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There are a lot of trendy diets out there (paleo, ketogenic, Whole 30, Autoimmune Protocol, GAPS, Specific Carbohydrate, etc). They all have their merits, and I do put people on each of them in specific cases. But one of the simplest, longest term approaches is “counting macros.”
Macronutrients: What They Are
“Macros” is short for macronutrients, referring to the bigger molecules that make up our nutrition: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. The “counting” part refers to keeping your calories within a certain percentage for each of these. If you’re truly counting your macros, as you might imagine, it requires a bit of math. Also, the percentages change by the person and his or her goals.
The Basic Macro Ratios
A good place to start for a healthy person looking to maintain weight is about 50% carbs, 25% protein, and 25% fat—or alternatively, 25% fat, protein at 0.825 grams per lb body weight, and the rest carbs. How many calories this actually works out to depends on your body, your activity level, and a little math involving the fact that there are 4 kCal/gm of carbs and protein, and 9 kCal/gm of fat.
Here’s a great calculator to help you figure this out—and it’s especially neat because the calculator allows you to input your goals as well: whether you want to lose a little weight, lose a lot of weight, maintain, or gain weight. You can guesstimate your activity level based on how much you think you do, but you can also use an app like the FitBit in order to give you more precise data.
Keep in mind that the calculator assumes an average body fat percentage; if you are either very lean or very obese, the calculator will be less accurate, because maintenance of a pound of fat requires only 2 kCal/day, while maintenance of muscle requires 6 kCal/day. A few pounds of one or the other here or there won’t throw the calculator too far off, but if you’re on either of the extremes, you’ll want to factor that in. (To get a rough idea if this is you, check out this body fat percentage calculator).
Calculating how many calories of each macro you should be consuming is one thing; actually keeping track of what you’re ingesting is another. Once again, technology to the rescue: apps like My Food Diary and MyFitnessPal make this MUCH easier than the old school, pen-and-paper approach.
Adjusting Macro Ratios
Calculator aside, there are a few rules of thumb to remember.
The body’s preferred energy source is glucose, and of the three macronutrients, the body turns carbohydrates into glucose most readily. This means carbs are the most efficient source of quick energy, but by the same token, unused glucose will get stored—as fat. So if you’re feeling fatigued on your macro diet or losing too much weight, increase your carbs (the good kind, like starchy veggies). If you’re not losing enough weight, lower the carbs.
Protein can turn into glucose, the body’s preferred energy source, but it does so slower and more laboriously than carbs. It also slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream, making you feel full longer. So if you’re always hungry or struggling with hypoglycemia (blood sugar instability), add more protein. Protein is also the building block of muscle, so if you’re looking to build muscle mass, add more protein.
Fat is the only macronutrient that cannot turn into glucose; instead, it turns into ketones. The Ketogenic Diet does work great for weight loss, at least initially (though over time you can end up setting off some of the body’s feedback mechanisms, causing weight loss to stall.) Because fat is 9 kCal/gram, you’re getting more calories per unit of fat than per unit of protein or carbs, though–so one thing to remember is that while eating primarily fat will result in weight loss, if you add more fat along with more carbs (which your body will use as energy before it will turn the fat into ketones), you’ll just end up with more calories to get stored overall. This will result in weight gain, not loss. The point is, ketogenic will help you lose weight in the presence of carb restriction, but if you’re eating a normal diet and then start adding MCT oil to your coffee while still eating breakfast too, you’ll probably gain, not lose.
Simplifying the Macros
One of my patients asked me to share how I eat–so if you want to use this information without all the math and the tracking, here’s my basic approach. If you’re overweight and looking to lose, or a healthy weight and looking to maintain, assuming your hormones are in balance and you’re maintaining a reasonable activity level, this will generally work:
- Whole food only (or 95% at minimum.) Anything prepackaged should have recognizable ingredients.
- No more than one serving of grains per day on average (sometimes more, but sometimes less)
- At least half your plate should be veggies for two of your three meals per day.
- A serving of protein should be about the size of your fist.
- Cook with healthy oils (NOT canola, cottonseed, or rapeseed oil).
- Eat slowly enough to tell when you’re full. Then stop eating. (Save it for leftovers–less work later!)
- Always combine carbs with a form of either protein or fat.