The Macro Diet
Updated: May 29, 2019
By: F.R.E.S.H Nutrition team
If you’ve ever heard the phrase a calorie is more than just a calorie, then you already have an idea about what a macro-based diet is all about.
On a macro plan, the idea is ultimately not to focus on the number of calories consumed, but rather on where those calories come from.
For anyone looking to improve their health, this is really an important point to understand. Rather than trying to pin you down to an exact calorie intake, a macro plan will typically give you three numbers to track: grams of protein, grams of carbohydrates, and grams of fat. The underlying premise of the macro diet is that when the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) are in a particular balance based on your pre-determined needs, you will achieve the desired health outcomes.
Why does this philosophy work?
Imagine two people follow an 1800 calorie meal plan. Person one eats 1800 calories consuming just rice, cereals, vegetables, and chips. Person two eats 1800 calories worth of meat, vegetables, fruits, fats, and beans. Neither goes over 1,800 calories, yet person two is likely to have a much healthier outcome than the other. Why is this? When the body has what it needs (a healthy balance of all necessary nutrients) it’s happy and it can run optimally. Provide one nutrient in much larger quantities than the others, for example over consuming carbohydrates, and you throw this balance off.
The main question when it comes to tracking macros is what is the right balance for you?
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) sets what are called Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges to help guide intake. For adults, the IOM suggests anywhere between 45 to 65% of total calories from carbs, 20 to 35% of calories from fat, and 10 to 35% of calories from protein. Yet, many choose to go outside of these recommendations focusing on high-protein or low-fat diets.
Though you may have heard people say that they follow a high-protein diet, in practice, very few truly do so on a regular basis. A high-protein diet is one in which greater than 35% of total calories come from protein, and is often paired with a low-carb diet. On an 1800 calorie diet, this would mean consuming more than 157 grams of protein daily! This is something that is very hard to accomplish without the use of supplements. Conversely, low-fat diets have their own drawbacks, including the potential for multiple vitamin deficiencies and weight gain from overconsumption of carbs. I’m sure you’ve heard that moderation is the key to life and it definitely applies here!
Many, including myself, favor starting with a split of 50-30-20, meaning 50% of total calories from carbs, 30% from fat, and 20% from protein. However, because it can become tiresome and confusing to track three different values, I generally recommend just monitoring your daily protein intake. Because proteins (and the fats that they typically come with) stay in your stomach longer than carbohydrates, they help you feel fuller. Therefore, when you eat adequate protein you don’t have to worry as much about counting your carbs and calories, because when you feel full, the tendency to overeat is less. On an 1800 calorie diet 20% of calories from protein means consuming 90 g of protein and would look something like this:
Breakfast: 3 Eggs Scrambled (18 g protein) and One Greek Yogurt (12 g protein)Lunch: Bean Salad using 2 cups black beans (approx. 25 g protein) + Cucumber, Onion, Green Olives, Oil & VinegarSnack: 1 Tbsp Peanut Butter (4 g protein) on Apple Slices, Whole Grain Crackers, or CeleryDinner: 1 Whole Chicken Breast (31 g protein) with Steamed Broccoli and Rice
When following a macro-based plan, never lose sight of the idea that a diet should be based on whole foods vs. highly-processed ones. Focusing so much on hitting a target number such as a very high protein intake or a very low carbohydrate may lead you to opt for protein powders or artificial sweeteners. Neither is typically a good option, and resorting to either one may indicate that your goal was not very practical for you.Dietary variety is still necessary. 100% of protein coming from chicken or 100% of carbohydrates coming from fruit is not a good idea. Each protein-rich food, each fat, each vegetable, grain, fruit, provides different micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients), which are just as important as macronutrients, if not more. No whole food group should be omitted as “bad” or off limits just because you’re a diabetic, or have high-cholesterol, or feel like you need to lose weight.