Whether you’ve been counting your macros for years now or have just seen the term “macronutrient” online, know this: These nutrients literally provide the building blocks our bodies depend on to function.
Though we all need different amounts of macronutrients, understanding what a proper serving of each macronutrient looks like is crucial for maintaining a nourishing, healthful diet.
Quick Refresher: What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients (or “macros”) are the three nutrients your body requires in relatively large amounts on a daily basis: carbohydrates, protein, and fats.
“Macronutrients provide your body with calories (a.k.a. energy) and the building blocks of cellular growth, immune function, and overall repair,” says Hayley Cimring, R.D., diet and nutrition specialist for Fitness Savvy.
How Much Of Each Macro Do You Need Each Day?
Since there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, it’s best to consult with a nutritionist about how much of each macronutrient you personally need each day.
Read More: The Right Macronutrient Ratio For Your Goals
“The breakdown of what you eat depends on so many factors, such as how many meals and snacks you eat in a day, your sex, age, and activity level,” explains Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., a plant-forward nutritionist based in the New York City area.
What Macronutrient Serving Sizes Look Like
Just how many servings of each macronutrient you need per day may be unique to you. However, you still need a solid sense of what proper macronutrient serving sizes look like.
“These cues give you the tools to understand portion sizes and make healthy choices about what you put on your plate without having to use scales or measuring cups,” explains Cimring. (At the very least, that means one less thing to clean up in the kitchen after meal prep.)
That said, here’s a general breakdown of what baseline macronutrient serving sizes look like, so you can get your carbs, protein, and fats right.
On your plate, carbs—which contain four calories per gram—are the starches, sugars, and fibers in foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. Between 45 and 65 percent of your total calories should come from carbohydrates, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Not all carbs are created equal, though. “Certain carbohydrate sources should be limited for general health and to control calorie intake to support weight loss,” says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, R.D., L.D.N., dietitian and advisor for Fitter Living. “These carbs have lots of calories but minimal nutrition, so you may hear them called ‘empty calories.’”
These undesirable refined carbs include candy, chips, sweeteners, cookies, sweetened juices, soda, sports drinks, and more.
Read More: No, Keto And Low-Carb Are Not The Same Thing
Healthy carbs, meanwhile, include whole foods like sweet potatoes, oats, quinoa, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
The proper portion sizes for various fruits and starchy vegetables varies. For example, one serving of grapes is 17 grapes, while a serving of squash is one cup. (The CDC has a list that breaks it all down.)
When it comes to foods we more traditionally think of as carbs—like cooked rice, pasta, or beans—an average serving is half a cup, which looks like a tennis ball, says Cimring.
For those looking to control their blood sugar or lose weight, sticking to half a tennis ball’s-worth of carbs at each meal may be more optimal, suggests Cimring. Endurance athletes, meanwhile, may consider two (or even three) tennis ball-sized servings per meal.
Proteins, which are composed of amino acids, are the building blocks of the human body—and should make up 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories, says Gorin.
Protein-rich foods, which also contain four calories per gram, include nuts, seeds, beans, tofu, and animal products.
As with carbs, not all protein sources are created equal. A highly-processed meat-free burger may contain as much protein as its grass-fed beef counterpart, but that doesn’t mean it’s as nutritious.
Read More: 4 Things That Can Happen When You Don’t Get Enough Protein
Since different foods contain different amounts of protein, serving sizes vary from food to food.
For meat, chicken, or meat substitutes, one serving is three ounces, which is about the size of a deck of playing cards, according to Gorin. Three ounces of fish, meanwhile, is about the size of a checkbook. (Fish is typically cut longer and thinner than chicken or red meat.)
For cheese, one serving is two tablespoons, or about the size of a golf ball, Cimring says. And a serving of nuts and seeds? Half an ounce, or about a shot glass-full.
Wondering about eggs? Just a single egg is considered one serving.
And protein powder? Though it depends on the product, one or two scoops is typically considered a serving.
How many servings of protein you need per meal depends on individual factors (like size and activity level) and what protein sources you choose. A single serving of meat, fish, or tofu provides sufficient protein for one meal. However, you’ll need to combine a few servings of foods like eggs and nuts.
Men (who have higher protein needs than women) and athletes (who also have higher protein needs) may want to consume double servings of protein at meals, Cimring suggests.
Unlike carbs and protein, fat—which should make up 20 to 35 percent of your calories (unless you’re keto, of course)—contains nine calories per gram, says Kostro Miller.
Like carbs and proteins, though, fat’s good-for-you factor varies by food source. Healthy fats include avocados, olive oil, and fatty fish like salmon or mackerel. Unhealthy fats we often come across, meanwhile, include those in heavily-processed foods (like cured bacon or candy bars).
“The serving size of pure fat, like oil and butter, is five milliters per gram, which is equivalent to a teaspoon,” says Cimring. That’s about the size of a fingertip.
“The serving size of nut butter, meanwhile, is one tablespoon,” says Cimring. That’s about the size of a ping-pong ball.
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