One popular approach to weight loss is to count calories & macros (short for macronutrients.) While this is not the best approach for everyone, many people find incredible success with it.

This article will explain the difference between calories and macros and help you estimate your own weight loss targets.

Is Calorie & Macro Counting For You?

There are several considerations when deciding on a weight loss approach. I talk about them at length in this post: The Best Weight Loss Approach.

Each approach has pros and cons so it’s really up to you to decide what you think will work best for you right now. 

Pros: Teaches skills to have in your toolbox for long-term success. May help remedy all-or-nothing mentality. Doesn’t eliminate or restrict any food.

Cons: Can cause reliance on external factors. Requires logging intake. Has a learning curve. Can become obsessive for some people.

What Are Calories?

Despite having a very specific, scientific meaning, lots of people only have a vague 

understanding of what calories really are.

Put simply, calories are units of heat energy that are commonly used to measure the energy value of food.

One absolute non-negotiable is that you must be in a calorie deficit in order to lose weight. This means you are taking in fewer calories than your body needs.

Alternatively, if you are gaining weight, it’s because you are taking in more calories than your body needs. This is called a surplus.

When your intake and outputs are relatively matched, you maintain your weight.

Regardless of whether or not you are “counting” calories, they still matter. You can learn more about calorie output in this article: Fat Loss Made Simple.

A good caloric starting point for weight loss is to multiply your bodyweight by 10-13. This means if you weigh 150 pounds, you are likely to lose weight if you are taking in 1500-1950 calories per day. I recommend starting at the higher end of this range and tracking your results for a couple of weeks before decreasing. Why eat less when you can eat more and still lose weight?!

If you are consistently eating 1950 calories for 1-2 weeks but not seeing any changes on the scale or in your measurements or photos, slowly decrease by 50-100 calories until you start to see results.

(Just a reminder here that the scale is not the end-all-be-all. There are plenty of reasons that the scale might not be moving when you actually are making progress. Included here is the possibility that you are gaining muscle at the same rate. You can learn more here: 13 Reasons Why…The Scale Isn’t Moving (And What To Do About It).

The reasons listed in the article above are also why it’s important to track multiple indicators of progress and not just rely on the scale to determine your success. I recommend circumference measurements and photos for all clients but you’ll find plenty more ideas here: How To Gauge Progress Without a Scale.)

What Are Macros?

The term “macro” is short for macronutrient. These are the types of food that your body needs in large quantities. They fall into 3 categories, each with their own important roles:

  • Protein – 4 calories per gram
  • Carbs (veggies are included here) – 4 calories per gram
  • Fats – 9 calories per gram

Alcohol doesn’t fit into any of the categories above. Since it doesn’t provide your body with nutrients, it’s not technically a macronutrient but with an energy value of 7 calories per gram, it gets its own category. You can learn more about how to fit alcohol into a healthy or weight-loss-focused diet in this article: Can You Drink Alcohol + Still Lose Weight?

Protein

Protein plays important roles in building and repairing tissues (hair, skin, nails, bones, muscle), synthesizing hormones, and boosting your immune system. When trying to lose weight (and being in the required calorie deficit), protein also has a few other important roles: 

  • It’s the most satiating macronutrient, meaning it helps you feel satisfied after eating.
  • Getting sufficient protein will help ensure that more of the weight you lose will be fat, as opposed to muscle.
  • It has the highest thermic effect of all the macronutrients. This means it “costs” your body more (aka burns more calories) to digest protein than carbs or fat – up to 5x more!

Protein has 4 calories per gram and is found in sources like animal meats, seafood, soy, dairy, and legumes.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is only .8 grams per 2 pounds of bodyweight. While this may be a sufficient minimum intake, it’s not necessarily optimal for many people. The range for optimal health may be in the range of .54-.7 grams per pound of bodyweight.

Meta-analyses of research suggest that for active populations – and those looking to lose weight – the range is even higher. A goal of .7-1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is preferable for these populations given its thermic effect, and important roles in satiety and muscle retention. This will likely be in the ballpark of 25-35% of your total calories coming from protein.

If you’re not used to eating much protein, set your sights on the lower end of the range since it may feel challenging to take in even that much. 

There doesn’t seem to be an upper limit for protein intake so if you’re so inclined, there’s nothing wrong with having more. It just means you’ll be eating fewer carbs and fat.

A Note About Calories & Protein

Being in a calorie deficit and eating sufficient protein are the 2 most important weight loss factors. (The other 2 factors in this article are also very helpful: Fat Loss Made Simple).

Many clients have great success with just a calorie and protein target and letting their carb and fat intake fall where they may day-to-day. If you’re new to this approach or feel overwhelmed by having so many numbers to think about, stick with just calories and protein. You’ll still see great results.

If you’re feeling at all overwhelmed, my Guide to Getting Started with MyFitnessPal and Tracking Calories & Macros 101 eBooks will be perfect for you. 

Fat

For decades, we were encouraged to fear fat and embrace low-fat everything. Now the pendulum has swung the opposite direction and ketogenic diets are all the rage. 

Your best bet is likely somewhere in the middle – eating enough for optimal health but not so much that you’re sacrificing other macronutrients. Fats are the most energy dense, at 9 calories per gram, but this does not mean to avoid them! You simply have to be aware of portions.

Healthy fats play important roles in hormone function (sex drive, anyone?), nourishing fatty tissues, improving joint mobility, decreasing inflammation, and absorbing fat-soluble vitamins.

Omega-3 fats are an extra healthy type found in seafood such as coldwater fish and algae, and some seeds. These improve heart and brain health, decrease inflammation, improve cell communication, and more. They also may play a role in things like regulating blood sugar, reducing depression, and preserving memory.

If you are not inclined to eat much fatty fish or many high-omega-3 seeds, you may want to consider a supplement – that’s how important these are!             

Your fat-focus should be on those that occur naturally or only require minimal processing, such as fish, nuts (including butters & flours), olives, seeds, avocados, and their oils. 

At a minimum, fat targets should be set at .3g per pound of bodyweight to cover your essential fat. This comes out to about 20-25% but more is just fine if you’re so inclined. (For reference, a ketogenic diet would be 60-75% fat.)

I typically start clients around 30-40% of total calories coming from fat. From there, we’re able to tweak based on personal preference and results. 

Carbs

Your body doesn’t need carbs for survival but they are the preferred source of fuel. They also provide your body with important micronutrients (needed by your body in small amounts.)

Carbs also help regulate digestion, blood sugar, and hormones. Unprocessed carbs like fruit, veggies, tubers, squashes, whole grains, and beans, digest slowly and help you feel satisfied.

Even if you prefer a lower-carb diet, you’ll want to make sure you’re covering your micronutrient (vitamin & mineral) and fiber bases.

Lifestyle, activity level, and personal preference can help you decide how much of your diet you want to come from carbs. If you are sedentary, maybe most of your carb intake will come from vegetable sources. If you’re very active or have a very physical job, maybe a larger percentage of your daily calories come from carbs like whole grains, root vegetables, and fruit. 

Once you have calculated your calorie, protein, and fat targets, whatever’s leftover is your carbohydrate budget. This could be anywhere from 10-55% of your total calories depending on where your other targets are set.

Within your carb budget, should shoot for about 25g of fiber each day.

Note: If you drastically reduce your carb intake, you’re likely to see a big drop on the scale due to water weight. Each gram of stored carbohydrate (called glycogen) also retains 3 grams of water. When you deplete your glycogen stores, you drop a bunch of water. You have not lost a bunch of fat and the scale will go back up when/if you take in more carbs.

Typically I start clients with somewhere in the ballpark of 30-40% of their total daily calories coming from carbs. From there, we’re able to tweak based on personal preference and results. 

Next Steps

As I mentioned above, if you are feeling overwhelmed, start with just a calorie and protein target. Don’t stress too much about fats and carbs as long as calories and protein are in check.

One approach is to log your food for a few days, see where your fats and carbs fall, and set your targets in that vicinity.

Another is to set your fat and carb targets at roughly equal percentages of your total intake, seeing if you’re consistently over on one and under on the other. From there, you can adjust accordingly.

Once you have your targets in place, it’s important that you accurately track what you’re eating and drinking. You’ll want to use an app like MyFitnessPal to make this as simple as possible. After you set up the app, you’ll need to input your own targets. Follow this video to set up your own targets in MyFitnessPal.

My Guide to Getting Started with MyFitnessPal and Tracking Calories & Macros 101 eBooks will walk you through everything from how to download the app, to all sorts of tips to make logging a breeze, to fitting in indulgences like wine and chocolate into your weight loss diet.