Butter is low in carbs but high in fat. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Keep reading…
If you feel like you’re seeing the word “macros” pop up more often, you’re not imagining it. The macro diet is one of the most popular among weight loss and fitness circles these days. Searches for the term ‘macro diet’ have been steadily increasing for years, but have really picked up steam. And when you consider that proponents of the macro diet claim it allows them to eat the foods they love and never feel hungry while still losing fat and building muscle, the popularity is not surprising. So what is this magical diet? Well, it’s actually not one specific diet–instead, it refers to a style of eating where people aim to eat a certain balance of each macronutrient (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) each day. Sounds simple, and it can be. But like everything diet-related, it can also be very, very complicated. So let’s start at the beginning.
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What are Macros?
Macros — short for macronutrients — are what makes up the food we eat. They are made up of three main categories: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. (Alcohol is also a category of macronutrient, but our bodies don’t need alcohol, so for our purposes, we can just ignore it for now.)
Macronutrients are what determines the caloric content of a food:
1 gram of fat = 9 calories
1 gram of protein = 4 calories
1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories
Check out this nutritional panel, and I’ll demonstrate the relationship between macros and calories:
Here we have the nutritional panel for some crackers, with 60 total calories per serving.
They contain 1 gram fat, 13 grams carbs, and 1 gram protein per serving.
1 gram fat x 9 calories/gram = 9 calories
1 gram protein x 4 calories/gram = 4 calories
13 grams carbs x 4 calories/gram = 52 calories
9+4+52=65 calories (which after rounding is close enough – this should also show us that quibbling over every last calorie is meaningless, they’re already an estimate).
The war on fat was one of the biggest nutritional mistakes in recent memory (and was actually brought on purpose by the sugar industry to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease). Fat actually plays a vital role in the body with regards to hormone function and vitamin absorption. There is no evidence that fat consumption leads to heart disease in otherwise healthy individuals. And eating fat provides us with a huge source of energy, and helps us feel full, and keeps hunger in check.
Not to be all dramatic about it, but proteins are the building blocks of life itself. Every single one of your cells contains protein. For our purposes here, the main benefit of protein is that it will help grow and repair cells, increase muscle mass, and feel full after eating.
It’s safe to say that carbs have been fully demonized, but they are our body’s main source of energy. If you don’t get enough carbohydrates, your body can start burning its own muscle for fuel, which is most likely counter to your fitness goals. Carbs also provide nutrients for the healthy gut bacteria that help us digest our food (and do so much more).
Why Should You Balance Your Macros?
As noted, there isn’t really one “macro diet”, but instead just the practice of determining how much of each macronutrient you want to eat each day. How you determine this balance will depend on your body and your goals. Many people start a diet with the goal to simply lose weight, so you may be wondering why go to all the extra work of counting macros when you could just count calories. And it’s true–you can create a caloric deficit (where you burn more calories than you consume) and over time you will lose weight, no matter what those calories are made up of. Never forget the “twinkie diet“, in which a nutrition professor ate only snack cakes and other convenience store foods for 10 weeks, created a caloric deficit, and lost 27 pounds.
Proponents of the macro diet, however, hold that the quality of your weight loss will decline if you ignore your macros. They claim that if you balance your macros just right, you can not only lose weight, but boost your metabolism, and be more effective at burning fat and building lean muscle. You can even balance your hormones.
In addition, the macro diet is typically seen as more balanced than other diets because it doesn’t encourage cutting foods out entirely. That means you’ll be less likely to develop nutrient deficiencies.
How Do You Start?
Before starting the macro diet, the first thing you need to do is determine how many calories your body uses in a day. This will depend on your body size and composition, and your activity level. You can find calculators online to work this out for you (like this one). Once you know many calories you burn, your goals will dictate how many calories you need to consume. If you want to maintain your weight, you’ll just eat that number of calories. If you want to lose weight, subtract 300 to 500 from the amount you burn. If you want to gain muscle, add 300 to 500 calories.
As with most things, you will find VASTLY differing opinions on what the appropriate balance of macronutrients is on the internet. What’s right for you will depend on your body, your lifestyle, and your goals. For reference, the acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDR) for men and women over 19 set out by the Canadian Government is as follows:
Protein should account for 10-35% of daily caloric intake.
Fat should account for 20-35% of your caloric intake.
Carbohydrates should account for 45-65% of your caloric intake.
How you tailor this balance is really up to you, although you should definitely consult with a dietitian or doctor before making drastic changes to your diet.
To get set up, you can start with the percentage of your calories you want to come from each macronutrient, or how much of a specific nutrient you want to consume.
Many popular diets (the Zone Diet for example) are based on the ratio of macronutrients you should be eating. In the case of the Zone diet, that ratio is 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, and 30% fat. For a person who needs to eat 2000 calories a day, that would be:
800 calories from carbs, or 200 grams of carbs.
600 calories from protein, or 150 grams of protein.
600 calories from fat, or around 67 grams of fat.
You can also start by determining how many grams of one nutrient you want to consume and go from there. Many people who balance their macros try to get a higher percentage of protein, aiming for 1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight (or 1.2 grams per pound of target bodyweight if you are trying to lose a significant amount of weight). So if you weigh 170 lbs, you would try to eat 204 grams of protein–equaling 816 calories–daily. If you have already determined that you want to eat 2000 calories a day, this would represent around 40% of your daily caloric intake. After that, if you are generally leaner and looking to bulk up you’ll want to get the majority of your remaining calories from carbs. If you naturally carry more fat, have a slower metabolism, or you’re looking to lean down, go for slightly higher fat intake and lower your carbs.
Plan and Track Your Macros
Balancing your macros can be a bit like playing nutritional Tetris until you get the hang of it, leaving you scrambling for an extra 20 grams of protein or 10 grams of carbs before bed to meet your goal, and planning ahead can help you avoid this. This does take a bit of work, but planning your meals out ahead of time can actually help you save time, money, and waste less food in the long run, so it’s a good habit to get into anyway.
The easiest way to keep track of what you’re eating is to use an app – MyFitnessPal is a great choice because it’s free and it’s easy to use. You can set your goal ratio and calories in the app, and then input your meals to check