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When you work hard to maintain a fit body, it’s easy to get caught up in the caloric cost of everything you pop in your mouth. But by shifting your focus away from a food’s caloric price tag and concentrating on its nutrients, you can break free from the cycle of constant number crunching.
The Big Picture
Your sources of calories, or energy, are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fats. These compounds are the gas in your fuel tank, the tools for building lean muscle, and the factors necessary for healthy cell function and metabolism. How much of each you need daily depends on your goals, your level of training, and your basal metabolic rate (BMR, or how many calories you need just to stay alive).
Once you’ve determined the ratio of macros that will get you to your goals — whether it’s muscle gain, fat loss or weight maintenance — you can tailor your diet to meet your needs. Translation? You can still monitor how much you’re noshing without having to make note of each and every calorie. “We live in such a crazy environment in terms of food, that you do have to be knowledgeable about what you’re eating,” says sports dietitian Monique Ryan, MS, RD. “But you shouldn’t have to weigh and measure every single thing in order to be healthy.”
Macro calculating is still a form of calorie counting, but how this approach differs from old-school calorie counting simply comes down to quality over quantity: instead of fixating on the number of calories, the focus is on where they are coming from. “We used to believe weight maintenance was a matter of calories in versus calories out,” says registered dietitian Tiffani Bachus, CPT. “Now, it’s more about what your calories are made of that will make a difference in your body.”
But isn’t a calorie a calorie? It depends on how you look at it. We know that if we eat more than we burn, we’ll gain weight. That’s a fact. But if one person consumes 1,500 calories every day from pizza, and another consumes the same amount of calories from broccoli and salmon, the salmon eater is likely to have the more enviable physique. “When you eat nutrient-dense foods, you’ll see the benefits in your body, hair, nails, skin, immune system and energy levels,” says Bachus. “You are nourishing the body and giving it what it needs.”
How to Calculate Macros
First, calculate your daily caloric needs based on your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and activity level. There are several BMR calculators and formulas available online. For now, let’s assume your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is 1,600 calories.
Start with a ratio of 50/30/20, suggests Monique Ryan, MS, RD, where 50 percent of those calories comes from carbs, 30 from protein, and 20 from fat. From there, adjust the ratio depending on your goals. For instance, if you’re looking to lose weight, you can lower the carbs and up the protein. If you’re training intensely, you can increase your carb intake to 60 percent. “Remember, food is fuel,” says Ryan. “You need quality nutrients for quality workouts.”
Here’s how to calculate your daily grams of each macronutrient, using the example ratio of 50/30/20:
- Multiply 1,600 calories by 0.5 (50 percent carbs) to get 800 calories.
- Divide 800 by 4 (number of calories per gram of carbs) to get the total grams of carbs — in this case, 200 grams.
- Repeat to calculate protein and fat intakes (30 percent and 4 calories per gram of protein, and 20 percent and 9 calories per gram of fat).
If you use a 40/40/20 ratio, it would look like this:
Protein and carbs: 1,600 x 0.4 ÷ 4 = 160 grams each per day
Fats: 1,600 x 0.2 ÷ 9 = 35 grams per day
Several apps, like MyFitnessPal, automatically break down the percentage of each macro you’ve consumed to help you keep track. Once you’ve trained your eye to know what your portions should look like, you can toss the food scale, delete the apps, and start trusting your gut.
Use this guide from Tiffani Bachus, RD, CPT, to ensure you’re eating a macro-balanced diet.
1. Visualize what your plate should look like at every meal and snack. Start with vegetables and fill most of your plate.
2. Choose a lean protein. If you need to, fill a quarter to one-third of your plate with a slow-digesting carb, like a sweet potato.
3. If your goal is to lose weight or you’re not training intensely, cut your serving of carbs in half.