Even with the best apps and trackers, calorie counting can be a pain. We know losing weight isn’t easy, but it also doesn’t have to be miserable. Besides, the harder the diet, the more likely you are to fall off it. “Adherence is the most important thing for any diet to be successful, and we know people don’t stick with these restrictive diets,” says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., director of the Human Performance Lab at CUNY Lehman College in New York.
Plus, everyone knows that calories are not the end-all-be-all of nutrition. If it were simply about calories, most of us would probably always choose 100 calories of cake over 100 calories of carrots. We know, though, that the composition of calories is arguably more important than the calories themselves.
That’s where counting macronutrients comes into play. Otherwise known as the “If It Fits Your Macros (or IIFYM) Diet” and the more general “flexible dieting,” macro counting allows for a bit more leeway in terms of what we’re eating, instead of focusing so much on how much. With this way of eating, the idea is that as long you stay within your allocated grams per macronutrient (fat, carbohydrate, and protein), you’ll eat fewer calories and lose weight.
Overall, the concept is similar to WW, in that you can eat what you want as long as you keep your calories at a certain level. “But with flexible dieting there’s an emphasis on protein,” explains Schoenfeld. That said, unlike WW, you’re not expected to keep track of points (although there is a little math involved).
Another bonus to counting macros: The emphasis consuming enough protein can also help you build muscle while losing weight. And that’s not a promise any weight-loss-focused crash diet can deliver on.
Intrigued? Here’s everything you should know about how to count your macros, and whether or not it actually works for weight loss.
What’s a Macro?
While many foods contain all of these macronutrients, most foods skew heavily toward one or two of them. For instance, meat is known for protein, bread is mostly carbohydrates, and olive oil is predominantly fat. Your body needs all three in some capacity to perform its daily functions.
According to the macro diet, you can lose weight by setting a goal for exactly how many grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fat to eat per day. Again, unlike most traditional diets, you don’t have to count calories, and unlike low-carb or low-fat diets, you don’t need to to eliminate your favorite foods, like potatoes, pasta, or bacon.
In theory, you can eat anything you want under the IIFYM plan, provided it fits into your macro count.
How Do You Find Out How Many Macros You Need?
Calculating your macros requires some basic math.
But if you’d rather not take the DIY approach, IIFYM.com offers a macro calculator using your current weight, goal weight and activity level.
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Step 1: Find out your “energy balance,” or the number of calories you take in and burn each day, Schoenfeld says. The National Institute of Health (NIH) offers an online calculator that uses your weight, activity level, and gender to estimate how many calories your body expends each day. Websites and apps like My Fitness Pal can help you log your calorie intake.
Step 2: Once you have those figures, you need to come up with a target calorie intake to meet your weight goals. To lose weight, you need the number of calories you consume to be 10 to 15 percent below what you’re burning every day, Schoenfeld says.
Step 3: After determining the total number of calories you should eat per day, you’ll have to figure out how many of your daily calories should come from fat, carbs, and protein. Some IIFYM sites and blogs advocate for a strict 40 percent protein, 40 percent carbohydrate, and 20 percent fat split, but Schoenfeld says “there is no optimal ratio. Some people do well on lower-carb plans, and some people do well on lower-fat. It all depends on the individual.”
And not just the individual, but what the individual is doing in terms of activity.
That said, you should keep an especially close eye on your protein intake: “the scientific literature is very clear that getting proper amounts of protein is the most important thing to maximize muscle and improve body composition,” he says. Some macro diet coaches even advise eating one gram of protein for every pound that you weigh.
If you’re an athlete or in training, your diet should weigh more heavily towards carbohydrates, says Stella Volpe, Ph.D., chair of nutrition sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “You need to replenish that glycogen your muscles are using during exercise,” she explains, since glycogen is the energy that powers you during a workout.
And if you constantly feel hungry, emphasizing healthy fats, like avocados and nuts, may be beneficial. “Fats are very satiating,” Volpe says.
What Does an Example of a Macro Plan Look Like?
Let’s take a daily calorie goal of 2,000 (which, yes, is low for the average, active adult male, but this is just for illustrative purposes).
Here is what a macronutrient breakdown would look for that daily caloric goal of 2,000 based on the 40/40/20 ratio noted above.
2000 calories per day x .40 (percentage of calories from carbs) = 800 calories➗ 4 (the number of calories per gram of carbohydrate) = 200 grams of carbohydrates
2000 calories per day x .40 (percentage of calories from protein) = 800 calories➗ 4 (the number of calories per gram of protein) = 200 grams of protein
2000 calories per day x .20 (percentage of calories from protein) = 400 calories ➗ 9 (the number of calories per gram of fat)= 44 grams of fat
Does Counting Macros Help You Lose Weight?
It sure can—with some general rules in place.
Macros can help you lose weight, some nutrition experts argue, because flexible dieting doesn’t restrict foods and offers more wiggle room for occasional indulgences.
“I think focusing on the right balance of protein and carbs and fat while allowing yourself some freedom to eat candy or fun foods now and then is a good approach,” says Volpe.
That said, flexible dieting is not an excuse to eat whatever you want. Food quality still matters. Vegetables, which are full of disease-fighting antioxidants and fiber, will always be better for you than chips or cookies, which are essentially empty calories.
“I’m a proponent of flexible dieting, and I think it’s the most practical approach to weight maintenance, but I think the concept has been bastardized a little bit,” Schoenfeld says. “Some people have oversimplified it and said you can eat Pop Tarts or Cheez Doodles for your carbohydrates as long as you’re hitting your macros, and I don’t agree with that.”
Consistently eating large amounts of fast food and processed snacks just because it “fits your macros” isn’t necessarily sustainable when you look at the bigger picture of what it means to eat for your health. “The quality of your diet is still one of the most important factors,” says Volpe.
How Do You Meal Plan on the Macro Diet?
If you don’t already cook, meal planning may sound stressful–but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some things to consider:
- Determine how many meals you’ll actually need for the week. If you want enough food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the work week, then technically you’ll need 15 meals.
- Instead of cooking 15 separate meals, whip up a few batches of protein, vegetables, and grains that can be prepared in various ways throughout the week. For example, roasted pork loin can be served alongside broccoli one night, scrambled with eggs the next morning, or served as a salad topper for lunch.
- If you want foolproof meals, invest in a crockpot so you can throw in your meat and veggies for a designated amount of time and monitor progress.
- A food scale is necessary to ensure you’re not overeating. It’s way too easy to underestimate portion sizes. The Escali Primo Digital Kitchen Scale costs less than $30 on Amazon and has more than 1,000 reviews.
How Do I Start Tracking?
Tracking meals is vital to ensure you’re staying within your daily allotment of each macro. This means scouring nutrition labels for the big four: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and calories.
Tracking can get tricky, especially when you consider multiplying numbers by serving size, measuring out how much you’ve eaten, and adding all the ingredients together. It can really test your math skills if you don’t have the right tools.
Luckily, MyFitnessPal, one of the more popular meal-tracking apps, has more than a million foods in its database complete with calorie and macro information. Although there’s a premium version, the free download provides everything you need to track macros and stick with your diet.
Now, this all may sound like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, next to diets that eliminate whole food groups or prescribe complicated and specific food combinations, IIFYM can seem more relaxed in comparison.
“Flexible diets allow you to lose weight or have success while eating a much wider range of foods,” Schoenfeld says.
Though counting macros may take a little more energy, it’s a solid tradeoff for being able to eat whatever fits into your allotment. If you think about doing another, more restrictive diet, you’re probably spending a great deal of time coming up with meal plans that include ingredients you’re allowed to have. With this diet, that time is translated into your tracking. The better you track, the more effective your diet will be.
Do I Need to Count Macros Forever?
Many people who have counted macros for a long time start to gain a general understanding of what macros are in their everyday foods. Once they settle into a routine, they generally know how much of each macro they are consuming, and they stop formally counting.
However, if you eat a very diversified diet that doesn’t consist of the same foods on a regular basis, you may need to stick with counting when you are looking to lose weight.
Ultimately, it depends on your goals and what stage of life you are in. The best part about a flexible diet like this is it takes no extra prep to jump back in. When you feel like you want to get back on the train, no need for a long-winded grocery trip. Just pop back into counting.
Melissa Matthews is the Health Writer at Men’s Health, covering the latest in food, nutrition, and health.
Paul is the Food & Nutrition Editor of Men’s Health. He’s also the author of two cookbooks: Guy Gourmet and A Man, A Pan, A Plan.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.