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Have you ever gone on a diet? If you are like most Americans, you’ve probably attempted (and failed) at more than one. Diets don’t work and we have plenty of research to prove it. That’s because beyond the lab, and physiological reasons why our body rejects diets, most make us feel deprived, hungry and reliant on counting calories or carbohydrates to “stay on track.”
But what if you counted something more high level and more in tune with your specific goals and body type? What if you counted your macros instead?
What are macros?
You may have heard the term “counting macros,” or “IIFIYM (if it fits into your macros)” before. Though not new, macros are trending as a new approach to slimming down.
"Since August 2018, I've been macro counting and the results have come," Shannon Collins, a nurse in Indiana, wrote on Instagram. "This method is not for everyone and requires a lot of dedication. You have to be fully in to see results."
Macro stands for macronutrient, or, nutrients you need large amounts of. In the nutrition world, our body relies on micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as well as macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins). Like many diets that are trending today, counting macros became popular among bodybuilders who tried to match their protein, fat and carbohydrate content to their specific regimen. Today, it’s embraced by everyone from celebrities to people looking to lose a few pounds. The question everyone is asking of course is, does it work?
The benefit of counting macros over dieting is rather obvious: It allows for flexibility and discourages the elimination of entire food groups. It also may be a more sustainable approach since it provides options that most traditional diets leave out. But for those wanting to jump in with two feet, the approach can be both difficult and confusing.
How to follow a macro diet
Counting macros takes not only calculations in grams or ratios specific to your weight, height and activity level, but you also need to know how to maximize each food group. For example, even though carbohydrates are included in the macro diet, not all carbs fit the same. There is also no “one-plan-fits-all” guide on how your ratios of fat, protein and carbohydrate should be divided.
A good macros diet will be one that encourages a high degree of nutrients. Like most diets, sticking to a whole foods approach that incorporates whole grains, lean sources of protein, healthy fats and plenty of fruits and vegetables is always a good approach. As you work towards achieving success in the diet, keeping sugar, alcohol and white, refined grains low will make a big difference. Therefore, in addition to knowing, and tracking your macros daily, you’re also going to need to understand which foods are better than others to make this work.
How to count macros
A good way to start calculating your macros is to first examine your goals. If the goal is to slim down, then determining an appropriate calorie range to enhance weight loss is a great first step. This can be done by cutting 250–500 calories from your normal daily caloric intake. Once this number is determined, you can divide and fit in your protein, fat and carbohydrate ratios.
Most of my patients counting macros prefer to keep carbohydrates on the low end, with fat and protein taking on higher ratios. For example, a lower carb and higher protein and fat content may be broken down into 25 percent carbohydrate, 35 percent fat and 40 percent protein. If you calculate this ratio in terms of calories, and you follow an 1,800-calorie diet, it would look like this:
- 25 percent carbohydrate = 450 calories
- 35 percent fat = 630 calories
- 40 percent protein = 720 calories
Of course, if your plan is to build more muscle, then you might adjust your numbers so that your protein and fat content are even higher (see why it might be important to get a professional to help you?). You can also calculate in terms of grams, which might work for people who are tired of looking at calories counts. If we take that same 1,800-calorie diet with the goals of losing fat and gaining muscle, perhaps we would see a breakdown of 20 percent carbohydrate, 40 percent fat and 40 percent protein. This would equate to:
- 20 percent carbohydrate = 360 grams, divided by 4 calories = 90 grams of carbohydrates
- 40 percent fat = 720 grams divided by 9 calories = 80 grams of fat
- 45 percent protein = 810 grams divided by 4 calories = 203 grams of protein
Note that 1 gram of protein and carbohydrate are equal to 4 calories, while 1 gram of fat is equal to 9 calories.
Finally, some individuals take a simpler approach by starting with protein as the base (calculating 1 gram of protein for every pound of body weight) and adjusting the remaining fat and carbohydrates based on body type and goals.
Who is not a candidate for a macro diet?
What I typically find is certain patients who don’t fit the mold for some diets usually don’t fit the mold for most diets. That includes anyone with obsessive or distorted eating patterns, type 1 diabetics or individuals who are underweight. Additionally, anyone who becomes stressed or anxious from daily tracking of any kind may want to shy away from the diet. Most of my patients utilize macros apps or even track the numbers on paper or spreadsheets. If you prefer to be more carefree with your diet, or simply don’t have the time, you may find challenges with sticking with it.
Counting macros may be a perfect way to finally find peace and health in your diet, as long as you structure your patterns appropriately and focus on nutrient-dense options. Make an appointment with a nutrition expert to get started and as always, check with your physician first if you have been diagnosed with a chronic illness or are on multiple medications.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "Skinny Liver." Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat.