What are macros?
If you’ve been reading up on the keto diet, you may have stumbled across the term “macros” and wondered what all the fuss is about. It’s thrown around everywhere by well meaning ketoers giving advice to newbies: “If it fits your macros”, “track those macros”, “your macros may be off”, ad nauseum. I’m guilty of it myself. But to someone trying to get started, this can be completely mind-boggling. A quick Google search doesn’t even really help. Is this an advanced function in an Excel worksheet? A fancy camera lense? What in the hell are people talking about? Exactly what are macros?
Let me clarify.
The term “macros” is short for MACRONUTRIENTS in the context of nutrition and the keto diet.
Macronutrients are the energy-giving components of food that fuels our body. They include carbohydrates, protein, and fat; this is where your dietary calories come from. Grasping the concept of macros is important for the keto diet because you need to find the right balance of carbs, protein, and fats to get into ketosis, stay in ketosis, and turn your body into a fat burning machine.
Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that is not essential for survival. There are essential fatty acids and amino acids (the building blocks of fats and proteins), but there is no such thing as “essential carbohydrates”.
Carbs are made up of sugars and starches. In order to successfully reach ketosis, you will need to limit your carbohydrate intake. Fiber is also considered a carb, but it doesn’t count towards your total carb tally. The reason for this is that we can’t really digest fiber so it has a minimal impact on your blood sugar.
So, what does this mean for you?
When you are looking at a nutrition label, look at the line that says “total carbs”, then to the line that says “fiber”. Subtract the fiber from the total carbs to calculate your net carb count.
Total Carbs – Fiber = Net Carbs
“Net carbs” are just the sugars and starches left over once you subtract the fiber. The net carb count is the macro you should tally up for your meals and track to meet your daily allotment, not necessarily “total carbs”.
If you’re having trouble with the concept of net carbs, maybe this will help. Think of it like gross income versus net income, the same way your paycheck comes to you at work. Total carbs are your “gross income”, fiber is the “taxes”, and net carbs are the “net income” your body gets paid. You get paid (total carbs) but taxes (fiber) are discounted from what you actually receive (net carbs). I explained it to a friend like this when she asked the “what are macros?” question and she had a total lightbulb moment. Hopefully, this helps you wrap your head around it too!
Gross Income (Total Carbs) – Taxes (Fiber) = Net Income (Net Carbs)
In order to successfully limit your carbs, you will need to identify what foods are low in carbohydrates and which ones to avoid. Check your nutrition labels, look to low carb foods lists, or purchase a solid meal plan. Find the specific amount of carbs in the foods you would like to eat and ensure it fits into your allotted amount for the day.
For someone just getting started, 20 grams of net carbs is a great target.
[infobox maintitle="Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram" subtitle="4 calories x 20 g net carbs = 80 calories" bg="black" color="white" opacity="off" space="30" link="no link"]
Examples of carbohydrates: sugar, honey, corn syrup, bread, pasta, rice
Protein is important for growth, tissue repair, immune function, making essential hormones and enzymes, energy in the absence of carbohydrates, and preserving lean muscle mass. As you can see, protein plays a vital role in almost all biological processes. Proteins are considered the building blocks of the body.
The body breaks protein down into amino acids, 9 of which cannot be made by the body. As a result, these essential amino acids must come from the food you eat: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. A deficiency in protein or any of the essential amino acids may result in malnutrition, kwashiorkor, and other health conditions.
For a ketogenic diet, you will need to eat enough protein to preserve your lean body mass. This amount will depend on the lean body mass you currently have, but as a general guideline you will require:
- 0.7 to 0.8 grams of dietary protein per pound of muscle to preserve muscle mass
- 0.8 to 1.2 grams of dietary protein per pound of muscle to gain muscle mass
Notice there is only a preserve or gain option above. You do NOT want to lose your lean body mass. I know many of you just want to “lose weight”, but “losing weight” often means losing muscle in addition to fat. Your goal should really be to lose fat and save all the muscle mass you’ve got, so be sure your protein intake is adequate. This is really important for a healthy metabolism and achieving a desirable shape. Stop saying you want to lose weight. You want to lose fat; shift your mindset.
On the other side of the coin, you don’t want to consume a crazy amount of protein while following a ketogenic diet. Too much protein has the potential to be damaging or stressful to your kidneys and can even affect ketosis. Aim for the ranges above depending on your health and fitness goals.
So what does this look like for you in the grand scheme of things?
Let’s say you are 160 pounds with a 30% body fat percentage.
That means you are carrying around 48 pounds of body fat.
160 pounds x 0.30 = 48 pounds of body fat
If you subtract your body fat weight from total weight, that will show you what your lean body mass is. In this example, you have 112 pounds of lean body mass.
160 pounds – 48 pounds of body fat = 112 pounds of lean body mass
To find your required protein intake, you will take the lean body mass amount and multiply it by your protein requirement ratio (the X grams of protein per pound of lean body mass number). That means, in order to preserve your lean muscle mass, you’ll need to eat 89.6 grams of protein daily to maintain your muscle.
112 pounds lean muscle x 0.8 grams protein = 89.6 grams of protein
[infobox maintitle="Protein provides 4 calories per gram" subtitle="4 calories x 89.6 g of protein = 358.4 calories from protein" bg="black" color="white" opacity="off" space="30" link="no link"]
Examples of protein: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, dairy, tofu
We need adequate amounts of fat in the diet for energy, growth, and development, absorbing certain vitamins (fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamins A, D, E, K, and carotenoids), providing protective cushioning for the organs, and maintaining cell membranes. Not to mention dietary fats help us stay full and add flavor to our food! Mmm, flavor.
[infobox maintitle="Fats provide 9 calories per gram" subtitle="" bg="black" color="white" opacity="off" space="30" link="no link"]
Dietary fat is broken down into fatty acids and glycerol. There are two types of fatty acids that our body can’t synthesize, so you have to make sure you include them in your diet. These essential fatty acids are linoleic acid and linolenic acid.
Because dietary fat is so sating, it is a godsend for dieters fighting hunger pangs. Think of all those low-fat diets you’ve tried in the past and how hungry you were all the time. Now imagine fueling your body with satisfying fats, being full all day, and still losing weight… that’s the keto diet! Not too shabby right?! J
Examples of fats: oils, butter, avocado, heavy cream, animal fat, nuts and seeds
So, how much fat do you actually need to eat?
If you are keeping your carbs to a minimum and eating the right amount of protein to preserve your muscle, then the rest of your dietary requirements will be met with fat.
If you want to maintain your current weight, then you’ll eat enough calories from fat to support your total daily energy expenditure, which is your resting basal metabolic rate and energy used during activities combined. If you want to shed some fat, then you’ll need to eat at a bit of a deficit so the amount of fat calories you eat will be lower.
How to Calculate Macros
To calculate your personal macros, you can do it all manually using the info above. But the information we just reviewed is the basis behind any of the keto calculators you find online. Some use slightly different formulas to calculate their information, but the results seem to all roughly end up the same. This is a really popular one that I use personally; I like it a lot because you can customize it quite a bit: http://ketogains.com/ketogains-calculator/
Let’s stick with our example of the 160-pound person we used above. Here’s a little more info about the person: She’s a 5’4” woman in her late 20s who has a desk job and doesn’t go to the gym (yet). We should probably give her a name? Lisa, I like Lisa. She’d like to start working out, but she’s just getting started on the keto diet and doesn’t want to make too many life changes all at once. Remember she’s got around 30% body fat at the moment. Her goal, for now, is to lose fat.
Let’s plug her data into the calculator:
Her base metabolic rate is: 1467 kcal
Her daily energy expenditure is: 1614 kcal
She should be eating about 90 grams of protein (360 calories), 20 grams of net carbs (80 calories), and 86 grams of fat (774 calories). That's 1214 calories total for the day, a calorie deficit that will support her fat loss.
That’s 5% carbs, 23% protein, and 72% fat.
Low carb, moderate (AKA adequate) protein, high fat with a small calorie deficit.
Now that Lisa has a good idea of how many grams of carbs, proteins, and fat she should aim for, she knows her macros! She’ll need to choose foods that fit those macros. That means her meals will be planned around low carb foods, eating a moderate amount of protein and eating fat to support her body goals and hunger levels. As Lisa’s body changes, she may need to recalculate her macros to ensure that she stays on target to meet her goals (stalling on keto is entirely possible, this is one of the main reasons why).
If Lisa's goal was not fat loss, her macros would look a little different. Let's say she was interested in following a ketogenic lifestyle purely for the health benefits. Rather than eating at a calorie deficit, she would eat enough calories from fat to break even for her total daily energy expenditure. She would still eat enough protein to maintain her muscle and keep the carbs low enough to facilitate ketosis, so the extra calories would come from fat. The keto calculator referenced above is a great tool to help you determine the correct macros for your body and personal goals, just be sure to plug them in correctly!
So when someone tells you to “track your macros”, they are actually telling you to do the following:
- Identify your health goals. Are you interested in losing fat, building muscle, or simply getting into ketosis for the health benefits?
- Determine the amount of carbs, protein, and fat you’ll need to eat to get into ketosis and attain your health goals. Using a keto calculator is the easiest and fastest way to do this.
- Calculate the macronutrient profile of the foods you want to eat. Check the labels on the package, add up the macros for different ingredients you use, and make sure the carbs, protein and fat fit within your daily allotted macros.
- Create a meal plan based around the foods you previously identified and stick with it. (My preference, hands down.) OR If you’re not the plan ahead type, TRACK everything you are eating as the day goes by. Keep an eye on each macro tallying up, making sure not to go over. People track in all sorts of ways: food journaling, apps, spreadsheets. Do whatever works for you.
I personally hated tracking my macros throughout the day. That’s the route I went when I first started keto and I found it to be super stressful. Once I switched over to planning my meals ahead of time and grocery shopping around that plan, it made it a lot easier to stick with the diet. It was also a little easier on my wallet and I didn’t perpetually stress about what I could eat. Win, win, win.
If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. - Benjamin Franklin
If you're struggling with this, be sure to check out the Master Your Macros Meal Plan, it's completely tailored to your macronutrient goals!
What works best for you? Share your tips below for others just getting started!
Very detailed and just what I needed
I'm in the process of starting the keto diet. I currently weigh 210lbs, my height is 5ft 3ins. My goal weight is 145-150lbs.
I am currently 215, 5'3 and just starting also.
Great detailed info on this. Thanks 🙂
I'm brand new to keto, & your article was one of the best at explaining everything. But when calculating protein, I read that the .8 multiplier is for kg, so for lbs you would divide the lean body weight by 2.2, then multiply by .8. Is this correct? Just wondering, bc that would take my protein from 96g to 44g.. thanks..
Tasha Metcalf says
Hi Lorrie, think of 0.8g protein/kg as the bare minimum for the average person. This is the RDA in the US to meet the basic nutrient requirement for the typical person.
But when you factor in the increased protein turnover that takes place when dieting or trying to lose weight, protein needs increase.
A few things that increase protein turnover:
-Eating at a calorie deficit (necessary for losing body fat, even on a keto diet)
-Increased physical activity/exercise
-Increased reliance on GNG (gluconeogenesis--a normal biochemical process that stabilizes glucose levels in the body in the absence of dietary carbs)
During weight loss efforts on a keto diet, these factors drive protein needs up. Eating too low protein can be detrimental to lean body mass, which ultimately lowers your metabolism. By shifting focus to target adequate protein intake vs minimum, you are giving your body the building blocks it needs to support your metabolically active tissue (muscle).
Volek & Phinney, two of the leading ketogenic researchers and practitioners recommend a protein range of 0.6g-1.0g/pound of body weight during nutritional ketosis. If you are sedentary, 0.6g/pound may be sufficient. However, if you are working out at all, aim for the higher end. What I often suggest people do is find their acceptable range and shoot to be somewhere in the middle, as some days will be lower and some higher. It's important to note that the RDA and other recommendations do not offer an upper limit for protein as it does with other nutrients. There is not sufficient evidence to provide a limit on intake... "too much" is not defined and higher protein intakes are largely considered safe. On the other hand, there is substantial evidence for the negative consequences of eating too little protein.
Prioritizing protein needs during weight loss efforts can also be helpful for other reasons. Preserving lean body mass is first and foremost. But it is also well-known in the nutrition community that protein is the most satiating macronutrient, so it helps keep you full throughout the day. Protein has an increased thermic effect of food, which requires a bit of extra energy for your body to process it (burning a small amount of extra calories).
I'm definitely team high-protein when it comes to improving body composition! 😊
If you are doing a ketogenic diet for medically therapeutic purposes, then it is important to fine-tune your protein needs with your healthcare team and dietician to optimize ketone levels. But for the average keto dieter working towards fat loss, the range above (0.6g-1.0g/pound) is a good starting place. Hope this provides some clarity and helps you get started! ❤️
Hi! You have so motivated me. We have tons in common. 251 is where I sit currently
I am in day 4 of keto and going strong. I also have my sweet husband on this diet as well. That helps tremendously.!!!!? So my goal weight is 160 too. My question. Is what where ur macros. I am 5'8. I work out on treadmill 30 minutes a day 3-5,days a week. I am out of town for 3 months and would love to visit for Christmas skinny 😉 thanks for you blog. And I'm very excited to have found you. Jodi
So much great information!!! How do I weigh my protein, raw or cooked? We tend to cook large batches of ground beef and carne asada ahead of time and freeze in portions.
Catherine Burpee says
I am new to keto, my goal is to lose fat, at what point do you recalculate the macros?
Can someone please help me with my macros
I am in kg here
currently im eating 77g fat
56 g protein and 26 carbs but i seem to go lower on carbs because I don't eat loads of fatty food I have been doing 2 meals a day to get adequate protein in per meal I don't snack I would appreciate some help ty
I was weighing 82kg's (male) when I took the keto diet seriously I dropped to 77,8 in 17 days. I never tracked macros I just made a conscious decision to eliminate carbs altogether, eat small amounts of protein but really concentrate on fat intake. I used this in combination with 10 X 20sec sprints followed by 40sec rests on the treadmill then light weights afterwards. I've stopped craving sugar and carbs and I eat when I'm hungry. This morning I started seeing stomach muscles wanting to surface so I'm really happy on this way of eating. An average day for me is 4 eggs sometimes with bacon or a sausage then a full avo with some cheese and olive oil then supper will be any meat with salads if I snack in between it's on nuts or a spoon of peanut butter or anything that's low in sugar and carbs. My wife also made Banting bread which is awesome for that bread craving you sometimes get. I highly recommend this way of eating
michelle w says
i am a 58 year old woman ive lost 30 lbs on keto eating meats, cheese, eggs, salad. i have been at a plateau now for a month. i am 5'8" and now weigh 270. any suggestions on how to get weight loss going again? do those ketone supplements like Pruvit help any?
Hey there I m 90 kg
Height is 5'3
And want to loose
Information is to good
Can u tell how. To start
i’m having trouble calculating my body fat or lean muscle mass. How do i figure that out?
How did you calculate the daily energy expenditure? I do a HIIT (bootcamp) workout 3 times a week and my goal is to lose body fat. I plan on increasing my workouts to 4 -5 times a week.
Megan | Ginger Mom and Company says
I am about to start the Keto diet to lose fat and this is the part that is most daunting to me, as I don't really understand how to track macros. Thanks for sharing. Looks like I have some studying to do before I begin 🙂