What Is A Macronutrient? – Counting Macros For Beginners

what is a macronutrient

Over the past few months, I’ve been getting slightly annoyed at the “attack of the macros”. Everyone seems to be counting and adjusting them, hashtagging #IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), etc. My annoyance was mostly because of the “counting” part. I’m not into obsessing over what we put into our bodies so counting anything sends up red flags for me. Once I saw mentions of “counting macros” as a more flexible way to watch what you eat and to make sure you’re getting proper nutrition, I started to pay attention.

After delving into the literature a bit, I came up with an overview to answer the question “What is a macronutrient?” and serve as a starting point if you want to dig a little deeper and do some experimenting. Counting macros for beginners, if you will.

What is a macronutrient?

A macronutrient is a substance that living organisms need (to consume) in large quantities. The three main types of macronutrients in the human diet are: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. These foods provide our body with energy (in the form of calories).

Calories are a measurement of energy. Each class of macronutrient provides our bodies with a different amount of energy (in the form of calories) per gram. A carbohydrate provides 4g of calories per gram, a protein provides 4 calories as well, and one gram of fat provides 9 calories.

Here’s a more detailed example using the nutrition label from a lemon-flavored LaraBar. (Skip this if your head is already swimming with too many numbers!)

what is a macronutrient

The label lists 11g of fat. This means that the bar will provide 99 calories of energy from these fats. It also has 26g of carbohydrates. This works out to 104 calories from carbohydrates. Finally, this LaraBar has 6g of protein. You’ll get 24 calories of energy from protein. The energy you’re giving to your body by eating this bar is coming primarily from carbohydrates, secondarily from fats, and lastly from proteins.

Why do we need all three macronutrients?

It’s important to eat a good balance of macronutrients because they all perform important functions in the body. This table from GGS Information Services/Thomson Gale give a nice summary:

what is a macronutrient

In order to “count your macros” you first need to know your energy requirements…

counting macros for beginners
Your BMR is your caloric requirements to maintain “sloth-mode”.

And this is where things get tricky. A full explanation is beyond my qualifications (and current available brainspace, to be honest). Here’s the nitty-gritty for now and I’ll update it after I become a personal trainer 😉


The first step is to figure out your BMR (basal metabolic rate). This is the amount of energy (calories) you would need to maintain your current weight if you weren’t doing any activities.


The second step is to add to this amount based on your activity-level. This is commonly referred to as TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). Your BMR + TDEE = the amount of calories you should be consuming daily to maintain your weight.

You can add calories to this number to gain weight or subtract them to create a calorie deficit and lose weight. (This is, of course, a simplification. Macro-attackers, don’t freak out!) The Leangains Website has a really thorough article with built-in calculators for BMR and TDEE.

Wait a second…I wanted to do macros not math!

You now have your daily caloric needs figured out (and altered to reflect whether your goal is to maintain, lose, or gain weight). The goal of “counting macros” is to make sure that you’re getting proper nutrition as you meet these caloric needs each day (by eating – yay! finally!).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that adults between the ages of 20 and 35 should be getting 20 – 35% of their daily calories from fat, 45-65% from carbohydrate, and 10-35% from protein.


These percentages are called Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) and they’re related to the Daily Values that you see on nutrition labels. For a full explanation of how these terms are related, you have to read a different page because the government makes things complicated. These percentages are general guidelines and can be adjusted to suit any individual’s specific needs and goals.

counting macros for beginners
LiveLifeActive.com’s macro cheat sheet

How do I get started?

You can, of course, use a handy-dandy app. I chose one randomly. It’s called MyPlate and it has way more features than I need. I’m pretty sure it’s designed for people with weight loss and general food and activity tracking in mind. Since I’m only using it to help myself get back onto a regular eating schedule (work trips and being at home without the bf always mess me up!), I’ll keep it for a few weeks then dump it. If you’re going the app route, I suggest taking a look at this article on Daily Burn.

If you’re a pen and paper kinda person, you probably have a bunch of numbers written down from the paragraphs above. I’ve saved a macro counting worksheet to Fit & Fresh Daily’s Nutrition Information Pinterest Board for you to use. LiveLifeActive.com has a diagram of common foods and which macronutrients they provide. Let me know how it goes! You should probably be doing my taxes…

Is counting macros for me?

Counting macros might be for you if you’re craving some structure but aren’t into obsessively counting (and cutting) calories. It might also be for you if you notice that you eat mostly carbs and aren’t sure how to balance out your diet. Same goes for too much fat or not enough protein. It’s definitely given me some insight into where the majority of my food energy is coming from and a more realistic idea of my daily caloric requirements. Give it a whirl and find out!

I would love to hear feedback on this article. I’d like to know what additional questions you have so that I can improve it! Any feedback from diehard macro-counters would be useful too. Fact check away – I’d appreciate it. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to share 🙂


6 thoughts on “What Is A Macronutrient? – Counting Macros For Beginners”

  • Hi,

    Thank you Very much for this article. It is very helpful!

    Do you think I could benefit from some apps to help me calculate all of these numbers?

    If so, please suggest some cool apps that can help me with the math.


    • BodyCal (IIFYM, BMI, Body Fat) and Macros – Calculate Your Diet are two calculator-only apps you can use to get started. Lisa mentioned My Fitness Pal (above) and I am currently using My Plate as a food diary after to make sure you’re meeting macro requirements. I hope this helps!

  • I have recently started keeping a food diary to help me learn how to eat with purpose instead of eating just to eat. I have been using My Fitness Pal, which makes it super simple I also noticed that it tracks my macros as well. I knew they were important, but I didn’t really understand the why behind it. Thanks for explaining macros!

  • Awesome article. I am a little overweight due to Uhhh ??? Food I think so this may help me. I’m going to give it a whirl and will get back here with another comment if I see any improvement. I am a math guy but hate counting calories(sounds crazy huh) with my food so the apps may help me.
    So I’m bookmarking the site and sharing the article across the social sites because I know people who just might benefit!
    Thanks for your insight!

    • That’s great, Dennis 🙂

      I’d recommend an app with a barcode scanner (such as My Plate) because this makes tracking food even easier. I will only be using my app for a little longer as I’m starting to get back on track but this is the first time ever that I’ve been able to stick to “counting” anything food-related. I can’t wait to hear how it goes!

      Also, thanks for sharing!

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