Historically, counting macronutrients was a tactic used by weightlifters and endurance athletes to meet their unique fitness goals. Recently, more and more people are turning to the macro diet because of its overall flexibility.
Macronutrients are the nutrients required in larger quantities for optimal health and performance, providing fuel to energize and to power you throughout your day, explains Amy Fischer, MS, RD, a registered dietitian in the Good Housekeeping Institute. The three main macronutrients consist of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Micronutrients which include vitamins and minerals are just as important, but are needed in smaller amounts.
Counting macros can be an effective strategy for people looking to lose weight, build muscle and improve cardio or overall fitness levels — although taking the time to actually learn how to count your macros like a pro won’t automatically translate to a better diet. Counting macros isn’t as effective if you’re still eating overly processed foods, including those that technically fit into your macro distribution. Although it can be confusing at first, using a dietitian or nutritionist to help you navigate this diet is recommended.
What is the macro diet?
“The three macronutrients — carbohydrate, protein and fat — are all required for energy and for many necessary functions in the body, and the macro diet allows you to eat whatever you want as long as it fits into the macro percentages you have chosen for yourself,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook.
Often, if you’re feeling fatigued or are experiencing brain fog, it could be a sign that you’re not meeting your daily macro quotas. You may benefit from reevaluating your meals and snacks and adding diverse sources of macronutrients, as needed.
Nutritional experts often turn to macros as a way to increase accountability and collect numerical data about your diet. The reason why counting macros may be popular among these experts (or even suggested by one of your own healthcare professionals) is that it often doesn’t require a hard diet change at first. A macro-focused diet isn’t very restrictive, since nothing is “off-limits” and there’s not a need to cut out major food groups entirely. This is a departure from other popular diets like keto programs, paleo routines and even vegan diets.
Editor’s Note: It’s crucial to talk to your doctor about any changes you’d like to make to your long-term diet beforehand. Targeting macros in any given diet is best done under the guidance of qualified nutrition professionals. Any symptoms of fatigue, weakness, dizziness or headaches after switching to a macro-focused diet should be discussed immediately.
A diet may not be the wellness solution you’re ultimately searching for. Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to go on a diet, we invite you to gain a broader perspective with our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
The macro diet’s flexibility and wide variety in food options make it easier to stick with long-term and keep as a healthy lifestyle, depending on food quality and intake, of course. Harris-Pincus explains the tendency to have an “if it fits your macros,” (IFIYM) approach, meaning as long as what you’re eating adheres to macro ratios, it’s fine to eat and is comparable to nutrient-dense, healthier foods.
The best macro-focused diets keep your favorite treats as periodic indulgences, where nutritious foods remain the bulk of your diet. A healthy macro-focused diet also pinpoints micronutrients in the end, while treating processed, high-sugar and high-fat foods as empty calories.
“The diet works by counting your optimal calorie intake range for weight loss (or maintenance) and then once the calorie range is determined, you calculate macros accordingly,” says Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, CDN.
Here are some examples of what you can eat when on the macro diet, within three main categories of Macros — protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates:
- Fatty fish: Cod, striped bass, salmon and mahi mahi
- Lean meats: Grass-fed beef, turkey and chicken breast
- Plant Proteins: Tofu, Edamame and Tempeh
- Beans and Legumes: Chickpeas, black beans, and lentils
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds
- Omega-3 rich foods: Flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, salmon, avocado
- Healthy oils: Olive oil and peanut butter
How does the macro diet work?
“Most people are familiar with counting calories for specific goals, but counting macros does not take calories into account,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, who explains that both carbohydrates and proteins provide four calories per gram, and fat provides a bit more, with nine calories per gram.
“When counting macronutrients, you’ll want to determine your goals and calorie needs so that you can correctly calculate the percentages of each macronutrient from your calorie intake,” Best explains. For example, bodybuilders might require higher protein needs over endurance athletes, who might prefer a higher percentage of carbohydrates.
Working with a dietitian can definitely help you determine your daily calorie and macro requirements as well as how to keep track of your macros with a meal plan that’s effective and feasible.
How do I start counting macros?
Before beginning the macro diet and learning how to count macros, give your kitchen pantry and fridge a makeover. Stock up on healthy sources of fats, carbs and proteins, and toss out anything that lacks serious nutritional value, such as chips, candy and cookies.
“If you choose foods that contain a lot of refined carbs and less healthy fats, you may be limiting space for and crowding out much needed, nutrient-rich items, like fruit, veggies, nuts, beans, seeds and whole grains,” adds Harris-Pincus.
Reshaping your shopping habits so your diet is packed with nutritious, macro-diet-friendly staples is the first step. Then, you’ll need to figure out your total number of daily calories needed based on your body type, its size, your activity level and your overall goals. From there, you’ll be able to count your macros and distribute percentages accordingly.
Understanding how to count macros, especially when you’re a newbie to this diet, can be tricky. You likely will benefit from working with a dietitian, who can help you determine your overall daily needs and suggest meal and snack ideas that’ll fit nicely into your macro diet and fitness schedule. The macro diet’s breakdown is unique to the individual, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Is there an easy way to count macros?
A good tip to keep in mind when practicing how to count macros is to use visual aids, such as a plate, to get an idea of how well you’re portioning food based on their percentage values.
“For a well-balanced macro distribution, picture your plate filled with 1/2 fruits and non starchy veggies, 1/4 with lean protein and 1/4 with a whole grain carbohydrate or starchy vegetable as that provides the most micronutrients for the macros that you are choosing,” advises Harris-Pincus.
The distribution in macros will vary based on your personal goals and macro ratio — a bodybuilder or weightlifter might want to increase the amount of protein on their plate, as an example, Fischer says. The following examples represent a balanced macro diet that’s divided according to a more generic goal of improved heart health, better weight management, steady energy levels and greater wellbeing.
- Include greens at every single meal: Adding in at least one piece of produce (especially green veggies) with each meal is crucial. Green vegetables, like kale and broccoli, fill you up on only a few calories, and they have a high water content that’ll boost satiety and hydration and decrease water retention.
- Choose foods with similar macro values: Choosing foods that are part of a food group, where estimated values in grams of macros are similar and more widely known or accessible online, is quicker to determine their listed macro values. “Rice, pasta, and potatoes are easy, where 1 cup of potatoes is approx. 15 carbs, 1 cup of sweet potatoes is approx. 25 carbs and 1 cup of cooked rice is approx. 52 carbs,” Best says. “Likewise, a 3-ounce serving of animal protein (beef, poultry, turkey or fish) is between 20 and 25 grams of protein.”
- Use apps to track your progress: There are several free trackers and paid services that’ll make counting smoother. Schapiro suggests trying MyFitnessPal, Cronometer, FoodNoms or MyMacros+ as they tend to be most popular. Plus, don’t forget to do some research online. “If you’re new to macro counting, this website is a great way to find out your recommended needs,” Schapiro recommends.
How do I figure out my macros?
Counting macros is based on your body’s needs, its size and measurements, your activity level as well as the total number of daily calories. Calorie calculations are crucial, as your body requires to perform at its best and with sufficient fuel for a steady energy supply that’ll last throughout the day. While determining your macros is best done with the help of a professional, there are a few steps you can take to roughly learn counting macros on your own.
First, you’ll need to determine an activity level, which provides a numerical value — that value is used to calculate allotted calories and macro allowances. Usually, there are three standards used here: little to no exercise (1.2), light exercise for 3 to 5 days a week (1.375), moderately intense exercise for the same period (1.55), and heavy high-intensity exercise 5 to 7 days every week (1.725).
Then, you’ll use a BMR calculator to determine your basal metabolic rate, which takes weight, height and age into effect. It’s complex math, but you’ll calculate your BMR using the following equation:
655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) — (4.7 x your age).
Finally, you’ll multiply your chosen activity level by your personalized BMR. The resulting figure should be considered the calorie allowance that you’ll target each day through your diet.
Best says splitting your calories into different categories of macros is the best way to see results. Ideally, you’re consuming calories within the ranges below:
- Proteins: 10–35%
- Fats: 20–35%
- Carbs: 45–65%
“These are the typical macronutrient ranges for most healthy individuals, but you might change percentages to meet your specific needs,” says Best. You can use the macro ratios above as a guide for counting initially, but remember they’ll change based on your individual needs, and should be confirmed with your healthcare provider.
An example of this equation in action follows, modeling a 30-year-old, 5’6″ woman at 130lbs who is lightly exercising — and is aiming for weight maintenance.
655 + (4.35 x 130 lbs) + (4.7 x 66 inches) – (4.7 x 30) = 1,389 calories per day at rest
1389 x 1.375 = 1,909 calories per day for weight maintenance
What should my macros be for weight loss?
If you’re interested in using the macro diet to promote weight loss, you may see better results by also examining how many calories are consumed on an average basis.
“By counting, you see how many calories you’re taking in from the foods you typically consume and how to make modifications as needed,” Best says. Weight loss often requires a calorie deficit — designing a meal plan based on your number of reduced total calories can make fitting macro values into estimated calorie ranges for meals and snacks a bit simpler.
“I’d recommend counting calories, then over time to integrate a balanced diet full of nutrient-rich foods, lean protein, whole grains, and unprocessed foods,” Best adds. You don’t want to wait too long to eat throughout the day, nor do you want to pack a bulk of daily macros in one sitting, either. Fasting or starvation slows your metabolism, and there’s less available energy for immediate use.
“Try to evenly distribute them throughout the day, particularly for your protein goals,” says Harris-Pincus. Doing so elevates the metabolism, so it’s high and stable all day long for greater, sustainable energy and calorie burn.
And if you’re snacking on protein in particular, you’ll give your muscles a boost in fuel and recovery, since protein not only keeps the metabolism high, as Harris-Pincus notes, but also promotes increased muscle building and strengthening — in addition to a speedier recovery to repair damaged muscle tissue post-workout.
Are there downsides to counting macros?
Since it stresses reliance on a suite of wholesome food groups, most macro diet programs are considered safe by experts. However, Harris-Pincus says it’s not an appropriate diet for people who have struggled with disordered eating patterns in the past.
It’s also tedious and time-consuming — counting and tracking require a good amount of attention and effort, especially in the beginning when you’re new to learning how to count macros and to stick within your formulas. And if you’re right-brained and creative instead of logical and left-brained, where numbers just don’t automatically click and make sense in your head, the macro diet can feel difficult to maintain in the long run.
There is a shortcut, though. “If it ends up being too tricky and you don’t want to count every gram, but still desire a similar outcome with counting macros, eat according to the Plate Method (myplate.gov), which can yield similar results,” Harris-Pincus suggests.
The bottom line:
Understanding how to count macros may benefit those who must more closely monitor their nutrient and macro intake, per recommendation for health management or compliance with their dietary needs or lifestyle. It’s something that you’ll need to fully consult with your doctor at some point.
Ultimately, there isn’t a universal ratio or percentage that automatically results in weight loss for most. Counting macros may aid in weight loss over time as it requires you to identify the quality and quantity of each macronutrient you’re consuming, says Best.
“Macro counting will ensure a consistent macro intake and can be especially helpful for those who must monitor blood sugar or require specific fueling for endurance and sports,” adds Harris-Pincus. Diabetics and athletes will need to pay more attention to carbohydrate and protein levels, in particular.
Counting macros can be a useful tool, where diabetics can better monitor carbohydrate intake while eating to prevent impacting their blood sugar levels. And it’s a tool where athletes can feel confident in how many grams of protein they’re consuming post-training to sufficiently repair and build muscle.
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