Counting Macros? Here’s What You Need to Know

At lunch with a friend, you notice that she’s using an app on her phone to record her meal. When you ask if she’s following a new diet, she says that she’s tracking her macros, and she’s never felt better.

Tracking or counting macros refers to keeping tabs on the macronutrients that you eat so that you stay within certain limits. This can aid in weight loss or muscle gain or help you to eat a well-balanced diet.

UNC Health registered dietitian Natalie Newell explains what you need to know about macronutrients and micronutrients.

What Are Macronutrients?

Macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats and protein.

“These are nutrients that your body needs large amounts of because they provide energy,” Newell says. “The majority of your calories should come from carbohydrates, and then fats and protein.”

Over the years, carbohydrates and fats have been the focus of restrictive diets, but everyone needs these nutrients to keep the body functioning well. Within each category are healthy options; avocados and nuts, for example, are a better choice for a fat source than fried foods or cookies.

“You need these macronutrients every day, but the amount will be different for every person,” Newell says. “It’s individualized based on your goals, your activity level and your health status.”

What Are Micronutrients?

Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals.

“Your body needs these in smaller amounts, though they are important,” Newell says. “They’re involved with brain health, digestion, hormone function and so much more.”

There are dozens of essential nutrients—including iron, vitamins A and D, iodine, folate and zinc—and with a well-rounded diet that includes fruits and vegetables, most people consume enough to maintain a healthy body.

“Bloodwork can reveal if a micronutrient is lacking,” Newell says. “Vitamin D and iron deficiencies are the most common.”

Macronutrients and Micronutrients in Your Diet

Eating a well-balanced diet of lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables will provide most of your macro- and micronutrients without you having to track them.

“If you focus on whole, real foods and a colorful diet of fruits and vegetables, that’s the best way to get what you need,” Newell says. “Food that’s more processed will eliminate those nutrients.”

Tracking your macronutrient consumption may help if you have specific nutritional needs—for example, if you are trying to lose weight or training for a half-marathon.

Although it’s usually not necessary to track micronutrients, it’s still important to consider whether they’re in the foods you eat. It’s possible to comply with suggested macronutrient recommendations without consuming adequate micronutrients.

Tracking Macronutrients

To track your macronutrients, identify your total caloric need per day, which is based on your age and activity level. Then, rather than simply counting calories, consider where your calories come from in relation to macronutrients. Newell says that for the average person, it’s recommended to consume 40 to 65 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates, 20 to 35 percent from fats and 10 to 35 percent from protein. Online tools such as MyFitnessPal have calculators to track macronutrient content in foods.

A dietitian can help you adjust these percentages for your situation and identify the best foods from each group.

“If an athlete is training for a marathon, they may need more protein and carbohydrates, and they should consume them at a certain time to have the energy to sustain their workout,” Newell says. “It’s important to get that right balance of macronutrients for performance and healing.”

People with health concerns such as diabetes or high cholesterol can adjust the proportion of carbohydrates, fats and protein.

Newell says that you may find this way of eating less restrictive than other approaches, particularly diets that emphasize minimizing or eliminating entire groups of foods, such as carbohydrates. Plus, carbs such as fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils and oats also contain valuable micronutrients.

“You can choose carbohydrates in a healthy way, so there’s more freedom of what you can eat,” Newell says. “There’s more ownership and choice and ways to eat the things you enjoy in moderation.”

You can also track just one macronutrient. “A lot of women don’t get enough protein, but the idea of tracking everything is too overwhelming,” Newell says. “They can start by just focusing on healthy protein sources, for example, and that smaller focus becomes easier to accomplish.”

If you’re interested in counting your macros, online tools can help you get started, but Newell says you may need to see a dietitian to fine-tune the ranges.

“Anytime you make a change in your diet, check in with yourself,” she says. “If you’re not feeling so great after a few weeks, you might be missing something. Everyone’s system is different, so a dietitian can double-check that you’re getting what you need.”

If you have questions about your dietary needs, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.