Discover key benefits and strategies behind counting macros for weight loss. Plus: why nutrition experts actually support this method to manage weight (and who may be better off skipping it).
It seems like there’s always a new “it” diet that everyone’s talking about—and most often those that come with the promise of quick or easy-to-achieve results. For registered dietitians—whose job it is to keep their clients healthy, which may include weight management as a part of the plan—it can be tricky trying to explain the pros and cons of every diet out there, especially fad diets that come and go like yesterday’s news.
Luckily, there’s one weight-loss solution that most RDs can stand behind, mainly because it’s a less rigid approach that encourages a healthy balance of food choices. I’m talking about counting macros, which involves tracking and monitoring the intake of carbs, proteins, and fats.
What Are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients—aka carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—are essential in our diet, as they provide the body with the bulk of energy we need to carry out all its processes. They differ from micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in several ways, says Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. One main difference is that macronutrients are needed in larger quantities to support health (i.e., that’s where the “macro” part of the word comes into play).
According to Dr. Laing, carbohydrates can be classified into:
- starches (e.g., potatoes, peas, corn, beans, rice, and other grain products)
- sugars (e.g., fruit and milk, plus less nutritious fare including candy, cake, and soft drinks)
- dietary fibers (indigestible parts of plant foods that have been linked to digestive and cardiovascular health)
“Proteins are most known for their role in muscle growth and repair. But they’re [also] important for optimizing the health of our organs, hair, eyes, and blood, and ability to fight infections,” Dr. Laing continues. Meanwhile, fats are “essential for maintaining the integrity of our body’s cells, storing energy, and metabolizing the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.”
What DOES COUNTING MACROS ENTAIL?
The theory is that the actual amounts you need of each macronutrient is integral to how your body holds onto weight. “Counting macros requires figuring out how many calories you need based on your age, sex, weight, and activity level, and then the percentage of each macronutrient you need to meet your individual goals,” explains Laura M. Ali, RD, a culinary nutritionist based in Pittsburgh.
“For people who are focused on losing weight, they may choose to reduce the percentage of fat and carbohydrates, opting for higher protein choices as they are more satiating.” The goal is to ensure that the intake of macronutrients is in line with the daily targets.
Benefits of Counting Macros for Weight Loss
Counting macros allows individuals to have a more flexible approach to their diet, as they can eat a variety of foods as long as they fit within their daily macronutrient goals. It can also help to raise awareness about the macronutrient content of foods and promote healthier dietary choices.
Here are some of the ways counting macros could be a helpful weight loss strategy:
It helps create a calorie deficit
Losing weight requires a calorie deficit—meaning that the calories consumed should be less than the calories burned. Counting macros can help create that deficit, explains Lisa Richards, CNC, nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet. “By tracking macronutrient intake, individuals can monitor and control their overall calorie intake and create the necessary calorie deficit to lose weight,” she says.
It ensures you’re getting adequate protein
Not all Americans consume their daily recommended amount of protein (especially older adults, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging). Luckily, counting macros can help ensure that you’re consuming adequate amounts of protein. “Protein has a higher thermic effect than carbohydrates or fats, which means that the body burns more calories digesting and metabolizing protein,” Richards explains. “A higher protein intake can also help to promote feelings of fullness and reduce cravings, leading to a reduction in overall calorie intake.”
It can promote healthier eating
Richards adds that counting macros can also help promote healthier food choices. “Individuals are encouraged to consume nutrient-dense, whole foods that are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals,” she says. “These foods can help to promote satiety and reduce cravings, making it easier to stick to a lower calorie intake.”
Potential Cons of Counting Macros
Despite the benefits shared above, counting macros has its potential downsides:
- It’s time-consuming. Richards notes that counting macros involves significant effort to track and monitor your food intake and properly calculate specific needs. “This can be especially difficult for individuals with busy schedules or those who find it challenging to track their food intake consistently,” she says.
- It can lead to unhealthy fixations. Richards also points out that counting macros can potentially lead to obsessive tendencies or disordered eating habits, especially in individuals who have a history of disordered eating. “The focus on tracking and monitoring [all] food intake can become overwhelming and lead to an unhealthy relationship with food,” she says.
- It’s not an ideal weight loss strategy for everyone. “Counting macros may not be suitable for everyone—particularly those who have medical conditions that require specific dietary restrictions or who have difficulty tracking their food intake,” says Richards. “It’s important to consult a healthcare provider or registered dietitian before beginning any new diet or exercise program.”
How to Count Macros for Weight Loss
If you’re committed to start counting macros for weight loss, follow these five tips vetted by nutrition experts.
1. Do the Math
The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) for most adults includes:
- 45-65 percent of estimated calorie needs from carbohydrates
- 20-35 percent from fat
- 10-35 percent from protein
The precise amount of calories equating to these percentages will vary based on factors such as age, sex, activity level, and underlying medical conditions. For that reason, Dr. Laing suggests first determining your estimated calorie needs and then applying the above percentage ranges.
To determine the actual breakdown for how many calories you need for each macronutrient, you have to do some math, specifically calculating calories per gram. Here’s an example of how you can calculate your macros:
- Carbohydrates: calories x 0.4
- Protein: calories x 0.4
- Fat: calories x 0.2
2. Be Mindful of Portions and Calorie Intake
Portion size plays an important role in any weight-loss regimen, and counting macros is no exception. It’s important to be aware of how much you’re eating, the frequency, as well as if you’re overeating, notes functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, RDN, LD, CLT.
She recommends staying away from the settings on many popular tracking apps as they often set your goal intake too low. This makes it hard for you to stay consistent and hit the targets regularly; it can also be unrealistic. Moreover, Volpe recommends ensuring that you consume 1,400 calories per day, absolute minimum, so that you’re not undereating.
3. Set Macros Based on Activity Level and Body Composition Goals
Your macronutrient ratios may very well vary from your friend, significant other, or colleague. According to Richards, it largely depends on your activity level and body composition goals. “For example, individuals who are more active or trying to build muscle may require a higher protein intake, while those who are sedentary may benefit from a lower carbohydrate intake,” she says.
If you’re at a loss (hey, it’s all a bit confusing!), she recommends working with a registered dietitian who can help you determine the best macro goals for your individual needs.
4. Plan Snacks and Meals Ahead of Time
Since counting macros can be time-consuming in and of itself, it can help to pre-plan your meals and snacks. Doing so can help you ensure you’re sticking to a balanced, varied diet. “Keeping a record will also help you identify if you are seeing success or may need to tweak things a bit,” says Ali.
5. Favor Fresh, Whole Foods Whenever Possible
When it comes to any healthy eating plan—especially one that involves weight loss—a good rule of thumb is to try to lean on minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods. “We need micronutrients (iron, chromium, iodine, copper, zinc), which tend to be found in foods that are minimally processed,” Volpe explains.
She recommends seeking out carbs that come from:
- fiber-rich, nutrient-dense whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal
- starchy veggies like potatoes and sweet potatoes
- fresh fruit for antioxidants, vitamin C, and other micronutrients
For proteins, she suggests lean sources like chicken, turkey, fish, grass-fed beef, eggs, and legumes like lentils. “While plant-based proteins like beans are a wonderful source of fiber and micronutrients, people navigating [certain] gut issues may want to limit their intake of beans and lentils, which tend to trigger symptoms and flares in lots of cases,” she adds as a caveat.
Last but not least, heart-healthy fats are ideal and include the likes of:
- avocado and avocado oil
- extra virgin olive oil
- nuts and seeds
- sesame oil
- fatty fish like salmon (which also counts as protein)
“Omega-3 fats such as those found in fish oil, walnuts, and flax seeds are essential for brain health, heart health, and lots more,” says Volpe. “But don’t discount saturated fats—like coconut oil or those found in full-fat dairy—as these can help support our cell membrane structure in every cell in the body.”