When it comes to nailing down the nutrition aspect of a healthy weight-loss plan, our first inclination is often to figure out how many calories we should eat per day in order to reach our target weight. But not all calories are created equal, and that's where macronutrients (also known as "macros") come in. As it turns out, many nutritionists agree that counting macros is a healthier path to weight loss than focusing on calories.
Full disclosure: I initially found the task of calculating macros for weight loss a bit daunting. If you feel the same way, don't be deterred — with the right knowledge and a bit of practice, you'll be a pro in no time. But before we jump into calculations, let's quickly discuss exactly what macronutrients are and how they fit into our diets.
"Macronutrients are molecules that our bodies use to create energy for themselves: fat, protein and carbohydrates," Tanya Rosen, nutritionist for Teasane and founder of Nutrition by Tanya, told POPSUGAR. "Your body needs a lot of these, which is why they're called 'macronutrients,' not 'micronutrients,' such as iron and zinc."
When you calculate macros for weight loss, you'll focus on the percentage of your daily intake that should come from each of these three macronutrients. Protein provides four calories per gram, carbohydrates provide four calories per gram, and fat provides nine calories per gram. Sabrina Rice, holistic nutritionist and personal trainer, told POPSUGAR that, although there's not a "one size fits all" breakdown, a balance of 40/30/30 is effective for most people.
"That's 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat," Rice said. "Of course, knowing what your food is made up of counts more for weight loss than the actual macro profile itself — think cookie versus carrot. But these ratios produce amazing weight-loss results if you follow them."
In order to find your ratio, the first step is to figure out how many calories per day your body requires — something that can easily be done using an online calculator. As an example, let's say that your body needs 1,600 calories per day in order to safely lose weight. Rice told POPSUGAR that this is what the macro calculation would look like:
- (.30) x 1600 = 480 kcal / 9 (9 calories in every gram fat) = 53 grams of fat per day
- (.30) x 1600 = 480 kcal / 4 (4 calories per gram of protein) = about 120 grams of protein per day
- (.40) x 1600 = 640 kcal / 4 (4 calories per gram of carbohydrates) = about 160 grams of carbohydrates per day
But how exactly does this breakdown fit into daily meals and snacks? Based on your own ratios and the calculations above, Rice suggested this basic guide:
- Breakfast — 10 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbs, 25 grams of protein
- Snack — 5 grams of fat, 20 grams of carbs, 10 grams of protein
- Lunch — 15 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbs, 25 grams of protein
- Snack — 5 grams of fat, 20 grams of carbs, 25 grams of protein
- Dinner — 15 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbs, 35 grams of protein
Now that you know how to calculate your macros, let's take a look at the types of carbs, proteins, and fats you should be consuming in order to lose weight.
Carbohydrates: "Fill your plate with healthy carbs, including leafy greens, whole grains, and root veggies," Rosen told POPSUGAR. A few of her top picks include broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, squash, dark leafy greens, green beans, onions, cucumbers, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and quinoa.
Protein: "You need plenty of protein, but don't go crazy ordering greasy burgers and chicken wings," Rosen said. Instead, she suggested eating plenty of fatty fish (such as salmon and sea bass), cod, lean beef, turkey, eggs, and nuts.
Fat: "Getting plenty of healthy fats is important for healthy hormone levels, metabolism, mood, and vitamin absorption," Rosen explained. Examples of these healthy fats include coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, almonds, and cashews.
Of course, there's no getting around the fact that tracking macros is more complicated than old-fashioned calorie counting — especially when you're new to the practice. Both Rosen and Rice recommended the app MyFitnessPal to help you stay on track.
"It might seem tedious to keep pulling out your phone at every meal, but it really will keep you on track," Rosen said. "After a while, the food choices you're making will become healthy habits."