Keto is short for ketogenic diet, which is a low carbohydrate, moderate protein, and high fat program. The goal of a keto diet is to be in a metabolic state known as “ketosis,” through the restriction of carbs. Normally your body takes carbs like pizza, pasta and pastries and turns them into glucose to power itself. But the keto diet helps the body to fuel itself without glucose or high levels of carbs, metabolizing fat instead.
If you’re interested in going keto (or low-carb) full-time, you’ve probably heard the term “macros” floating around. Many people are familiar with the idea of counting calories, less so with counting macros. Both practices help you to pay close attention to your relationship with food and how it impacts your fitness goals, but with very different benefits. Counting calories tells you how much energy you intake each day, while counting macros tells you how that energy is working in your body.
So what are macros exactly?
Macronutrients are the three ways that bodies produce energy from food. Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND award-winning nutrition expert and Wall Street Journal best selling cookbook author, breaks down what these distributions look like on a well-formulated keto diet. “Keto macros are fat (70-75 percent), protein (20-25 percent), and carbs (5-10 percent) of total calories.”
Each macronutrient is an important building block to keep your body going. These three nutrients also have different effects on ketosis because of how our body digests and metabolizes them. You should be eating the fewest amount of carbs and the highest amount of healthy fats, because carbs and protein make it harder to transition into ketosis (or the state where you’re burning fats and ketones instead of glucose), whereas you can get away with considerable fat intake without it impacting ketone levels.
Calculating your macro ratio
Macros can impact your fitness and energy levels, and as such, everyone’s macro requirements are going to be different. It’s a good idea to use a keto macro calculator like this one to tailor the daily recommendations just for you. Make sure to consult with a doctor too, because they can raise any red flags about how keto might impact your health or weight loss — and offer an individualized approach that considers what your body needs.
“Carbs and protein provide four calories per gram, while fat provides nine calories per gram (ie. It’s more energy dense). Different macronutrients have different roles in the body, which is why it’s important to get enough of each of them,” says Abbey Sharp, RD and owner at Abbey’s Kitchen. Keto followers are generally recommended to aim for those nutrient distributions that Amidor mentioned above, in order to meet optimal nourishment. “These recommendations,” which Sharp notes are called the AMDRs, “are ranges associated with reduced risk for chronic diseases and greater chances of reaching your nutrition and mineral needs.”
TL;DR: To trick your body into burning fat for energy, you need to stay close to macronutrient ratios. But don’t worry about meeting your exact macro numbers to the tee. You can get away with minor fluctuations in your macros, because as long as you are near to your ranges, it’ll balance itself out.
How stringent do I need to be with macros?
If you’re not into calculating or tracking your macros, this is called “lazy keto” — and the strategy definitely works for people who aren’t interested in following a strict diet. If you eat keto foods and cut out the carbs, most times you will naturally eat fewer calories than usual and start losing weight.
However, calculating and following your macronutrients can help you avoid a plateau, or not knowing what to do next. Ketosis is what sets low-carb and keto diets apart. It’s important to know how much of each macro (re: fat, protein, carbs) you should eat so that your body can stay in ketosis and increase your chance of results.
Tracking your macros
Typically on the keto diet, it’s important to track how many macros you consume every day. Remember, you’ll probably feel terrible the next day if you eat too many carbs because of how your body will react after getting used to not having them. And hey, the key to nailing any diet is to keep track of what you’re consuming! (Just make sure you’re looking after your brain and aren’t becoming obsessive.)
One of the most popular ways to track your macros is via the MyFitnessPal app, which has a wide range of foods in their system, and it provides a daily breakdown of the carbs, proteins and fats you’re consuming. Other options include Cronometer, MyMacros+, LoseIt! and MyPlate.The ketogenic diet is hotly debated, and chances are it may not be a good fit for you.
But aside from counting macros to get into ketosis, understanding macronutrient needs is helpful because they’ll vary with your age, health status, and overall activity level. Counting macros is a great way to personalize your diet and fine-tune foods to make sure they’re fueling you properly — no ketosis required.
A version of this story was published September 2020.
Before you go, check out our favorite inspiring quotes to encourage healthy attitudes about food and bodies: