Calorie counting is out, and measuring your macros is in. But what are macros and why should you be measuring them at all?
Calorie counting used to be the gold standard for weight management or for monitoring one’s food intake. But the calorie is no longer king – and that’s a good thing, since it was an inefficient way to manage one’s diet. After all, not all calories are equal, and calorie counting doesn’t take food quality into consideration.
Instead of calories, people are counting their macros now, but what exactly are macros, and should you be doing it, too?
What Are Macros?
Macro is short for macronutrient, and refers to the three large groups of food nutrients:
Macronutrients differ from micronutrients, which refer to smaller groups of nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
Many people are familiar with the concept of a low carb diet, where carbs are reduced to a lower percentage of overall diet intake. These days, tracking macronutrients is about much more than just carbs.
When someone is tracking their macros, they’re paying attention to how many grams of carbs, proteins, and fats they’re eating. Typically, the aim is to keep each one within a certain percentage of the day’s total food intake.
How Counting Carbs and Macros Is Similar
- Both require a food tracking app or journal to record each day’s food intake.
- Both require a greater awareness of what one is eating vs. just winging it.
Counting Calories vs. Macros
- Macros allow greater customization of one’s diet, whereas calories lump all food into a single caloric count.
- Macros offer a wider range of benefits; for example, athletes and bodybuilders who don’t want calorie restrictions can benefit from tracking how much of each macronutrient they’re taking in to achieve a better balance of nutrients.
- Macros are applicable to every person; calorie monitoring or counting is only relevant to a select group of people who are focused on weight loss or gain.
- Macros are more effective than calories at producing desired results. (1)
Bottom Line: Macros are a different way of measuring food intake that more thoroughly takes into consideration the value of individual nutrients than simply counting all calories as equal.
How to Calculate Your Macros
To measure your macros, you need to have an idea of how many calories you need per day to achieve your goals. While this isn’t strict calorie counting, it gives you a baseline to start with. For an average weight female who is also average height, 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day would be reasonable. For weight loss purposes, 1,500 to 1,800 calories might be more appropriate.
Keep in mind that macro tracking is highly individual, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works. Your calorie baseline needs to take the following things into account:
- Your current weight
- Your height
- Your age
- Your situation (e.g., pregnant, breastfeeding, postpartum, premenopausal, trying to conceive)
- Your activity level
For example, if you’re a healthy weight woman who isn’t pregnant and who works out every day, you’re going to require more calories than an overweight woman who is inactive.
To get an idea of how many calories you need per day, and how that translates into macros, you can use a simple online calculator, like this one, or you can calculate the math yourself, as follows:
*Note: These calculations are tailored for women.
10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) + 5 = total daily caloric baseline
Next, you need to take into account your activity level, because if you’re active at all, you burn more calories than the baseline.
Sedentary: Caloric baseline x 1.2
Light activity: Caloric baseline x 1.4
Moderate activity: Caloric baseline x 1.6
High activity: Caloric baseline x 1.8
In this example, a 5 foot 3 inches, 140-pound, 40-year-old woman who has light activity would require a baseline of 1,783 calories daily to maintain her current weight. In order to lose, she would want to reduce her calories by 15 percent or else change macronutrient ratios to reduce carbs and prioritize protein.
Let’s say, though, that she wants to maintain her weight. Breaking down her 1,783 daily calories into macros is best done using an online calculator, but you need to know what you macro goals might be. The following section will help you narrow your focus on what macro range might work best for you.
Bottom Line: You can’t follow someone else’s macro plan. You need to customize it to work for you based on your individual variables. Even within these calculations, there will be some room for flexibility or tweaking, but it is a good place to start.
5 Reasons to Measure Your Macros
Whether you need to lose weight or not, being mindful of the ratio of macronutrients that you’re eating can take your diet and health goals much farther than just flying blind. Here are five reasons why you might want to track your macros, and a basic guideline to get started for each.
1. Weight Loss
Macro priority: 45% protein, 25% carbs, 30% fat
While it’s not true for everyone, a good majority of people who need to lose weight aren’t getting enough protein at breakfast and they are eating too many carbs. Focusing on protein spread evenly throughout the day will help to keep blood sugar balanced and limiting carbs will prevent fat storage from excess carb intake.
Another important note: don’t fear fat for weight loss. It’s choosing fat quality that matters, so opting for 30 percent fat from excellent sources like salmon, olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, grass-fed meats, pastured eggs, and the like will produce better results than limiting fat and eating more refined or junky carbs.
2. Thyroid/Autoimmunity Health
Macro priority: 40% fat, 30% protein, 30% carbs
Many who have thyroid or autoimmune issues may also need to lose weight, but in this case, it’s needing to lose weight and equip the body to heal. Healthy fat is nourishing for chronic and autoimmune conditions, and slightly more carbs may be required to increase energy in the face of a depressed immune system or thyroid.
3. Strength Training
Macro priority: 40% protein, 35% fat, 25% carbs
While most women aren’t aiming to get ripped, athletic women who do CrossFit or lift weights might want to focus on improving their muscle tone. This is most often accomplished with a low carb diet and consuming slightly more protein than fat. Still, when it comes to building muscle definition or being a higher performing athlete, the type of activity and individual body type may require further macro customizing.
Macro priority: 45% fat, 30% carbs, 25% protein
Women who want to get pregnant and grow a healthy baby need fat. They don’t need to be fat, but true, natural fertility is based on optimized hormones, and fat helps hormones properly communicate. Fertility fats can’t come from any old thing though, and need to be sourced from high quality, Paleo-friendly fats like avocados, grass-fed beef, pastured eggs, salmon, olive oil, lard, tallow, and coconut oil.
Fertility carbs also depend on quality, should be sourced from high fiber vegetables and fruits, and should completely steer clear of refined products, sugars, and grains.
Macro priority: 35% protein, 35% fat, 30% carbs
Women who have gone through the major hormonal shift that is menopause may find that their body responds differently to food than it did before menopause. A fairly balanced macro plan for this phase of life can be most effective at keeping weight balanced (as well as hormones), although women may still need to customize their ratios based on activity level, other health factors, and food sensitivities.
Bottom Line: Macro counting is intended to serve your individual health needs and might need to be adjusted based on different seasons of life. Tracking macros in a food journal app, like MyFitnessPal, keeps things simple and easy.
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