Counting weight loss macros has become a popular approach to losing weight, because you can essentially eat what you want – to a degree.
In fact, macro counting is sometimes referred to as flexible dieting, or IIFYM (“if it fits your macros”).
So, what are macros and should you be counting them if you want to lose weight?
This article looks into the role of macros and whether or not keeping track of them is a viable way to lose weight.
Macronutrients for Weight Loss
Macronutrients (macros, for short) include protein, fat, carbohydrates and water.
These are nutrients that we need in large amounts for energy (calories) and optimal health.
Like calorie counting, macro counting promotes weight loss by creating a calorie deficit. However, it’s a bit more complicated because it requires that you hit three separate macro goals per day, rather than just one calorie goal.
Water is technically a macro and you should be drinking plenty of it, but it doesn’t count toward your goals because it doesn’t contain calories. Instead, macro counting focuses on protein, fat and carbohydrates.
Protein is found in a variety of foods including meat, fish, dairy products, tofu, beans, legumes, seeds, nuts and protein powders.
It should be your first priority on a macro counting diet for a couple of reasons.
For one, it’s highly satiating. In one small study, participants who increased protein intake to 30% of calories ate an average of 441 fewer calories per day without even trying. Compared to lower protein approaches to weight loss, many people find it easier to stick to high protein diets (1).
Your weight loss macros should include at least 20% of calories from protein. Most healthy adults do well with 30-35% of calories from protein (150-175 grams per day on a 2,000 calorie diet), though you should speak with your doctor if you have any chronic kidney issues.
Fat and Carbohydrates
Protein may be your first priority when macro counting, but that’s not to say that fat and carbohydrates aren’t important.
Both nutrients serve important functions in the body and should be included in adequate amounts.
However, there’s some flexibility as to how much you can eat. Some people prefer more carbs and less fat, while others prefer the opposite. Both approaches are fine, and long-term weight loss is actually comparable between the two (4).
Regardless of how high you set your fat and carb macros, at least 80% of your calories from these nutrients should come from wholesome, nutritious foods.
The healthiest carb choices are low in added sugar and high in fiber. Fiber is good for overall health and also highly satiating, so it may help fend off hunger. Most of the carbs in your diet should come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, legumes and beans. It’s best to limit sweets, sugary cereals, and other highly processed carbs (5).
It’s also important to remember that beverages count toward your macros. According to one large observational study, Americans consume nearly 400 calories from beverages per day. It’s best to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages, full-fat dairy, alcohol, and other drinks with calories (or at the very least, count them toward your macros) (6).
Nutritious sources of fats include nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil and coconut. Fried foods, fatty meats, baked goods, and foods that are cooked in large amounts of grease and oil should be avoided.
Keep in mind that fat provides more than twice as many calories per gram as protein and carbohydrates. For this reason, your fat macros will likely be lower than protein and carbs, even if you choose a higher fat approach. However, healthy fats like nuts and avocado can actually help you feel fuller and may help you eat fewer calories, particularly when they take the place of processed carbs (7, 8).
Summary: Macronutrients (“macros”) are those that we need in larger amounts for energy and health. Macro counting involves setting daily targets for the three main macros, which are protein, fat, and carbs. Your weight loss macros should include at least 20% of calories from protein, with more flexible targets for fat and carbs. While total macro (and, therefore, calorie) count is the most important factor in weight loss, choosing mostly wholesome and nutritious foods will help you to feel full and increase the odds of success.
Calculating Your Weight Loss Macros
The quickest way to calculate your weight loss macros is with a macro calculator like this one.
With a little practice, though, it’s easy to calculate your weight loss macros on your own.
Here’s a six-step method to estimate your starting macros and to adjust them as needed to meet your goals.
1. Calculate Your Maintenance Calories
The first step in calculating weight loss macros is to determine how many calories you need to maintain your current weight.
This number is sometimes called total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
There are lots of different equations that are used to calculate TDEE, but the simplest way is to use a free online calculator like this one.
If you’ve been carefully tracking your calorie intake for a while already and have been staying at the same body weight, you can also take an average of your daily calorie intake. This will provide a good starting point for your weight loss macros, as long as your food tracking is accurate.
2. Create a Calorie Deficit
Like any weight loss diet, macro counting is only effective if it creates a calorie deficit.
As such, you’ll need to subtract calories from your TDEE. You don’t need to cut too many calories to start. In fact, a smaller calorie deficit can make macro counting easier to stick with and also lower the risk for nutrient deficiencies.
Here are some guidelines to get you started:
- If your TDEE is 1,600 calories per day or less: Subtract up to 10% from your maintenance calories. Example: 1,600 x 90% = 1,440 calories per day.
- If your TDEE is 1,600 to 2,000 calories per day: Subtract up to 250 calories per day. Example: 1,750 – 250 = 1,500 calories per day.
- If your TDEE is greater than 2,000 calories per day: Subtract up to 500 calories per day. Example: 2,500 – 500 = 2,000 calories per day.
Keep in mind that you can always start with a smaller deficit, and you’ll probably need to adjust your calorie goals at some point. This is just a starting guideline.
3. Set Your Weight Loss Macro Percentage
Now that you know your starting calorie needs, you’ll need to set a target for each of the three main macronutrients.
The easiest way to do this is to use percentages. There is no single percentage breakdown that is best for everyone, but here are some starting guidelines:
- Protein: 20-35% of calories
- Fat: 20-30% of calories
- Carbohydrates: 40-55% of calories
Remember that one of the major benefits of macro counting is its flexibility. You can eat at the higher end of the range for carbohydrates if you enjoy foods like pasta, or if you’re an endurance athlete. Or you can use macro counting to boost weight loss on a low-carb diet.
Whatever you decide, just make sure your macro percentages add up to 100%. For example, 40% carbs, 30% fat, 30% protein.
4. Calculate Your Weight Loss Macros
Next, convert your macro percentages to grams per day.
First, multiply your daily calorie goal by your target percentage for each macronutrient.
Let’s say you are aiming for 1,600 calories per day, with 40% carbs, 30% fats and 30% protein:
- 1,600 calories x 40% carbs = 640 calories per day from carbs
- 1,600 calories x 30% protein = 480 calories per day from protein
- 1,600 calories x 30% fat = 480 calories per day from fat
Now, you’ll need to convert these numbers from calories to grams. You’ll do this by dividing your calorie counts by the calories per gram for each macronutrient:
- Carbs = 4 calories per gram
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
- 640 calories from carbs / 4 calories per gram = 160 grams of carbs per day
- 480 calories from protein / 4 calories per gram = 120 grams of protein per day
- 480 calories from fat / 9 calories per gram = 53 grams of fat per day
In this example, the starting macros are 160 grams of carbohydrate, 120 grams of protein and 53 grams of fat per day.
5. Track Your Intake
Now that you know your starting weight loss macros, work toward hitting those targets every day.
Think of your macros like a bank account. Your starting macros are your beginning balance from which you’ll deduct from every time you eat or drink something that provides calories.
Once you create an account, you can adjust your macronutrient goals in the settings. You can then track everything you eat or drink for the day. Simply type in the name of the food or drink, and select the closest available option. This will automatically deduct the protein, fat and carbs from your macro balance.
For best results, you’ll need to be as accurate as possible in your tracking. This includes searching for specific brand and product names when inputting foods into tracking apps, and also paying close attention to portion sizes.
Be sure to adjust the serving size in your tracking app if you eat a larger portion for the food than the one that’s displayed.
One final but important note on tracking: It’s very difficult to hit your weight loss macros precisely. You’ll likely be a few grams over or a few grams under for at least one macro each day—and that is okay! Try to stay within 5 grams of your macro goals whenever possible.
6. Adjust as Needed
Once you’ve hit your weight loss macros (or come very close) for at least one week in a row, it’s time to weigh in.
Did you lose some weight? Congratulations! If you’re feeling well and losing between 0.5 and 2 pounds (0.23-0.91 kilograms) per week, you can keep the same macro targets for another week.
You may want to increase your total calorie intake and your macros slightly if you’re losing more than 2 pounds per week, especially if you’re feeling tired or super hungry. This can help you be more consistent with macro counting long-term.
But what if you didn’t lose weight? If you were accurate in your tracking and came very close to hitting your macros, it’s time to adjust your targets downward. Reduce your calories by at least 10%, but by no more than 500 calories per day.
Also note how you’re feeling. If you’re hungry all the time, you might try increasing your protein macros and decreasing your carbs or fats. If you’re feeling sluggish during long workouts you may need more carbs and fewer fats. Pay close attention to your body as you adjust your macros.
If you need to adjust, repeat steps 3 through 5 from above, weighing in after one more week.
It may take you a few weeks to find the right weight loss macros for you. And if you hit a plateau, simply adjust your counts again to get you moving toward your body weight goal.
Summary: To calculate your weight loss macros, you’ll first need to create a calorie deficit by deducting a maximum of 500 calories per day from your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). You’ll then divide your calories among the three major macronutrients: protein, fat and carbs. Once you’ve calculated your weight loss macros, track them each day, adjusting as needed to reach your weight loss goals.
Who Should Avoid Macro Counting?
Macro counting takes commitment—especially the daily tracking—and can be time-consuming and labor-intensive.
The best results typically come to those who consistently weigh and measure their food.
However, macro counting can lead to obsessive thoughts about food, particularly in people with a history of disordered eating.
If you have the time and energy to devote to macro counting and have no history of eating disorders or food obsessions, then you may find success with this type of diet.
Otherwise, it’s probably best to try a different approach. Those with a history of disordered eating should work with a registered dietitian on a strategy that will not trigger unhealthy behaviors, while those looking to save time and energy may do better with a structured meal plan or a low-carb diet.
Summary: Successful macro counting requires time, energy and consistency. People devoted to tracking, weighing and measuring typically see the best results, but these behaviors may cause obsessive thoughts and behaviors in some people. In particular, those with a history of disordered eating should avoid counting macros.
Will Counting Weight Loss Macros Help You Reach Your Goals?
Weight loss ultimately comes down to eating fewer calories than you burn.
Macro counting is basically another form of calorie counting.
There’s a bit more detail involved with macro counting because you have three separate nutritional goals each day instead of just one.
Ultimately, though, it works by creating a calorie deficit.
If you’re ready to try macro counting, you’ll want to be sure you’re eating enough protein.
Doing so helps you feel more satiated, which is helpful when you’re trying to take in fewer calories.
It also helps preserve muscle mass and boost metabolism.
Aim for at least 20% of calories from protein, but more is better.
Fats and carbs are important as well, but you can set your macros for these nutrients based on personal preferences and activity levels.
Keep in mind that fat provides more than twice as many calories per gram as the other nutrients (9 calories per gram versus 4), so overeating it could put you in a calorie surplus if you don’t adjust your protein or carbs.
Remember, also, that quality is important.
At least 80% of your calories should come from wholesome, nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lean meats, plant-based oils, and low-fat dairy.
This will increase the likelihood of getting all the nutrients that you need and also help you to feel satisfied while reducing calorie intake.
Once you calculate your weight loss macros, it’s best to weigh, measure and track everything you eat and drink for at least a few days.
This includes foods, beverages, condiments, and even small amounts of food if you graze throughout the day.
Doing so allows you to get the best sense of how much you’re eating, and it can help you to know when to adjust your macro goals.
Stay at your starting macros for at least one week, then weigh in again.
Stay at the same macros as long as you’re losing 0.5 to 2 pounds per week and you’re feeling good overall.
You’ll want to adjust if you’re feeling overly tired or super hungry, or if you stop losing at least 0.5 pounds per week.
Unless you have a history of disordered eating or don’t feel like you have the time and energy to commit to macro tracking, it’s certainly worth a try.
If nothing else, it can give you a good sense of how much you’re eating in a day and help you make healthier food choices—and you might just lose weight in the process!