Is Macro Counting Healthy?
We’re going to let you in on a little secret. Most popular healthy diets that are touted for weight loss—from Paleo to Mediterranean and vegetarian—share many of the same basic principles. All involve eating whole foods (as opposed to packaged and processed) and filling your plate with quality sources of protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-rich vegetables. (Again, we’re talking about the ones that fall somewhere on the healthy spectrum, not unhealthy fad diets like, ahem, the Grapefruit Diet. However, each proposes a slightly different path that leads to fulfilling those principles. In this column, we’ll be breaking them down for you one by one so you can figure out which (if any!) is right for you. We’ll quickly explain the facts and then provide quick, actionable tips on how to follow the diet as part of a Nutritious Life.
You’ve probably heard fitness influencers or healthy eating enthusiasts talk about “counting their macros.” But what does that really mean? Essentially, they are monitoring how many grams (and calories) they consume from the three macronutrients— carbohydrate, protein and fat. The idea is that if you create a calorie deficit and properly proportion how much of each macronutrient you eat in a day, you’ll achieve your desired weight and at the same time reach other health goals including maintaining or building muscle. Here, we have Macro Counting decoded.
What is Macro Counting?
Macros aka macronutrients are the calorie-providing nutrients that your body needs in large quantities. The three macronutrients — protein, carbohydrate, and fat — each play a unique role and are essential for optimal health.
To calculate your calorie needs and macro proportions, the specific target numbers will depend on sex, age, physical activity and weight and fitness goals, so there’s no one-size-fits-all formula.
It’s recommended that you aim to get 1 gram of protein for every pound you weigh. The remaining number of calories will be made up of carbs and fat set to round out your daily calorie intake. For example, you may determine that you need 1800 calories per day, so those calories should be 40 percent carbs (720 calories), 35 percent protein (630 calories) and 25 percent fat (450 calories).
Instead of counting your total caloric intake for the day, you’ll be counting the macros.
What You Eat
You can eat anything as long as you stay within your target numbers for each macronutrient — check out the popular #ifitfitsyourmacros for inspo. There are no specific recommendations on the types of foods you should eat, so you decide how you want to meet your proportioned daily macro amounts.
What You Don’t Eat
No foods are off limits in macro counting. You can enjoy all your favorite foods as long as they don’t put you over your macronutrient target numbers. Want a slice of cake after dinner? Go for it! But if you’ve already consumed all your carbs for the day, you’ll have to skip that cake.
Pros and Cons
Tracking your macros can help you pay more attention to what you eat and provide clear guidelines when making food choices. Unlike many popular diets today, macro counting doesn’t eliminate or demonize any foods. The flexibility and ability to tailor your intake to your own needs and goals means this approach may be more sustainable than other weight-loss diets.
However, there’s no evidence to suggest that specifically monitoring macronutrients will provide greater weight-loss benefits than other calorie-restriction diets. A 2-year clinical trial randomly assigned participants to four different reduced-calorie diets varying in macronutrient composition; however, they didn’t find any clinically meaningful differences in weight loss.
Plus, calculating and monitoring your macro intake can be time-consuming and tedious. While there are apps and fitness trackers that can help, it still requires a lot of legwork on your part. This monitoring can also promote an unhealthy obsession with food and induce stress and anxiety, which makes it more difficult to stick with it for the long-haul.
It’s important to note, while Macro Counting is a step-up from calorie counting, it still ignores micronutrients and overall food quality. Eating 100 grams of carbs from bagels, chips, and cookies will not provide the same health benefits as eating 100 grams of carbs from whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. Research shows that quality, not just quantity, matters when it comes to your diet’s impact on your overall health.
The Bottom Line
There’s nothing magical about this diet approach— you’re creating a calorie deficit and eating a specific proportion of macronutrients.
If you find tracking your intake helpful and consume mostly whole unprocessed foods, then counting macros can be an effective and flexible way to lose weight and get lean.
If calculating and monitoring macronutrient intake sounds difficult and stressful, then you’ll probably be better off focusing on eating whole foods and listening to your hunger and fullness cues to monitor your intake.