What Are Macros and Should You Be Counting Them?

Macronutrients are essential for performing at your best. Here’s how to ensure you’re eating enough of each.

August 16, 2021

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Chances are you’ve heard the term “macros” before. Whether it’s because your best friend is on a new “macro diet” or your trainer told you that you needed to up your protein macro to lose weight. Counting macronutrients can feel complicated and cumbersome, but it doesn't have to be. Here we break down what macronutrients are, explain why everyone seems to care about them, and share practical advice for incorporating macro awareness into your everyday life.

What Are Macronutrients?

Carbohydrates, protein and fats as a group are called “macronutrients,” and are affectionately referred to as “macros.” In short, macronutrients are where you get your energy from. Carbs are your brain and muscles’ primary source of energy. You know how nutritionists say you shouldn’t completely cut out carbs? This is a major reason why. Fats are also used for energy production – especially during lower intensity activities, plus they help insulate the body and maintain healthy hormone balance. Protein is vital for building muscle and for enzyme production, which helps regulate your metabolism. Protein also aids in transporting various nutrients throughout the body and those amino acids (building blocks of protein) allow your immune system to form antibodies. The macronutrients are the trifecta you need to keep you feeling and performing your best.

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Best Foods for Macronutrients

Lots of foods offer up macronutrients, but not all macros are created equal. While a serving of cookies may offer loads of carbs, it probably also contains high levels of added sugar and minimal fiber, which makes those cookies pretty low in overall nutritional value. Another example: Butter is pure fat, however, that fat is mostly saturated fat, which should be consumed in moderation to maintain heart health. In general, look to whole foods (fresh, frozen or canned) for healthier sources of macronutrients. Here are some healthful macronutrient sources to consider.

Carbohydrates

Choosing nutrient-dense carbohydrates is key for optimal health. You’ll also want to look for carbs with higher fiber content (3 g or more per serving) and choose foods with lower added sugars.

Foods to consider: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt

Fats

When trying to boost your fat macro, it’s important to look for foods with heart healthy unsaturated fats. Foods high in saturated fat should be consumed in moderation and trans fat should be avoided whenever possible.

Foods to consider: plant oils (olive/canola), avocado, nuts/nut butter, seeds, egg yolks

Protein

Eating enough protein is important for feeling satiated throughout the day. Leaner proteins leave room for other fats in marinades and sauces when you’re counting macros. Plant-based eaters can also find protein in a variety of sources.

Foods to consider: lean means, dairy, seafood, beans, soy, eggs

How to Figure Out Your Current Macro Breakdown

Before making any big changes to your diet when it comes to macros, it can be helpful to assess where you stand right now. Tracking macros on your own can be a bit complicated, but there are plenty of tracking apps that make it easy. For example, MyFitnessPal can be a useful tool for tracking your meals and seeing where your macros net out on a pie chart. Plus, an average macro breakdown in the app is free for any user.

How to Find the Right Macro Breakdown for You

Determining how many macros you need takes some trial, error and listening to your body. Much like determining calories needs, your ideal macro breakdown is impacted by several factors including your age, gender and activity level. Macro distributions are often broken down as a percentage of your total calorie intake, which can make it hard to calculate from reading nutrition labels. (We recommend counting your macros on an app for help.) If you’re wondering where to start when it comes to macro breakdowns, keep reading.

Food Labels: 60% Carbs, 30% Fat, 10% Protein

Food label “Daily Value” amounts are set by the FDA and based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which is not appropriate for everyone. These macro values may be too generous in carbs and low in protein for some folks. For example, a reasonable breakdown for an average healthy adult who participates in moderate physical activity — meaning they make time to move 3 to 5 days per week for at least 30 minutes — could be slightly lower in carbs and higher in protein.

Average Healthy Adult: 50% Carbs, 30% Fat, 20% Protein

Deviations from this average may be best be determined by your age and much how you exercise. For example, men and women over 60 may benefit from slightly less carbs and a boost in protein to help maintain muscle mass, which declines with age.

Men and Women Over 60: 45% Carbs, 30% Fat, 25% Protein

On the flip side, a 20-year-old competitive male endurance athlete exercising vigorously 5 to 6 days a week would need a more generous allotment of carbs to help support intensive cardio, but fat and protein need to remain moderate to maintain weight and lean body mass. In general, this is not most people.

Male Athlete: 65% Carbs, 20% Fat, 15% Protein

What About Macros for Weight Loss?

The truth is there is no specific macro breakdown for weight loss. To lose weight successfully, you need to eat fewer calories, and therefore, any of the macro breakdowns above could be used to promote weight loss as long as you’re eating fewer calories. Keep in mind that dropping a ton of weight too quickly also isn't healthy. In general, a healthy rate of weight loss is 1 to 2 pounds per week. A balance of macros from a mix of fiber-rich carbs, healthy fats and lean proteins will keep you feeling satisfied and energized, which can make eating fewer calories feel like less of a chore.

Bottom Line: The best macro breakdown for you is very personal.

Macros are life. Getting enough of all of these essential nutrients is vital to health. Figuring out the best ratio for you depends on several factors and may change depending on your age and exercise routine.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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