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Macros are your macronutrients—protein, carbs, and fat. While calorie intake is important to consider when meeting body composition goals, the ratio of the macros in your diet may be even more important.
A few simple calculations can tell you how much of each to eat each day and the right ratio for muscle building. Counting macros doesn't have to be exact down to a single calorie, but if you stay within a reasonable framework, you will see real results.
Macros are the three types of nutrients that you need the most in your diet: carbohydrate, fat, and protein.
Carbohydrates are sugars, grains, starches, and fiber. They break down into glucose in the body and provide the main source of energy. One gram of carbohydrates provides 4 calories of energy. Carbs are the biggest percentage of calories in most people’s diets.
Fats are the most energy-dense macronutrient, with 9 calories per gram. Fats are in oils, dairy, meat, nuts, and seeds. Vegetables have small amounts of fat. The typical western diet is high in fat, especially saturated fats. A healthy diet limits saturated fat intake and focuses on unsaturated, plant-based fats.
Protein is mostly found in meats, poultry, eggs, dairy, and fish, and in smaller amounts in legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Each gram of protein provides 4 calories of energy. Proteins are essential for muscle growth but also play a role in many functions in the body. Many people don’t get enough dietary protein, and vegetarians and vegans must be especially aware of this macronutrient.
Counting macros means keeping track of the amount and ratio of macronutrients in your diet. You may count the total number of grams of each macro or the percentage of your daily calories.
There are several reasons you might want to start counting macros, but most people do it to achieve a specific goal:
Protein is essential for building muscle tissue. If you're focusing on growing muscle mass or even bulking for bodybuilding, you need to pay attention to protein intake. Macro counting is useful for making sure you not only gain, but don't lose muscle mass you work so hard to put on in the gym.
Macro counting is also useful for body recomposition when you're focusing on fat loss while still maintaining your current muscle mass. Shifting to a higher percentage of protein, up to 35 or 40%, may be beneficial for lean muscle gains.
If you're trying to lose weight, you can count macros by gram instead of calories. This tends to feel less limiting and restrictive than counting calories. It also helps to choose a ratio of macros that supports weight loss, typically higher protein and lower carb amounts.
Macro ratios impact athletic performance too. In fact, athletes were counting macros long before it became trendy. As an example, marathon runners need a diet with a high ratio of carbs for endurance. Counting macros helps ensure they stay fueled.
Don't forget the importance of eating for health and well-being. You may be interested in watching your macros to try to eat less fat, for instance, to reduce your carb habit, or to stick with a keto or other type of diet for health reasons.
Food isn't the only thing that affects muscle gains. Learn how your body type can affect your body composition goals. The best macronutrient ratio for optimal muscle growth can vary depending on how your body deals with weight gain and gaining muscle.
Whether you count macros, count total calories, or both, depends on your goals. If you want to lose weight, it may be more important to count calories to ensure you're in a calorie deficit. For body composition goals, like building lean muscle mass, counting macros is more useful.
Even without a specific goal in mind, there are benefits to counting macros. Doing so gives you a better idea of the quality of the food you're eating. Counting calories only tells you about quantity, not quality. Macro counting puts your focus on nutrition and health, not just on losing or maintaining weight.
Of course, the downside to focusing on your macronutrient ratio is that it takes more effort and time, even with a macro calculator. Still, once you understand the concept and have practiced macro counting, you'll get more efficient and faster at it.
Macro counting can also be limiting. By focusing on only three nutrients, you may turn to the same foods over and over again. Losing variety means you may lose micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Choose a variety of food types with the right macros to avoid this problem.
When you eat matters too. Learn about nutrient timing to see how it can impact your efforts to gain muscle.
Building muscle means putting on weight. Of course, this isn't as simple as increasing your caloric intake, which could lead to fat gain instead of muscle gain. Counting macros will help you put on that extra weight as muscle rather than body fat.
To build muscle, you need to strength train and consume a calorie surplus. To know how many extra calories, first calculate your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE. This is the number of calories you burn per day.
You can calculate your TDEE in a couple of ways. Find an online calculator, which will take into account your gender, age, height, weight, and daily activity level. You can also use a fitness tracker. Or, try both and compare. There is likely to be a discrepancy, but the two together should give you a good idea of how many calories you burn.
You'll find a few different answers about how much to increase your calorie intake to build muscle. A good general rule is 10% over your TDEE. Much less than this and you can lose muscle mass. Too much and you may gain fat as well as muscle.
It's a balance that can take some practice but start with 10% and see how it works for you. As an example, if your TDEE is 2,500 calories, increase daily intake by 250 calories. This gives you a total of 2,750 calories per day.
Now that you have a calorie total, you need to decide on a ratio for your macros. You'll then count them by percentage or grams as you log food each day. Again, as with the calorie increase, doing a little research, you will find different numbers for macro ratios for muscle building.
Protein is the most important number to determine. Most experts recommend somewhere around 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you weigh 180 pounds (82 kg), this amounts to 115 to 164 grams of protein per day. Don't be tempted to go overboard with protein. Studies have found that very high protein intake does not improve muscle growth that much more.
Carb intake is also important because carbs will fuel your workouts that build muscle. Choose 3 to 5 grams of carbs per kg of bodyweight. In the current example, that means 246 to 410 grams per day.
The remainder of your calories can go to fat. In general, focus on unsaturated fats rather than trans or saturated fats. Protein and carbs are the best macros for muscle gain and to pay attention to, but fats make a difference as well. Adjusting your fat intake can help with a lean bulk and building lean body mass.
Here's what this breakdown looks like for 2.0 grams of protein and 4 grams of carbs per kg per day for this 180-pound person:
Protein - 656 calories per day - 24% of daily calories
Carbohydrates - 1,312 calories per day - 48% of daily calories
Fat - 782 calories per day - 28% of daily calories
There is some room here for flexibility. Your totals do not need to be exact. Stay within the ranges suggested, and you have a good framework for adding muscle mass while doing regular strength training.
Counting macros is an effective way to meet your body composition goal. However, it can be tedious. Once you get through the initial math, you still have to track food and calories daily. Use a fitness tracker and or food tracking app with a macronutrient calculator to make this easier. Log foods you eat into an app, like MyFitnessPal, that will automatically give you your macro grams, calories, and protein, carbs, and fat percentage. This will make your life much easier.
Building muscle involves so much more than simply lifting weights. Diet plays an essential role. For faster muscle gains without fat gain, try counting macros.
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Antonio, J., Peacock, C. A., Ellerbroek, A., Fromhoff, B., & Silver, T. (2014). The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11, 19. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-19