Macros, am I right? Okay, for those of you who start salivating because macros sounds slang for “macaroni” I’ve got some bad news and some good news. The bad news is, no…it is not slang for macaroni…and more likely than not macaroni probably doesn’t have the macros you’re looking for. The good news is, that figuring out what macros are, is like unlocking this whole new world of how your body works. It’s pretty cool. But it does require some math. So if you’re into that, awesome! If you’re not, it’ll still be okay because I’m terrible at math and even I can handle this. But also – learn your way around an excel sheet. Having pre-set formulas is a huge help!
So, what are macros?
Macronutrients (macros for short) are what make up the caloric content of food. The three categories of macronutrients are carbohydrates, fat, and protein. The caloric combination of the macros is where that mysterious total number of calories comes from. Here’s the breakdown:
- 1 gram of Carbohydrates = 4 calories
- 1 gram of Fat = 9 calories
- 1 gram of Protein = 4 calories
But there’s more to carbs. A tiny bit more. “Total Carbs” is the number you typically see on a nutrition label. Because it’s a combo of the things that make up that carb – mostly fiber and sugar. However, dietary fiber is not processed the same way sugar is. Because dietary fiber is a carbohydrate that your body cannot digest, it does not raise your blood sugar levels or trigger an insulin response. So it’s being lumped in with sugar, but sugar is mostly the one to watch out for.
Because of all of this, you get to SUBTRACT any grams of Dietary Fiber from your Total Carbs to come up with the NET Carbs. Score!!!
Here are a couple different macro ratios for different goals. Note: None of them are truly ketogenic goals, but this is just to show you what some other people use.
Why should you care about macros?
Soooo…here’s where I spill the beans. The simple truth of the matter is, I don’t really care if you care about macros. Because I don’t really care about macros.
BUT BUT BUT…You still need to KNOW about macros in order to understand what does or doesn’t work for you.
I know. I should be a super cheerleader of macros because a lot of people focus on macros these days. But to be honest, it’s something that I focused on more in the beginning of my keto journey, and then as soon as I got a couple things figured out…it was like I just magically hit my macros every day (or close to it). So I guess this is to say – once you figure out how to keep your recommended macros stable…it’s something you should monitor but not worry about as much.
Does that mean we’re done with this topic? We can just move on with our lives? No, silly. We still have a lot to cover. I just wanted to be forthright with you all because when I started writing this I was like, “MACROS ARE SUPER IMPORTANT” and then as I continued writing I was like, “Why does this feel so boring to write about? Oh, because I actually don’t think they’re super important.” BUT. As a beginner, you might be in a different boat – likely the one where everything about keto is overwhelming and intimidating, so I’m still going to do my best to break these concepts down for you. But just know this will be one of those “Okay got it…now I can move on to cooler keto topics”…type of a thing.
Let’s dive into an example
I’m an English major. I was a copywriter and content strategist for years. Math? It doesn’t come natural to me. But I can use a calculator. And I can put together some rough excel formulas. So if you can do that, you can figure out macros too!
Let’s start with an example of my favorite, rare treat – Justin’s hazelnut butter (organic version of Nutella). You’ll see why it’s a rare treat in a minute.
In green, I highlighted the numbers you need to focus on: Total Fat, Total Carbs, Dietary Fiber And Protein.
In order to figure out the macros of this deliciousness we need to first get everything on the same playing field. Which means we need to convert the grams into “kcals” (which is a fancy way of saying “calories”). Here’s what you need to do to each of these items to get them into kcals…
- Multiple the Total Fat by 9 = 126 kcals
- Subtract Dietary Fiber from Total Carbs = 9 grams
- Multiply the remaining NET Carbs by 4 = 36 kcals
- Multiply Protein by 4 = 16 kcals
Side note: It adds up to 178, not the 180 calories listed on the package, but sometimes you find those super small discrepancies (not a very scientific answer but just go with me on this).
Once you have the kcal breakout for each, then you can divide each by the total to see the macro ratios for this particular item.
Here we have:
- Fat: 126 divided by 178 = 71%
- Carbs: 36 divided by 178 = 20%
- Protein: 16 divided by 178 = 9%
So that’s the macros for this particular amazingness.
Now if I compare this macro ratio to what it is recommended for me to stay in Keto (Fat: 81%, Carbs: 5%, Protein: 14%), I’m trending the wrong way with carbs and proteins. Knowing the macros helps me see that I’m going to have to make up for this somehow that day by upping my protein a smidge and really watching my carbs in my other meals.
Also, I would keep in mind that the current program I’m doing allows for 24 grams of carbs a day. This is over a third of my daily carb intake! And that’s why it’s a rare treat when eaten alone. Now I use it mostly in fat bombs that increase the macros in the right direction. What’s a fat bomb you ask? Fatty deliciousness that helps you course correct if you need to. More about that in my upcoming ebook: “The Keto Good Life: How to Get Started.”
Quick lesson on the wrong way to calculate macros (at least for keto)
Because I totally did this wrong a couple times in the beginning, I’ll also show you what not to do. Learn from my mistakes, young grasshopper.
- Simply adding up the amounts you see on the nutrition label and dividing that amount to get each of the ratios. This is wrong, because it assumes that all macros are created equal. But they’re not. A gram of fat LITERALLY carries more calories than a gram of carbohydrates or protein. So you have to put them on the same scale. That scale is kcals (calories).
- Taking any of the amounts you see on the nutrition label and dividing that by the total calories to figure out the ratio. This is basically just a different way of getting to the same wrong answer listed in number 1.
- Forgetting to subtract the Dietary Fiber! This is a biggy because with keto you have SO. FEW. CARBS. So you need to find things that are very low carb. And if you look at the “Total Carbs” of everything without accounting for Dietary Fiber…I mean technically you’re doing it wrong, but it’s the good kind of wrong. It’ll keep you in ketosis but you’re going to make it that much harder on yourself when really you could have a couple more carbs and still be in ketosis. So if you’re gonna be wrong…be this kind of wrong. Err on the side of safety.
Now that begs the question – what’s a good macro ratio?
There are a million different answers to this depending on your activity level, your gender, how your body is built, what your goals are, etc. The point is, my macros are likely not your macros because we have different bodies. Shocking, right? However, I will sum up the two answers to this that are the most fitting for a conversation about going keto.
The first answer is…the macros that will get you into — and help you stay — in ketosis:
- 60-75% of calories from fat (or even more)
- 5-10% of calories from carbs
- 15-30% of calories from protein
If you’re trying to get into ketosis, this is not a guessing game. Your carbs need to be really low. Your protein should be moderate. Your fat should be pretty high. Your exact macro ratios within that will still vary depending on your goals: like do you want to be in keto AND lose weight, or be in keto and just maintain, and what’s your activity level while in keto? Answering those questions (and more) will get your exact keto macro recommendations.
There are a lot of calculators online that can help you figure this out. But I also really liked the recommendation tools built into the “Keto Diet App” that I downloaded to my phone. It has other fancy shmancy things – like tracking food and showing you really simple outputs, but mostly I use it to figure out my macro ratios depending on my keto goals.
The second answer is…whatever macro ratio is best for YOUR body and YOUR goals.
I write these articles with a keto-slant, because that’s what I’m focusing on right now. But if your goal is different – maybe you have one of the goals I mentioned earlier – it’s totally okay for you to have non-keto specific macros.
My one warning though, is that there is a lot of “general guidance” around macros out there. And whatever you do, just try to find something that works specifically for YOU not some guidance that some huge organization has deemed “appropriate” for the masses. They mean well, but really everyone processes things different. Find what works for you!
Case in point…When I first started tracking calories and macros using fitbit, they had their own research from the USDA on appropriate macros to live a healthy lifestyle.They were:
- 20-35% of calories from fat
- 45-65% of calories from carbs
- 10-35% of calories from protein
So…quite a bit different from the keto-friendly macros. The emphasis is on carbs and larger amounts of proteins and a lot less fat. But at that point in my understanding, I had literally ZERO understanding of macros and what was right for me, so having any kind of guidance was a good starting point. It was at least something to benchmark my progress against. And if you’re taking a slow approach to keto, I think it’s totally fine to start with something like this. It can be a shock to the system to jump right into 5% carbs. When I first started tracking against the USDA recommendations for macros, some days I was shocked to find out that I couldn’t even get down to 65% carbs. I was eating THAT many carbs. I mean, who doesn’t love carbs, right?
But as you progress in your understanding, you can start to research what macros are actually right for you. The Keto Diet App, again, is great for figuring out macros for keto goals. But if you’re on to something different, there are still a ton of resources online that can help you find macros for your specific goals. Literally just google, “Macros for X” (Where “X” is whatever goal you’re aiming for) and you’ll strike gold.
How to hit your macros
So you’ve figured out what your macros should be. Great. Now how do you make sure you hit those? Well, now that you have the tools to break down nutrition labels (tools being your brain that can do some math and maybe the help of calculators and excel sheets), there are a couple ways to ensure you hit your macros.
Option 1: Track as you go – and learn to right size.
When I was first starting out, I did my best to track what I was eating as I went. But what usually would happen is I would already be way too high on one end of my macros by noon because I didn’t understand at a glance what made up these foods and then I’d spend the rest of the day trying to figure out how to right-size it. This usually involved me going too high on carbs and protein too early on and then having to figure out how to eat only fat the rest of the day. Which, some days I could do it, but other days that was really tough.
The good news is, if this is how you choose to handle your macros, it can STILL work. There are these things called fat bombs. Where you basically eat a ton of fat to right size your macros. Fat bombs are super yummy regardless if your aim is to right size or not. I used to eat a lot more of these in the beginning, but need them less now because my macros are pretty in line throughout the day and a fat bomb is just not necessary. So here’s how to right size if you tip too far over on any of the three macros.
How to right size your macros…
- Too many carbs and not enough fat: Fat bombs. Google it. You’ll find a ton of super yummy recipes. Or just eat coconut oil by the spoonful. Some people love this! I can’t get to this extreme, but to each his/her own, I guess. Also, put down the carbs – especially if you’re on the keto diet. Going over your carbs is not only going to be bad for your macros but also, going too high on carbs could quite literally kick you out of ketosis. You’ve been warned!
- Too much fat and not enough carbs: Okay – if you’re not into keto, you can step up healthy carbs with salads and some not-super-sugary dressing (I like ranch or caesar). If you’re trying for keto – this isn’t really an issue. If you’re at 90% fat and 9% protein and 1% carbs..I have no clue what you were eating to get to this point (maybe you’re the person that eats spoonfuls of coconut oil?) but this is actually totally okay for ketosis. It’s not hitting your macros but it’s not swinging the wrong way either. Just try for a tiny bit more variety the next day.
- Too much protein and not enough fat: Put. Down. The. Protein. Shake. I know. I KNOW. There are some very addicting and yummy protein shakes out there. But especially if you’re in keto, you gotta watch out for this sneaky mc-sneakerton. Why? Because your body…once it’s in fat burning mode…is still always looking for ways to kick you back into carb-burning. And protein? Well, it can be used as a mechanism to get you back to that if you’re too high in protein. Your body is like, “Wait, I don’t HAVE to use this fat for energy, I see a lot of protein over here and I could make due with turning THAT into a glucose.” And then voila…you’re kicked out of ketosis. My suggestion is stick to natural forms of protein- but have a good mix of fatty and lean proteins. Some days I do chicken thighs (dark, fatty meat), some days I do chicken breasts (light, leaner meat). Occasionally I’ll do super lean meat like turkey burgers, but then I know that I have to make up that fat content somewhere else
Option 2: Plan your meals ahead so you can see how your macros line up.
At current, this is my preferred method. I put together a plan for what I’m going to eat during the day so that I can make sure I meet my goals.
Now if I’m being totally honest, which I strive to be on here, I do a lot of negotiating with myself even WITH a plan in place. Some days I know I’m going to have a hard time following my plan even if it’s the most amazing food ever, and I’ll switch up the plan as I go, but make mental notes of how I need to right size later on. For me – it’s easy to stay on track with breakfast and lunch because I have to pack my lunch and there aren’t really a lot of temptations for me once I’m in the office. However, some days I’ll decide to go to lunch and then I’ll have to think about how to re-configure my dinner for that day to make sure I’m not going over on macros or calories.
Either way – I track it all in a spreadsheet. So regardless of the outcome – whether I hit my goals or not, I have evidence of it.
Here is an example where I hit my macros…but as you can see there was some delicious right sizing happening at the end in the form of my super yummy “hybrid” whipped cream where I mix heavy whipping cream and coconut milk (this and other delicious treats will be posted to the site and available in my keto ebook soon!
Understanding macros is not a free pass to ignore your calories (for most of us)
Okay. So here’s the good news about macros. If your goal is NOT weight loss, you can likely focus on hitting your macros and not so much on your caloric intake.
Let’s take my brother, for example. I don’t what his goal is exactly, but he’s in ketosis and he’s an athlete so his goal is definitely not weight loss. He wants to make sure he can stay in ketosis and also fuel his body for the many sports and activities he does on a regular basis. For him, he is likely aware of his calories, but there are days where he can eat 3,000 – 3,500 calories and it won’t make him gain weight because he’s staying within his macros and he’s staying under his allotted carb limit to be in ketosis. Now, most of the time he does enough things to burn off these calories.
Me, on the other hand? I’m active, but not THAT active. I am 5’6”…not 6’4”. And if I had to guess his weight, I’d say I’m about 40-50 lbs less than he is. But his weight is primarily lean muscle (which burns energy quicker) where as mine is a decent mix of fat and muscle. But my point is, my goal, at current, is to lose 5lbs. And even when I hit my macros and don’t go over my carbs OR my recommended 1,885 calories, I’m lucky if I lose 1 lb a week. Now that could be from a variety of things, but what I’m getting at is, I don’t have the luxury of not counting calories like my brother does. At least, not while I’m trying to lose these last five pounds. I’ve had the same goals for about a month now, and every time I have a week where I go over a bit, no progress is made. The weeks that I’m firm and stick to the plan, a tiny bit of progress is made.
So – it depends on what your goals are.
- If your goal is just to stay in ketosis however that may be, then your primary focus is on not going over your carb limit (whatever that is for you) and focusing on keeping your marcos in check.
- If your goal does involve weight loss in ketosis, then you’ll need to keep an eye on your carb limit, your macros AND your calorie intake.
Here’s where we play “PSYCH! IT’S OPPOSITE DAY!”
I alluded to this above, but I just want to make it very clear. Ketosis does not care what your macros are. The only thing that will get you into keto and keep you there is by having a VERY limited amount of carbs (somewhere around 20g of carbs for most people). Yes, if you go over on protein and that converts to carbs, you’re screwed. But if you don’t consume all protein shakes, you’re fine on this.
What I’m getting at is…there is a magic number of carbs out there just for your body. I don’t know what that magic number is. You might never know what it is! But if you go over that number, your body will be like “Cool…I think I can go back to being a carb burner.” All the calculators and online tools will give you conservative estimates of what that number should be, but it’s only by testing out varying levels of carbs that you’ll actually find what this limit is. And that limit might not even stay the same, all the time.
So if your goal is ketosis, it’s really good to understand macros, but at the end of the day – you have to stay under that magic number of carbs if you really want to keep this going.
Takeaway: Macros are important. But don’t go crazy. They are guidelines.
Alright. Consider yourself a macro expert. You now know what they are and how to understand them so that you can go forth and CRUSH YOUR GOALS!!! But also – don’t go crazy. Missing your macros one day isn’t the end of the world. Just start again the next day, or even the next meal, and learn from your mistakes.
Finally, here is where I’d like to reiterate that keto is a great way to maintain a healthy living. But so is whole 30 or Paleo for the right person. Each person’s needs are different. If I could process sugar and carbs like I used to, oh my god I would never choose to give them up! That’s why I think you need to find what is right for you. But with understanding comes clarity. So hopefully when people talk about macros now you’ll be likely “Psshhh yeah I know about macros.” BECAUSE YOU DO!
You knew this was coming…
I’m in the process of creating an ebook about getting started with Keto. There is just so much I want to share! So if this is of continued interest and you want tips, tricks, meal plans, fancy spreadsheets and recipes…sign up below to receive the ebook and many other free goodies.