Several years ago, in the supermarket where I most often buy groceries, I picked up some packaged food, looked at the nutrition facts label and said to myself: “I want to know exactly what these numbers mean”.
I’m so happy I did that, because learning about macronutrients (proteins, carbs, fats) was some of the most valuable knowledge I ever acquired about dieting.
So, I want to share with you, in a very structured and simple way, all the important basics of macronutrients that every single person should know.
Among many other things, learning how to read nutrition fact labels and understanding macronutrients (macros, in short) will help you to:
- Easily calculate when you are in a caloric deficit or surplus, depending on whether you want to lose weight or for your muscles to grow.
- The percentage of proteins, carbs, fats and sugars that you intake and how to fine-tune your diet according to your dieting goals.
- Realize how much sugar (or toxic trans fats) there is in almost every food, easily identify junk food outside fast food restaurants (it’s everywhere) and avoid empty calories.
I suggest you read the article on how to find the perfect diet before reading this one.
Calculating macronutrients is extremely important when it comes to dieting
First of all, don’t get fooled into believing that calories and macronutrients don’t count. There are many people out there trying to convince you that prehistoric people didn’t have a clue about calories (I was one of the people who believed in such a philosophy).
It's absolutely true that prehistoric people didn’t know about calories, but they also didn’t have milkshakes, French fries, candies or even fruit in such an abundance as we have it today. On top of that, they were moving all day. Times have changed, so counting calories and macros can be really beneficial.
When it comes to dieting, the quality and quantity of food are what matters. Both of them matter.
Quantity (how much you eat – calories) is important when it comes to losing weight. Quality (what type of food you eat) is important when it comes to growing muscles, enjoying a high level of energy, having good digestion, staying healthy, and so on.
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Trust me, I experimented with this on my own skin. I was on a vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, macrobiotic, paleo and keto diets and many others, and the same rules apply over and over again (more about the rules in a moment).
I experimented with exercising and zero exercise while on all the different diets. I got very different results. Here is a simple chart that shows completely different body compositions on different diets:
|Standard diet||High carb (50%)
Low fat (30%)
Mid protein (20%)
|Fruitarian diet||High carb (80%)
Low fat (10%)
Low protein (10%)
|Current diet||Low carb (30%)
Mid fat (30%)
High protein (40%)
|82 kg||16% and going down|
Let’s not forget, every time I started to exercise while eating the same quantity of food, my body fat went down and my good moods went up.
Before we go to the calculations, there are only five rules that you must remember:
- If you want to lose weight, you must be in a caloric deficit. If I exaggerate a bit: I did get fatter while eating only oranges and avocados if I ate too many calories. No matter what you eat, how many calories you consume has a big influence on gaining or losing fat.
- You can get yourself in a caloric deficit by eating less (consuming fewer calories) or exercising (burning calories). It’s much easier to restrict calories than burn them. You can so easily eat 500 calories but it takes an hour of working out to burn the same amount. A good rule of thumb is that it takes 10 minutes to burn 100 calories. There’s a saying that you can never out-train your diet and that six-packs are made in the kitchen. But …
- When you are in a caloric deficit, your body burns fat and muscles. That’s why it’s essential to also exercise while dieting. With exercise you build muscles, speed up your metabolism, improve your mood, burn additional calories, and so on. The right combination of strength, endurance and flexibility training will give you the best long-term overall results.
- The unfortunate challenge that comes with exercising is that your appetite goes up. Consequently, you must be more disciplined about how much you eat. There are several tricks for eating less , but increasing the amount of protein, complex carbs with lots of fiber and the healthy fats will keep you fuller for a longer period.
- If you want your muscles to grow, you need to increase the protein intake. But that’s not the only important thing. If you want to preserve your health in the long term, the quality of the food you consume also matters. Limiting sugars, refined grains and trans fats is mandatory for a healthy living. So up with proteins, fibrous foods, healthy fats, and down with sugars, trans fats and processed food.
In the end, remember that the combination of exercise and dieting is what works best. And when it comes to dieting, you must know your macros – (calorie), proteins, carbs and fat intake. Now let’s learn how to calculate them.
Step 1: Calculate your recommended daily caloric intake or TDEE
Everything starts with BMR. BMR stands for the Basal Metabolic Rate. It’s the number of calories your body burns only by existing. Your BMR depends on your weight, height and age. If you don’t exercise or move at all, your target calories would equal your BMR.
But as we said, exercise is a must; or at least moving around as much as possible (walking, biking, jogging, playing basketball etc.). By exercising and moving around, you burn additional calories and speed up your metabolism.
You won’t believe it, but you burn calories even when you eat food. It actually costs energy to digest and absorb food. That’s called the Thermic Effect of Food or TEF (or sometimes SDA or DIT). Combining your BMR with the calories you burn through physical activity and the calories you burn while eating leads us to Total Daily Energy Exposure or TDEE.
TDEE = Calories you burn just by existing + calories you burn to process food + calories you burn by moving around and exercising
If your calories consumption equals TDEE, you will neither loose nor gain weight. TDEE is the number of calories that lets you maintain your weight.
There are many BMR/TDEE calculators out there, so I recommend you experiment with several of them and see what kind of calculations you get. As an even better alternative, let’s do the calculations by hand, since it’s not really hard.
Now the fun begins. Let’s calculate my ideal BMR and TDEE as an example.
Calculating your BMR
To calculate your BMR, we will use the Katch-McArdle formula, which looks like this:
P = 370 + (21.6 * LBM)
LBM stands for the lean body mass (in kg).
Lean body mass (LBM) is all the weight that you carry which isn’t fat. In other words, how much you would weigh if you had 0% body fat (it’s theoretical, because you would die without any body fat).
Here is the equation for calculating your LBM:
LBM = (100 – % Fat) / 100 * Weight
Let’s do a practical example. Here is my current data:
- Weight: 82 kg
- Fat: 16% (oh boy do I want to get that down to 12%)
My LBM = (100 – 16) / 100 * 82 = 68.8 kg (let’s say 69 kg). That means I carry 13kg of fat around (82kg -69kg = 13kg).
And my BMI is 370 + (21.6 * 69) = 1,860 kcal. If I don’t move at all, I use 1,860 by merely existing.
Calculating your TDEE
The next step is to calculate the TDEE out of BMI. It’s a very simple calculation. The more you move, the higher your TDEE is and the more calories you can consequently eat. Basically, you multiply your BMI with a number depending on how often you exercise.
|Light exercise: 1 – 3 times per week||1.2 (1.375)|
|Moderate exercise: 3 – 5 times per week||1.35 (1.550)|
|Hard exercise: 6 – 7 days per week||1.45 (1.725)|
|Very hard exercise: 6 – 7 days per week||1.7 (1.9)|
* The multiplier is a little bit lower than generally recommended based on observations of experienced trainers
Now I can easily calculate my TDEE. Since I do moderate exercise 3 – 5 times per week, this is how I calculate my TDEE:
TDEE = 1,860 * 1.35 = 2,511 kcal (let’s round that down to 2,500 kcal)
TDEE is the number where I won’t lose fat or gain muscles with the same level of exercise. But that’s not our goal, which leads us to the second step.
Step 2: Your target calories based on a dieting goal – losing weight or gaining muscles?
Usually there is a goal behind a new diet – to lose weight or to gain more muscles. That requires a little additional math effort because you need to calculate your target calorie intake. But it’s simple math, I promise.
Here are the rules to follow:
- If you want to lose fat/get toned (also called cutting): The overall goal is to lose fat with a minimum loss of muscles. Remember, when dieting your body eats muscles and fat. To achieve that goal, it’s recommended to train 3 – 5 times per week (to preserve muscles, speed up metabolism, burn additional calories etc.) and be at around a 500kcal deficit every day with your diet. You should eat around 20% fewer calories than you burn. You should train with weights and add cardio to your weekly training schedule.
- If you want to gain muscles/get big (also called bulking): The goal is to gain muscles while gaining a minimum amount of fat. To achieve that goal, you should again exercise 3 – 5 times per week, mainly doing weightlifting and HIIT training, and be in around a 300 kcal surplus per day (around 5% to 10% above your overall calorie intake).
As you can see, it’s quite simple.
If you’re skinny or want to focus on muscle growth, you bulk (caloric surplus, weights, little cardio) and if you’re fat, you cut (caloric deficit, weights, a little bit more of cardio).
Unfortunately, when you cut, you are losing fat and muscles (especially if you don’t exercise at all) and when you gain, you gain fat and muscles. You just want to make sure that it happens at different rates, in favor of gaining or preserving muscles. That’s why exercise and sufficient protein intake are so important, but more about that later.
Below is the table to help you decide if you should bulk or cut:
|Current body fat (Men)||Current body fat (Women)||Diet type||Calories||Exercise|
|Lower than 10%||Lower than 17%||Bulk||+ 300 kcal||Weightlifting,
|Over 15%||Over 22%||Cut||– 500 kcal||Weightlifting, More Cardio|
|11% – 15%||18% – 22%||First cut to 10 – 12%, then bulk||
|First bulk, then cut to 10 – 12%|
Below are some general recommendations on how to choose the right path, if you currently fall into this category and you have plans to look better in the mirror.As you can see in the table above, there are two paths to take if you’re around 11% – 15% of body fat (18% – 22% for women) – first cut, then bulk or vice versa.
Go for the “first cut, then bulk” path, if you:
- Love cardio exercise or it’s summer time, when you can do a lot of cardio outdoor sports
- Never lifted weights and you first need to learn how to properly lift
- Like to eat a lot and need to learn how to respect caloric limits (to not overbulk)
- Would like to get rid of the excess fat hanging off your body
- Really easily gain weight
If you choose this path, you should be doing moderate cardio (some sport you really enjoy outside the gym), learn how to lift weights properly with a personal trainer, and discipline yourself to follow your caloric targets. You will be losing fat, but you’ll also see your muscles get toned.
Go for the “bulk first, cut later” path, if:
- You already have good aerobic endurance and you are eager to lift weights
- It’s winter time and it’s harder to do cardio exercise outside (running, hiking, swimming etc.)
- You did research on beginner’s lifting programs (like 5×5 Stronglifts), have proper form or enough knowledge to lift weights (otherwise get a personal trainer, please)
- You have no problem following a strict diet
- You would like to gain muscles (look bigger) rather than go for definition
- You lose muscles really quickly
In such a case, you should do almost no cardio (well, you want to do a cardio sport you enjoy at least one time per week), focus on lifting weights, and eat enough protein. Your muscles will start to grow, usually quite fast in the beginning.
It takes around 2 – 3 months to see the first results (on both paths), but beginnings always give the fastest progress if you do things correctly.
Lean (toned), big (muscles) or natural (without steroids). You can only choose two.
Now let’s get back to my case. I managed to cut down from 22% to 16% fat in the past year or so. But that’s still not enough to start with clean bulking and focusing solely on muscle gain. Thus, during the summer, I’ll still be in the cutting phase. That means a 500 kcal daily deficit. :(
Let’s calculate my target calories:
- My TDEE = 2,500 kcal
- Cutting = 500 kcal deficit
- My target calories = 2,000 kcal per day (and in the bulking phase, that would be 2,800 kcal)
How fast will you be losing fat with a daily 500 kcal deficit?
Approximately 7,700 kcal equals 1 kg of fat (or 3,600 kcal for one pound of fat). It’s just an approximate number (there's a big fight about that online!), not an exact one, because your metabolism can slow down, it’s harder to lose fat with a lower body percentage, it depends on your macros etc.
But it’s good enough to give us some very general direction. Now let’s do the calculation:
- 500 kcal daily deficit = 15,000 kcal monthly deficit (500 kcal * 30 days)
- 15,000 kcal / 7,700 = 1.95 kg. That’s almost 2kg of lost weight a month, the upper healthy limit for weight loss.
Exactly what I want and need.
Step 3: Calculate targeted calories per meal
Now that you know your targeted daily caloric intake, you can easily calculate your meal caloric targets. That’s especially beneficial for not overeating on snacks.
You will soon see why your snacks should be around 200 kcal on typical 3 big meals, 2 snacks diet. It’s sad but one bigger snack can get you away from your caloric targets and your fat won’t go anywhere.
There are some standard eating patterns that people follow that we can use in our calculations:
- Standard three big meals and two snacks
- Three big meals without snacks
- Two big meals and two snacks without dinner
- Six smaller meals
Now let’s do some calculations for my targeted 2,000 kcal daily consumption:
|6 meals||3 meals + 2 snacks||3 meals + 0 snacks||2 meals + 2 snacks|
|Breakfast||20% – 400 kcal||25% – 500 kcal||33% – 660 kcal||30% – 600 kcal|
|Snack||15% – 300 kcal||10% – 200 kcal||20% – 400 kcal|
|Lunch||20% – 400 kcal||30% – 600 kcal||33% – 660 kcal||30% – 600 kcal|
|Snack||15% – 300 kcal||10% – 200 kcal||20% – 400 kcal|
|Dinner||20% – 400 kcal||25 % – 500 kcal||33% – 660kcal|
|Post workout||10% – 200 kcal|
|Total||2,000 kcal||2,000 kcal||2,000 kcal||2,000 kcal|
I love to eat often and a lot, and my blood sugar levels drop fast, which is why I follow the first option of having 6 meals more or less equally combined.
Sometimes it’s quite a challenge to squeeze six meals into an 8-hour timeframe while following an intermittent diet. But you definitely don’t suffer from hunger issues in doing so.
If you go for bigger main courses (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and have snacks in between, be careful not to over-snack. Make sure your snacks are around 200 kcal, otherwise you can quickly miss your macro targets.
Beware of empty calories
You consume empty calories with all the foods that provide zero nutritional value. These especially include soft drinks, candies, biscuits, cakes, jams, jelly, syrups, and so on.
Don’t forget to count such (liquid) calories if you consume them during the day. Empty calories can quickly get you over the caloric limit. One sugary drink (soda, juices) can quickly amount to 200 kcal.
Now the fun begins. It’s time to learn the macro goals for the favorite foods you eat most often.
Step 4: Define your macronutrient goals according to the diet you follow
We discussed all the important basics about the calorie intake. Calculate your TDEE and go for a deficit if you want to lose fat or for a surplus if you want your muscles to grow (in combination with eating enough protein and regular weightlifting).
The next step is to dive deep into calculating the right amount of protein, carbs and fats to consume daily with every meal.
- Macronutrients: Protein, carbs, fats
- Micronutrients: Vitamins, minerals
Before we start with any calculations, let me explain the basics of the three major food-building blocks (macronutrients or macros), why they are important and what the best food sources for each category are.
|Carbohydrates (carbs)||Primary source of energy|
|Fats||Hormones, nerves, tissues, vitamin absorption
Secondary source of energy
Protein – building blocks for your muscles
Your body is made mainly of water and protein. Proteins are chains of amino acids. We know approximately 20 different amino acids and 9 of them can’t be made by your body, but need to be consumed with foods.
The major role of protein is to build new tissue and fix broken down tissue. They also help fight off infections (amino acids such as glutamine). If you don’t consume enough protein, your body starts to tear down your muscles to get the sufficient amount of protein.
|Animal protein sources||Plant based protein sources|
Fish and seafood
Low fat dairy
Chia, hemp and other seeds
Carbohydrates – the more complex and fibrous the better
Carbohydrates get turned into glucose and are the main and primary fuel for the body and brain (as sugar). Body breaks carbohydrates down to burn them as an energy source.
We know simple carbohydrates and complex carbs (whole foods with more fiber and micronutrients). It takes a longer time to break down complex carbs and consequently they don’t spike your insulin levels.
It’s not hard to guess which ones are healthier. Complex carbs, of course. The biggest problem are refined simple carbs that mess with your insulin levels and are so easy to consume in abundance (think crackers, for example).
|Complex carbs (good carbs)||Fibrous and starchy carbs (good carbs)||Highly processed carbs (bad simple carbs)|
Fats – essential for your body to function and excellent fuel
Fats (or fatty acids) are especially important for hormone balance, cell growth, nerve function, healthy tissues, some micronutrient absorption and for protecting your organs. We know saturated (animal sources), polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
Usually there is one dominant type of fat, and that is how food is categorized. And let’s not forget about trans fats, which are absolutely bad for you. Trans fats are created when polyunsaturated oils are altered through hydrogenation.
Fats can also be a source of energy for your body (on a keto diet).
|Fats to limit*
(they stay liquid in colder temperatures and contain lots of omega-3-6)
|Fatty meat parts
Tropical oils (coconut, palm oil)
* There are contradictory studies on whether saturated fats are bad for you. Many diets recommend you limit saturated fats to 10% or less of your daily calorie intake (no more than 20 grams).
On the other hand, the keto diet doesn’t advocate any restrictions. Listen to your body, what you prefer, but be careful because if you are not on keto, you can easily overeat on saturated fats.
Simple guidelines for what to eat
As you can see, the tables above include three food types that need to be avoided or minimized:
- Everything with added sugar
- Highly processed carbs (sugars, refined grains, sweets, cakes etc.)
- Foods with trans fats (everything fried, crackers and similar snacks, margarine etc.)
And almost every diet agrees to include the following in your meals:
- Veggies and fruits (the latter in moderation)
- Healthy unsaturated fats
- Drinking enough water
Everything else is up to you and what works for your body and other factors (beliefs, culture etc.):
- If you are vegetarian, you will eliminate animal proteins and saturated fats
- If you are on a keto diet, you will eliminate carbohydrates and focus on eating fats
- If you are on a macrobiotic diet, you will focus on complex carbohydrates
- If you are on paleo, you focus on eating unprocessed food
- If you follow a standard diet, you will mainly eat carbs, and so on
The foods to experiment with and see if they work for your body:
- Animal products (protein source for muscle growth or a source of fat)
- Meat – poultry, beef, lamb, pork etc.
- Dairy – yogurt, cheese, butter, milk etc.
- Fish and seafood (protein source for muscle growth)
- Grains (complex carbs for energy)
- Beans, legumes and lentils (complex carbs for energy)
- Nightshades – tomato, peppers, chili, eggplant
- Food supplements
The ratio between macronutrients
The point of this article is not to advocate any diet in particular, but rather to teach you how to do macronutrient calculations.
So, let’s look at what the most popular diets recommend about how much protein, carbs and fats you should consume:
|Standard||15% (mid)||50% (high)||35% (mid)|
|Fruitarian||10% (low)||80% (high, fruits)||10% (low)|
|Macrobiotic||10% (low)||70% (high)||20% (low)|
|Low-carb||40% (high)||10% (low)||50% (high)|
|The Zone Diet||30% (high)||40% (mid)||30% (mid)|
|Keto||20% (mid)||10% (low)||70% (high)|
|Paleo diet||40% (high)||20% (low)||40% (high)|
|Fitness community||40% (high)||40% (mid)||20% (low)|
Well, as I said, you have to do a little bit of experimenting to find the diet that works best for you. I would just recommend you don’t go into any extreme. I currently follow the paleo diet with carb cycling, but you will have to experiment on your own.
Now the next step is to get the actual grams for each macronutrient. To calculate that, we need yet another piece of data:
|Macronutrient||1 gram = number of calories|
With that piece of data, it’s very easy to calculate how many grams of each macronutrient you should eat. Let’s do the calculation for my 2,000 calories, based on the 40P/20C/40F split that I follow after a little bit of experimenting.
I also do carb cycling, but that would only complicate things.
|Macronutrient||% of calorie intake||kcal||grams|
Now we have the exact targeted grams of protein, carbs and fats to intake. Let's now do a few safety checks to make sure the calculations are okay.
Are you eating enough protein for muscles to grow?
It’s completely up to you to find the right ratio of proteins, carbs and fats that works for you. But the one thing you want to make sure is to consume enough protein to preserve or grow your muscles.
As we said, proteins are responsible for muscle tissue and if you don’t consume enough protein, your muscles start to break down.
The recommended consumption of protein for muscles to grow is in the table below. I also added minimum recommendations for fats consumption, and the range for the carb intake.
So you can do the calculations the other way around as well.
- First calculate how much protein you want to consume and how many calories equals that.
- Then calculate the fats you need and the rest are carbs.
(per body mass in kg)
|Protein (for muscle growth)||2.3g – 3.1g (1g to 1.4g per 1lb)|
|Fats||At least 0.5 g (0.23g per 1lb)|
|Carbs||From 1g to 3.1g (0.45g to 1.4g per 1lb)
(on keto, your carb intake should be less than 50g per day, moderate amount of proteins and mainly fats)
I weigh 82kg (180lbs), so let’s do the calculations:
- 200g of protein equals 2.4g per my body weight. Checked.
- 90g of fats equals 1.1g of fat per my body weight. That’s more than the 0.5g minimum. Checked.
- The rest are carbs, which I cycle. I eat around 1.2g of carbs per my body weight.
The last step is to calculate approximate macros for every meal (there are only general directions to meet by the end of the day).
|Meal||Calories||Protein (g)||Carbs (g)||Fats (g)|
|Breakfast||20% – 400 kcal||40||20||18|
|Snack||15% – 300 kcal||30||15||14|
|Lunch||20% – 400 kcal||40||20||18|
|Snack||15% – 300 kcal||30||15||14|
|Dinner||20% – 400 kcal||40||20||18|
|Post Workout||10% – 200 kcal||20||10||9|
Remember, these are not strict rules, only general directions. Of course, some of my meals will be more protein-based, others filled with more carbs or fats. But at the end of the day, I should hit my macro targets.
Here are some additional directions to follow:
- If you drink whey supplements, don’t consume more than 30g of protein at once. Crossing the 30g limit with solid food is not a problem.
- It’s good to have a planned meal with healthy fats every day, since it’s much easier to eat carbs than fat.
- Try to consume protein before and after a workout (in a few hours’ time frame) and as your last meal. Whey supplements after a workout might also help you with quick recovery.
- If you want to aggressively lose weight, you can temporarily cut carbs and eat more fats. It works really well for some people. They don’t eat carbs for 3 – 5 days and then they do carb loading. Carb cycling can also be a really good solution.
- For some people, the best time to eat carbs is with the first meal after you wake up and after exercise, but you will have to experiment with that.
When you are eating what type of food is not really that important. There's a great article by Precision Nutrition explaining the nutritional hierarchy of importance:
- How much do you eat? – Calorie control, not overeating
- How you eat? – Slowly and mindfully, without distractions
- Why you are eating? Hunger, emotional eating, social pressure
- What are you eating? Macros and food type
- When you are eating? Skipping meals, pre/post workout
And we are almost at the end – a slightly adjusted table of how I plan to achieve my daily macro targets:
Step 5: Get to know the macros of the food you most frequently eat and prepare a plan
It's not over yet. At this final step, the fun continues. You know your macro targets – calories, protein, carbs, fats.
Thus, it’s time to hit these targets as precisely as possible at least by the end of the day.
To do that, you need the following data:
- A list of the foods you most frequently eat (for different meals): I suggest you prepare a list of all the foods you eat based on your daily meal plans, a meal log or your standard shopping list.
- The weight of foods: That’s the hardest part, but for a week or so you will have to weigh everything you eat on a kitchen scale.
- Macro values for every food: You get the macro values on a nutrition facts label, in different online spreadsheets or software applications. You can find many recipes online that already give macros for the whole dish and can help you do the calculations quicker.
As an example, let’s look at the approximate values of the food that I regularly eat:
Based on that, you build your typical meals. Let’s look at the example of my favorite lunch meal:
As you can see, we are approximately in the macro targets for my lunch. I could add a few almonds to the dish and it would be perfect.
The next step is to:
- Make calculations for a few combinations of your favorite dishes (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks)
- Upgrade your favorite dishes to meet the macro targets (very approximately)
- Combine the dishes in the way that you get to your daily targets (quite precisely)
- Prepare your weekly dieting plan
- Do the same for the bulking phase, carb cycling and any other variations
You can do the calculations in a spreadsheet (download the template below) or in any food tracker, like MyFitnessPal.
I recommend you do it in a spreadsheet, especially the first time, to get a feeling of how calorically different food is and what macronutrients it’s based on. Afterwards you can set up the tracking system in one of the apps.
It took me approximately 15 – 20 hours to build my standard meals and do all the calculations. But it was definitely worth it. I never imagined how many calories there are in some food and how quickly and easily you can get in a surplus.
After you master the basics, you can additionally focus on how much fiber, sugar, trans fats and saturated fats you consume. And after that, tracking your micronutrients is an additional recommendation to make sure you get all the vitamins and minerals.
I hope this blog post helped you clarify some things around macronutrients and that you now know how to calculate the perfect targets for your dieting and fitness goals.