A Beginner's Guide to Macro Dieting

If “counting macros” sounds more like economics than nutrition to you, it might be time to listen to the dietitians and personal trainers who have recently been raving about this method of losing weight, building muscle and staying fit.

Macros, or macronutrients, are what comprises the caloric content of the food you eat. You are probably already familiar with fats, carbohydrates and protein – these are the three categories of macros.

Macro dieting, then, is about paying attention to these three categories, rather than just counting calories. You could eat 1,500 calories a day of lollipops, croissants and hot dogs, but, as you can imagine, it wouldn’t be a particularly healthy 1,500 calories. Macro dieting truly shows that where you get your calories from is more important the number of calories you consume in a day. It is all about making good choices and filling your body with the right balance of nutrients for your lifestyle, goals and needs.

Why macros?

Macro dieting emphasizes whole foods – think vegetables, fruit, eggs and lean protein, for example – over the processed items that you would find in the center aisles of the grocery store.

You can customize your diet and nutrition program based on your body while learning more about food, nutrients and portion control. Even better, when you eat according to your macros, you shouldn’t be hungry all the time – whole foods are more satisfying than processed ones and can create that long-lasting sensation of fullness.

Depending on your current health and fitness goals, macro dieting can help you lose weight and fat while maintaining or increasing muscle mass.

Breaking down these building blocks

Carbohydrates are our main fuel source – they can provide the energy you need to get through a busy day. The key is to focus on complex carbs, which contain more fiber, take longer to digest and provide more energy than simple carbs (think sugar, honey and fruit). Examples of complex carbs include vegetables (leafy greens, cauliflower, squash and sweet potatoes are all great options) as well as whole grains, oats and quinoa.

Protein is the key macronutrient for building muscle as well as preventing muscle loss. More satisfying than the other macros, protein helps you feel full. Some good examples of protein include eggs, lean meat, nuts and beans.

Finally, fat is more essential than many people realize; it balances hormone levels and keeps your metabolism stoked while also supporting vitamin absorption and your mood. It is important to avoid trans fats from processed foods and focus on nuts, avocadoes, coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil.

How do I determine my macro needs?

This is a very individual process – ideally done with a nutritionist or registered dietitian, or a personal trainer with extensive nutrition education. Macro needs will vary from person to person – everyone has an ideal macronutrient ratio of fats, protein and carbs based on height and weight, age, activity level and overall goal. You can also check out online macro calculators or meal planning apps that take these factors into account.

Common macro ranges for adults are: 45-65 percent of calories from carbs, 20-35 percent from fats and 10-35 percent from protein. Again, this can vary dramatically depending on your body and goals, so it helps to get an accurate calculation based on your needs. A dietitian can also help you update and adjust your macros as your body and your goals change.

Healthy, balanced meals should contain all three macros. Protein is important for building muscle while carbs provide energy and fats balance everything out.

Macros in action

Once you have established the macros you need to succeed, consider investing in a food scale, which can help with portion size and control. Eventually, you will have a good idea how much protein, carbs and fat are in the foods you regularly consume, but initially, you will be tracking every single bite you take.

If you find that you are hungry most of the time, consume more protein and fiber. Likewise, if you are losing muscle mass along with weight, up your protein intake. On the other hand, if you are fatigued, complex carbs can give you a boost while decreasing your carbohydrate intake can help with further weight loss.

The key to success is planning. Determine your meal plan for the week, shop and prep ahead of time, and consider freezing meals as well. The more organized you are, the better you’ll be able to follow your plan. You can spice up foods with fresh herbs and spices and get to know the foods that incorporate your macros and work with your taste buds.

Counting macros requires diligence, but it can also lead to great health, weight loss, increased energy and satisfaction.

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