first stage of atkins20 with Atkins40 starting off with slightly higher carbs, but both are designed to use ketogenesis in the first stage, and then slowly move you out of it as you make progress towards your goal weight. With the end stage, Atkins100, looking very similar to the macro ratio of the paleo diet: still maintaining low carbs, but not so much to stay in ketosis.
Keeping Track of Your Macros
Counting your macros becomes challenging really quickly. The easiest fix for this is to meal plan. Plan out all of your meals in advance so you know exactly how much to eat to reach you macro goals for the day. Another option is to download an app to help you keep track, there are several apps available. Or you can try to track them on you own, which is what I do. Although I’ve built an excel spreadsheet that I use to help me track and count my daily macros, like a personalized app.
Do I have to Count Macros for a Diet to Work
Short answer, no. Of course not, but I would recommend that you spend at least a week or two counting your macros until you have a good idea of where you should be, and then continue to eat this way without counting everything. Every couple of months you can return to counting to refresh you memory, or get back on track.