How To Calculate And Track Macros (and alternative ways to estimate them)

Track macros

The point of this article is not to convince you to track macros or to not track them. You can be successful either way. Instead, it’s to provide you with an overview of how tracking macros can be helpful if you’re interested in trying it. 

Tracking macros is simply another weapon in your arsenal that can help you learn more about food, manage your weight, and eat more intuitively in the future. 

Read the entire article or use the table of contents to skip to sections that interest you most. 

But first, what the heck are macros?

what are macros?

Macros is a shorter term for macronutrients. Macronutrients are groups of nutrients found in food that supply us with calories (energy). The three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. With alcohol being another source of calories.

  • Protein: 1 gram = 4 calories. 20 grams of protein is equal to 80 calories.
  • Carbohydrate: 1 gram = 4 calories. 20 grams of carbohydrate is equal to 80 calories
  • Fat: 1 gram = 9 calories. 10 grams of fat is equal to 90 calories
  • Alcohol: 1 gram = 7 calories

Calories are the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree celsius. The keyword here is energy. Calories are a source of energy that you use to perform daily tasks, bodily functions, and more.

What do I need to track macros?

Weighing food portions

You don’t need much.

  • read labels
  • a reliable food scale
  • measuring utensils 
  • an app to track in

You’ll also need patience. Like any skill, it takes time to build competence. You’ll choose the wrong foods, find it frustrating at first, and feel confused. All of this is ok and to be expected. 

Tracking macros is a pain in the butt at first. But so is anything you do for the first time.

If you just started tracking macros it’s going to be a pain in the ass. Every new habit and practice is going to be annoying and hard when you begin. The good news is you won’t have to track forever.

Tracking calories and macros is another approach to nutrition that allows you to learn more about what, why, and how much you’re eating. It’s a tool in your weight management toolbox to help you eat more intuitively later on in life.

When you start tracking you begin to learn about calories in your favorite foods, serving sizes, and which ones have certain macronutrients. Before you know it you’ll be able to eyeball portion sizes and estimate calories per day based on your previous experiences from tracking macros.

Is it important to track macros and calories?

We’re notoriously bad at estimating the calories in food and meals. Because calories determine weight management and hitting certain macronutrients may suggest we’re choosing higher-quality foods. Tracking macros and calories can be a helpful tool by providing guard rails around what and how much you’re eating. 

It’s not perfect but perfection isn’t the point. Research shows that simply having a method will help you be successful. It adds a layer of accountability, structure, and feedback. All of which are necessary for long-term success. In one study, it was shown that tracking food may lead to long-term weight maintenance. 

When you have calorie and macronutrient targets you reduce your margin of error. It also makes it easier to aim and adjust based on the feedback you’re getting from body measurements. 

calorie target

Consider tracking macros and calories training wheels for your diet. When you weigh food, read labels, and log – Tracking calories and macros can help you increase awareness around food quality and quantity. You begin to learn more about the foods that you eat. Eventually leading to more intuitive eating. 

Tracking macros and calories can also help those following a specific diet like the keto diet. Because most diets require you to hit certain macronutrients or remove food groups, tracking allows you to see if you’re actually doing that.

It may also help with all-or-nothing thinking. You’ll begin to learn that all foods can be a part of your diet and don’t need to be completely removed. In the example below, Avery has an average calorie target of 2,000 per day to lose weight. They can achieve this in a number of ways and by eating a variety of foods.

flexible dieting

Not all of my coaching clients track macros but those that do often mention that tracking helps them to choose higher-quality foods more often. It slows them down as they’re making food choices during the day, “do I want to track that?”

But tracking macros and calories also comes with challenges. 

  • As mentioned earlier tracking macros can be tedious until you get good at it. 
  • Some studies show that it could contribute or enhance those that already have eating disorders
  • It can be challenging to track when traveling or dining out
  • It doesn’t help much with identifying physical hunger cues
  • Some get obsessed with hitting numbers and eat or don’t eat because of what they’ve tracked. 

Tracking macros can be a good fit if you’re someone that likes structure and working with numbers. It provides immediate feedback which can help you adust rather quickly. 

What should my daily macros be?

There are a number of ways to estimate what your daily macros could be and this can get fairly complicated. Below are a few formulas that give you your estimated basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is an estimated number of calories per day to perform basic life-sustaining activities like breathing, circulation, and cell production.

Harris-Benedict Formula:

  • Males: 66 + (13.7 x BW in kilograms) + (5 x height in centimeters) – (6.8 x age)
  • Females: 655 + (9.6 x BW in kilograms) + (1.8 x height in centimeters) – (4.7 x age)

Cunningham Method:

  • 500 + (22 x lean body mass in kilograms)

NIH bodyweight planner and calculator (factors in activity levels)

  • Calculations can be done here

The method I use is The Mac MET BMR Method:

  • Males: Bodyweight in kilograms x 24 (or bodyweight in pounds x 11)
  • Females: Bodyweight in kilograms x 22 (or bodyweight in pounds x 10)

How to track macros using The Mac MET BMR Method and activity levels

Using The Mac MET BMR Method a 150-pound male and female looking to maintain weight could start with the following macros and calories.

First, determine BMR calories. Overall calorie intake is most important for weight management.

  • Male calories: 150 x 11 = 1650 calories
  • Female calories: 150 x 10 = 1500 calories

Second, estimate your activity levels.

If you’re not sure, most people fall into the lightly active category. 

Activity Multiplier:

  • Sedentary = BMR x 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
  • Lightly active = BMR x 1.375 (light exercise/ sports 1-3 days/week)
  • Moderately active = BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise/ sports 6-7 days/week)
  • Very active = BMR x 1.725 (hard exercise every day, or exercising 2 xs/day)
  • Extra active = BMR x 1.9 (hard exercise 2 or more times per day, or training for
    marathon, or triathlon, etc.

Let’s assume the male and female in this example are lightly active. They work a desk job but regularly walk 30 minutes per day and get light exercise.

  • Male: 1,650 x 1.375 = 2,268 calories
  • Female: 1,500 x 1.375 = 2,062 calories
This gives you an estimated number of calories to maintain your weight. If your goal is weight loss you would subtract 250 to 500 calories from this total and continue with the calculations. If your goal is to build muscle you would add 250 to 500 calories to this total and continue with the calculations.

Third set protein intake. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. Recommended intakes are going to range from .8-1.2 grams per pound of body weight (1.8 to 2.7 g/kg)

  • Male: 150 x 1 gram per pound of bodyweight = 150 grams 
  • Female 150 x 1 gram per pound of bodyweight = 150 grams 
If you are overweight or obese, aim for .54 to .68 grams per pound of bodyweight or 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. Or, use 1 gram of protein per pound of your goal weight.

Fourth, set fats. For most people between 15-35% of total calories. If you like including more carbs in your diet choose the lower end of this range. If you’re ok with moderate to lower carbs in your diet choose the higher end of this range. 

  • Male: (2,268 x .35) / 9 calories per gram of fat = 88 grams 
  • Female: (2,062 x .35) / 9 calories per gram of fat = 80 grams 

Last will be figuring out your carb intake. 

This is where some math is used. You’ll need to take your total calories and subtract your protein and fat calories from it. Then divided that number by 4 to get your carbohydrate intake.

  • Male: 2,268 – (600 + 792) = 876 calories / 4 calories per gram of carbs = 219 grams 
  • Female: 2,062 – (600 + 720) = 742 calories / 4 calories per gram of carbs = 185 grams 

To sum it up.

Tracking macros calculator
Total calories are calories x activity level

Whoa. That’s a lot of math. Is there an easier way to do this?

Yup, it sure is and in all honesty, it’s not something you need to worry about doing. I’ve found the following to be a simple way to estimate calories based on goals without having to do as much calculating. 

  • Fat loss: Bodyweight x 10-12 
  • Maintain weight: Bodyweight x 13-15
  • Gain weight: Bodyweight x 16-18

From here you would still set your protein intake around 1 gram per pound of bodyweight and let carbs and fats fill in the remaining calories based on your personal food preferences. 

There is no “best” macro ratio. If weight loss is your goal the most important part is creating a calorie deficit and eating adequate protein. Carbs and fats can fill in the rest of your calories based on your personal food preferences. The same is true if weight gain is your goal.

What should I eat when tracking macros?

nutrition importance

A big mistake I see people making is trying to eat uber “clean” or healthy all the time. This makes it nearly impossible for them to follow their diet consistently enough to get results. They’re constantly on and off of it. If you can stick to your diet it’s hard to make progress.

You don’t need another food list to tell you what to eat (although there’s one below). Most people already know Fruit Loops are not an ideal breakfast but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat them on a Sunday morning with your kids and still make progress. 

Macro food list
Click on the image for a free download

Stick with the foods you already know you should eat 80-90% of the time and the “fun stuff” 10-20% of the time and you’ll do just fine.

How to adjust your macros to help lose weight or gain muscle

Your rate of progress will be influenced by a number of factors. For example, someone new to exercise or with a lot of weight to lose may see faster rates of progress.

Rates of progress
Photo credit: Precision Nutrition
rates of progress
Photo credit: Precision Nutrition

If you’re a beginner or have a lot of weight to lose give yourself about 2 weeks of consistent and accurate tracking before making any adjustments. If you’re more advanced or don’t have as much weight to lose give yourself 2 to 4 weeks. 

If you’re not losing weight within a realistic range try decreasing your calorie intake by 250 per day, by adjusting carbohydrate and/or fat portions. This is about 1-2 cupped handfuls of carbs and/or 1-2 thumbs of fat per day.

If you’re not gaining muscle within a realistic range try increasing your calorie intake by 250 calories per day, by adjusting carbohydrate and/or fat portions. This is about 1-2 cupped handfuls of carbs and/or 1-2 thumbs of fat per day.

Tips for tracking macros (what are the best tracking apps?)

Here are a few tips to make tracking easier.

Weigh everything (sorta) – You’ll need a reliable food scale for this and an app to track your foods in. Some recommendations below.

The apps come in handy because most of them have label scanners you can use for foods or already prepped meals.

Weigh protein (chicken, fish, beef, etc…) before cooking. If it’s already cooked you can look up the information on your tracking app.

Weighing things from a jar. Set your scale to zero and place the jar on it. This will give you the weight of the jar and the contents. Take out what you need using a measuring utensil or spoon and re-weigh the jar. The difference between the two is your serving size or what you will track. Most scales will have a tare function to do this for you.

Weigh rice cooked, banana without the peel, and most other carbs (sweet potato, oatmeal, etc..) before cooking

Weigh your veggies but don’t get too worried about them. Non-starchy veggies like broccoli, cucumber, lettuce, spinach, etc.. are so low in calories that not weighing them won’t matter much. But it might be a good habit to weigh them when you start

Start with weighing and tracking 1 meal. If you’re having trouble weighing and tracking consistently. Try just tracking 1 meal per day to start. You’ll learn plenty about the calories in foods and how much you’re eating.

Tracking when eating out. Most restaurants will have their info online. But if you can’t find it try looking up a similar meal. Or break down the meal into individual components and estimate the serving sizes. Keep in mind that meals out won’t be super accurate because the way they are prepared is going to be different from restaurant to restaurant. But again, perfection isn’t’ the idea. Awareness and getting a baseline is.

Front-load the work to make tracking macros easier

After calculating your macro and calorie needs, spend a few minutes with a tracking app to predetermine what you may eat for the week. This keeps you from having to track macros at each meal. If your meals change for the day all you have to do is go back and edit it.

Do you have to hit your macros to lose weight?

You do not but you do need to be in a calorie (energy) deficit. This is why ALL diets will work if they help you do that one thing? 

How diets work

However, getting as close to your protein numbers as possible could be very helpful. Studies show that when in a caloric deficit and eating for weight loss, higher protein diets around 1 to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight can help maintain lean muscle and help with satiation. If you’re a 150-pound person looking to lose fat this would equal 150 to 225 grams of protein per day.

Yes, that’s a lot of protein.

A good way to approach your macros is to aim for (+/- 200) calories and (+/- 5-10) macros. For example, someone interested in weight loss with calories and macronutrients set at 2,000 per day, with 150 grams of protein, 250 grams of carbs, and 45 grams of fat.

  • Calories: 1,800-2,200
  • Protein: 140-160
  • Carbs: 240-260
  • Fats: 35-55

Aiming for ranges like this serves a few purposes.

  • It keeps you from obsessing about being perfect, which is not needed to be successful
  • Ranges help you understand that you don’t need to create a deficit or surplus every day to lose or gain weight. You only need to average it over an extended period of time.
  • It allows you to pay attention to hunger cues rather than eating simply to eat to hit numbers.

Calorie deficit graph

So if I want to lose weight can I just track calories if I don’t need to hit macros?

Although you can lose weight eating Twinkies and drinking coke it’s probably not in your best interest. Tracking macros helps you to emphasize higher-quality foods more often because you’ll have macronutrient numbers to hit.

For example, protein is a very important macronutrient in weight loss and muscle gain. It will be difficult to eat enough protein to help with your goals if you’re only tracking calories. 

How can I check my macros without a food scale?

It’s important to point out that any method we use isn’t going to be perfect. The calorie contents of foods can be influenced by things like:

  • calorie and macronutrient counts of food labels and nutrition data basis vary
  • you don’t absorb every calorie or macronutrient
  • cooking methods influence the calories of foods and how you absorb them
  • wether you weigh portions, use measuring cups, or estimate
  • our individual gut health and bacteria can influence the calories and macronutrients we absorb

Tracking macros and calories is one of many ways to provide structure to your nutrition. It helps you to establish guardrails. 

Remember going or taking your kids to a bowling alley with bumpers on the gutters? That’s what tracking macros and calories are like. It helps you aim and stay in your lane.

track macros

But you don’t need to track macros and calories to set up bumpers like that. There are other ways to do it. 

1: You can get a rough idea by using your hands to estimate macros and portions.

The benefit of using your hands is that they are portable, consistent, and proportional to the individual.

  • Palm of protein: 3-4 ounces, or 20-30 grams of protein
  • Fist of veggies: Roughly 1 cup
  • Cupped handful of carbohydrates: 1/2-2/3 cup, or 20-30 grams of carbohydrate
  • Thumb of fat: 1 tablespoon, or roughly 7-12 grams of fat

hand portion estimates portion sizes

From here you could enter this into an app or write it down in a food journal. While not perfect, it still helps to create a target and with a target, it’s easier to aim and adjust.

2: You can use the plate method

nutrition plate for men and women with portions

The plate method may not help you hit certain macronutrient ranges but it can help create structure around proper portion sizes. Using 10″ inch plates fill each one with:

  • Lean protein: 1/4 plate
  • Veggies: 1/2 plate
  • Carbs: 1/4 plate
  • Fat: 1-2 tablespoons

Again, not perfect but it gives you a place to start and adjust from.

3: You can use a macro meal service

While you might not be able to afford it for all of your meals it could be helpful for a few meals per week. Macro meal service will save you food prep time while also helping you eyeball portion sizes.

With any of these methods, you can use the feedback you’re getting from measuring your metrics to help make adjustments to your portion sizes. 

Do you track macros on cheat days?

Many people eat out or include cheat days on the weekend out of convenience. They’ll eat uber-healthy during the week and let loose a bit over the weekends. The issue is that we’re not very good at estimating how much we’re eating during this time. Often undoing the calorie deficit created during the week.

work week dieting

It’s not easy to track a meal you don’t make at home. But remember, we’re not looking for perfection here. We’re looking for a target.

You can track meals out or “cheat meals” by estimating the calories and macronutrients. If you do, I would suggest overestimating by(+25-40%). You can also look the meal up online or break the meal up into individual parts and estimate the portions.

More importantly, why are you having a cheat day? And please stop calling it a cheat day. It suggests that you’re doing something wrong, and you are not.

Is it because you feel restricted and deprived? If this is the case, you may be eating in a way that doesn’t feel sustainable for you. Could you create more food flexibility and still get results?

What if I want to eat low carb or keto and track macros?

You simply take your calorie needs and adjust your carbohydrate macronutrients accordingly. For example, a low-carb diet for most people is 20% of their calories or less.

Balanced meals:

  • 30% of calories from protein
  • 35% of calories from carbs
  • 35% of calories from fat

Low carb meals:

  • 30% of calories from protein
  • 20% of calories from carbs
  • 50% of calories from fat

Keto meals:

  • 20% of calories from protein
  • 10% of calories from carbs
  • 70% of calories from fat

Should you track macros or not? Plus, where to start if tracking macros is NOT for you.

After spending years tracking macros and calories I no longer do it. Tracking macros taught me so much about the foods I eat that it’s no longer necessary. Nutrition has now become an intuitive experience for me.

However, I still own a food scale and often weigh foods that are difficult to estimate portion sizes. Things like nut butter, nuts and seeds, greek yogurt, and oil.

Most people don’t need to get this precise with their nutrition to begin losing or gaining weight. But if you find reading labels, estimating portions using your hands not working for you. And prefer more flexible dieting, then tracking macros could be a nice fit.

Ultimately it is up to you. Treat it like an experiment for 2 to 4 weeks. See what you like and don’t like about it. What if anything you would like to keep from your tracking experience and what you don’t want to keep.

If tracking macros and calories feels like too much for you. I’ve got some articles on the blog that can help you get started eating better, losing weight, and building a healthier relationship with food.

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