By now, you may know (perhaps you’re even highly aware) that every food you eat is made up of macronutrients, or “macros” for short: carbs, fat and proteins. This is why you may have heard some dietitians, nutritionists or even fellow MyFitnessPal users say “a calorie isn’t a calorie.” But if you’re on a quest to lose weight, this could be a big reason why you’ve hit a plateau.
If that’s where you are, macro counting may be the next step in your fitness journey.
Macronutrients are measured in grams: 1 gram of carbs or protein contains 4 calories, while a gram of fat has 9 calories. By counting your macros and your calories, you can take your weight-loss efforts a step further by looking at the types and quality of foods you’re eating.
Let’s compare a 250-calorie doughnut to 250-calorie chicken breast. Obviously they have the same total calories — but when you look at macros, the doughnut will add up to mostly simple carbs and saturated fats, while the chicken breast is mostly lean protein. And while this comparison may seem obvious (of course a doughnut isn’t as good for you as a chicken breast!), this might be at the root of why your weight loss is stalling.
First, let’s focus on that protein macro. Most people eat imbalanced amounts of protein throughout the day: They don’t get enough at breakfast or with their snacks, but eat too much at dinner. By tracking your macros, you can find out how much protein you need and space that intake throughout the day.
LET’S START WITH PROTEIN
Research suggests our bodies need 25–30 grams of protein to trigger muscle protein synthesis and fat loss (people with greater muscle mass and large athletes may need a little more). To optimize this process, eat a 25–30 gram protein-rich meal every 4 hours or so. Eating the protein macros your body requires can help to improve your body composition.
That said, too much protein doesn’t help. Eating more than your body needs makes it challenging to consume a balanced diet of other macros that have important vitamins, minerals and enzymes. If you’re looking for limits, nutritionists recommend not consuming more than 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. In other words, someone who weighs 150 pounds doesn’t need more than 150 grams of protein per day. For more accurate and achievable protein goals, base the daily gram protein total off pounds of lean body mass (especially if you have body fat to lose).
Once you calculate your protein goal, balance your diet with 25–35% calories from fat and the remainder of your calorie budget will make up your carbohydrate goal. Carb macros vary greatly and are best determined by allotted calories and activity level. Basically, the more active you are, the more carbs your body will burn and need for replenishment. On MyFitnessPal, the “Goals” setting simplifies this macro calculating process.
WHAT MACRO COUNTING LOOKS LIKE IN REAL LIFE
To maximize your protein macros, it’s important to space out your meals to around one meal every four hours. Aim to eat your first protein-rich meal within an hour of waking up and eat protein-rich meals every four hours until bedtime. Most people need four high-protein meals a day, which would equal 100–120 grams of protein total.
Here’s an example for someone who wakes up at 6 a.m. and goes to bed around 10 p.m. Keep in mind, there’s a lot of variation in meal timing. People on a higher-calorie diet (athletes, for instance) need a snack between meals and often right before bed. The four-hour windows modeled here are “baseline” for most people who are macro counting.
6 a.m.: Wake up
7 a.m.: Breakfast with 25–30g protein (like this ham and spinach egg cups recipe with fresh fruit and whole-grain toast)
11 a.m.: Lunch with 25–30g protein (try this avocado tuna salad with apple slices and a mixed greens salad)
3 p.m.: Snack with 25–30g protein (a coffee lover’s protein shake is perfect)
7 p.m.: Dinner with 25–30g protein (cook up this skillet Italian herb bruschetta turkey with whole-grain angel hair pasta or zoodles)
10 p.m.: Bedtime
In this example, this person is getting 100–120 grams of protein per day, which, on a 2,000-calorie diet, adds up to 20–24% calories from protein. (Again, you can adjust this on the “Goals” tab of MyFitnessPal and let it do the math for you.)
Keep in mind macro goals should be individualized — there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Nor is there a magic “percentage,” so you need to find out what’s right for you based on your goals, muscle mass and eating pattern.
If you’re looking for help in this area, a registered dietitian can help you come up with your macro targets based on your personal goals.