Many people who are trying to lose weight or pursue other fitness goals feel limited by conventional diets and calorie counting. Rising in popularity is the macro diet, or counting macros, which involves tracking the types of food you eat as well as total calories.
This focus on nutrients and well-being provides an alternative approach to fitness that may better suit your needs. This article explains what you need to know about macros, and offers a guide on how to count macros for weight loss.
What are Macros?
Macros refer to macronutrients, which your body requires in order to function. There are three types of macros, carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Each type is responsible for different processes in the body, and different people need different ratios of these three macros.
Carbs are a primary source of energy in the body and consist of sugar, cellulose, and starch. Foods that are high in these compounds include fruits, starchy vegetables (like potatoes), and grains. Cellulose in the form of fiber is not digested by your body but helps the digestional tract run smoothly. Sugar and starch, on the other hand, get broken down into glucose upon digestion, where they enter the blood to be used immediately as energy, or are redirected into the cells as glycogen for storage.
According to the USDA, carbs have around 4 calories per gram.
Proteins are complex molecules that are vital for a multitude of cellular and bodily processes, such as DNA replication, the building of tissues, and enzyme and hormone production. Proteins are made of amino acids, some of which your body can produce on its own (non-essential), and those which need to be absorbed through food (essential). Foods like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, yogurt, cheese, lentils, beans, nuts, and soy are rich in protein.
Proteins have the same caloric content as carbs at 4 calories per gram.
Fats are essential for many functions in the body, including absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, storing energy, producing hormones, and maintaining cell membrane integrity. There are three different kinds of fat, trans, saturated, and unsaturated. Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils (hydrogenation) in order to make them solid at room temperature. Most health experts agree trans fats should be avoided due to their link with elevated LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are found in fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and butter. These may increase the risk of heart disease, though most health professionals recommend saturated fats should make up 5-6% of your daily caloric intake. Unsaturated fats are the healthiest fat option and can be found in foods like nuts, seeds, fish, avocados, and any oil that stays liquid at room temperature.
Fats have the highest caloric content at 9 calories per gram.
How to Count Macros
First, you will need to determine your caloric needs in order to set a goal and divide your macros properly. You can use a number of different online calculators but I’ve put one together that you can use by clicking here!
Second, you’ll need to decide on your macronutrient breakdown. Experts typically recommend following a guideline:
You can customize a macro ratio within these ranges that best suits your needs. For example, if you are moderately active a breakdown of 25% protein, 30% fat, and 45% carbohydrates would be appropriate. Importantly, though it’s fine to vary a few percentage points from these ranges, don’t set your macro goals too far outside these guidelines, as they’re important for maintaining a healthy body.
Once you’ve chosen a calorie goal and corresponding macro ratio, you can calculate the actual amount of macros in grams that you’ll need to eat every day. Multiply by the percentage breakdown of each macro, then divide by the calorie per gram for that macro. For example, if you have a 2000-calorie goal and a 25% protein, 35% fat and 40% carbohydrate split:
Protein – 2000 cal x 0.25 = 500 cal / 4 = 125 g
Fat – 2000 cal x 0.35 = 700 cal / 9 = 78 g
Carbs – 2000 cal x 0.40 = 800 cal / 4 = 200 g
To make sure you’re following this ratio, you can use meal-tracking apps such as MyFitnessPal, which is free to use. Just enter your personal macro goal and meals, and the app will track calories and macro percentages, and gram amount. Other popular apps include MyMacros, CarbManager, and Lose It!.
Deciding on a macro ratio that works for you takes time and possibly adjustment; if after changing your diet you feel more lethargic, you may need to increase the amount of carbs you’re eating. It’s best to experiment with breakdowns for a week or two, evaluate how you respond, and adjust accordingly.
If you’re having trouble determining a breakdown that is right for you, Precision Nutrition has a free-to-use macro calculator that takes into account fitness goals, diet/dietary restrictions, and current activity levels to give you a personalized macro breakdown. Use step 3 to convert those percentages into grams, and you’ll be good to go!
What Are the Benefits of Counting Macros?
The macro diet may be similar to calorie counting with one crucial difference: paying attention to what you’re eating means you’ll reach for healthier foods more frequently. Rather than filling a 200-cal snack with processed, sugary foods like chips or cookies, focusing on consuming the right kinds of nutrients will lead to healthier results. This means prioritizing unsaturated fats and carbohydrates that are more complex and therefore harder for your body to break down, making you feel full for longer. Examples of complex carbohydrates are those found in grains, beans, and vegetables. In general, the less processed a food is, the richer it is in nutrients and healthy forms of macros.
Another advantage of the macro diet is its versatility. If a specific macro breakdown isn’t working for you, there are many other variations to try. Especially as fitness goals change over time, macros give you a framework to support all kinds of lifestyles and aspirations. This tailor-made approach means you aren’t stuck always feeling hungry, tired, and demoralized, giving you a better foundation to reach your goals. Contrast this to simple calorie counting, where many people experience burnout when they simply restrict their amount of food, without changing their diet or their approach to meals.
For many people on weight loss journeys, villainizing certain foods leads to cravings and “relapses”, the macro diet is great because an occasional indulgence is fine as long as it fits in your total macro goal. Knowing that you’ve hit your protein goal for the day, enjoying a treat after dinner becomes a more casual and guilt-free experience.
Are There Drawbacks?
While counting macros can be hugely beneficial for a lot of people, there are those for whom it may not work as well. If you have a history of disordered eating or find focusing too heavily on cataloging food anxiety-inducing, counting macros may exacerbate these tendencies.
Additionally, an over-simplified approach to counting macros may lead to a more unbalanced diet. For example, there are many ways to fill a 100 g protein goal and not all are as beneficial to your health as others. Using only beef jerky to fill this quota introduces a massive amount of sodium into your diet, much more than the daily recommended amount. Likewise, certain protein bars have high amounts of saturated fats or artificial sweeteners that have detrimental health impacts.
Another drawback is the complexity of foods with high counts of multiple macros. If you’re using an app, these will be easier to deal with, but people with busy schedules who also have to worry about meal prep for kids may find fine-tuning these macro values to be time-consuming. Looking for a simple snack in the afternoon may require balancing macro amounts as you go, which could be more stressful for some. Macro counting is great for those who plan meals and snack combinations ahead of time, however, not everyone has the time or energy to devote to such a highly specific diet.
The key with counting macros is not to tunnel your focus so hard on macronutrient breakdown that you miss other key nutritive details about your food. You should always aim for a balanced diet that minimizes processed foods and favors fresh and varied ingredients. Familiarise yourself with nutrition labels and ingredient lists, not only to help keep track of macros but also so you can spot harmful ingredients. Added sugars or artificial sweeteners, excess sodium, saturated and trans fats, and preservatives such as sodium nitrates should try to be avoided.
Effective for Weight Loss?
The macro diet excels at weight loss because it is more likely you’ll meet your body’s energy and satiety needs, making it easier to stay motivated. Many people have found enormous success with counting macros as a weight loss tool, but it may require more finetuning for some. One way to ensure you’re reaping the most benefits is to talk to a dietitian, who can help you understand your body and how it responds to different levels of nutrients. The more personalized the diet, the better it will serve you.
Because of its versatility and maintainability, macro counting has also been shown to be effective in long-term weight loss, as long as you continue logging food consumption.
It’s important to note that counting macros is a strategy to help you achieve certain health and fitness goals. Like any tool, it needs to be wielded properly in order to obtain desirable results. For losing weight, this means it is still necessary to be in a calorie deficit. This is accounted for through the steps you’ve taken to calculate your macro breakdown, but everyone’s body responds differently, and in some cases diet alone may prove to be insufficient for specific goals. Here is where activity level plays a huge role, especially in those wanting to see more muscle definition in addition to weight loss goals.
Whether the macro diet is right for you might take some trial and error, listening closely to your body’s needs and reactions. Cycling through different macro breakdowns to see which one is most effective can lead to better results. As with any diet or weight loss tool, if your physical or mental health suffers, this is an indication that it is not for you. Priority should remain on having a healthy relationship with food, and speaking with a dietitian may help if this is something you struggle with.