What are “macros” and how do I count them? Is it a good tool for weight loss?
Counting macronutrients (or “macros”) has been a popular dieting tactic in bodybuilding groups for years. However, recently the amped-up version of calorie counting has gone mainstream — primarily as a tool to change body composition, though some believe it can be an athletic performance enhancer. Counting macronutrients, sometimes referred to as “flexible dieting” or “If It Fits Your Macros” (#IIFYM), is a regimented form of tracking what you eat that focuses on counting grams of the three macronutrients that provide calories: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
All foods, from cauliflower to cookies, are made up of protein, carbohydrates, and/or fat, often a combination of more than one macronutrient. Each macronutrient provides a different function within our body, and all three are essential for health.
Macro counters believe that the total amount of calories you eat in one day is only one factor in achieving a fitness or body weight goal, and that the macronutrient profile that you consume — or the percentage of protein, fat, and carbohydrates — is equally important. Although the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that most people eat between 45-65 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 15-25 percent from protein, and 20-35 percent from fat, the typical American diet is higher in calories from both carbohydrates and fat.
A person with a goal of weight loss on the IIFYM diet will not only aim to cut calories, but also to eat 30 percent of calories from protein, 30 percent from fat, and 40 percent from carbohydrates. Another person who may have a goal of endurance training might aim to consume 20 percent of calories from protein, 20 percent from fat, and 60 percent from carbohydrates to fuel their exercise regime.
With macro counting, each person’s total calories and their macronutrient profile are tailored to their individual goals, but the appeal of macro counting for many people is that they are free to eat whatever foods they’d like as long as they fit into their daily macronutrient totals — no matter if that’s broccoli or bacon.
You’re probably wondering: does counting macronutrients work? The limited research suggests that counting macronutrients can lead to weight loss when combined with regular exercise; however, there is no evidence that it provides a greater weight loss advantage over other calorie counting plans. Many find counting macronutrients complicated and tedious as a long-term diet solution, as precisely counting each and every macronutrient consumed in one day requires the use of a food scale, measuring cups, and a nutrition analysis program (usually a smartphone app) in order to track the composition of every single meal and snack. Not only is it time consuming, but it can also make eating meals out difficult, when nutrition information isn’t available. And for some, planning and tracking every macronutrient may lead to an unhealthy obsession with food or a diet that is too regimented, ultimately leading to a disordered eating pattern.
Like calorie counting, “if it fits in your macros” doesn’t take into consideration the healthfulness of a food, or important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. So although it may result in weight loss for some, it can still be an unhealthy diet if followers choose highly processed foods over whole foods that offer more nutrition.
Macro counting may work for those who do well with very regimented eating plans but also want the flexibility of choosing the foods they enjoy eating, since no individual food is off-limits. However, it’s important to remember that not all calories are created equal: 400 calories of bacon does not provide the same nutrients or volume of food as 400 calories of salmon or vegetables, which means you may need much more food to feel satisfied. When it comes to health, food quality matters. A diet that provides a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean and plant-based proteins, and healthy fats is a better choice nutritionally than fried or junk foods…even if they fit your macros.
At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to [email protected].