Why dietitians don’t recommend tracking keto macros on the ketogenic diet

A man frowns at his phone as he stands over a kitchen counter of food.
Focusing on quality of food rather than macro breakdowns can be a healthier approach to your relationship with food. fotostorm/Getty Images
  • Keto macros refer to the macronutrients carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
  • Online calculators can provide your keto macro ratio which will emphasize fat over protein or carbs.
  • Tracking macros is associated with an obsession over being thin and is not recommended by dietitians.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

If you’re following the keto diet, you’ve probably heard people talk about tracking macros. 

“Macros represent our macronutrients, which are the pillars of what provides us energy and fuel,” says Lon Ben-Asher, RD, a dietitian at Pritikin Longevity Center, a health and weight loss retreat. 

There are three macros:

  • Carbohydrates, which are the body’s main source of fuel.
  • Proteins, which support cell generation and muscle growth.
  • Fats, which support brain health and vitamin absorption. 

While many diets, including the keto diet, emphasize one macronutrient over the other, everyone needs a balance of all these to be healthy, says Cara Harbstreet, RD, founder of Street Smart Nutrition

“As a dietitian, I don’t place higher importance or emphasis on any of the three, since a combination supports short- and long-term health,” Harbstreet says.

That said, people on the keto diet often track their macros to be sure they’re adhering to the diet, which emphasizes getting most of your calories from fat. 

Here’s what to know about macros on the keto diet. 

What is a keto macro ratio?

Keto diets for weight loss typically follow a macro distribution of roughly: 

  • 60% of calories from fat
  • 30% from proteins
  • 10% from carbs 

This emphasis on fats is designed to kickstart ketosis, a metabolic state where your body burns fat for energy instead of carbs. Short-term, research shows that following the keto diet has some benefits, including controlling hunger and promoting fat loss.

However, this macro breakdown may have negative effects like increased risk for osteoporosis long-term and is at odds with a more balanced approach to eating, says Harbstreet. “On the keto diet specifically, the ratios of intake for macros are skewed.”

For optimal health, most people should follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, updated in 2020, which recommend that adults get: 

  • 20%-35% of their calorie intake from fat
  • 10%-35% from proteins
  • 45%-65% from carbs

Harbstreet recommends experimenting to see what macro distribution works best for your body and lifestyle, but within the range outlined in the Dietary Guidelines, rather than the range recommended by keto diets.

“The wide range for each macronutrient category offers further opportunity to personalize one’s diet to best fit one’s lifestyle, budget, and preferences,” she says. 

How to calculate your keto macros

On keto, your target macro range is calculated using the following factors:

  • Sex: Males can generally eat 50-60 grams of protein and maintain ketosis, whereas females can eat 40-60 grams and maintain ketosis. 
  • Age: Metabolism decreases with age so you may need fewer calories as you age. 
  • Body size: Larger bodies generally have a higher base metabolic rate and need more calories. If you’re following keto most of these additional calories will come from fat. 
  • Activity level: If you’re very active you’ll need to consume more calories than a person who is inactive, so you may need to eat more fat while on the keto diet. 
  • Goals: If you want to lose weight, you should aim for a calorie deficit, and if you want to gain weight you should aim for a calorie surplus. Keto diets recommend a deficit of up to 30%, or a surplus of up to 15%.

Keto macros calculators factor in all of the above criteria to give you a recommended daily calorie intake, and recommended daily grams in each macro category. 

Some calculators also take into account additional factors, including how many carbohydrates you want to eat (usually between 20 and 50 grams) and your body fat percentage, since weight and body fat are not always correlated. 

Who may benefit from tracking keto macros?

Some people following keto for health reasons, including people with medical conditions like epilepsy or diabetes, may need to track their macros to ensure they’re getting enough nutrients. 

Others, like those following intense exercise regimens, might need to increase their protein intake or decrease their carbohydrate intake to see their desired results, Ben-Asher says. 

It’s best to work one-on-one with a dietician if you are concerned about your macro intake and its effect on your health and wellness. 

Do you have to track macros for keto?

Neither Ben-Asher nor Harbstreet recommend tracking macros, whether you’re following a keto diet or not. 

“The motivations for tracking macros are usually rooted in a desire to be thinner or leaner as opposed to a desire to be healthier,” says Harbstreet. 

“Tracking macros can be a slippery slope into disordered eating,” she says. She considers tracking macros an example of orthorexia, an obsession with healthy or clean eating. Over time, orthorexia can lead to malnutrition as you cut out food groups. 

In addition, tracking macros has not been shown to increase weight loss, Ben-Asher says. He compares counting macros to counting calories, which many people find unpleasant and difficult to adhere to long-term. 

Instead of tracking macros

Rather than tracking macros, Ben-Asher recommends eating a variety of food groups and colors, focusing on fiber-rich foods that will keep you feeling fuller, longer. That’s essential to creating a calorie deficit that leads to weight loss. 

“It matters more to focus on the quality of food as opposed to the breakdown of macronutrient percentages,” he says. 

Some research shows that the large amount of fat consumed on the keto diet helps keep you feeling full, and may help create that calorie deficit. 

Unfortunately, eating a variety of foods can be tough on keto, with the restrictive macro parameters; that’s why Ben-Asher doesn’t recommend following the keto diet. 

If you want to become more mindful of your eating habits, Ben-Asher recommends MyFitnessPal, which allows you to track what you eat without counting calories or macros. Harbstreet prefers a more intuitive approach of listening to your body and following its cues. 

Insider’s takeaway

Many people following a keto diet track macros in order to ensure that they’re getting most of their calories from fat. However, the macro target keto diets promote disagrees with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

In addition, tracking keto macros can lead to an unhealthy focus on macros. Rather than track macros, Harbstreet and Ben-Asher recommend eating a varied diet focusing on nutrient-rich foods. 

“I don’t recommend the keto diet, nor do I endorse the practice of macro tracking, as I feel strongly that both contribute much more to the development of disordered eating and orthorexic tendencies than they do better overall health,” Harbstreet says.