What Is the Macro Diet—And Can It Help Me Lose Weight?
For decades, calories were regarded as the sole reason why we gained or lost weight. So, naturally, diets of the past focused almost exclusively on calorie counting. But as anyone who's followed a low-calorie diet has noticed, this usually means deprivation that doesn’t often equate to effective, long-term weight loss.
It's true that calories matter. The body has unlimited capacity to store extra energy (calories) as fat tissue, so we can’t ignore them. But what we’ve all come to realize (researchers included) is that the nutrients in the foods that provide those calories are equally, if not more, important. In fact, you may find that you can lose weight by simply tracking your nutrients with calories (known as macronutrients) while not cutting calories significantly — which is exactly what the macro diet is about!
What is the macro diet?
What are macros in food? “Macro” stems from the term macronutrient. There are six classes of nutrients that make up all foods, and three of those — carbohydrate, protein, and fat — are known as macronutrients. These three are the only ones that provide energy (which gets measured as calories) to the body.
Vitamins and minerals (referred to as micronutrients) and water are the other three, which play key roles in enabling the body to break down and use energy in macronutrients. However, they don’t directly provide any calories to food or the body.
The macronutrient amounts that you eat are what determine total calories consumed. The macro diet focuses on tweaking those within your estimated calorie needs to determine what macronutrient ratio most effectively supports weight loss and fuels the body.
And it’s not limited to weight loss: The macro diet can also support other goals, like building muscle, weight maintenance, or eating a healthier diet.
What are the benefits of a macro diet?
The macro diet has several benefits: The first one being that it offers a weight loss solution that doesn’t focus on keeping track of calories. Instead, you track daily macros. While this may not seem like a big difference, it’s brought a new, healthier perspective to those of us with calorie-counting fatigue. Many also find that tracking macros shifts their mindset from a calorie-driven one focused on what you can’t eat to a macro-driven one focused on what you can eat.
Counting macros offers several other benefits, too. 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.
“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.”
Counting macros can help you make smarter food choices. Instead of choosing a snack based on its total calories, it forces you to look at what is in those calories. And there’s big difference when you compare the macros in a 250-calorie snack of Oreos and a 250-calorie snack of Greek yogurt topped with berries and nuts.
Other times, counting macros may help you choose a snack that fuels your body yet is significantly lower in calories compared to choosing what looks good in the vending machine. Making smarter choices like these also works to keep hunger at bay, balance your energy levels, and curb sugar cravings.
How is a macro diet similar to — and different from — other diets?
The macro diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet, Whole 30, and the Paleo diet because they all emphasize the value of whole, less processed foods.
Additionally, it shares some commonality with Weight Watchers, which uses a point system rather than calorie-counting. On the other hand, the macro diet is unique because it’s not a one-size-fits-all diet. No two macro diet plans look exactly alike or consist of the same foods. This is because it’s highly individualized, and you can adjust the macro ratio or calories based on the results you’re seeing.
How to calculate and track macronutrients
Before you can start tracking, you'll need to determine your daily macronutrient goals. These four steps guide you through that process.
Step 1: Determine your energy needs and daily calorie goal.
While calories aren’t the primary focus of the macro diet, they do provide a framework for macros. So you have to start by determining your body’s daily calorie needs and then setting a calorie goal.
To determine this, Lauren Kelly, a registered dietitian in New York City, says, “First you want to calculate your personal calorie goal; you can use the Mayo Clinic calorie calculator to estimate your current 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.”
For someone whose estimated needs are 2,000 calories per day, this means setting a daily goal of 1,600 to 1,800 calories for weight loss. Those wanting to maintain weight may want to use the original calorie needs calculated, while those looking to gain or add lean body mass, may want to set a goal slightly above estimated needs.
Also, if your goal is weight loss, avoid the temptation to set a calorie goal that’s less than 80% of your estimated calorie needs, as this can backfire from both a hunger and metabolic standpoint.
Step 2: Determine your macronutrient breakdown.
The next step is finding a macronutrient ratio that's best for your body and goals. This means determining what percentage of your total calories will come from each macronutrient.
A good starting place is to choose a percentage for each macro that falls within the DRI guidelines:
- 45 to 65% of calories from carbohydrate
- 10 to 35% of calories from protein
- 20 to 35% of calories from fat
The percentage total should add up to 100%, which means you have lots of options. For example, someone who feels they lose best by keeping tabs on overall carbohydrate intake might choose a macro breakdown that’s 50% carb, 25% protein, and 25% fat, or 45% carb, 20% protein, and 30% fat. Someone trying to build muscle might choose a breakdown of 55% carb, 25% protein, and 20% fat.
Step 3: Calculate your daily macros.
We now have the information needed to calculate our macro amounts. Using the scenarios above, let’s assume we set a daily goal of 1,800 calories with a macro breakdown of 50% carb, 20% protein, and 30% fat. To determine daily macro goals, multiply your calorie goal by each percentage. This gives you the calories that each macronutrient will provide. Then, divide each of those by the number of calories each macro provides per gram (carb and protein: 4 cal per gram, fat: 9 cal per gram).
Based on this example, your daily macro goals are 225 g carbohydrates, 90 g protein, and 60g fat.
- Carbohydrates: 1,800 x 0.5 = 900 cal divided by 4 cal per gram = 225 g
- Protein: 1,800 x 0.2 = 360 cal divided by 4 cal per gram = 90 g
- Fat: 1,800 x 0.3 = 540 cal divided by 9 cal per gram = 60 g
Step 4: Track your macros.
The easiest way to track your macros is to use a diet or meal planning app that has this feature. MyFitnessPal is a free app that’s easy to use. Once you update the settings to reflect your calorie and macro goals, you start entering your intake. The app provides a running total for each macro and compares that to your daily goal. At the end of the day, you can see your exact macro percentages for the day. Other popular tracking apps are My Macros+ and Lose It!.
How to use macros for weight loss
Determining the right breakdown of macros for weight loss varies by individual and often requires some trial, error, and adjustment. To get started, the best thing to do is to determine your calorie goal (see step one above) and choose a macronutrient breakdown within the ranges provided in step two. Once you calculate your daily macro goals and start tracking and follow it for several days to a week, assess how you’ve felt over the past few days,
- Do you have enough energy? If not, you may need to go back to step two and increase the carbohydrate percentage.
- Are you getting hungry between meals? If yes, try slightly decreasing the carb percentage and increasing protein and/or fat a little bit.
- Are you eating all your macros (or getting pretty close)? If not, you’re falling significantly short of your calorie goal. Don’t make any changes yet. Keep going, placing a greater emphasis on hitting your macro goals, then reassess.
“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. “Your dietitian can then help determine the best breakdown for you and guide you on how to make this lifestyle transition.”
2 keys for weight loss on the macro diet
There are a two important factors that affect your success on the macro diet. In fact, these are equally important as calculating and tracking your macros.
#1 The quality of food choices matters.
The macro diet focuses on whole, minimally processed foods — ones that are packed with nutrients instead of added sugars, trans fats, and other less healthy ingredients — and this impacts overall nutrition and metabolism.
For example, the added sugars in sodas, candy, and desserts count toward your daily carbohydrate goal, meaning there’s less room in your diet for healthier complex carbs with fiber. They also cause glucose fluctuations. “It’s important to understand there are versions of each of the macronutrients that are healthier than others,” says Kelly. “It’s best to stick with the less processed foods, and instead choose whole, fresh food. The fewer ingredients, the better!”
Hundt agrees and suggests focusing on choices like these for each of the macros.
- Carbohydrates: Vegetables, including starchy ones, whole grains, legumes, and fruit.
- Protein: Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring); lean animal proteins like grass-fed beef, chicken, and turkey; eggs, nuts, seeds, and some dairy, like Greek yogurt.
- Fat: Foods high in essential fatty acids such as olive oil, avocado, almonds, Brazil nuts, and macadamia nuts.
#2 Portion sizes and servings matter.
The more accurately you’re able to track, the better. Usually, this means measuring everything while you're getting started. Measuring cups and spoons will help you learn the macros in portion sizes of different foods. A food scale can be helpful, too. After a while, you’ll probably get good at eyeballing your favorite foods to log portion size into your tracking app and not have to measure as much.
The macro diet is an approach to weight loss that's tailored to your nutrient needs and goals. And the best part by far is there’s no calorie counting!