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!