Learning how to count macros is one of the highest leverage steps you can take to get and stay in shape.
Doing so allows you to build muscle and lose fat on cue, while eating whatever you want, and with no need to obsess over “eating clean,” precise meal times, or other dietary shibboleths.
In other words, once you learn how to practice “if it fits your macros” style dieting, the nutrition side of fitness becomes a connect-the-dots game.
You eat the right amounts of protein, carbs, and fat (macronutrients, or “macros”) every day, you follow a sensible workout program, and you build the body you want.
Figuring your macros only takes a moment if you use a macro formula (also known as a macro equation), like the one in this article. If you want to do it the old-fashioned way, though, you can also follow this five-step process:
- Calculate your calories.
- Calculate your protein intake.
- Calculate your fat intake.
- Calculate your carb intake.
- Adjust everything based on how your body responds.
That’s all there is to it, and by the end of this article, you’re going to know how to do each of these steps with ease.
The Best Macros Formula for Everyone
The fastest and easiest way to calculate your macros is to use a macro formula, which takes your body weight, age, activity levels (and some other data, depending on the equation), and uses them to compute how many grams of protein, carbs, and fat you should eat to reach your goal.
The two best ways to use a macro formula are:
- Open the Legion Macronutrient Calculator and enter your stats and current goal, and it’ll tell you what your macros should be.
- Calculate your macros using the simple mathematical formulas shared below.
While the Legion Macronutrient Calculator is the fastest way to compute your macros, some people like to do the math themselves. Here’s how:
If your goal is to gain lean muscle (“bulk”), eat 16-to-18 calories per pound of body weight per day. Then, get 25% from protein, 20% from fat, and 55% from carbs.
If your goal is to lose body fat (to “cut”), eat 10-to-12 calories per pound of body weight per day. Then, get 40% from protein, 20% from fat, and 40% from carbs.
If your goal is to maintain your current fat percentage, eat 14-to-16 calories per pound of body weight per day. Then, get 30% from protein, 25% from fat, and 45% from carbs.
Once you have your results, you’re ready to build a meal plan and start making progress toward your goals. That said, if you want to learn more about where these numbers come from and how to adjust your macros based on your circumstances, keep reading.
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Step 1: Calculate your calories.
You’ve probably seen fit people eat stuff that you thought you had to avoid if you want to have a great physique.
You know…pasta, ice cream, cereal, candy, and the like.
Are these Instagram show-offs just genetically blessed? Lying? On steroids?
Well sure, some have great genetics, some are just sharing the occasional cheat meal, and some are most certainly on drugs.
But none of that has any bearing on their “ability” to eat like a hedonist and stay lean and muscular.
You can do it too, and here’s why:
When we’re talking body composition, the kind of food you eat is far less important than the amount.
In other words, the total number of calories that you eat, and how those calories break down into protein, carbs and fat, controls your body weight and composition, not the individual foods themselves.
That’s why Professor Mark Haub was able to lose 27 pounds in 10 weeks on a diet of protein shakes and Doritos, Little Debbie snacks, Oreos, and Twinkies. It’s why high school teacher John Cisna lost 56 pounds eating nothing but carefully controlled portions of McDonald’s for six months. Most importantly, it’s why nearly a century of metabolic research has conclusively proven that the only way to reliably lose weight is to eat less energy (calories) than you burn.
The bottom line is that calorie restriction works, both in the lab and in the field. For everyone. Every time.
If you consistently eat fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight, even if those calories come from junk food.
Calories go the other way, too, because the only reliable way to gain weight is to eat more calories than you burn.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
All of this doesn’t mean that you have to count calories and macros to lose or gain weight or that they’re all that really matters in the realm of dieting (food quality matters, too).
What it does mean, though, is you need to have a firm grasp of these fundamentals if you want to know how to change and control your body weight and composition with ease.
So, with all that behind us, let’s get to the point:
How many calories should you be eating?
There are many different ways to figure this out, but like I mentioned a moment ago, the easiest way is to enter your stats and goal in the Legion Macronutrient Calculator.
When you open the calculator, you’ll notice that you can choose from a few different equations to calculate your calorie needs. I tend to recommend the Mifflin-St Jeor equation as it doesn’t require you to estimate your body fat percentage and produces results on par with other formulas. If you have a good handle on what your body fat percentage is, though, then the Katch-McArdle equation tends to be a smidge more accurate.
In any case, all you have to do is enter your gender, weight, height, age, and activity level, and the calculator will estimate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
Once you have your TDEE, you can determine how many calories you should be eating by doing the following:
- If you want to lose weight, you should eat 75 to 80% of your TDEE, or 20 to 25% less energy than you’re burning every day.
- If you want to gain weight, you should eat 110 to 115% of your TDEE, or 10 to 15% more energy than you’re burning.
- And if you want to maintain your weight, you should eat 100% of your TDEE, or more or less exactly what you’re burning every day.
(As you can see, the calculator also lets you set and adjust your macros, and you’ll understand how these work by the end of the article.)
Finally, I want to share one more equation with you, which is handy because of its simplicity: the Lyle McDonald calorie equation. Here it is:
- 10-to-12 calories per pound of body weight to lose fat.
- 16-to-18 calories per pound of body weight to gain muscle.
- 14-to-16 calories per pound of body weight to maintain your weight.
Although this method will be a little less accurate for outliers (such as people who are very active, very overweight, and so forth), it works well as a quick and dirty solution that’s almost as accurate as more complicated equations for most people.
Step 2: Calculate your protein intake.
This is step number two because out of the three macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat), it’s the most important.
Get your protein intake right, and studies show that you’ll . . .
- Recover better from your workouts.
- Gain muscle and lose fat faster.
- Lose less muscle when restricting your calories for weight loss.
- Feel fuller and more satisfied from your meals.
The bottom line is a high-protein diet beats a low-protein one in just about every way, and especially for us fitness folk.
How much protein should you be eating, then?
Research shows that somewhere between 0.8 and 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day is optimal.
If you’re very overweight (25%+ body fat in men and 30%+ in women), then this can be reduced to around 30% of your daily calories.
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
Step 3: Calculate your fat intake.
It wasn’t so long ago that health “gurus” everywhere were blathering about how eating fat made you fat.
People listened, and low-fat dieting became a craze.
While getting your fat intake to as close to zero as possible can help you lose weight (it’s a great way to drastically reduce calorie intake), it’s also quite unhealthy (and unnecessary).
Dietary fat is an essential nutrient and part of many physiological processes ranging from hormone production to insulin sensitivity, cell turnover, satiety, muscle growth, and nutrient absorption.
That said, eating too much fat isn’t going to do your body any favors, either (and especially in the case of saturated fat).
The idea, then, is to eat a moderate amount of fat that allows you to control your calories and optimize your health and macros.
In other words, you want to eat enough fat to support general health and well-being, but not so much that you have to reduce protein and carbohydrate intake unnecessarily to stay within your caloric limits.
For most people, that’s around 0.3 grams of fat per pound of body weight per day, which typically works out to around 20-to-30% of total calories.
Some people prefer a bit more and some a bit less, but that’s the “sweet spot” for most of us.
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Step 4: Calculate your carb intake.
Now the final step: calculating your carbs.
There’s little argument about the merits of eating enough protein and fat, but carbs are another story.
While the dietary crusade against the poor carbohydrate molecule is still raging in some circles, the scientific consensus is clear: so long as you regulate your calorie intake properly, you can be as lean as you want eating all the carbs you like.
What’s more, if you exercise regularly (and especially if you lift weights), and are otherwise healthy, then you’re going to do better with more, not fewer carbs in your diet. This is even true for people who are overweight, so long as they’re in a calorie deficit.
That’s right. I’m saying that you shouldn’t eat a low-carb diet, and for a few good reasons:
Carbs are the primary fuel source for intense exercise and can help you gain muscle and strength faster by keeping glycogen levels topped off. They also don’t get in the way of fat loss, and serve as a great source of various micronutrients and fiber.
Now that I’ve (hopefully) eased your mind about eating carbs, let’s talk about how to calculate your carb intake.
It’s very simple: just allot your remaining calories to them.
By now, you’ve calculated how many calories you should be eating every day as well as how much protein and fat.
A gram of protein and carbohydrate both contain about 4 calories, and a gram of fat contains about 9, so to figure out your carbs, you . . .
- Multiply your protein target by 4.
- Multiply your fat target by 9.
- Add these together and subtract the sum from your total calories, giving you the number of calories you have remaining for carbs.
- Divide this remaining number by 4 to get the number of grams of carbs you should eat every day.
Let’s look at an example of how this plays out.
I weigh about 190 pounds and my TDEE is about 2,700 calories, which is what I intend on eating every day to maintain my weight and body composition.
I need to eat 190 grams of protein and 60 grams of fat per day, and here’s how I figure out my carbs:
190 x 4 = 760
60 x 9 = 540
760 + 540 = 1,300, and 2,700 – 1,300 = 1,400 calories remaining for carbs.
1,400 / 4 = 350 grams of carbs per day.
Thus, my macros are:
- 190 grams of protein
- 60 grams of fat
- 350 grams of carbs
Again, as I explained at the beginning of this article, you can also just set your macros as a percentage of your daily calorie intake, but this more in-depth method tends to do a slightly better job of dialing in your macros for your unique circumstances.
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Step 5: Adjust everything based on how your body responds.
You’ve just learned the biggest “secrets” to building your best body ever.
- Calories always count.
- A high-protein diet always helps with muscle growth and fat loss.
- Everyone needs to eat a healthy amount of fats, but no more.
- And most people into working out will benefit from more carbs rather than less.
That said, the formula I just gave above may not work perfectly for you right out of the box. You may need to tweak it for your body and circumstances.
There are quite a few reasons for why a one-size-fits-all approach to calculating macros doesn’t always work.
You may have more or less muscle mass than average, which can skew your calorie needs up or down.
You may engage in a lot of spontaneous activity throughout the day without realizing it, like walking around while on the phone, hopping to the bathroom, drumming your fingers while you read, or bobbing your legs when you think. This can add up to hundreds of calories per day.
Your job and/or hobbies may burn more energy than you realize (causing you to underestimate actual energy expenditure), and you may burn more (or less) energy than average during exercise.
The good news is you don’t have to try to account for all of this when figuring out your macros. Instead, you can start simple and just adjust your numbers up or down based on how your body is actually responding.
Here are the basic rules of thumb:
- If you’re trying to gain weight but aren’t, you just need to eat more.
Most “hardgainers” just don’t eat enough. End of story. If your weight won’t go up despite putting in high-quality work in the gym, increase your daily calorie intake by 5%, give it a couple weeks, and see what happens.
- If you’re trying to lose weight but aren’t, you need to eat less or move more. If you’re not losing weight, you’re probably eating too much.
The solution isn’t to necessarily cut food intake right away, though. There’s a bit more you should know, and this article breaks it all down for you.
(And again, if you feel confused about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz to learn exactly what diet is right for you.)
+ Scientific References
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