Should You Be Counting Macros? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say

Counting macros is a widespread practice that involves breaking down calorie goals into carbs, proteins and fats. But is it worth it?

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Counting macros has become popular over the last few years, especially among people looking to lose weight and gain muscle. Counting macros involves breaking down your caloric intake into individual macronutrients—carbs, protein and fats. Some people track this via an app, or some may even do it by hand. Each person's needs will be a bit different based on their activity level, gender, weight, age and medical conditions. In this article, we'll talk more about what counting macros entails and whether it's worth doing or not.

What Are Macronutrients?

There are three macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Each plays a vital role in your body's functioning and, as a result, your health and well-being.


Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for your brain, muscles and nervous system. They include sugars, starches and fiber and can be broken into simple carbs and complex carbs. Simple carbs are broken down quickly by the body. As a result, they don't keep you full for very long and lead to rapid blood sugar spikes, especially when eaten alone. Simple carbs include foods like candy, white bread and table sugar. Complex carbs are broken down more slowly, and as a result, they promote longer satiety and more stable blood sugar levels. They are found in foods like vegetables, whole grains and beans. Most complex carbohydrates have other nutritional benefits. For example, whole grains are a good source of B vitamins and iron, while vegetables' fiber content promotes digestive health and helps manage cholesterol and blood sugar.


Proteins are critical to forming your muscles, skin, hair, nails, bones and enzymes. They are made up of amino acids, nine of which your body can't produce on its own and must be consumed through food. Animal sources of protein include meats, dairy products and eggs. Common plant sources of protein include beans, nuts, seeds and tofu. While most animal protein sources contain all nine essential amino acids, most plant sources do not. However, if you consume a variety of plant sources throughout the day, they can function as complementary proteins. Complementary proteins are different incomplete proteins—proteins with only a few essential amino acids—paired together to make a complete protein.


Fats are essential for cell function, organ protection, temperature regulation, hormone production and absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K. They can be categorized as saturated or unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are primarily found in animal products, including butter, fatty cuts of meat and cheese. Unsaturated fats are most commonly found in plant foods, including oils, avocados, nuts and seeds. The American Heart Association recommends consuming more unsaturated fats than saturated fats, especially if you are at risk for heart disease.

How to Count Macros

Counting macros involves a mathematical breakdown of carbohydrate, protein and fat needs based on your overall caloric intake. Different people have different caloric and macronutrient needs.

Calorie Needs

Your calorie needs are unique and depend on several factors, including your age, weight, gender, muscle mass, activity level and genetics. The gold standard for calculating energy needs is indirect calorimetry, a technique that uses specialized equipment to measure an individual's oxygen use and carbon dioxide production, but this is very expensive and hard to access. For most people, calculating calorie needs will be an estimate. You can use a formula, such as the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, or consult the Dietary Reference Intakes to estimate your calorie needs.

Macro Breakdown

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45% to 65% of calories in an adult's diet come from carbohydrates, 20% to 35% from fat and 10% to 35% from protein. Where you fall within these ranges depends largely on health conditions and activity levels. It is also normal for your intake to fluctuate within these ranges on a day-to-day basis.

Putting It All Together

When counting macros, start with your estimated calorie needs. Then, break down your total calorie needs into your calorie needs for each macronutrient using the percentage ranges listed above. It's best to work with a registered dietitian for help estimating where your macronutrient needs fall within the ranges. The final step is to calculate how many grams of each macronutrient you need based on your estimated calorie requirements for each macronutrient. For carbs and protein, there are 4 calories per gram. For fats, there are 9 calories per gram. So if you aim to have 60% of your calories from carbohydrates and you need 2,000 calories per day, that means you need 1,200 calories from carbohydrates or 300 grams (1,200 calories ÷ 4 calories per gram of carbs).

The Pros

Counting macros can help you to understand whether what you're eating falls within the recommended macronutrient ranges. For example, if you consume protein powder regularly, you may be at risk for over-consuming protein and under-consuming carbs. It can also be helpful when managing a health condition that warrants macronutrient restrictions, such as chronic kidney disease or diabetes.

The Cons

Counting macros is contraindicated for certain individuals, especially those with a history of an eating disorder or disordered eating. It could promote rigid eating and disconnection from your food preferences and hunger and fullness cues. Any strict eating pattern can also have social consequences, since eating out or gathering for meals with an unclear nutrient breakdown may be harder.

The Bottom Line

Counting macros can help you become aware if you have any notable imbalances in your macronutrient intake. However, it is not recommended for those with disordered eating or eating disorders. Generally, eating well-rounded meals will lead you to have a healthy balanced diet without having to track every meal and snack you consume.

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