What to count – calories, carbs, or macros?

calories, carbohydrates, macros

Counting calories, carbs and macros

When starting a diet, it may be confusing to know what to count. Knowing what calories, carbohydrates and macros are; and understanding how cutting down on one or the other will affect weight loss, will help to get you on the right track.


A calorie is the basic measurement unit for the energy content of food. Calories are essential to maintain the body’s vital functions, or basal metabolic rate. Burning more calories than you consume results in weight loss, and consuming more calories than you burn results in weight gain.

Because fat is the most calorie-dense source of calories some people or under the impression that they should follow the keto diet AND cut fat (calories) at the same time. It is inadvisable to follow a low carb diet and a low calorie diet at the same time.

If you do, your your body will go into starvation mode and your metabolism will start to shut down because you are removing your energy source from the diet. Eventually, if you prolong this situation, your body – out of a desperation for fuel – will start burning muscle tissue for much needed fuel. You definitely don’t want that to happen!


On a regular high carbohydrate diet the body uses glucose as the primary source of energy.

When you cut down your intake of carbs to below 20 – 30g net carbs per day, your body reaches a state known as ketosis. This is when your body starts burning fat instead of glucose.

Carbohydrate intake on low carbohydrate diets are:

  • for the Keto Diet: below 20g – 30g net carbs per day
for the Low Carb Diet: below 50g net carbs per day
  • for a more moderate Low Carb Diet: below 100g carbs per day

It is a misunderstanding to think that the low carb and ketogenic diets are supposed to be high in protein. They should be high in fat, moderate in protein and low in carbs.

So, on the typical ketogenic diet you should aim for 60 – 80% of your daily calorie intake to come from fat, 20 – 35% from protein and the rest (0 – 5%) from carbohydrates. You calculate these percentages by counting macros, or macronutrients.


There are three major macronutrients, or ‘macros’, that the human body needs to function healthily: carbohydrates, protein, and fats (lipids).

Each of these macronutrients provides energy in the form of calories.

  • Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram
  • Proteins provide 4 calories per gram
  • Fats (lipids) provide 9 calories per gram

If you are counting calories rather than macros it is more likely you could be eating too much protein and not enough fat; or too much fat, no carbs and not enough protein. So, to ensure that you get healthy amounts of each macronutrient, it is more advisable to track macros.

Counting macros rather than calories is much healthier because:

  • it helps you understand where the calories come from and the effect they have on your body.
  • it helps you make healthy, informed choices; such as choosing natural, whole food over processed food.
  • it gives you more freedom to choose food items; as opposed to following a rigid meal plan that is not adapted to your lifestyle and needs.

How to calculate macros

According to USDA, the recommended daily allowance of macronutrients (in carbohydrates) is:

  • Protein: 45 to 65 gm.
  • Fat: 25 to 35 gm.
  • Fibre: 21 to 31 gm.

On the Keto Diet, in order to lose weight (burn fat), we need to lower our carb intake to a maximum of 20 gm net carbs per day. Remember, 20 gm net carbs per day is a limit, not a goal.

The ratio of macronutrients YOU need depends on the type of diet and lifestyle you follow. Also, take into account that the amount of calories needed varies from person to person, depending on their history, fitness level, metabolism and genetic predisposition.

Calculating macros is a lot easier now with so many practical free phone apps and online platforms available that track macros, e.g. MyFitnessPal, Carb Manager or Fitocracy Macros.

Counting your macros may become overwhelming especially if you are a beginner, but knowing and counting your macros will help you to lose weight by breaking through the plateau from glucose burning to fat burning. It takes some time and experience to understand what your macros are. So be patient with yourself until you get there.

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