Counting Macros vs Keto: Which Is Best? A Dietitian Answers

Counting macros and the keto diet are two different nutritional approaches that can complement each other but don’t necessarily have to be combined to see results.

As a dietitian, I’ll explain their pros and cons and how they differ so you can determine whether one approach is better or if you should combine them.

Key Takeaways

  • The keto diet uses fat for fuel by increasing fat intake to 70% of total calories and cutting carb intake to 5-10% (typically less than 50g/day). It is generally used for weight loss and may provide additional health benefits.
  • Counting macros involves tracking carb, protein, and fat intake to provide precise nutrient information. It allows you to balance and time nutrients around your lifestyle and help with specific body composition goals or exercise performance.
  • Neither approach will lead to weight loss unless you are in a calorie deficit; therefore, the macronutrient targets must be based on an appropriate calorie target for your goals.

What Is Counting Macros?

what is counting macros?

Counting macros involves logging your food into a nutrition app to track your daily carb, protein, and fat intake.

Counting macros offers valuable insights into what you eat for those aiming to change their body composition by losing or gaining weight and building or retaining muscle.

When counting macros, the goal is to meet (or at least come close to) specific targets—for example, 200 grams of carbs, 150 grams of protein, and 67 grams of fat.

Each of your macro targets will add up to a calorie goal. In the example above, those macro targets add up to 2000 calories.

Therefore, macronutrient targets are based on a calorie intake that aligns with your overall goal: weight loss, weight maintenance, or weight gain. 

Once calorie needs are determined using a calorie calculator (like this one), you can establish macro targets.

With continued adherence, these targets ensure you obtain sufficient amounts of each nutrient and progress toward your goal.

What Is Keto?

what is keto

Keto, short for ketogenic, aims to induce a state of ketosis, where the body primarily uses fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates (the body’s preferred fuel source).

This shift in macronutrient consumption changes how the body uses energy and may lead to health benefits such as improved insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugars.

However, it can also lead to side effects associated with the “keto flu,” like low energy, mood swings, constipation, and other symptoms that occur as your body adjusts to a lower carb and higher fat intake.

With the keto diet, you would typically limit your carb intake to less than 50 grams daily, which means consuming 70% or more of your daily calories from fats, 20-25% from protein, and keeping carbohydrate intake very low, usually around 5-10% of total daily calories.

For example, if your calorie goal is 2000 calories, this could be 50g of carbs, 100g of protein, and 156g of fat.

It is important to mention that simply eating more fat and limiting your carb intake will not necessarily cause weight loss.

You will only lose weight on the keto diet if you achieve a consistent calorie deficit (consuming fewer calories than your body needs to maintain weight).

7 Differences Between Counting Macros vs Keto

differences between counting macros vs keto

Counting macros and the ketogenic diet are two distinct approaches to nutrition.

Some of the key differences are:

1. Nutrient Distribution

Counting macros is a tool for tracking and managing your carb, protein, and fat intake. It allows you to distribute macros and balance meals based on your goals (e.g., body recomposition, performance, and general health).

Counting macros is an approach that is generally coupled with adherence to a particular diet that needs accurate monitoring of macros (e.g., high protein, low carb, high fat, low fat, etc.). 

Therefore, when you count macros, the distribution of nutrients varies depending on your goal and the diet you’re using to achieve it.

If you are following the keto diet, you might need to count macros (at least initially) to ensure the majority of your calories (~70%) are allocated to fats and your carb intake is limited to 5-10% of total calories.

2. Flexibility

With macro counting, you have more flexibility in food choices because you can decide how to set your protein, carb, and fat targets. 

Most macro recommendations aim for a balanced (40% carbs/30% protein/30% fat), high protein (30% carbs/40% protein/30% fat), or low-carb (25% carbs/35% protein/40% fat) approach.

These diets allow more flexibility with your macro targets and the foods you consume while counting macros.

With a keto diet, you need to adhere to strict fat and carb macro targets to achieve a state of ketosis, which limits your food choices and your portion sizes.

For example, most meals will contain cheese, eggs, meat, low-carb vegetables, nuts, and oils.

The lack of flexibility with the keto diet is the main reason why it is hard to adhere to, and there is a high prevalence of weight regain among those who follow this diet.

3. Shopping List

If you are counting macros, your shopping list will likely contain a wider variety of foods, including foods that are rich in carbs (rice, pasta, bread, fruit), protein (meat, fish, eggs), and fat (nuts, oils, etc.).

Conversely, if you follow a keto diet, your shopping list will be more restricted and may contain more specialty items to help you adhere to the low-carb intake (i.e., keto bread).

The keto diet can also be expensive, especially if you’re stocking up on keto alternatives and high-quality fat sources (i.e., avocado).

4. Health Goals

Macro counting is used for various health, body composition (i.e., fat loss, muscle gain), and performance goals.

It is also a tool to address specific health conditions necessitating adherence to particular dietary protocols, such as high-protein or ketogenic diets.

The keto diet is primarily used for weight loss in individuals with metabolic syndrome (overweight/obesity) and to treat neurological conditions like epilepsy.

5. Nutrient Knowledge

You don’t need to have previous nutrition knowledge to start counting macros. In fact, our resource hub on macro tracking is a great place to start.

The best approach to macro counting is to start logging your food intake (using an app like MacroFactor) and learn more about how much you naturally consume and what your food tendencies are without trying to change anything.

Over time, counting macros teaches about food’s nutrient composition, helping you choose what to eat and how much and plan meals for a balanced diet.

Macro tracking can also benefit athletes by allowing them to time and control nutrient intake for better performance.

With a keto diet, you will require more understanding and adjustments to keep your carb intake low enough to encourage ketosis. There are also more risks associated with the keto diet that you need to be aware of.

If you’re interested in the keto diet, I recommend working with a nutrition professional who can help you implement it safely (contact us to connect with a coach).

6. Hormones

If you are healthy and not following any particular diet, then your hormonal balance may not be impacted while counting macros.

If you are counting macros and on a calorie-restrictive diet or a low-carb diet (keto), hormones may be impacted (in men and women). 

Hormonal complications occur with low-carb and low-calorie intakes because it disrupts the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (a complex interaction of glands that keeps your hormones in balance and is influenced by calorie intake, stress, and other lifestyle factors).

Following a ketogenic diet and consuming too few calories over time might also impact reproductive hormones (including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone), which, in turn, might affect menstrual cycles in women. 

On the flip side, a keto diet might increase testosterone levels in men, as seen in a recent study that investigated the effects of a ketogenic diet versus a traditional Western diet in resistance-trained men. 

The increase in testosterone in the keto group led to the conclusion that:

“The ketogenic diet can be used in combination with resistance training to cause favorable changes in body composition, performance, and hormonal profiles in resistance-trained men”

 Journal of Strength Conditioning Research

7. Potential Health Benefits

Counting macros might help you manage your weight and diet intake by helping you keep track of what you eat. Thus, you can make smart, healthy food choices to meet your nutrition requirements and stay healthy.

That said, you can hit your macro targets and still be unhealthy if you’re missing essential nutrients. For this reason, macro-tracking apps like MacroFactor also track your micronutrient intake (vitamins and minerals) to ensure you’re getting enough of each nutrient to maintain optimal health. 

A keto diet might benefit metabolic health markers (in people with diabetes and metabolic syndrome), like lowering hba1c (a long-term blood sugar management measure) and blood glucose levels, lowering blood pressure, and increasing insulin sensitivity.

Some research also suggests following a keto diet might benefit different health conditions, including heart disease and metabolic or insulin-related diseases

However, a keto diet is also more likely to lead to gastrointestinal issues due to a lack of fiber and limited food diversity, which impacts your nutrient consumption (especially if you’re not counting your macros while implementing the keto diet).

Is Counting Macros or Keto Going To Give Better Results?

It is challenging to compare results between counting macros vs. following a keto diet because each approach is different and depends on the individual’s adherence to the diet.

That said, working as a dietitian, I’ve noticed some key patterns worth mentioning. 

Observation #1: Keto Dieters See Changes In Scale Weight Quicker

Those who implement a keto diet see changes on the scale and in the fit of their clothes faster than those who are counting macros and not implementing the keto diet.

The faster results are associated with the loss of water retention that comes from drastically reducing carb intake and isn’t necessarily related to fat loss.

Observation #2: Keto Is Harder To “Stick To”

Those who implement a keto diet struggle to stay consistent because of the need to keep carb intake restricted, especially when eating out or when eating with friends and family.

The restrictive nature of the keto diet also causes more intense cravings. 

Observation #3: Those Tracking Macros Maintain Results Long Term

Those who count macros (but aren’t doing keto) have a better chance of maintaining their weight loss, especially if they continue to track their macros after their diet is over.

Those who do the keto diet are often unable to maintain their weight loss long-term and tend to put on more weight than they initially lost.

Observation #4: Keto Dieters Who Also Track Macros See Greater Success

Those who successfully lose weight with the keto diet are those who count their macros and pay more attention to their micronutrient intake.

Can You Count Macros and Do Keto At The Same Time?

Counting macros and following a keto diet simultaneously is possible and highly recommended if you want to implement the keto diet.

If you choose to combine both approaches, you must carefully track your macronutrient intake to ensure you are meeting the requirements of the keto diet while staying within your overall macro targets. 

This approach involves adjusting your intake to achieve a high percentage of calories from fats, a moderate amount from protein, and a minimal amount from carbohydrates.

Counting macros while following the keto diet encourages weight loss and helps you understand the nutrient content of suitable keto foods, suitable portions of carbs, protein, and fat, and how to balance meals according to these macro targets.

However, it is essential to note that if you are new to counting macros and the keto diet, it might be overwhelming to combine both approaches at once since you would need to calculate macros, learn your way with food logging, estimate calorie requirements, and also change your eating habits.

Start simple and small and maintain consistency with one thing. (e.g., macro counting for a couple of weeks until you adapt to the habit of logging food and meeting targets). Then, change the targets around to suit a keto diet. 

If you need more clarification or find it challenging to do both, consider consulting with a nutritionist or a registered dietitian to ensure the combined approach aligns with your goals, preferences, and lifestyle.

Counting Macros 101: Mini Guide

How To Start Tracking Macros

Start by downloading a macro tracking app, like MacroFactor, and logging the food you eat. Consider using scales or measuring cups to log foods more accurately.

After a week of tracking, use the data you’ve collected to estimate how many calories you need to eat for your goal, or calculate it using this calorie calculator.

Once you have your calorie target, set carb, protein, and fat targets based on your preferred approach (i.e., balanced, low-carb, high-protein, etc).

When in doubt, go for a balanced approach, allocating 40% of calories to carbs, 30% to protein, and 30% to fat (click for a meal plan).

For example, if your calorie goal is 1800 calories this would be 180g carbs, 135g protein, and 60g of fat.

Work toward being more consistent with these targets. Focus on your calorie and protein targets to start; then, once you feel more competent, work toward hitting your carb and fat targets as well.

Pros of Counting Macros

It can help with weight loss or weight gain goals (especially if you require precise, customizable nutrient information) by making you aware of what you eat, how much you eat, and when to best fit specific macros around your lifestyle (e.g., close to workouts).

Cons of Counting Macros

It can be time-consuming, and you might get too focused on numbers and meeting targets. It is also easy to underreport or overreport food intake due to misestimating portions or inaccurate food entries.

Who Should Count Macros?

Macro counting is ideal for those with specific fitness or body composition goals or people with fitness goals who want a flexible way to eat. It is also beneficial for those who need to follow particular diet protocols.

Who Should NOT Count Macros?

Macro counting may not benefit those with a history of eating disorders, those who don’t want to track every day, or those without specific goals that require precise nutrient tracking.

Additional Resources

Keto Diet 101: Mini Guide

How To Start The Keto Diet

Start by reducing your carb intake and eating larger quantities of higher protein and fat foods like meat, cheese, and eggs. You should start paying attention to nutrition labels to learn which foods align with the keto diet and which will make it more challenging to keep your carb intake low.

I recommend downloading an app to help you stay consistent. If you want an app that provides a Keto Meal plan you can follow, then check out Lifesum

If you want an app that will help you monitor your macro intake more closely to ensure you’re keeping carbs around 5-10% of total calories and fats around 70-75%, check out MacroFactor or Cronometer

Pros of The Keto Diet

It may help you lose weight and benefit certain health conditions like metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease.

Cons of The Keto Diet

You might feel tired, moody, and constipated since you need an initial adjustment period. Your food choices will be limited due to the carb restriction, and sometimes (if you do not plan meals properly), you might miss out on some essential nutrients.

Who Should Do Keto?

The keto diet could benefit those who want to lose weight, improve metabolic health markers, or have specific health goals that match a low-carb, high-fat diet.

Who Should NOT Do Keto?

A keto diet is not suitable for those with certain health conditions, those with a history of disordered eating, and those who struggle with adherence. It can also negatively impact competitive endurance athletes who rely on carbs to fuel their activity.

Additional Resources


Walton CM, Perry K, Hart RH, Berry SL, Bikman BT. Improvement in Glycemic and Lipid Profiles in Type 2 Diabetics with a 90-Day Ketogenic Diet. J Diabetes Res. 2019 Aug 14;2019:8681959. doi: 10.1155/2019/8681959. PMID: 31485454; PMCID: PMC6710763.

Ludwig DS. The Ketogenic Diet: Evidence for Optimism but High-Quality Research Needed. J Nutr. 2020 Jun 1;150(6):1354-1359. doi: 10.1093/jn/nxz308. PMID: 31825066; PMCID: PMC7269727.

Ułamek-Kozioł M, Czuczwar SJ, Januszewski S, Pluta R. Ketogenic Diet and Epilepsy. Nutrients. 2019 Oct 18;11(10):2510. doi: 10.3390/nu11102510. PMID: 31635247; PMCID: PMC6836058.

Miller WL. The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis: A Brief History. Horm Res Paediatr. 2018;89(4):212-223. doi: 10.1159/000487755. Epub 2018 May 2. PMID: 29719288.

Loucks AB, Thuma JR. Luteinizing hormone pulsatility is disrupted at a threshold of energy availability in regularly menstruating women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2003 Jan;88(1):297-311. doi: 10.1210/jc.2002-020369. PMID: 12519869.

Wilson JM, Lowery RP, Roberts MD, Sharp MH, Joy JM, Shields KA, Partl JM, Volek JS, D’Agostino DP. Effects of Ketogenic Dieting on Body Composition, Strength, Power, and Hormonal Profiles in Resistance Training Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2020 Dec;34(12):3463-3474. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001935. PMID: 28399015.

Cicero AF, Benelli M, Brancaleoni M, Dainelli G, Merlini D, Negri R. Middle and Long-Term Impact of a Very Low-Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet on Cardiometabolic Factors: A Multi-Center, Cross-Sectional, Clinical Study. High Blood Press Cardiovasc Prev. 2015 Dec;22(4):389-94. doi: 10.1007/s40292-015-0096-1. Epub 2015 May 19. PMID: 25986079; PMCID: PMC4666896.

Boden G, Sargrad K, Homko C, Mozzoli M, Stein TP. Effect of a low-carbohydrate diet on appetite, blood glucose levels, and insulin resistance in obese patients with type 2 diabetes. Ann Intern Med. 2005 Mar 15;142(6):403-11. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-142-6-200503150-00006. PMID: 15767618.

About The Author

Giulia Rossetto

Giulia Rossetto is a qualified Dietitian and Nutritionist. She holds a Masters in Human Nutrition (University of Sheffield, UK) and more recently graduated as a Dietitian (University of Malta). Giulia aims to translate evidence-based science to the public through teaching and writing content. She has worked 4+ years in clinical settings and has also published articles in academic journals. She is into running, swimming and weight lifting, and enjoys spending time in the mountains (she has a soft spot for hiking and skiing in the Italian Dolomites).

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