We test and review fitness products based on an independent, multi-point methodology. If you use our links to purchase something, we may earn a commission. Read our disclosures.

With so much conflicting nutrition information on social media, making the best food choices can be confusing. This is especially true when it comes to counting macros. Perhaps you’re wondering: what should my macros be? What are the best macros for weight loss or building muscle? Should I avoid carbs entirely? 

If you’ve found yourself asking any of these questions, you’re not alone! As a registered dietitian, I’ll discuss why macronutrients are important, provide recommendations for effective macronutrient ranges, explain how your macros will differ based on your fitness goals, and show you how to calculate macros for yourself.

Medical disclaimer: This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. For health advice, contact a licensed healthcare provider.

What Are Macronutrients and Why Are They Important?

Macronutrients are nutrients that provide the body with energy in the form of calories, unlike micronutrients, which contain no calories. There are three types of macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. 

All three macronutrients are necessary for optimal health and functioning, but they play very different roles in the body.

An image of macros for weight loss

Carbohydrates

Often unfairly vilified, carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for the body and brain.

Without carbs, the body will break down muscle and fat and turn them into glucose1 (the simplest form of carbohydrate) to satisfy its need for energy. Carbs help spare muscle tissue from being burned for energy and serve as an effective fuel for exercise2

Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, legumes, potatoes, and fruit help control blood sugar and support a healthy gut microbiome. Refined carbohydrates in pretzels or sports drinks are digested more quickly and can be helpful sources of quick energy during a workout.

Protein

Many people know that protein provides amino acids for building muscle, but protein is also responsible for many functions3, including regulating the immune system, providing energy, transporting nutrients through the bloodstream, repairing body tissue, and maintaining fluid balance.

RELATED: How to Get More Protein

Fat

Thankfully, society is starting to get over its collective fear of dietary fat. Fat is essential4 for the production of hormones, providing structure to cell membranes, regulating body temperature, and improving nutrient absorption. Healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and avocados can also support heart health.

RELATED: Best Heart Healthy Meal Delivery

What Are the Benefits of Counting Macros?

If you haven’t counted macros before, you may be wondering if it’s worth it. Counting macros isn’t for everyone, but it does offer some real benefits.

Can Help You Meet Your Fitness Goals

If you’ve been working out but not seeing results, it may be because you aren’t feeding your body the right balance of macronutrients. 

If your goal is to build muscle, you’ll need more protein than someone who walks on the treadmill a few times a week. Similarly, you’ll need extra carbohydrates if you participate in more endurance-based activities like running, dancing, or cross-country skiing. Counting macros can show you whether you’re meeting your nutritional goals.

RELATED: 75 Expert-Backed Fitness Tips to Crush Your Goals

Promotes More Balanced Eating than Calorie Counting 

A major criticism of calorie counting (or a calorie deficit for that matter) is that it doesn’t focus on the quality of foods you’re consuming. By focusing more on the overall balance of macronutrients rather than calories alone, you’ll likely end up eating more balanced, nutrient-dense meals overall. 

This is because hitting your macros may require choosing leaner proteins or increasing your fruit and vegetable consumption. It can also help you with portion control—rather than having a whole plate of pasta, having one to two servings and adding protein and vegetables will optimize the meal for your health and fitness goals.

RELATED: High-Protein Vegetables

Eating A Paleo On The Go Meal

Can Help Promote Self-Efficacy

A 2019 review published in JMIR mHealth and uHealth5 found that seven of the most popular diet-tracking apps include features that help promote self-efficacy, the internal belief that you can successfully perform behaviors that will help you meet a goal. It’s incredibly important for implementing long-term behavior changes like eating healthier or exercising regularly.

Can Show You Where You’re Getting Off Track

Not sure whether you’re meeting your goals or not? Maybe you’ve been mindlessly snacking at night, or perhaps your protein intake at breakfast is lower than you thought. Tracking your macros can help you identify areas of your diet that can be better optimized for your goals.

Teaches You about the Nutrition Profile of Foods

Counting macros can teach you a lot about the nutrition profile of different foods. For example, you may be surprised by the low protein content of common meat alternatives like mushrooms or the high amounts of added sugars in many yogurts. 

Knowledge is power, and being aware of the macronutrient content of the foods you’re eating can help you make more informed choices.

How to Calculate Your Calorie Needs

The most accurate way to calculate your calorie needs is by using indirect calorimetry6, a process that uses special equipment only available in specialty hospitals or research labs. 

For the general public, using the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation is much more practical. To calculate your calorie needs using the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, follow these steps:

Calculate Your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR)

Your resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the amount of calories your body burns at rest. The equation asks for your weight (in kilograms), your height (in centimeters), and your age (in years). 

  • Men: RMR = (10 × weight [kg*]) + (6.25 × height [cm]) – (5 × age [years]) + 5
  • Women: RMR = (10 × weight [kg*]) + (6.25 × height [cm]) – (5 × age [years]) – 161

Tips:

  • To calculate your weight in kilograms, divide your weight (in pounds) by 2.2
  • To calculate your height in centimeters, take your height (in inches) and multiply by 2.54

Multiply By an Activity Factor

In order to get the total number of calories you burn every day, you’ll need to include information on how physically active you are. To do this, multiply your RMR by an activity factor. 

woman-training-on-sole-f63-treadmill

As the term suggests, activity factors correlate to your daily level of activity. These are some common activity factors:

  • 1.2 (Sedentary): Little to no exercise
  • 1.375 (Lightly active): Light exercise 1-2 days per week
  • 1.55 (Moderately active): Moderate exercise 3-5 days per week
  • 1.725 (Very active): Hard exercise 6-7 days per week
  • 1.9 (Extremely active): Hard exercise daily and physically demanding job or training twice daily

RELATED: Activities That Burn the Most Calories

Take your activity factor and multiply it by your RMR to get your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This is the total amount of calories you need each day to support your activity level.

  • TDEE = BMR x Activity Factor

How to Calculate Your Macro Percentages

Many people like to count macros as percentages of their total calories. These percentages will differ based on your fitness goals.

Macros for Weight Maintenance

When your goal is to maintain your current weight, you can enjoy some flexibility when it comes to your macros as long as your daily calories are consistent.

The Institute of Medicine has set Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR)7 that ensure a balanced intake of nutrients for optimal health. These values tell you what percentage of your total daily calories should come from each macronutrient.

The AMDR guidelines are:

  • 45-65% of total calories from carbohydrates
  • 10-35% of total calories from protein
  • 20-35% of total calories from fat

Your macro percentages can fall anywhere within these ranges and can be adjusted to fit your dietary preferences.

For reference, the calorie content for each macronutrient is:

  • Protein: 4 calories/gram
  • Carbohydrates: 4 calories/gram
  • Fat: 9 calories/gram

Macros for Building Muscle

Protein is essential for the process of building muscle. To calculate macros for muscle growth, calculate your protein needs first and then determine your carbohydrate and fat needs.

RELATED: High-Protein Foods for Muscle-Building

woman lifting dumbbells

To build lean muscle, the International Society of Sports Nutrition8 recommends getting 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day. This should be sufficient for most people. 

To calculate your protein needs:

  1. Divide your weight (in pounds) by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms
  2. Multiply your weight (in kilograms) by 1.4 to get the lower end of your protein range
  3. Multiply your weight (in kilograms) by 2.0 to get the upper end of your protein range

For example, a 150 pound person weighs 68.2 kilograms. Using these protein recommendations, they would need 95 to 136 grams per day. 

To convert grams of protein to a percentage:

  1. Take your TDEE and add an extra 300 to 500, which are needed to gain weight and support the muscle-building process
  2. Multiply your grams of protein by 4, which will give you calories from protein 
  3. Divide calories from protein by total calories to get a percentage

Using our example from before, let’s say a 150 pound person needs 2300 total calories. They’ll require 16 to 24% of their calories from protein to build muscle. 

From there, you can estimate your carb and fat percentages. If you’re eating 24% protein, the rest of your diet could be 56% carbs and 20% fat. All of these percentages are still within the AMDR even considering higher protein requirements for building muscle.

Macros for Weight Loss

In order to prevent as much muscle loss as possible when losing weight, getting 1.6 to 2.4 grams of protein9 per kilogram of body weight daily is recommended.

This much protein will be most effective when incorporating resistance training into your weight loss program, but eating a higher-protein diet is also helpful for making meals more filling and satisfying and helping your body burn more calories thanks to the thermic effect of food.

RELATED: Best Weight Loss Programs

woman running on proform carbon t14

If you’re wondering how to lose body fat, calculate your macros for fat loss by following the same steps for building muscle with these modifications: 

  • Use 1.6-2.4 grams as your protein range
  • Subtract 300-400 calories from your TDEE to create a caloric deficit

Keep in mind that even though eating more protein is helpful for fat loss, this doesn’t mean you have to avoid carbs. In fact, reviews published in Nutrition10 and The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews11 have both concluded that low-carb diets aren’t inherently more effective than balanced-carbohydrate diets for weight loss.

RELATED: How Much Protein Should I Eat to Lose Weight?

How To Track Your Macro Intake

Nowadays, tracking your macros almost always involves the use of an app. You can definitely use a physical journal to track your macros manually, but there are apps that can quickly calculate them for you based on your food intake.

Some of the best apps for tracking macros include:

RELATED: Best Weight Loss App

Even with apps, tracking macros is never 100% accurate. With estimating portion sizes and trying to remember every single thing you ate earlier in the day, there’s room for error. To minimize errors, try these tips:

  • Log all foods and beverages as soon as possible after consuming
  • Use measuring cups or spoons when portioning your food
  • Include condiments, cooking oil, and sauces in your entries
  • Don’t forget to log creamer, milk, or sweeteners added to coffee or tea
  • Take a moment before eating a meal to note your portion sizes
  • Snack mindfully

While some people find tracking their macros motivating, others find it frustrating and time-consuming. It may even make your fitness journey less enjoyable. If this is the case, tracking your intake for a few days out of the week rather than every day may be more manageable.

man-on-smartphone-using-fitness-app

Some good news is that you don’t have to track your food every single day in order to successfully lose weight. A 2023 clinical trial published in Obesity12 found that tracking food intake 30% of the time helped participants lose 3% of their starting body weight, tracking 40% of the time helped participants lose 5% of their body weight, and tracking 67% of the time helped participants lose 10% of their weight. 

Losing 5 to 10% of your weight is considered clinically significant, meaning it’s still possible to improve some health conditions even when not tracking every day.

An important note: if you have a history of or active disordered eating, it’s best to avoid food tracking as it may be a trigger for you.

What Should My Macros Be?: Final Thoughts 

You may be bombarded with influencers telling you that keto, low-carb, or low-fat diets are a must if you want to gain muscle mass or lose body fat, but there’s no need to follow diets like these if you don’t want to. 

Ultimately, the optimal macronutrient ranges will depend on your:

  • Fitness goal (weight maintenance vs. muscle growth vs. fat loss)
  • Weight
  • Physical activity level
  • Dietary preferences

If calculating your own macros seems overwhelming or if you have additional questions, a registered dietitian nutritionist can help you determine the optimal macros for your needs.

What Should My Macros Be?: FAQs

What is the best macro ratio for fat loss?

There isn’t any one best macro ratio for fat loss, but higher-protein diets providing 1.6 to 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight are typically recommended to help minimize muscle loss when losing weight. This will put you on the higher end of the 10 to 35% AMDR for protein. From there, you can adjust your carbs and fat as needed.

RELATED: High-Protein Foods for Weight Loss

How do I figure out what my macros should be?

For weight maintenance, macros within the AMDR guidelines of 45 to 65% carbs, 10 to 35% protein, and 20 to 35% protein are appropriate.

For building muscle or losing fat the numbers differ, so refer to the guidelines included in this article.

What is the 30 30 30 rule macros?

The 30-30-30 rule refers to consuming 30 grams of protein three times a day. The body can only utilize about 30 to 40 grams of protein at a time for building muscle, so spreading your intake out across the day is helpful for optimizing muscle growth. 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases.

References

  1. Holesh JE, Aslam S, Martin A. Physiology, Carbohydrates. [Updated 2023 May 12]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459280/
  2. Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:33. Published 2017 Aug 29. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4.
  3. Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. Protein Function. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26911/.
  4. Kaur N, Chugh V, Gupta AK. Essential fatty acids as functional components of foods- a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2014 Oct;51(10):2289-303. doi: 10.1007/s13197-012-0677-0. Epub 2012 Mar 21. PMID: 25328170; PMCID: PMC4190204.
  5. Ferrara G, Kim J, Lin S, Hua J, Seto E. A Focused Review of Smartphone Diet-Tracking Apps: Usability, Functionality, Coherence With Behavior Change Theory, and Comparative Validity of Nutrient Intake and Energy Estimates. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2019;7(5):e9232. Published 2019 May 17. doi:10.2196/mhealth.9232
  6. Delsoglio M, Achamrah N, Berger MM, Pichard C. Indirect Calorimetry in Clinical Practice. J Clin Med. 2019 Sep 5;8(9):1387. doi: 10.3390/jcm8091387. PMID: 31491883; PMCID: PMC6780066.
  7. Institute of Medicine. Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Published 2005. https://doi.org/10.17226/10490.
  8. Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:20. Published 2017 Jun 20. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
  9. Hector AJ, Phillips SM. Protein Recommendations for Weight Loss in Elite Athletes: A Focus on Body Composition and Performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018 Mar 1;28(2):170-177. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0273. Epub 2018 Feb 19. PMID: 29182451.
  10. Freire R. Scientific evidence of diets for weight loss: Different macronutrient composition, intermittent fasting, and popular diets. Nutrition. 2020;69:110549. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2019.07.001
  11. Naude CE, Brand A, Schoonees A, Nguyen KA, Chaplin M, Volmink J. Low-carbohydrate versus balanced-carbohydrate diets for reducing weight and cardiovascular risk. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2022;1(1):CD013334. Published 2022 Jan 28. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD013334.pub2
  12. Xu R, Bannor R, Cardel MI, Foster GD, Pagoto S. How much food tracking during a digital weight-management program is enough to produce clinically significant weight loss?. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2023;31(7):1779-1786. doi:10.1002/oby.23795

Further reading

How To Do a Barbell High Row, According to a Personal Trainer Cover Image
How To Do a Barbell High Row, According to a Personal Trainer

The barbell high row is the best row you’re not doing. Find out more about this neglected upper-back exercise here. Read more

Elliptical Buying Guide (2024): How to Find Your Perfect Match Cover Image
Elliptical Buying Guide (2024): How to Find Your Perfect Match

This elliptical buying guide will help you sift through all of the elliptical options available and make the best purchasing decision for you. Read more

One-Dumbbell Workout: Build Muscle With Just a Single Dumbbell Cover Image
One-Dumbbell Workout: Build Muscle With Just a Single Dumbbell

Did you know you can still get a fantastic full-body workout using just a single dumbbell? Try our trainer-approved one-dumbbell workout now! Read more

Rogue Ohio Power Bar Review (2024): Best Power Bar for Most People Cover Image
Rogue Ohio Power Bar Review (2024): Best Power Bar for Most People

Is the beloved Ohio Power Bar the best powerlifting bar available? Find out in our Rogue Ohio Power Bar review. Read more