Why You Should Count Macros (Not Calories!) If You Want to Lose Weight
- April 25, 2021
This article was medically reviewed by Marjorie Cohn, M.S., R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board.
Serious athletes have long paid attention to their macros—short for macronutrients—as a way to optimize their performance. But more recently, macro-focused diets (also known as flexible dieting or the IIFYM diet) have become popular among fitness enthusiasts and other health-conscious eaters who are trying to keep their weight in check. You might have come across the trend if you’ve spotted #IIFYM, short for If It Fits Your Macros, on Instagram or Facebook. (One note: The macro diet is not the same thing as the macrobiotic diet.)
So what is the macro diet all about and is it something worth trying? Here are the answers to all of your questions—including exactly how to get started.
What is the macro diet?
The idea behind the macro diet is pretty simple: Instead of staying under a calorie threshold, you focus on getting a certain number (typically grams) of macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates, and fat—instead.
And what are macronutrients, exactly?
Macronutrients are the three types of nutrients that provide you with most of your energy: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Micronutrients, on the other hand, are the types of nutrients that your body uses in smaller amounts, like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.
Most foods have two or even all three different macronutrients, but they’re categorized by the macronutrient of which they contain the most. For instance, chicken is a protein even though it also has some fat, and sweet potatoes are considered a carb even though they have a bit of protein.
Not all macronutrients are created equal. “The quality and amount of different macronutrient groups might determine if your blood sugar falls or stays stable, if you have steady energy or are all over the place, and how much you eat at a sitting,” says registered dietitian Amy Goodson, R.D., C.S.S.D. All of those things factor into how well you’re able to stick to your healthy eating plan.
For example, here are healthy choices in every macronutrient category:
Healthy carbs typically contain lots of fiber, including whole grains, legumes, leafy greens, potatoes, and fruit.
Good picks for healthy, lean proteins: chicken, turkey grass-fed beef, fatty fish (like salmon and mackerel), eggs, and plant-based options like beans and chickpeas.
Satiating, healthy fats include olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds.
What are the benefits of a macro diet?
There are several benefits to counting macros versus counting calories. First, it may help you make more nutritious choices by forcing you to consider the quality of your food. For instance, let’s say you’re following a calorie-counting diet and are allotted 200 calories for your afternoon snack; that means you could eat something healthy like an apple and a tablespoon of almond butter, but it also means you could eat a 200-calorie bag of nutritionally devoid Cheez-Its. If you’re counting macros, on the other hand, you’d need to choose a snack that would fit your macros.
And if weight loss is your goal, counting macros has one major benefit: People following a macro diet tend to eat a little more protein than the average eater. “Protein requires more energy to digest and use than carbs or fat, plus it dampens your appetite,” says Georgie Fear, R.D., the author of Lean Habits for Healthy Weight Loss.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of a macro diet is having the flexibility to choose foods you truly enjoy, as long as it fits your macro plan. Finding a good balance of nutrient-dense foods is important, but choosing an IIFYM plan allows you the freedom for an occasional indulgence, which, for many people, makes it easier to stick to in the long-run.
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Are there any downsides to the macro diet?
In some cases, counting macros is easier than counting daily calories, but not always. It can be pretty easy if you’re following basic guidelines, like filling a specific portion of your plate with protein, carbs, and fat. (More on that a little later.) But meeting specific number goals (like aiming for X grams of protein per meal) isn’t really any easier, Goodson says. After all, you’re still counting stuff. Except now, it’s three different numbers instead of just one, so it could actually be more challenging.
The macro diet also tends to turn meal and snack time into a puzzle. “It creates a macros Tetris game of trying to find something to fill in exactly what you need for one macro without going over on the others,” says Fear. That can be tough since very few foods are made up of just one macro. While a cup plain, low-fat Greek yogurt packs 20 grams of protein, for instance, it also has 8 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fat.
Who can benefit from counting macros?
In theory, macros dieting can help anyone lose weight. But it’s not any more effective than counting calories or even just paying attention to your portions, Fear says. And in practice, it can be a lot of work.
Still, it’s worth trying if the whole puzzle-piecing aspect sounds like fun to you. “If it’s enjoyable as a game, then macros counting helps someone to continue eating in a certain way when they might otherwise get bored,” Fear says. But if that kind of attention to detail feels like a chore or makes you anxious, it may be tough to maintain.
How do you calculate macros for weight loss?
That depends on your age, size, and activity level. “Those who work out need a different amount of carbs and protein than someone who is more sedentary,” Goodson says. But in general, these ratios are a good place to start:
- If you exercise for an hour or less daily: 30% protein, 30% fat, 40% carbs
- If you exercise for one to two hours daily: 30% protein, 25% fat, 45% carbs
- If you exercise for more than two hours daily: Consider seeing a certified sports dietitian. “You need personalization to maintain that high physical output and lose weight safely,” Fear says.
What’s the easiest way to count macros?
Now that you know which macro ratio works best, you can figure out the actual number of macros you need and keep track of them in three basic steps:
1. Figure out your calorie needs.
Again, this depends on your age, size, and activity level, as well as your weight loss goals. Use a calculator that’ll factor all of this in, like the National Institutes of Health’s Body Weight Planner.
2. Tally up your macros.
Once you’ve got your calorie count, you can use your macro ratio to determine exactly how many grams of protein, fat, and carbs to eat each day. This involves a little bit of math, but you can save time by using a macro calculator, like the one from freedieting.com. Using this tool, we were able to learn that a woman eating 1,500 calories who exercises for half an hour most days of the week would need 150 grams of carbs, 112 grams of protein, and 50 grams of fat daily.
3. Use an app to track your macros.
Now that you know how much of each macro you need, you’ll have to keep track of the amounts that you’re actually getting from your meals and snacks. Just like with calorie counting, the easiest way to do this is with a food tracker app, Goodson says. Popular macros tracking apps include:
This all seems kind of complicated. Is there an easier way?
If the whole idea of a macro diet overwhelms you, well, you’re not alone. This kind of detail-oriented tracking definitely requires commitment. And like calorie counting, it can be particularly challenging if you go out to eat a lot.
An easier—though less precise—alternative is to just rely on your eyeballs, Goodson says. If you’re looking to get your macros in and hate tracking food, a good rule of thumb is to make a little over a quarter of your plate lean protein and about a quarter of your plate whole grains or starchy vegetables (like sweet potatoes). Fill the rest of your plate with non-starchy veggies, which, when it comes to macro counting, are considered carbs. As long as some of the items on your plate have added fat (like salad greens tossed with a vinaigrette or chicken roasted with olive oil), you don’t need to worry about making a space for fat on your plate.
And if you’re still hungry, fill up on more veggies, Goodson says. This method won’t guarantee that your macros line up with a 30/30/40 breakdown, but it’ll still ensure you get a decent amount of protein at each meal and aren’t overdoing it on the starchy carbs. Just as important, it’ll help keep your portions in check. And both of those things can help you reach your weight loss goals.
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