Most diets involve restricting certain types of food, with the aim being to lose weight. But those on the macro diet don’t have to give up their favourite foods to meet their health goals. All they have to do is count their macros.
Celebrities including American actress and singer Hilary Duff follow this diet, and with good results. The 32-year-old mother of two posted on Instagram:
“I’ve still been counting my macros [ …] and it’s truly helped me stay lean even while eating bread, chocolate and wine [sic]!” The photo of Duff in a bikini garnered more than a million likes.
Intrigued? Here’s what you need to know about the macro diet.
What is the macro diet?
Macros, short for macronutrients, are the three main nutrients the body needs every day in relatively large amounts: carbohydrates, fat and protein. The macro diet counts the grams of each macronutrient you can eat in a day, and in a certain ratio.
Many in the macro counting community follow an approach called If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM). The idea is that all foods can be enjoyed as long as they stay within your macro goals for the day.
Tiffany Breeding, a nutrition director for physical training and wellness centre MPower Performance Institute in Nashville, Tennessee, explains that macro counting is more about maximising your metabolism.
“As we get older , we diet year after year or we change the way we eat. That creates some disruption in how our metabolism functions.
”With macro counting, we try to reinvigorate metabolism by eating the right types of food, in the right amount,” said Breeding, who has written a book on macro counting titled The Metabolic Makeover: 8 Weeks to Macro Master.
”While there are few scientific studies on the IIFYM approach, Breeding says the evidence comes from counting or tracking your food. Specifically, there is considerable research done on diabetics who count their carbs to manage blood glucose levels.
“From a behaviour change, motivation and psychological perspective, if we write down our goals and track our progress, we adhere and are more successful.
I believe this is one reason macro counting works because you are collecting data and assessing your choices.”
Macro counting benefits
Compared with other restrictive diets – such as intermittent fasting, in which you eat only during a limited window each day , or the ketogenic diet, in which you avoid carbs and go heavy on fat – macro counting is more flexible and sustainable in the long term.
The keto diet, in which carbs take up only about 5 per cent of daily calories, is also a way of macro counting, Breeding says.
“Keto, for example, eliminates almost all carbohydrate sources. That’s a huge source of energy for our body and brains.
”When you remove that source, then there is a hole to fill. But with macro counting, you are eating foods in all categories,” she explains, adding that this makes it easier to follow.
”Macro counting may improve your diet quality, Breeding says, as you become more aware of what you are putting into your body.
“Once you start to understand your body and educate yourself on what foods are carbs, fats, and proteins, it really changes the way you treat your body and how you hold yourself accountable.”
How to calculate your macros
Chanel Mo Kee Yu, a registered Hong Kong dietitian at MSL Nutrition Diet Centre in Mong Kok, explains you first calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), based on your age, gender, height, weight and physical activity level.
It will include the energy – in number of calories – you need to maintain bodily functions such as breathing, blood circulation and digesting food, plus the energy to fuel activities such as exercise. There are many free TDEE calculators available online.
Next, add or subtract calories from your TDEE depending on your fitness goal. To lose weight, you need to subtract, and add them for weight gain or muscle building.
Breeding recommends a 10 per cent increase in calorie intake for weight gain, and cutting up to 20 per cent for weight loss.
With this daily calorie goal set, you now want to determine which proportion and amount of carbs, protein and fats you should eat a day.
Mo describes the three main macro combinations. A healthy balanced diet is high in carbs, moderate in fat and low in protein.
A keto diet would mean very low carbs, high fat and moderate protein. To build muscle, you would have a high-carb, low-fat and high-protein diet.
There is no ideal ratio, but Breeding says a basic breakdown to start with would be 40 per cent carbs, 30 per cent fat and 30 per cent protein.
There is no single weight-loss solution, she says: “Some people do better on a higher-fat, lower-carb [diet]. Others may be more successful on moderate intake in all three nutrients.”
To calculate your calories for each nutrient, multiply your total calorie goal by the macro ratio. On a 2,000-calorie diet, with a 40:30:30 ratio, you can eat 800 calories of carbs, 600 calories of protein and 600 of fats.
Most who follow the macro diet find it easier to track by knowing how many grams of nutrients they can eat.
You can get that by taking the calorie goal for each nutrient and dividing it by the nutrient’s respective energy per gram: fats have nine calories per gram, while carbs and protein have four.
The 2,000 calorie diet would include 200g of carbs, 150g of protein and 66g of fats.
Tracking three numbers can get very confusing, so most turn to macro counting apps to log their progress. Breeding uses the app MyFitnessPal to track her macros, but other free apps include Lose It or My Macros+.
What macro counters should be wary of
Some laud this as a diet that lets you pile on pizza, chocolate cake and fried chicken while still losing fat, and that can be a dangerous misconception.
“The danger of the IIFYM approach is that one can consume all unhealthy food even if it fits within the macro goals,” says Mo.
“Such food is generally high in simple sugar, causing unstable blood sugar and potential low blood sugar, also known as a sugar crash. That can affect moods greatly and cause us to crave more food because our body is low in energy.”
Those who go by the IIFYM approach might also neglect micronutrients which are derived from our diet. You could hit your macro goals with processed foods, while depriving the body of vital minerals and vitamins.
For that reason, Breeding does not recommend the IIFYM approach. Instead, she recommends an 80-20 balance – 20 per cent on a doughnut or cupcake, or some alcohol on the weekend, and 80 per cent on fibre, fruits and vegetables.
With the emphasis on tracking three numbers, some people may find themselves too fixated on macro counts, which can trigger eating disorders.
“You have to be careful, especially if there has been a history of compulsive tracking and analysing of numbers,” says Breeding.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.