If you’re under the impression that maths has no place in the kitchen, it’s time you got to grips with a macro calculator. Whether you’re looking to bulk up or lean down (or both simultaneously), learning how to calculate macros can help you make progress at a rate you’ve not seen before – even if you’re already tracking calories. And we’ll tell you why.
‘Tracking macros provides information about relative and absolute amount of carbs, fats and protein – and, in doing so, we can track total calorie intake,’ says Dr Tom Little, performance and nutrition specialist for HeroPro Sport. ‘It also affects our nutrition behaviours, as we are more likely to plan our diet and be conscious of the quality of our nutrition.’
As anyone who’s tried to build muscle or lose belly fat will attest, there’s far more to creating your ideal body shape than nailing workouts 24/7. By learning how to calculate macros, you’ll fuel your training, quicken your results, and learn a few handy lessons about plate portioning and portion control while you’re at it.
That’s why a macro calculator is one of the most effective tools at your disposal, whether you’re bodybuilding, eating keto, or newly plant-based. Below, we detail everything you need to know about how to calculate macros and figure out the ratios that will work for you. Because there’s more to nailing your diet than a half-arsed scan of the ingredient list.
What Are Macros?
Knowing how to use a macro calculator first requires an understanding of what macros are. Put simply, macronutrients are the bulk of the matter that make up the energy content of every piece of food you’ve ever eaten. Protein, carbohydrates and fat are the three ‘macros’ in your food, and they all contribute to your overall calorie intake in different ways.
Each macronutrient is measured in grams and calories, which will contribute to your daily goal. By tweaking the quantity of each with a macro calculator, you can fuel your body for any type of training – whether you’re prepping for a photoshoot or an endurance race.
Plus, learning how to count your macros means you’re paying close attention to the make-up of your food. This helps you get specific about why you might not be losing as much fat or gaining as muscle as you’d like. Then, using our macro calculator below, you can tailor your diet to get granular on your gains.
Protein: 4 Calories per Gram
Dubbed the ‘muscle macro’, protein is made up of long chains of amino acids. There are around 20 different amino acids commonly found in plant and animal proteins – in varying proportions, depending on the food – but only nine are ‘essential’, which means your body can’t make them. Examples of high-protein foods include: fish, chicken, beef, Greek yoghurt, tempeh, cottage cheese, eggs, jerky, lentils and tofu.
Carbohydrates: 4 Calories per Gram
Often misjudged as dietary enemy #1, carbohydrates play a crucial role in your bodily functions. They’re the most important energy source for your body, which converts the macro into glucose to fuel your organs and muscles. This is why endurance athletes and highly-active individuals follow a high-carbohydrate diet. While both ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ carbohydrates are sugars, there’s a difference between them.
Simple carbohydrates are fast-digesting sugars found naturally in certain foods like white bread, fruit and milk, but also added to biscuits, sweets and cake. Complex carbohydrates – also called starches – contain longer chains of sugar molecules, which take longer to break down and provide lasting energy. They’re found in peas, beans, whole grains and veggies.
Fat: 9 Calories per Gram
Fat gets a bad rap, but in truth, fatty acids – the building blocks of fat, such as omega-3 – are essential to your health. They play several crucial roles, from protecting your organs to acting as chemical messengers for proteins. Fat also helps your body absorb vitamins A, D and E. Unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, avocados and nuts, help protect your heart by regulating your cholesterol. You’ll find healthy fats in oily fish, avocados, nuts, dairy products and animal fats.
Macros vs. Calories
While calories are the amount of energy that food or drink is measured in, macros describe the proportions of macronutrients that make a type of food. Most foods will lean towards one type of macro – high-protein foods tend to be lower in carbs, for example. All macronutrients will contribute to your overall calorie count.
Calories play an inextricable role in facilitating supersized gains or streamlined losses. That much is true. But focusing exclusively on energy in vs. energy out may not support health and energy levels, and it can foster some less-than-desirable dietary habits. When you learn how to calculate macros, however, your focus switches to protein, carbs and fats.
For example: gram-for-gram, a KitKat Chunky contains fewer calories than a handful of mixed nuts. But when you look at the macros, nuts contain twice the protein, one third of the carbohydrates, and less than half the saturated fat. This is how nailing your nutrient balance with a macro calculator can have a profound effect on your body composition.
Before we dig into the details of the macro calculator, it’s worth issuing a disclaimer on following diets and tweaking your food intake:
‘While macros can really help get you where you want to be, it’s still important to make sure you get enough of the ‘micros’ too. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that are used as catalysts and co-factors in reactions: nothing can happen without these nutrients. If you want oxygen to be carried to vital organs, you need iron. If you want better skin, you need vitamin C and zinc. Getting a balanced and varied diet can be the success or failure of any body composition venture. Counting macros can be really time-consuming and somewhat difficult getting your food to match, so if it isn’t for you, don’t worry. There are other ways. If things don’t seem to be working with your plan, go and see a dietitian or qualified nutritionist who can help you tweak your diet.’ – Jo Travers BSc RD MBA
What is a Macro Calculator?
A macro calculator is used to identify the proportion of proteins, carbs and fats you should be eating as part of your daily calorie intake in order to support your specific goals. Whether that’s fat loss, muscle gain or purely weight maintenance, you input your individual and unique metrics to unearth ratios that are optimum for you.
‘Macros have differing effects on our bio-physiology, making them suited towards differing goals,’ says Dr Little. Take weight loss, for example, which requires you to eat fewer calories than you burn. Your protein intake would increase, ‘as it has the lowest net calories, helps us feel full, minimises muscle loss – thereby elevating our metabolism – and provides important nutrients,’ he says.
Fat would take a backseat, ‘as it contains more than double the calories of carbs and protein – unless following a keto diet where fat is elevated and carbs are minimised,’ Dr Little continues. Carbs would vary, depending on your activity levels, ‘but the general advice would be to moderate carbs’
To gain muscle, meanwhile, you need to eat more calories than you expend. ‘Therefore, a greater proportion of fat is allowed in the diet,’ says Dr Little. You’ll also eat more carbs, which will help you hit your calorie target, as well as ‘fuel strength training, which helps promote muscle gains,’ he says. ‘Protein remains important, as it’s the building block for the new muscle tissue.’
How to Calculate Your Macros
Still with us? Sweet. Grab a pen and follow our macro calculator below to figure out your individual needs. Once you know how to calculate your macros, you’ll never look back:
1) Work out Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
First, you’ll need to work out your BMR. Your basal metabolic rate is the number of calories you take and burn each day at rest. Your BMR factors in several things – your weight, activity level and gender – to give a final figure.
The most popular way to estimate your BMR is through the ‘Harris-Benedict’ formula, which uses weight, height, age and gender to identify your BMR. By identifying this figure, it can help you gain, lose or maintain weight. Here’s how to find yours:
655 + (4.35 x your weight in pounds) + (4.7 x your height in inches) – (4.7 x age)
Using a 30-year-old, six-foot and 85kg (187lb) male as an example, you’ll get the following results: 655+(4.35×187)+(4.7×72)-(4.7×30)= 1665.85. This means our example male will burn approximately 1,665 calories per day at rest. It’s the bare minimum your body needs to function day-to-day. Dipping below this level can affect your health and energy levels.
2) Determine Your Activity Level
This step involves factoring in your current activity level. You can identify yours by multiplying the total calorie count (above) by the following method:
- Little or no exercise: 1.2
- Light exercise a few times a week: exercise a few times a week: 1.375
- Moderate exercise 3-5 times a week: 1.55
- Heavy exercise 6-7 times per week: 1.725
We’ll say our example male exercises three times a week, which places him in the ‘moderate exercise’ category. Multiplying the BMR by the activity level will give a total calorie count called your TDEE: your total daily energy expenditure. So, 1,665 x 1.55 = 2,580.75.
This means he’ll need to eat 2,580 calories a day to maintain his weight. To lose weight, cut this count by no more than 15 per cent for manageable weight loss. To gain, crank it up by the same amount.
3) Pick Your Macro Split
The next step of the macro calculator? Figuring out how to split those calories in order to meet your goal. A popular splitting method involves dicing this number up by a 40/40/20 per cent rule in protein, carbs and fat respectively. It’s important to acknowledge that there’s no single ratio that works for everyone. However, experts agree that protein should take priority.
‘Some people do well on lower-carb plans, and some people do well on lower-fat – it all depends on the individual,’ says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., director of the Human Performance Lab at CUNY Lehman College. ‘The scientific literature is very clear that getting proper amounts of protein is the most important thing to maximise muscle and improve body composition.’
4) Calculate the Grams for Each Macro
Using the 40/20/20 ratio, the diet for our example man will look like this:
- 2580 x 0.40 (protein) = 1,032 calories
- 2580 x 0.40 (carbohydrates) = 1,032 calories
- 2580 x 0.20 (fat) = 516 calories
- Total: 2,580 calories
To identify your specific macro amounts, divide each according to the calories per gram. As a reminder, that’s 4 for protein, 4 for carbs, and 9 for fat:
- (2580 x 0.40 (protein) = 1,032 calories) ÷ 4 = 258g
- (2580 x 0.40 (carbohydrates) = 1,032 calories) ÷ 4 = 258g
- (2580 x 0.20 (fat) = 516 calories) ÷ 9 = 57g
5) Make It Happen
Now you’ve used the macro calculator, you’ve got all the information you need to tune your nutrition in a way that suits your training schedule. To make sure you’re adhering to your chosen macronutrient split, download a food diary app – MyFitnessPal is the most popular – input your metrics, and it’ll calculate your totals and let you know how much of each macro is left.
Mapping out your meals can help, but you don’t have to be too regimented or meticulous in your approach. There’s a reason macro-counting is often called ‘flexible dieting’ – you can make space for an extra scoop of PB in your protein shake (or a packet of crisps at lunch) without being thrown off track. With that said, totally winging it day-by-day means you’re more likely to repeatedly miss the mark.
‘You can make a plan on several formats such as chalkboards, fridge magnets or apps, and it doesn’t need to be overly detailed or followed too precisely,’ says Dr Little. ‘Just planning dinner three or four nights a week can make a huge difference. Set a reminder alarm every Sunday to write a rough meal plan on the kitchen chalkboard. Using meal prep or batch cooking can really help for those times when you are rushed or can’t be bothered cooking.’
Look, we get it. Measuring and monitoring every morsel before you eat is arduous. But the beauty of macro tracking is that it’s not meant to be a long-term venture. Utilised effectively, a macro calculator can teach you to eat in a way that fulfils your goals without leaving your stomach growling – and the knowledge you amass from learning how to calculate macros lasts long after you ditch the tracking app.
‘I wouldn’t recommend it long-term, unless you’re a physique or weight category athlete. It’s time-consuming, can lead to a poor relationship with food, and does not consider nutritional density, which should be our primary consideration,’ says Dr Little. ‘Utilising the principles that macro recommendations are built on is more sustainable – regularly eating quality protein, varying your carbs in line with activity, and moderating fat from saturated sources such as fatty red meats and confectionaries.’
The Best Gadgets for Counting Macros and Meal Prep
With great macro knowledge comes great responsibility. Now that you’re armed to the teeth with a macro calculator and the nutritional know-how, you’ll want to invest in a kitchen gadget or two to make light work of your muscle food. Here are a few we rely on:
10 Recipes and Meal Prep Ideas for Macro Counting
If all this talk of macros has made your stomach rumble, it’s about time you filled it. After you’ve scoured our ultimate guide to meal prep, take the very first steps on your macro-tracking journey with the recipes and resources, below:
- Muscle-Building Chicken and Rice Recipe
- Pack on Size with These 9 Protein Pancakes Recipes
- How to Make the Best Chicken Burger You’ll Ever Eat
- 4 Lean, Healthy Recipes for Men Who Love Carbs
- This Moroccan Lamb Stew Packs a Protein Punch
- Prep This Muscle-Building Moroccan Lamb, from Chef Ben Tish
- 4 Carb Recipes That Are Healthier and Tastier Than Pasta or Rice
- We Asked 5 of the UK’s Best Chefs for Healthy, Easy Dinners — Here’s What They Recommend
- Take Meal Prep to the next Level with These 3 Lean Eating Winter Soups
- 8 of the Best Ways to Eat Eggs Today
Kate is a fitness writer for Men’s Health UK where she contributes regular workouts, training tips and nutrition guides. She has a post graduate diploma in Sports Performance Nutrition and before joining Men’s Health she was a nutritionist, fitness writer and personal trainer with over 5k hours coaching on the gym floor. Kate has a keen interest in volunteering for animal shelters and when she isn’t lifting weights in her garden, she can be found walking her rescue dog.