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In the world of weight loss, there are TONS of diet plans out there. Some work. Some don’t. You can count calories. Or points. Or carbs. Or you can track one of the most countable elements: macros. Macros or “flexible dieting” is all the rage, but is it a proven method to healthy living? Here’s the skinny on macro counting:
What is a macro?
First and foremost, knowing what you’re counting is super important, right? Well, “macro” is short for macronutrient. What’s a macronutrient? They’re the three categories of nutrients you eat the most and provide you with most of your energy: protein, carbohydrates and fats. So when you’re counting your macros, you’re counting the grams of proteins, carbs or fat that you’re consuming.
Why do people count macros?
Keeping track of your macros can help you make (or plan to make) smart, healthy food choices. It’s similar to counting calories or points, but it takes the ideology one step further.
So calories don’t matter?
Sorry, but no. Calories DO matter. In the simplest terms, weight loss happens when you burn more calories than you consume. Macro counting helps you understand where those calories are coming from and how they affect your body. It also helps you understand that not all calories are created equal.
For example, let’s say you have a calorie goal of 2,000 a day. One gram of protein is 4 calories. So if you eat 125 g of protein, you’re eating 500 calories from protein, leaving you 1,500 calories to split between your fat and carbs.
“I like that people can focus more on the composition of their food, so they’re going to pay more attention to how they’re fueling their body and how their body reacts, which is really beneficial,” says Claire Brailer, a Registered Dietitian in Montana. “It also might help people meet their fitness goals because they will be having greater satiety when they’re focusing on getting enough protein and paying more attention to what kind of carbohydrates they are consuming rather than just calories alone.”
Sounds like a lot of work, but is it worth it?
Well, that’s up to you to decide. Macro counting is great because it’s not a one-size-fits-all plan. It’s commonly referred to as “flexible dieting” since you’re eating real foods without really depriving your body. People who count their macros might throw around the acronym “IIFYM,” or “If It Fits Your Macros,” meaning you can eat it as long as it fits into your macros. Now, should you cheat the system so you can eat a bunch of cookies and nothing else? No. But can you indulge in a cookie every once in a while and still see success? Yes! Technically there are no “cheat” foods when you’re counting macros, it just means you have to move some macros around to make it fit.
Counting macros can help you:
- Maintain lean muscle mass
But just because you’re counting macros doesn’t mean you’re eating healthy and this is one of the downsides experts see in the flexible diet method. Technically, you could hit your macro goals without ever ingesting a single veggie. Because of this, you need to make sure you’re focusing on WHAT you’re eating, not just the numbers. As Brailer says, you still need to “eat the rainbow.”
“There is so much more to good nutrition than just macronutrients,” says Cole Adam, a Registered Dietitian in Denver. “This diet says nothing about vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that are often not on a food label, but play an essential role in good health.”
Some nutrition experts also complain that a macro plan oversimplifies things and won’t address behavioral or emotional aspects of overeating. Others argue that this simplification is a good thing. Have you ever read a nutrition label? There’s so much on there, it can be hard to know what to pay attention to. Calories? Vitamins? Saturated fat? Focusing on macronutrients is a good place to start because every food we eat is made up of some ratio of protein, carbs and fats. And those building blocks quite literally fuel our lives!
OK, how many macros should I eat?
There is no standard amount of macros a person should eat. It is different from person to person and depends on your height, weight, activity level, age and your personal goals.
The first step is determining your daily calorie intake. The National Institute of Health has a very cool calculator to help you figure this out.
Then, it’s time to do some macro math. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine recommends adults try to get 10-35 percent of your calories from protein, 45-65 percent from carbs and 20-35 percent from fats. You can find macro-counting calculators online (like this one) to help you determine your magic numbers, but it’s best to work with a registered dietitian who can use his or her expertise to guide you through the process. Brailer says to make sure you’re using guidelines from a reputable medical source because some websites, particularly those that promise to turn you into the next Mr. or Miss Olympia, recommend unhealthy ratios like 60 percent protein or 40 percent fat.
Even after you get your starting numbers, you’ll likely have to wiggle things around to find the ratios that work best for your body. And if you see success and experience weight loss, you’ll have to continue to adjust your macros based on your body weight.
How do I keep track of everything?
The tracking process may seem a bit daunting, but apps like MyFitnessPal make it easy to set up daily goals and track your macro intake throughout the day. Most people who successfully count macros as part of their daily routine will tell you, “A failure to plan is planning to fail,” and recommend meal planning and prepping to help you stay on course.
If tracking seems too cumbersome (we get it, like you need ANOTHER thing to do every day), try just tracking your macros for a week. This can help you identify places you could optimize your diet. Many people find that they’re light on protein and can make an effort to beef up the meat (or beans for those vegetarians). Veggies are also commonly missing from the plate but a simple smoothie can help you get your greens.
Ready to get started?
While we’ve focused a lot on macro counting and its benefits to weight loss, it’s also a good way to add some lbs if you’re looking to bulk up (yeah...we kind of hate those people, too). Before starting a new diet routine, you should always consult your doctor to make sure it’s a safe and healthy thing to do. Also remember that while nutrition is key to weight loss and healthy living, exercise is also an important component of the equation. When setting your weight loss goals, remember losing 1-2 pounds a week is a healthy average and consistency is key!