If you've ever read a fitness blog, forum, or even Instagram, you've probably heard the term macros thrown around. Short for "macronutrients", it refers to carbs, fats and proteins -- the three basic components of every diet. If you get their proportions right, it makes dieting a lot more effective when simple calorie restriction fails.
One of the problems with traditional calorie counting is that it doesn't take into account what you're eating, just how many calories. Sure, portion control alone might work for a while, but unless you switch to the right foods -- foods that leave you satiated or even stuffed while on a caloric deficit -- your self-control will eventually break down.
In order to start eating more of the right thing, it may be beneficial to focus on macronutrients rather than calories. Some people do well on lower carbohydrate, higher fat diets while others do better on higher carbohydrate, lower fat diets. Creating (and hitting) macronutrient targets allows you to determine which works best for you, then stick to that type of diet without needing to completely vilify and eliminate either fat or carbohydrates.
The Three Main Macronutrients
There are three main macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fat. Alcohol is a macronutrient too, which we've covered extensively here. Let's go through each macronutrient to get a basic understanding, then calculate how many grams of each we need every day.
Calories: 4 calories per gram.
Overview: Arguably king in the world of fitness nutrition, protein is mostly associated with building muscle and primarily found in foods like meat and dairy. However, its uses extend beyond muscle: it's the core component of organs, bones, hair, enzymes, and pretty much all other types of tissue in your body.
Proteins are made of amino acids, many of which the body can make itself. However, there are nine amino acids that are strictly required for normal body function that your body can't biosynthesize. These are (aptly) called essential amino acids, and the full nine can be found from all meat sources. Unfortunately for vegetarians and vegans, it's rare to find the full nine in legumes and grains, so you need to make sure you eat a large variety to get all of them.
Calories: 4 calories per gram.
Overview: First friend, then foe, then friend again -- the diet industry's relationship with carbohydrates has been fickle at best. While it's technically the only macronutrient your body can survive without, doing so would be no fun. Carbs are your body's most easily accessible source of energy, and is broken up into glycogen (used by muscles and your liver) and glucose (used by the brain).
In common nutrition speak, carbs are largely divided into simple and complex carbohydrates. The two classifications refer to the length of the carbohydrate molecules. The shorter the molecule chain is, the easier it is for your body to break down, so it's "simpler" -- basically they're sugars. On the other hand, larger molecules, like starch, are "complex" because it takes longer for your body to break it down into usable components.
In the world of macros, a carb is a carb, whether it comes from sugar or starch. Be clear: this isn't an endorsement rely on pop tarts and candy to meet your targets. In fact, what you will notice is that after counting macros a while, you'll probably gravitate towards complex sources of carbs for satiety's sake. But the freedom of choice is there, and relaxing this boundary between "good" and "bad" foods is important to develop a healthier relationship with what you eat.
Calories: 9 calories per gram.
Overview: Fats are a key component of essential dietary supplements like nutella, bacon and peanut butter. In all seriousness, though, fat often gets a bad rap because its the most calorie-dense nutrient out there. But they're very important to normal body functions, acting as the backbone to important hormones, insulation for nerves, skin and hair health, and so on.
There are a bunch of different types of fats, from saturated to monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fats. Out of all of them, the main three you should be concerned about are trans fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and omega-6 fatty acids.
Trans fats, colloquially known as "frankenfats", have been consistently shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease, and should generally be avoided. They're usually found in packaged foods and various brands of margarine.
The latter two, however, are what's known as essential fatty acids. Similar to essential amino acids, your body can't produce them by itself so you have to obtain them through your diet. Omega-3's can be found in fatty fish, flax, and walnuts (note that they're more easily absorbed from animal sources), and omega-6's from pretty much all kinds of vegetable oil.
Figuring Out Your Macronutrient Requirements
You can figure out what macronutrients to target in a few simple steps:
Find Your Calorie Requirements
As a quick recap, the number of calories you need per day is a product of your age, gender, weight, muscle mass and activity level. Eating more than this will cause you to gain weight, while eating less will make you lose weight.
To figure out the exact number you can use a calorie calculator, but beware that these tend to be very rough estimates as they don't take into account a bunch of factors that affect energy expenditure, such as body fat percentage or specific daily activities.
The best method would be to track what you eat normally for about a week. Provided that you aren't gaining or losing weight, this would give you a good idea of your daily calorie requirements.
For a moderate pace of weight loss -- that is around half a kilo per week, you should be creating a calorie deficit 500 calories per day.
For more information, we've covered finding your calorie requirements for maintenance and weight loss here.
Divvy Up Your Calories Amount Macronutrients
There are two ways to determine your macronutrient targets. The simplest method is to allocate calories towards each nutrient according to a percentage split. The most common split is 40:40:20, i.e. 40% of your calories allocated to protein, 40% to carbohydrates, and 20% to fats.
From here, working out how many grams of each macronutrient you need is a matter of simple arithmetic. As an example, say your target caloric intake is 2000 calories per day. You decide to split your macros according to a 40:40:20 split. From there, use the following calculations:
- 40% of your calories are devoted to your carbohydrate intake.
- 2000 x 0.4 = 800 calories.
- There are 4 calories/gram of carbs, so the total amount is 200 grams of carbohydrates (800÷4=200).
Repeat process for protein and fats.
Other popular percentage splits are 33:33:33 (an even amount of calories from each macronutrient) and 40:30:30 (40% protein, 30% carbohydrates, 30% fat).
Alternatively, you may want to figure out your required protein and then fill in the rest of your calories with carbohydrates and fat depending on your food preference. For example, if you are a 160 lb woman who wants to get down to 120 lbs, you may determine that you need 1,500 calories and 120g of protein. Subtracting calories from protein, you are left with 1,020 between fat and carbohydrates (1500 total calories - 480 calories from protein = 1020 calories). You decide that you want to split these evenly between carbohydrates and fat at 510 calories each (1020 / 2 = 510) and end up with targeting about 55g of fat (510 / 9 = 56.7) and about 125g of protein (510 / 4 = 127.5).
Make Adjustments If Your Macros Aren't Working
These targets may not work perfectly right off the bat. Every individual's requirements are unique, based on your background, preferences and daily activities, so test them out for a few weeks. If you encounter problems, modify them as required.
Here are a few troubleshooting tips, based on the most frequent problems my clients and I have encountered:
Make Adjustments If You Aren't Losing Weight
If you think you've stuck to your macros but the scale isn't moving, it's usually due to two things: you aren't tracking them correctly, or you're overestimating your calorie requirements.
With regards to the former, try tracking your intake by weighing your food. Volume measurements are easy to slip up on because they're easier to cheat on. Let's be honest: a heaped tablespoon of peanut butter is still technically a "tablespoon," if speaking loosely.
But if you're sure you're tracking everything, and you aren't eating everything back on cheat days, adjust your calories (and macros) down by about 5-10%, and see how you go from there.
If you're insulin resistant, however, try decreasing your carbohydrate intake and increasing your fat intake while keeping overall calories the same.
If Hunger Is An Issue Early AM
Your diet has to be sustainable, so if physiological hunger is an issue in the first few weeks, you're not going to last very long. Make sure that your calorie targets are not too low and that you're getting enough protein. If these are all in check, and you're only a few days into dieting, see if hunger subsides by week two.
If all else fails, increase your calories by 10% evenly through carbohydrates and fat. If your caloric deficit is appropriate, physiological hunger shouldn't be a big issue at the start.
Make Adjustments If Macronutrients Limit You From Your Social Life
The unfortunate truth to dieting is that you aren't going to be able to eat absolutely everything you want. But you should still have enough variety to stop you from getting bored and allow you to eat sugary foods and drink alcohol occasionally, while still hitting your macro targets.
If you find yourself constantly unable to hit your macronutrient budget because you live a relatively social lifestyle, exchange some protein for carbohydrates and fat while keeping calories the same. This should allow you more flexibility in your diet choices.
There are other nuances to macronutrient targeting, such as tracking macronutrients when eating out and reading nutritional labels. Fitness coach Mike Vacanti has a pretty comprehensive guide if you're looking for additional resources but these basics should be enough to get you started. If you haven't succeeded with simple calorie counting before and you're looking for something different, give macros a try.
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.