What do The Rock, Chris Hemsworth, Hilary Duff and Carrie Underwood have in common? They have all been linked to the macro diet. Bodybuilders, celebrities and extreme athletes have been known to follow the macro diet and tweak their intake of protein, fats and carbohydrates for optimal performance. Some use this diet to maintain or increase muscle mass while losing body fat, others as a flexible tool for weight loss.
Instead of counting calories, with macros, you are counting percentages of macronutrients. All foods can fit into your diet as long as they meet your individual needs. While this diet may not be for everyone and can feel socially restrictive for some, enough people love it to warrant attention.
Editor’s Note: It’s crucial to talk to your doctor about any changes you’d like to make to your long-term diet beforehand. Targeting macros in any given diet is best done under the guidance of qualified nutrition professionals. Any symptoms of fatigue, weakness, dizziness or headaches after switching to a macro-focused diet should be discussed immediately.
A diet may not be the wellness solution you’re ultimately searching for. Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to go on a diet, we invite you to gain a broader perspective with our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
Table of Contents
What are macronutrients?
The primary macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fat. They are the nutrients necessary for survival that are required in larger quantities to sustain your level of activity. Their counterpart, micronutrients, which include vitamins and minerals, are just as important but are needed in smaller amounts. Calculating macronutrients is a way to establish dietary patterns to maintain or improve a certain level of activity or wellness target. It has historically been a popular diet method with weightlifters and endurance athletes who need to adjust their protein, carbohydrate and fat intake to excel at their chosen activity.
The difficulty in following this type of diet is that you must be able to accurately measure the components (protein, fat and carbs) of what you are eating. For some people, this may provide flexibility by eliminating counting calories, but this may not work for you if you are a frequent traveler or dine out a lot and don’t know the exact makeup of your food.
What is the macro diet?
“The macro approach allows you to eat whatever you want as long as it fits into the macro percentages you have chosen for yourself,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN and author of The Everything Easy Pre-Diabetes Cookbook.
Often, if your body composition or weight isn’t moving in the direction that you are hoping for, you may benefit from reevaluating your meals and snacks and adjusting your percentages of macronutrients to better meet your needs. For individuals looking to lose weight, that may require decreasing fat and/or carbohydrate intake and increasing the amount of protein. It is not a one-size-fits-all diet and instead is very individualized.
Nutrition experts often turn to macros as a way to increase accountability and collect numerical data about your diet. The reason why counting macros may be popular among these experts (or even suggested by one of your own healthcare professionals) is that it often doesn’t require a hard diet change at first.
A macro-focused diet isn’t very restrictive, since nothing is “off-limits,” and there’s no need to cut out major food groups entirely — a departure from other popular diets such as keto programs, paleo routines and even vegan diets.
What are the benefits of a macro diet?
The macro diet’s flexibility and wide variety of food options make it easier to stick with long-term to maintain a healthy lifestyle. According to Albert Matheny MS, RD, CSCS founder of Promix and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab, “A macro diet can provide general education and awareness around the foods you eat.”
A healthy macro-focused diet also pinpoints micronutrient consumption, while treating processed, high-sugar and high-fat foods as empty calories. “The diet works by counting your optimal calorie intake range for weight loss (or weight maintenance) and then once the calorie range is determined, you calculate macros accordingly,” says Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, CDN.
Here are some examples of what you can eat when on the macro diet, within the three main categories of macros — protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates:
- Fatty fish: Cod, striped bass, salmon and mahi-mahi
- Lean meats: Grass-fed beef, turkey and chicken breast
- Plant proteins: Tofu, edamame and rempeh
- Beans and legumes: Chickpeas, black beans and lentils
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, pistachios and pumpkin seeds
- Omega-3 rich foods: Flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, salmon and avocado
- Healthy fats: Olive oil and peanut butter
How does the macro diet work?
The number of macronutrients each person needs can vary based on factors including height, weight, genetics, activity level and goals.
According to Matheny, “Most macro-based diets do take calories into consideration but are more focused on how many total grams of the different macros you eat each day. For example, your macro goals may be 100 grams of protein, 200 grams of carbs and 80 grams of fat each day. You would eat different foods and look at how much of each of the macros they contain to reach your goals each day.”
Understanding how to count macros, especially when you’re a newbie to this diet, can be tricky because the macro diet’s breakdown is unique to the individual. You likely will benefit from working with a dietitian, who can help you determine your overall daily needs and suggest meal and snack ideas that will fit nicely into your macro diet and fitness schedule.
How do I figure out my macros?
Throughout the day, your body requires sufficient fuel for a steady energy supply to perform at its best. While determining your macros is best done with the help of a professional, there are a few steps you can take to roughly learn counting macros on your own, according to Adriana Sobel, MS, RD, CDN, and owner of Adriana Sobel Nutrition, LLC. You will need to figure out your total number of daily calories needed based on your body type, size, activity level and your overall goals. From there, you’ll be able to count your macros and distribute percentages accordingly. She recommends using the following steps to calculate your needs:
Step 1: Figure out your calorie goal.
The number of calories a person needs depends on their height, weight, age, gender, activity level and personal goal (weight loss, weight gain, etc.). The easiest way to calculate this number on your own is to use a calculator such as the one associated with this link.
If your goal is to maintain your current weight, Sobel recommends leaving the number as it is. If your goal is weight loss, subtract 10-15% from the starting calorie number. (For example, if the calculator determines your calorie goal is 2000 calories, subtracting 10% or 200 calories would give you a goal of 1800 calories per day for weight loss.)
Step 2: Identify your goal and activity level to figure out your macro percentages.
- If you are an active individual, the National Academy of Sciences recommends these ranges as a general guideline for optimal health: 10-35% protein, 20-30% fat and 45-65% carbohydrates
- If your goal is to lose weight and you exercise more than 30 minutes a day five days a week, consider: 30% protein, 25% fat and 45% carbohydrates
- If your goal is to lose weight and you exercise more than one hour a day five days a week consider consulting with a registered dietitian that specializes in sports nutrition.
(Please note: These ranges are just a starting point. Your actual range may differ based on body type, body size and medical history.)
Step 3: Transition the percentages into grams to figure out your macros.
For this step, it’s important to understand that both carbohydrates and protein provide 4 calories per gram while fat provides 9 calories per gram.
Example: Goals set by you and your healthcare provider come out to 1800 calories/day with macronutrient breakdown of 30% protein, 25% fat and 40% carbohydrates.
- Protein: 30% of 1800 = 540 calories
540 calories / 4 calories per gram = 135g of protein
- Carbohydrates: 45% of 1800 = 810 calories
810 calories / 4 calories per gram = 203g of carbohydrates
- Fat: 25% of 1800 = 450 calories
450 calories / 9 calories per gram = 50g of fat
And now we have our final macros: 135g of protein, 203g of carbohydrates and 50g of fat a day.
Sobel recommends these tips to more easily hit your daily macro numbers:
- Plan balanced meals and snacks with a source of protein, carbohydrates and fat at every meal and snack
- Spread your macronutrient goals fairly evenly between three and four meals a day. Eating more often generally helps with hunger and satiety, decreases cravings and is beneficial for muscle growth
- Use a free tracking app to help get you started.
Is there an easier way to count macros?
A good tip to keep in mind when practicing how to count macros is to use visual aids, such as a plate, to get an idea of how well you are portioning food based on their percentage values.
“For a well-balanced macro distribution, picture your plate filled with 1/2 fruits and non-starchy veggies, 1/4 with lean protein and 1/4 with a whole grain carbohydrate or starchy vegetable as that provides the most micronutrients for the macros that you are choosing,” advises Harris-Pincus.
The distribution of macros will vary based on your personal goals and macro ratio — a bodybuilder or weightlifter might want to increase the amount of protein on their plate. The following examples will help you achieve a balanced macro diet that’s divided according to a more generic goal of improved heart health, better weight management, steady energy levels and greater well-being.
- Include greens at every single meal: Adding in at least one piece of produce (especially green veggies) with each meal is crucial. Green vegetables, such as kale and broccoli, fill you up on only a few calories, and they have a high water content that will boost satiety and hydration and decrease water retention.
- Choose foods with similar macro values: Choosing foods where estimated values in grams of macros are similar and more widely known is a quicker way to determine their listed macro values. “Rice, pasta and potatoes are easy. 1 cup of potatoes is approx. 15 carbs, 1 cup of sweet potatoes is approx. 25 carbs and 1 cup of cooked rice is approx. 52 carbs,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD. “Likewise, a 3-ounce serving of animal protein (beef, poultry, turkey or fish) is between 20 and 25 grams of protein.”
- Use apps to track your progress: There are several free trackers and paid services that will make counting smoother. Schapiro suggests trying MyFitnessPal, Cronometer, FoodNoms or MyMacros+ as they tend to be the most popular. In addition, don’t forget to do some research online. “If you’re new to macro counting, this website is a great way to find out your recommended needs,” Schapiro recommends.
What should my macros be for weight loss?
If you’re interested in using the macro diet to promote weight loss, you may see better results by also examining how many calories you consume on an average basis.
“By counting, you see how many calories you’re taking in from the foods you typically consume and how to make modifications as needed,” says Best. Weight loss often requires a calorie deficit — designing a meal plan based on your number of reduced total calories can make fitting macro values into estimated calorie ranges for meals and snacks a bit simpler.
“I’d recommend counting calories, then over time to integrate a balanced diet full of nutrient-rich foods, lean protein, whole grains and unprocessed foods,” Best adds. You don’t want to wait too long to eat throughout the day, nor do you want to pack a bulk of daily macros in one sitting, either. Fasting or starvation slows your metabolism, and there’s less available energy for immediate use.
“Try to evenly distribute them throughout the day, particularly for your protein goals,” says Harris-Pincus. Doing so elevates the metabolism, so it is high and stable all day long for greater, sustainable energy and calorie burn.
If you are snacking on protein in particular, you will give your muscles a boost in fuel and recovery, since protein not only keeps the metabolism high, as Harris-Pincus notes, but also promotes increased muscle building and strengthening — in addition to a speedier recovery to repair damaged muscle tissue post-workout.
Are there downsides to counting macros?
Since it stresses reliance on a suite of wholesome food groups, most macro diet programs are considered safe by experts. However, Harris-Pincus says it is not an appropriate diet for people who have struggled with disordered eating patterns in the past.
According to Matheny downsides to following this diet can happen from over-scrutinizing the numbers, being overly focused on food and not listening to what your body needs. “Counting macros can be a great learning tool, but it can also become obsessive. Your body will not care or change if you are positive or negative 10% in some macronutrient category for a single day. Most people take it to an extreme and try to eat the exact amount. There are many variables that go into your daily needs, and you just don’t need to obsess down to the gram about things.” Matheny says to “use macros as a learning tool to help you reach your health goals, but it does not need to be a long term thing unless you are someone that just really likes numbers and systems!”
Counting, calculating and tracking macros can also be tedious and time-consuming. It requires a good amount of attention and effort, especially in the beginning when you are new to learning how to count macros and stick with your formulas. If you’re not the type of person who thrives around numbers, the macro diet can feel difficult to maintain in the long run. “If it ends up being too tricky and you don’t want to count every gram, but still desire a similar outcome with counting macros, eat according to the Plate Method (myplate.gov), which can yield similar results,” Harris-Pincus suggests.
The bottom line
Following a macronutrient diet may benefit those who must closely monitor their nutrient intake or individuals who prefer to count percentages over calories. Personalized health and dietary goals can best be achieved under the supervision of a registered dietitian or your healthcare provider.
Ultimately, there is not a universal ratio or percentage that automatically results in weight loss. Counting macros may aid in weight loss over time as it requires you to identify the quality and quantity of each macronutrient you’re consuming, says Best.
“It can provide great education, awareness and a simple straightforward process to follow to lose weight that is very effective,” says Matheny.
“Macro counting will ensure a consistent macro intake and can be especially helpful for those who must monitor blood sugar or require specific fueling for endurance and sports,” adds Harris-Pincus. Diabetics and athletes will need to pay more attention to carbohydrate and protein levels, in particular.
Matheney reminds those on the macro diet to not become obsessive about hitting your exact numbers down to the gram, as that can result in unhealthy attitudes toward food over time. It’s more about understanding the portion sizes and nutrient ratios your body needs for a healthy lifestyle.
Amy (she/her) is a registered dietitian with the Nutrition Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute, covering nutrition- and health-related content and product testing. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Miami University of Ohio and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. Prior to Good Housekeeping, she worked at one of the largest teaching hospitals in New York City as a cardiac transplant dietitian. She has authored numerous chapters in clinical nutrition textbooks and has also worked in PR and marketing for food company start-ups.
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