With a macro diet, you’re not meant to be depriving your body; you’re meant to be feeding it ideal nutrition that makes it more efficient.
If you’ve heard of counting macros, it was probably from a friend who’s a gym rat or who’s really into nutrition—but macro dieting can actually benefit almost anyone who’s looking to hone in on making smart food choices that fit their goals, whether they’re looking to lose weight, build muscle or maintain a healthy lifestyle.
What is the Macro Diet?
A macro diet goes a step further than typical calorie counting. For it, you count the macronutrients—grams of proteins, carbs and fats—you’re eating within your calorie goal, and in what ratios. (To clarify, the macro diet should not be confused with the macrobiotic diet, a fad diet with foundations in Zen Buddhism.)
Counting macros can help you make smart food choices. For example, instead of a 200-calorie snack of Oreos, you’d need to choose a protein- and healthy-carb packed snack to meet your macros—one that wouldn’t just help you restrict your calories but will help give your body the fuel it needs.
What are the Benefits of a Macro Diet?
In fact, counting macros (or macronutrients) offers several nutritional benefits. For the dieting newbie, meal planning by counting macros is a good way to get a handle on portion control, says Ariane Hundt, a clinical nutrition coach in New York City. “It helps people understand where their calories come from and what impact they have on the body,” she adds. And it also helps you make good, informed choices, such as whole food over processed food.
Plus, it’s totally customizable for your goals and body type, and adjustable according to the macro diet results you’re seeing. (That’s why it’s also called flexible dieting.)
“Becoming aware of macronutrients allows one to figure out the tipping point at which the body creates the desired changes,” says Hundt. “Everyone's different, but when macros are customized, one can lose between 2% and 5% body fat in a month and an average of 10 pounds in the first month.”
Not only that, a successful macro diet promises to keep hunger at bay, balance your energy levels and curb sugar cravings. Sounds pretty amazing, right?
How is a macro diet similar to—and different from—other diets?
The macro diet is similar to the caveman or Paleo diet because it emphasizes the value of whole foods, rather than processed foods. Additionally, it shares some commonality with Weight Watchers and calorie counting because you do need to track your intake and stay within certain ranges.
On the other hand, the macro diet is different from other diets because it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to dieting. Everyone starts with a target macro ratio (for example, a macro ratio of 50% carbohydrates, 25% protein and 25% fat). An online calculator—or better yet, a nutritionist—will help you determine your macro ratio based on your body type, goals, activity level and medical history. As you aim for your specific macro ratio, you might adjust it based on what’s happening with your body. (See below for more info on that.)
With a macro diet, you’re not meant to be depriving your body; you’re meant to be feeding it ideal nutrition that makes it more efficient.
What Exactly Are Macronutrients?
So what are macronutrients exactly? Plain and simple, macronutrients are the three categories nutrients you eat most and provide you with most of your energy: protein, carbohydrates and fats. What is not a macronutrient? The other aspects of your foods—micronutrients—are the vitamins and minerals your body needs in smaller amounts.
“It’s important to understand that are versions of each of the macronutrients that are healthier than others,” says Lauren Kelly, a registered dietitian in New York City. “It’s best to stick with the less processed foods, and instead choose whole, fresh food. The fewer ingredients, the better!” says Kelly. So for example, the following would be excellent choices for each of the macro categories, according to Hundt.
Macronutrient #1: Carbohydrates
Fill your plate with healthy carbs, including leafy greens, whole grains and root veggies. A few good picks: broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, squash, dark leafy greens, green beans, onions, cucumbers, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, potatoes and quinoa.
Macronutrient #2: Protein
You need plenty of protein but don’t go crazy ordering greasy burgers and wings. Instead, choose: fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring), cod, lean grass-fed beef, turkey, eggs and nuts.
Macronutrient #3: Fat
Getting plenty of healthy fats is important for healthy hormone levels, metabolism, mood vitamin absorption. Foods high in essential fatty acids include: coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, almonds, brazil nuts and macadamia nuts.
How do you calculate—and track—your macronutrients?
The tricky thing about macronutrients is that the amount of each you should be eating can vary drastically from person to person. Your perfect amount is called your “macronutrient ratio.” As we mentioned, ideal macro ratios depend on your height and weight, your activity level, your age, and your goal.
“For someone just getting started on this diet, it is a good idea to meet with a Registered Dietitian to determine the macronutrient breakdown that you are currently consuming and discuss your goals,” says Lisa Cohn, RD, nutrition expert for miVIP Surgery Centers. “Your dietitian can then help determine the best breakdown for you and guide you on how to make this lifestyle transition.”
An online macro diet calculator or meal planning app can also help guide you along the way, by giving you an easy place to log the foods you’re eating and to calculate how many macros are them. Here are a few popular macro diet apps to try:
How to Start a Macro Diet Plan
As you begin your macro diet plan, a food scale will probably be helpful, so you can see exactly how big your portions are. Once you’ve used the food scale for a while, you’ll probably get good at eyeballing your favorite foods to log portion size into your tracking app.
Macronutrient ratios can be tricky. Always stay within these guidelines to ensure you’re getting the right nutrition: “Generally, for adults 19 years and older, the macronutrient breakdown recommendation is 45-65% calories from carbohydrates, 10-35% from protein, and 20-35% from fat,” says Cohn. That’s a wide range that covers people with a variety of different activity levels.
“First you want to calculate your personal calorie goal; you can use the Mayo Clinic to estimate your current calorie needs for maintenance, and then reduce that by 10-20% to determine your personal calorie goal for weight loss; a healthy weight loss is about 1-2 pounds weekly,” explains Kelly, who offers the following example:
Estimated calorie goal for maintenance = 2,000 calories
For weight loss, reduce that by 20%, so your daily goal = 1,600 calories
Macronutrient ratio: 50-25-25
- 50% carbohydrates: 1,600 calories/day x .50 (or 50%) = 800 calories/day. Divide 800 by 4gm to get 200 grams of carbs daily.
- 25% protein: 1,600 calories/day x .25 (or 25%) = 400 calories/day. Divide 400 calories by 4gm to get 100 gm protein daily.
- 25% fat: 1,600 calories/day x .25 (or 25%) = 400 calories/day. Divide 400 calories by 9gm to get ~44.5 gm fat daily.
Are macronutrient ratios different for men and women? There’s some evidence that suggests that most women need a lower ratio of carbohydrates than most men do. This may be because of differences in hormones. Regardless of your gender, as you continue your macro diet, adjust your ratio according to how you’re feeling, says Hundt. Here are her six guiding principles of macro dieting to follow:
- If you're hungry, add more protein as it is the most satiating nutrient. More fiber is also filling.
- If you're tired, add more fibrous veggies to ensure sufficient energy from carbs.
- If you're not losing weight, lower your carbohydrate intake, especially with dinner.
- If you have sugar cravings, balance your blood sugar better with more protein and fiber and remove all sugar.
- If you are losing weight too fast, add 5 to 6 bites of starch, such as sweet potato, oatmeal or squash, with one meal per day.
- If you are losing muscle mass, add more protein—ideally, an extra 5 to 6 bites of protein per day—and add strength training to your workouts.
You'll need to use a bit of trial an error as you’re counting macros to adjust the macro ratio to meet your specific body, lifestyle and goals. Below, find several different examples of how to count macros, whether you're trying to lose weight or build muscle.
1. Counting Macros for Weight-Loss
If you’re counting macros for weight loss, you’ll want to make sure you’re counting macros in such a way that you’re also cutting calories. Try this range of macro ratio for weight loss: 10-30% carbs, 40-50% protein, 30-40% fat.
Then adjust accordingly. If you’re very active, for example, you’ll need more carbs—450 grams per day if you exercise five days a week, for example.
2. Counting Macros for Bodybuilding
If you’re counting macros for bodybuilding and/or muscle gain, you’ll want to add overall calories to put on weight. Try this range of macro ratio for bodybuilding: 40-60% carbs, 25-35% protein, 15-25% fat.
It’s a misconception that bodybuilders need protein, protein and more protein. In fact, you can overdo it. And overdoing the fats can prevent you from gaining the muscle you want. Counting macros will help you get a handle on exactly how the foods you eat are affecting your results.
3. Counting Macros for Maintenance
If you’re counting macros for maintenance, you’ll want to stick to the amount of calories your body needs to sustain your current weight. Try this macro ratio range for maintenance: 30-50% carbs, 25-35% protein, 25-35% fat
4. Counting Macros for the Keto Diet
If you're following the Keto diet—a low-carb, high-fat weight loss plan—you'll want to consume the right balance of carbs, protein, and fat to keep your body in ketosis so it can effectively burn fat. Here is a common macronutrient range to maintain ketosis: 5-10% carbs, 15-30% protein, 60-75% fat (or even more)
Using macro counting to maintain a healthy weight is a good idea—this diet plan will keep you on track, choosing healthy, well-balanced meals, and keep you from feeling starved or having low energy. The great thing about maintenance is you don’t need to stress yourself out with exact measurements (of you don’t want to) or feel guilt if you have a meal that doesn’t completely meet your macros. You can make up for it with your next meal or the next day’s meals.
Macro Diet Meal Planning Tips
Sticking to a macro diet depends on having a good meal plan in place. “Planning ahead is always a good idea—this way, you can feel confident that you will more easily reach your goals for the day,” says Kelly.
Each day, you’ll want to eat about three meals and two snacks. That’s 21 meals and 14 snacks per week. Eating a balanced meal every 3 ½ to 4 hours will help keep your blood sugar steady, which helps prevent you from getting too hungry. And you’re more likely to cheat when you feel starved.
Choose whole foods, opting for lean proteins from organic sources whenever you can. Keep dairy products and sugars to a minimum to avoid empty calories.
Consideration #1: Time
Sure, it can be time consuming to have to prepare macro diet-friendly. But many people say it’s worth it—and that after a while, it becomes a habit that seems to take no time at all. Here’s how you can squeeze macro dieting into your busy schedule.
- Buy and prep in bulk. To save time, prepare foods that meet your macros in bulk. “Make regular oatmeal or overnight oats in bulk for a few days to grab and go in the morning, or make pre-packaged portions of lunch (i.e. ½ cup brown rice with 5 oz fish and 1-2 cups of veggies),” suggests Kelly.
- Use a macro dieting app. There’s no need to do a time consuming math when you have technology to do it for you. Plus, you always have your smartphone with you, so there’s no need to write things down and then transfer notes later.
- Find macro-friendly restaurants. For those nights you have to work late or don’t have time to prep lunch, it’s good to have some health food restaurants on speed dial. Your local health food store may also have prepared foods on hand for those time-crunch days.
Consideration #2: Budget
It’s a myth that junk food always costs less than healthful food. There are some ways you can buy foods that fit your macros and not spend a fortune.
- Buy in bulk. Bulk buying will also help you stay within budget while you stick to your macro diet plan.
- Get to know your grocery store. Local store put out flyers advertising each week’s specials. Becoming a “store member” can sometimes get you discounts, as can clipping coupons or finding them online. Try to shop around the perimeter of the store—where you’ll find meats, produce and seafood—rather than in the aisles, where you’ll find mostly packaged and processed foods.
- Comparison shop. There are some standby macro-diet friendly foods that are always good deals. For example, dried beans are a healthy, budget buy, as are sweet potatoes.
- Eat out less. When you prepare foods yourself, not only will you be able to adjust them to better meet your goal macro ratio, but you’ll also likely spend less total money.
Consideration #3: Taste
- Freshen up. To amp up flavor, use fresh herbs and spices in your cooking. “These are health promoting, anti-viral, anti-fungal and full of flavor, which makes for satisfying and appealing meals,” says Cohn.
- Get creative in the kitchen. Experiment with fun, healthy substitutes for your favorite foods that will help you better meet your macros. Examples: cauliflower pizza crust, zucchini lasagna and Greek yogurt chicken.
- Occasionally indulge. No, you don’t have to eat grilled chicken and steamed veggies in every meal. It’s okay to eat French fries or ice cream occasionally. Enjoy it! Just count it in your macro dieting app, make up for it in future meals, and move on. You’ll feel less deprived if you don’t cut out anything completely from your diet.
Macro Diet Resources
If you're ready to start macro dieting (a.k.a. flexible dieting), read on! These are the best books on macro dieting that you can find.
The MacroNutrient Diet: The Complete "Do It Yourself" Guide to Getting Lean, by Jonathan DiLauri and Daniel Carroll ($29.99, Amazon)
Flexible Dieting: How to Lose Weight and Build a Leaner, Stronger Body While Eating The Food You Love, by Nathan Bennett ($2.99, Amazon)
Macro Diet Recipes
There are plenty of excellent resources for finding delicious macro diet recipes, such as The Macro Experiment or Bodybuilding.com's Healthy Recipe Database, but you'll also find easy clean eating and protein-packed snacks and meals on Cooking Light. Here are a few to try:
Stick with using your meal-planning app as much as possible while you’re counting macros. It might seem tedious to keep pulling out your phone at every meal, but it really will keep you on track. After a while, the food choices you’re making will become healthy habits. And with persistence and diligence, you can quickly meet your goals.