Hate the idea of counting calories, but still feel like you need to track something to stay on the road toward your weight loss goals? The macros diet might be right for you.
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 have become popular among 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.
So what’s macros dieting 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?
Macros refer to the three macronutrients that make up the foods we eat: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Most foods have two or even all three different macronutrients, but they’re categorized by the macronutrient that they have the most of. 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.
The idea behind macros dieting is pretty simple: Instead of focusing on eating a certain number of calories, you focus on getting a certain number of macronutrients. People following a macros diet also tend to eat a little more protein than the average eater, which can aid weight loss. “Protein requires more energy to digest and use than carbs or fat, plus it dampens your appetite,” explains Georgie Fear, RD, the author of Lean Habits for Healthy Weight Loss.
How does counting macros compare to calorie counting?
A big part of losing weight comes down to calories—you need to burn more than you take in. But paying attention to your macros can go a long way toward helping you reach your goal. Just so long as you also factor in the quality of your food. For instance, a slice of white bread might have nearly the same number of carbs as a slice of whole grain bread. But because the whole grain bread also has fiber to fill you up, it’s a far better choice for weight loss.
“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,” explains registered dietitian Amy Goodson, RD, CSSD, LD.
All of those things factor into how well you’re able to stick to your healthy eating plan. For example, stable blood sugar and energy levels can help stave off the urge to snack on junk food or overeat. Certain macro ratios can also fill you up for fewer calories and help prolong feelings of satiety.
Is the macro diet really easier than counting calories?
That depends. 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 could actually be more challenging.
Macros dieting 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 can be tough to keep up with.
What’s the best macro ratio 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 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.
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