By Dr. Megan Rigby, DNP and Nutrition Consultant,
Photo by Chris Ryan/

Most of us are all too familiar with the concept of calories. From early on, we’ve been programmed to determine our food choices with this value in mind; whether it’s on a nutrition label or restaurant menu, we immediately cast judgement on items based on their caloric price tag. The problem is, this very vague and outdated practice does not paint the whole picture of what we are, or should be, consuming.  

Sure, restricting calories can lead to overall weight loss, but it does not necessarily differentiate between fat or muscle. When adding up the calories in a snack or meal, there is no indication of the actual quality of the foods being consumed, only the amount. Meaning that calories from nutrient-dense whole foods have no distinction from junk food of equal caloric value; a bag of candy may contain the same number of calories as a salad with chicken. 

Calorie counting also provides zero insight to the amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fats (a.k.a. macronutrients) being consumed in a meal or over the course of the day. Each of these categories has specific caloric values, which is the way total calories are calculated (we’ll get to those specifics later).

Following a nutrition plan in which macronutrients are tracked has proven to be a successful approach because it allows for more precise tracking and a better understanding of personalized nutrition. One is not limited or required to eat a certain way in order to utilize macros. A macro-based diet could be low-carb higher-fat, vegetarian, vegan, keto, paleo, gluten-free, and the list goes on. This method also offers flexibility and variety in your day-to-day life. The ability to easily exchange foods helps when going out to eat, attending events, or even dealing with the unexpected. Boring and restrictive diets lead to unhealthy habits and keep you from achieving true success.

The Value of Protein

Protein is the building block for maintaining, repairing, and growing muscle tissue. At four calories per gram, it is also the biggest bang for your buck, as a serving of protein digests slowly and helps keep you satisfied until your next meal. This macro also plays an important role in the regulation of hormones as well as repairing other tissues such as cartilage, hair, skin, and nails.  

Don't Fear Carbs

Perhaps the most craved and readily available macronutrient, carbohydrates are typically the first to be restricted when people are attempting to get leaner. Also clocking in at four calories per gram, carbohydrates provide the body with a quick source of energy. This macro is the body’s primary source of fuel, as it breaks down carbohydrates into glucose (sugar) which is used for cellular energy.

Your Body Needs Fat

One of the most common misconceptions about fat is that it makes you fat. Yes, fat contains the greatest amount of calories at nine per gram, but the reality is that in addition to improving satiety and the absorption of several vitamins and nutrients, fats are essential in regulating hormones, protecting organs, and keeping the brain functional. When hormones are properly balanced, they provide a better environment for losing weight and/or building muscle. It is crucial that healthy fats (unsaturated) are included in the diet each day.  

How Macro Counting Works

Before beginning a macro tracking program, you must first determine your total daily caloric needs. This number, be it 1500 a day or 3000, should take into account your age, height, weight, metabolism, and activity level. Next, you determine the ideal macronutrient breakdown for you and your health goals. For example, if someone is looking to maintain their health and weight and their daily caloric intake is 2000, their macronutrient ratio might be as follows: 

  • Carbs: 45–65% of total calories
  • Fats: 20–35% of total calories
  • Proteins: 10–35% of total calories

If that same person was looking to lose weight, the carb intake may be lower and the protein higher. If they were on the ketogenic diet, fat would be much higher and the carbs very limited. 

Macro counting is a very personalized process, and not a one-size-fits-all approach like so many popular diets. If you are seeking to better understand your body and nutrition, it is recommended you hire a nutritionist or macro coach. This person will help create custom numbers while also providing accountability and education specific to you. Remember, before hiring anyone to help with something as important as your nutrition, make sure you’ve done your due diligence and found someone with the proper credentials and experience. If you’re looking to learn more about macros without making an initial financial investment, try one of these free macro calculators:

  • My Fitnesspal
  • My Macros+
  • Lose It


Each gram of protein contains 4 calories 
(ex: 10 g of protein = 40 calories)

Examples of protein:
Soy & Beans 
Whey powder


Each gram of carbs contains 4 calories 
(ex: 10 g of carbs = 40 calories) 

Examples of carbs:
Starchy vegetables
Grains (quinoa, oats, rice, etc.)


Each gram of fat contains 9 calories 
(ex: 10 g of fat = 90 calories) 

Examples of fats:
Nuts & Seeds
Nut butters
Oils (olive, coconut, etc.)

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