Does Calculating Macros Help You Lose Weight?
Losing weight often feels like an uphill battle. You may feel like you've tried every diet and exercise plan out there, yet the scale won't budge.
That's where macronutrients, or "macros" for short, come in. Macro counting has become a popular weight loss strategy in recent years.
But does it actually work? Keep reading to find out.
What Are Macros?
Macronutrients (macros) are the three main nutrients found in food:
Every food contains some combination of these three macros.
The Three Main Macros
Protein is essential for building and repairing muscle tissue. Good sources include meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Consuming adequate protein while dieting helps preserve lean muscle mass.
Carbohydrates provide your body with energy. They can be simple (sugars) or complex (starches). Fruits, vegetables, and grains contain carbs. Carbs help fuel your workouts.
Fat provides essential fatty acids and aids vitamin absorption. Healthy fats include olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado. Dietary fat supports hormone regulation.
To lose weight, you need to take in fewer calories than you burn through activity. Counting macros can help you do this in a strategic way, optimizing your intake of each macronutrient.
How Are Calories Calculated From Macros?
Calories are the energy content in food. They come from macros. Here's the calorie breakdown per gram of each macro:
- Protein: 4 calories
- Carbs: 4 calories
- Fat: 9 calories
Therefore, foods higher in fat contain more calories by weight than foods high in protein or carbs.
This is why foods like oils, nuts, meats, and cheese tend to be very energy dense. Paying attention to serving sizes of high-fat foods can be critical.
It All Comes Down to Calories
When trying to lose weight, it’s vital to remember that you need to be in a calorie deficit, meaning you consume fewer calories than you burn each day. This is what creates weight loss over time.
Without a deficit, you will not lose weight regardless of your macro percentages or food choices. You could eat a “perfect” ratio of 40% carbs, 30% protein and 30% fat, but if you are eating at caloric maintenance or surplus, the scale will not budge.
Calories provide the energy that drives your body. To drop weight, that energy equation needs to be tipped towards more going out through metabolism and activity than going in through food.
Macros serve as one way to help strategically create a moderate deficit through food choices and portions, but the total calories remain paramount.
Don’t get so caught up in macros that you neglect the bigger picture calorie balance required for weight loss. A deficit is needed regardless of macro tracking.
So while understanding macros can help strategically guide food choices, make sure to first calculate a suitable calorie target aligned with your weight loss goals through a calculator or expert guidance.
How to Calculate Your Macros
Here's a step-by-step guide to calculating your macros for weight loss:
1. Determine Your Calorie Needs
Use a TDEE calculator to estimate the number of calories you burn daily through your basal metabolic rate and activities.
To lose weight, you'll need to consume fewer calories than your maintenance level TDEE. A common deficit is 500 calories per day.
For example, if your TDEE is 2,000 calories, eat around 1,500 calories daily to lose about 1 pound per week. The greater the deficit, the faster the weight loss.
2. Set Your Protein Goal
A smart protein intake recommendation for weight loss is 0.6-.8 gram per pound of body weight.
This preserves lean muscle mass while losing fat. Protein also keeps you fuller between meals.
For a 150 pound person, that equals 90-120 grams of protein daily. Choose a target in that range.
Getting at least 0.6 grams per pound is a good minimum protein goal.
3. Distribute Remaining Calories
After accounting for protein calories, distribute the remaining allotted calories between carbohydrate and fat.
A moderate split is 40% carbs, 30% fat, and 30% protein. However, you can adjust this balance to suit your preferences.
For example, some reduce carbs further to promote ketosis or increase fat for more satiety. Like many approaches in fitness, it's important to discover what works for you as an individual. Find a balance that optimizes energy and fullness while preserving your caloric deficit.
4. Track Your Intake
Use a food journaling app like MyFitnessPal to input your macro targets and track your intake throughout the day to make sure you stay on point.
Apps make it easy to log meals and see your running macro totals. This can help keep you accountable and aligned with your macro targets.
5. Adjust as Needed
Recalculate your macros every 10 pounds of weight loss to account for your new body weight. Reduce calories further if weight loss stalls.
The Benefits of Macro Counting
Tracking macros and, most importantly, calories has several proven benefits for weight loss:
Increased Protein Intake
Higher protein intake (up to .8 gram per pound) helps preserve lean muscle mass when losing weight. It also curbs appetite between meals.
Without adequate protein, carb and fat restriction are more likely to cause muscle loss in addition to fat loss.
Counting macros encourages a more quantitative, structured approach to diet versus just general "eating clean" or "eating healthy".
The numbers provide specific daily targets to hit for protein, carbs, and fat rather than guesstimating.
Consistent Eating Schedule
Macro counting reinforces consistent meal timing. This pattern of structured eating can help manage hunger, cravings, and energy levels throughout the day.
Strategic Calorie Reduction
Focusing on macros allows you to reduce calories in a strategic, maintainable way versus across-the-board restriction.
You can cut carbs and fats while maintaining protein to spare muscle. This optimizes body composition changes.
One benefit of macro counting is flexibility. Any food can fit into your daily macro totals.
This makes dieting more enjoyable and sustainable long-term versus prohibiting entire food groups.
Tracking macros provides more accurate insights into your true calorie and nutrient intake compared to estimation.
This helps ensure you maintain the calorie deficit needed for weight loss.
Strategically cutting calories by reducing carbs and fats while maintaining protein intake leads to better body composition outcomes.
You lose more fat and maintain more muscle with macro tracking versus overall calorie reduction alone.
Challenges of Macro Tracking
Calculating macros may seem simple enough in theory, but adhering to a macro plan consistently poses many challenges for most people.
Despite good intentions, the rigid tracking approach often backfires, especially when people jump into macro counting too obsessively.
Here are some of the common struggles with real-world adherence:
- Life gets busy, making constant tracking tough. It takes continuous time and effort.
- Meeting macro targets perfectly every single day creates unsustainable pressure and stress for many personalities.
- Social and work obligations make strictly sticking to macro meals difficult in practice. Flexibility is limited.
- Carb and fat limits can feel too restrictive psychologically leading to burnout, binges, and guilt. Moderation mindset helps.
- Apps make tracking too obsessive for some, detracting from intuitive eating when taken to extremes.
- The rigor required for macro counting can trigger disordered eating patterns in those prone to obsessiveness.
- It’s easy to neglect overall nutrition, not just macros, if overly fixated on numbers. Balance is key.
The level of precision needed for optimal adherence places high demands on time, organization, discipline, and mental approach. This can backfire.
While macro tracking works well for some, it may be wise to take a more moderate approach focused on consistency, flexibility, and lifestyle compatibility over perfection.
Let's look as some of these challenges in more detail.
One downside of macro tracking is it can be quite time intensive, especially when first getting started. Here are some of the components that require time and effort:
Learning about Macros
Understanding how to calculate your target macros for your goals and stats takes some time investment upfront to learn and get right. A good coach or personal trainer can streamline this process if this is an approach you'd like to try.
Tracking and Logging
While tracking and logging macros seems easy in theory, maintaining this habit consistently poses many adherence challenges:
- Meticulously weighing, measuring, and recording every meal and snack is incredibly tedious and time consuming for most people day after day. The work adds up.
- Life inevitably gets busy, making constant tracking tough. It's easy to miss logging meals or guess, reducing accuracy.
- Eating out and social occasions make it hard to fully control macros, limiting food enjoyment and flexibility.
- The grind of daily tracking is mentally taxing for many. Constantly thinking about numbers is stressful and obsessive feeling.
- Apps often take tracking too far, enabling unhealthy fixations on perfectly hitting macro targets versus eating more intuitively.
For many, the rigor needed for accurate tracking is simply not sustainable long term in practice compared to the initial enthusiasm. The Cons often start to outweigh the pros.
Tracking works well for some but taking a more flexible, balanced approach may better suit those who find detailed logging burdensome or anxiety inducing. Focus on progress over perfection.
Meal Planning and Prep
Planning weekly meals that align with your macros and prepping/cooking them takes additional hours of grocery shopping and kitchen time. With most people's schedules already very busy, these added time commitments make this approach unrealistic for many people.
Modifying existing recipes and finding new macro-friendly recipes that align with your diet can involve trial and error.
Researching restaurant menus and figuring out how to optimize choices that fit your plan also requires extra effort.
The diligence needed to accurately track macros can certainly be a substantial time commitment, especially early on. However, it should get faster and easier over time as you build recipe knowledge and good tracking habits.
Many find the time investment worthwhile for the increased dietary structure and accountability macro tracking provides. But it may not be sustainable long term for everyone depending on schedule demands.
Like any strict diet structure, consistently tracking macros long-term requires commitment and diligence. Many struggle with adherence after the initial enthusiasm.
Not For Everyone
Rigid macro tracking provides benefits for some personalities. But it tends to be labor intensive and unsustainable long term for many people.
Counting macros shouldn't be viewed as the "best" or only nutrition strategy. It is simply one tool that aligns well with certain lifestyles and mindsets.
Plenty of people lose weight effectively through:
- Eating more protein and fiber
- Focusing on whole foods
- Portion control
- Calorie awareness
- Meal planning
Without formal macro counting. A more flexible, intuitive approach works better for some.
Nor is any single strategy inherently superior across the board. The most effective plan is aligned with your individual preferences, schedule, and resources.
Seeking guidance from a coach or trainer can help determine if strict macro counting is advisable or if a more lifestyle-friendly nutrition approach may better enable your success.
Tips for Sticking to Macro Tracking
If you decide to try macro counting, here are some tips to improve adherence:
Meal prepping can streamline macro tracking and make sticking to your plan easier. There are a few ways to approach it:
Traditional Meal Prep
The classic meal prep approach is cooking proteins, grains, and veggies in bulk on weekends and portioning into individual containers to grab and go during the week. Having pre-made macro-friendly meals ready helps adherence.
Weekly Meal Planning
Another form of meal prep is creating a weekly meal plan ahead of time and shopping for those ingredients. This sets you up to cook quick macro-friendly meals each night without guesswork.
Research Restaurants in Advance
When dining out, review menus online beforehand and identify meals that fit your macros. This makes it easy to make an on-plan choice when grabbing takeout or eating out with minimal effort.
Stock Up on Macro Staples
Keep your kitchen stocked with versatile ingredients like chicken breast, salmon, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, protein powder, frozen veggies, potatoes, rice, nuts, oils, etc. This allows you to pull together simple macro-balanced meals anytime.
The core goal of meal prep is having ingredients and/or plans in place to optimize convenience and tracking consistency when following a macro diet plan. Get creative with strategies to suit your schedule and lifestyle.
Use Tracking Apps
Technology can be very helpful when counting your macros. Download MyFitnessPal or Cronometer to easily log meals and access your macro breakdown throughout the day. They provide accountability. These tracking apps are both a useful tool to some and a laborsome task for others.
Weigh Calorie-Dense Foods
Get a food scale and measuring spoons and cups. Weighing calorie-dense foods like oils, nut butters, and meat helps ensure accurate portion tracking.
Prioritize Protein First
Hit your daily protein target consistently as protein is satiating and helps preserve muscle and strength while dieting down. For many people new to macro counting, simple striving to hit their protien intake can have a massive impact on their performance, their results, and their hunger levels.
Set Moderate Calorie Goals
Eating too little leads to binges and metabolic slowdown. Stick to a moderate calorie deficit of 500 below your needs for 1 pound per week loss.
Pair with Strength Training
Lift weights and maintain muscle mass while tracking macros. This boosts metabolism and body composition results.
Don't Sweat Minor Deviations
Perfection is unrealistic. Don't stress if you go slightly over or under macros on occasion - consistency is key.
Pros and Cons of Macro Tracking
Below is a summary of the main pros and cons of counting macros for weight loss purposes:
- Increased protein intake preserves muscle
- Structured approach can promote consistency
- Flexibility makes it more sustainable
- Helps strategically target calorie deficits
- Provides more accurate intake insights
- Can improve body composition
- Time intensive measuring and logging
- Can trigger disordered eating in some
- Maintaining strict adherence is challenging
- Not necessary for everyone
- Can detract from overall nutrition
- Easy to become obsessed over numbers
Should You Try Macro Counting?
Macro counting requires diligence but can be effective for weight loss if done correctly.
It encourages a strategic approach to eating for fat loss versus blindly cutting calories. Proper macro intake also supports muscle preservation.
However, the rigid nature of tracking is not for everyone. You may find success simply eating more filling protein sources, fiber-rich vegetables, and whole carbs instead of strict macro counting.
Additionally, long-term adherence often proves difficult. Macro counting works best when paired with overall healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle.
Here are some signs macro counting may be right for you:
- You want to take a structured approach to nutrition
- You enjoy data tracking and accountability
- You struggle with portion control when eating high-calorie foods
- You find calorie targets alone too vague
However, you may want to avoid macro counting if:
- You have a history of disordered eating
- You find extensive tracking stressful or obsessive
- You prefer a more intuitive eating approach
- You eat mainly whole foods that don't require weighing
Tips for Success with Macro Tracking
If you want to give macro counting a try, here are some tips to set yourself up for success:
Focus on Protein First
Make sure to hit your daily protein target to support muscle retention and satiety. Get protein from lean meats, dairy, eggs, and plant sources like beans and quinoa.
Measure Calorie-Dense Foods
Use a food scale and measuring cups to accurately gauge portions of oils, nut butters, cheese, and meats to avoid underestimating calories.
If you're a preparer, then prepare healthy proteins, carbs, and produce in bulk on weekends to easily track meals throughout your busy work week. Meal prep streamlines macro tracking.
Adjust as Needed
Expect to reduce calories further every 10-15 pounds lost to continue steady weight loss. Recalculate macros at lower body weights.
Don't Sweat Minor Deviations
If you go slightly over or under your macros on a given day, get back on track at your next meal. Consistency over time is what matters.
Add Strength Training
Lift weights 2-3x per week to boost metabolism and minimize muscle loss. This maximizes fat burning from a calorie deficit.
The Bottom Line
Tracking macros can promote weight and body fat loss through a structured, strategic approach to eating and calorie reduction.
However, it requires diligence, and strict macro adherence is unsustainable for many people long term. Moderation and flexibility are key for success.
Macro counting may not be essential for weight loss, but it provides quantitative guidance on optimal protein intake and calorie targets.
If you decide to try tracking macros, focus on consistency, sustainability, and hitting your daily protein target above all. Pair it with regular exercise and overall balanced nutrition.
While calculating macros is not the only path, it can serve as an effective tool to help strategically transform your eating habits and lose weight.
Can calculating macros help you lose weight? They can aid the process if done strategically. However, calories are still king - a deficit drives fat loss.
Macro counting encourages a more precise approach to eating for weight loss and muscle retention. But the extensive tracking is labor intensive and often unsustainable.
Counting macros can be a useful nutrition tool for some personalities. But it is not a requisite for weight loss for most people. Nor is it inherently superior.
For those new to macro tracking, focus first on consistently hitting a moderate calorie target and protein goals without getting obsessed with perfect macro ratios.
However, macro counting is incompatible with many people's lifestyles. The diligent tracking efforts often lead to yet another failed diet attempt. Don't force it if it doesn't fit your preferences.
The most effective nutrition strategy for weight loss is one aligned with your schedule, resources, food preferences, and personality tendencies. Macro counting is just one option.
Adopting any rigid protocol as the "best" path often backfires. Stay flexible, listen to your body, and focus on progress over perfection with any approach for long-term success.
The right plan for you sustains a moderate calorie deficit without an excessive tracking burden or deprivation mentality. Find what optimizes satiety and adherence.