Lately, I've been getting tons of questions about the macros diet, "If it Fits Your Macros" (IIFYM) and other variations of this. A quick search on social media, and you'll be bombarded with gym-selfies and rock-hard abs, but this diet has definitely transcended the fitness community.
Today I'mgoing to tackle this massive topic and break it down into a few key points. I'm going to explain what "macros" actually are, the importance of understanding nutrient density (but not obsessing over it!), how to calculate your energy needs, and how to eat a balanced diet. I'll also explain how I really feel about the macros diet, when I think it might help, and who should be avoiding it.
The term “macros” refers to the macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. They are what provides the calories in our diet, to give our body the energy it needs to exist on this Earth and do everything from pumping blood through veins to running a super-marathon.
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram
Fat contains 9 calories per gram
Protein contains 4 calories per gram
Calories have been given some bad press but believe me, they are definitely your friends, and we will get further into that later. First, it’s important to stress that all of the macronutrients are important in a balanced diet and it’s important that you understand where they come from.
Here are some examples of each, grouped by their primary macronutrient:
Carbohydrates: fruit, grains, vegetables, legumes
Fats: nuts, seeds, olives, oil, butter, cheese
Proteins: poultry, seafood, meat, tofu, tempeh
Foods typically contain a combination of macronutrients. For example, legumes contain both carbohydrates and protein. Nuts and seeds contain fats, carbohydrates and protein. Meats contain fat and protein. When eating mostly whole foods, nature is on your side for ensuring a balanced diet.
However, it’s not uncommon for some refined foods to contain only one isolated macronutrient: sugars and oils are great examples of this. Even maple syrup and extra virgin olive oil are refined down to concentrate their primary macronutrients: carbohydrates and fat, respectively.
Macronutrients are the foundation of our diet, they provide energy in the form of calories and without them, we cannot function at all. We require significant amounts of macronutrients in order to survive. In contrast, micronutrients refer to vitamins and minerals, which do not provide any calories and are required in much smaller amounts to prevent deficiency and ensure good health.
Think of it this way…
Macronutrients = Life
Micronutients = Health
It is possible to survive without the correct balance of micronutrients, and often for long periods of time before any deficiency symptoms crop up. Because of this, nutrient density is often overlooked.
What is Nutrient Density?
The term “nutrient density” refers to the concentration of micronutrients in relation to the amount of macronutrient (ie. calories). To make this easy to understand, let’s compare100 calories of two whole foods: broccoli and white potatoes.
Vitamin A: 0IU
Vitamin C: 10mg
Vitamin A: 1843IU
Vitamin C: 264mg
While both foods are whole vegetables, broccoli definitely provides more nutrients per 100 calories. But does that make one food better than the other? Not necessarily. Looking at nutrient density when making food choices has some great benefits, but also some serious issues if it’s taken too far.
In reality, you need to consume 3 ¼ cups of broccoli to get 100 calories. You'd be full, but short on calories even though you just ate a ton of nutrients. To meet your energy needs with a food like broccoli you would have to eat such a large amount that you’d end up with horrible digestion. Since the broccoli also contains a tonne of fibre and protein, you’re not going to get much of an energy boost from eating a meal built around broccoli.
On the other hand, you only need to eat less than 1 cup of white potatoes to get 100 calories. The potatoes will also provide a faster burst of energy since they’re a great source of carbs, lower in fibre and protein. But if you tried meeting your energy needs with potato, your blood sugar would be a mess of highs and lows due to lack of protein and fibre. Plus, you’d be missing out on many micronutrients.
It’s ideal to balance macronutrient and micronutrient intake by consuming a wide variety of foods from different food groups with different nutrient densities. Even if you are exceeding your micronutrient requirements, you will have cravings and low energy levels if you are not meeting your macronutrient needs. Your body absolutely needs calories, and lots of them!
I would want to eat both broccoli and potatoes together so I could benefit from the nutrient density of the broccoli, and the energy density of the potatoes at the same time!
How Much to Eat
Knowing how much to eat is a combination of math and body wisdom. There is an equation commonly used to estimate energy requirements, but other factors can influence the amount you should be eating. Hunger is a very good indicator that you need to eat more food. Most of us have been taught to fear and silence our hunger, but I strongly disagree with this.
If you’re interested in understanding how much energy you should be putting into your body, I’m going to share more information on how you can do that. If you aren’t interested, feel free to skip this part as it is not an essential factor for a healthy diet at all. It is completely possible to eat well without ever pulling out your calculator.
Step 1: Calculate Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kilos) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)
Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kilos) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)
Tip: kilogram weight = (weight in lbs x 0.45), height in cm = (height in inches x 2.54)
Step 2: Calculate Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)
TDEE = BMR x Activity Factor
Knowing Your Activity Factor
Sedentary (little/no exercise, desk job) = 1.2
Light Activity (exercise 1-3 days per week) = 1.375
Moderate Activity (exercise 3-5 days per week) = 1.55
High Activity (exercise 6-7 days per week) = 1.725
Extreme activity (professional athlete) = 1.9
A 32-year-old woman (let’s call her Sandra) is 5”9 (175 cm), weighs 150 lbs (67.5 kilos), and she works out 4 days per week.
= 655 + (9.6 x 67.5) + (1.8 x 175) – (4.7 x 32)
= 655 + 648 + 315 – 150
= 1468 x 1.55
Now we know that Sandra’s body requires an average of 2275 calories per day. Not every day needs to be exactly the same, but her energy intake should average out to roughly this amount.
What to Eat
Once you have an idea of how much energy you need to take in, it’s also important to consider the foods that make up those calories. Because different nutrients have different effects on hormones, fat storage, and overall health I cannot stress enough that calories are not the most important thing to consider!
Your goals, body type, food preferences, and other factors will influence exactly what percentage of your diet comes from carbs, fats and protein. It can be helpful to consult with a pro if you have specific needs or goals beyond eating for general health.
Here are the ranges most professionals recommend in terms of percentage of calories from each macronutrient:
These ranges refer to what percentage of calories come from each macronutrient, not what you see on your plate. For example, if Sandra wanted to eat 60% of her calories from carbs, she would need to get 1365 of her calories from carbohydrates.
(2275 x 0.6 = 1365)
Since we know that carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, that means Sandra should have 341 grams of carbohydrates each day.
(1365 / 4 = 341)
Keep in mind that optimal percentages are different for everybody and it doesn’t have to be the same split every day. Most people with realistic goals don’t need to stick to a strict program with specific targets and will be perfectly healthy eating intuitively and intelligently.
Rather than cutting out entire macronutrients (like carbs or fat), it’s better to focus on getting a good balance of macronutrients, and choosing nutrient-dense options from each category.
Most Nutrient Dense Foods (choose these most of the time)
- Leafy Greens (kale/spinach/arugula/etc.)
- Bright Orange Veggies (sweet potato, squash)
- Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans)
- Whole Grains (oats, brown rice, quinoa, millet)
- Green Beans/Peas
- Almonds/Almond Butter
- Hemp Seeds
- Ground Flax
- Sunflower/Pumpkin Seeds
- Cold-Pressed Oils
- Chia Seeds
- Wild Fish
- Legumes (less dense in protein, but still a good source)
It’s also fine to choose less nutrient-dense options sometimes! In fact, I encourage my clients to include a balance of very nutrient-dense foods with the more fun foods that don’t offer as many micronutrients. This approach is more sustainable and typically leads to more nutrient-dense foods consumed over a long period of time (rather than short bursts of unsustainable dieting).
Less Nutrient Dense Choices (choose these a few times per week)
- Cane Sugar
- Maple Syrup
- Refined Grains
- White Potatoes
- Fried Foods
- Dark Chocolate
- Red Meat
- Farm-Raised Fish
It's also important to re-state that we rarely eat single macronutrients and that most foods are a combination of more than one macro. Foods like potato chips and apple pie don't appear on my chart because they don't fit into just one category, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't eat them! Think about what goes into a food, and the category its ingredients fall into when deciding where it fits in your diet. Apple pie contains some fruit, but a lot more cane sugar, flour, and butter so it's probably not a "most of the time" food.
When choosing your foods for the day, be sure to include foods from each macronutrient group, as they're all important. Meals should contain something from each category, but snacks can be a combo of just two of the three groups.
A sample menu for a well-balanced day of eating might look something like this:
Fat/protein: almond butter
Carbs: leafy greens and chickpeas
Fat: olive oil and hemp seeds
Carbs: rice crackers
Fat/protein: cheddar cheese
Carbs: brown rice and broccoli
Fat: olive oil
Protein: wild-caught salmon
Fat/protein: dark chocolate
The exact quantities of food will depend on TDEE and individual needs/goals. Check your national food guide, or work with a nutrition professional (like me!) to determine appropriate serving sizes if you need further guidance.
How I Feel About “If It Fits Your Macros”
The “macros” diet (aka. counting macronutrients) is a popular approach to weight management right now. While I do like that it promotes a better understanding of food, I also worry that it oversimplifies the incredibly complex science of nutrition and the importance of balancing macronutrients with micronutrients.
Just like counting calories, counting macros doesn’t necessarily ensure you will be meeting all nutritional needs. Especially when combined with a caloric deficit (as most diets usually are), nutrient density becomes more important which is why I don’t advocate eating far below TDEE even if you want to lose weight.
The idea that you can “eat anything, as long as it fits in your macros” can encourage less nutrient-dense food choices. If we think of a banana as equal to a serving of marshmallows because “carbs are carbs,” who isn’t going to choose marshmallows?
I’ve heard from a lot of people who found that counting macros was the first step towards a more intuitive eating practice and a healthier relationship with food. I do respect that by taking the pressure off ourselves to always choose the most nutrient-dense option, we are opening ourselves up to a wider variety of food choices… and of course, that is better for us both mentally and physically.
Macro Counting Might Works For You If:
- You do not have an active eating disorder or a history of eating disorders
- You understand that macro counting is a form of calorie counting
- You are planning to use it as a learning experience to better understand food (rather than a strict protocol)
- You like math and logic and don’t mind applying these concepts to your diet
- Meal planning and keeping track of your food doesn’t bother you
- You are not a perfectionist and will give yourself freedom to deviate from guidelines to live a full, enjoyable life
Macro Counting Might Be a Bad Idea For You If:
- You have an active eating disorder or an eating disorder history
- You are desperate for a “solution” to your body image issues
- You are an all-or-nothing kind of person
- You tend to put pressure on yourself to be perfect, and anything less causes negative self-talk
- Unplanned meals or overeating cause you to skip meal or exercise more to “make up for it” later
- The idea of eating out or not being in control of your food causes stress
- Macros refer to the macronutrients carbohydrates, fat and protein.
- Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that we need for good health.
- Macronutrients provide calories, so counting macros is a form of calorie counting.
- Calories are energy, and your body absolutely needs them in large amounts.
- Since micronutrients don’t contain calories, it is possible to “hit your macros” and still develop serious nutrient deficiencies.
- It’s also not smart to try and survive on micronutrient-rich foods that don’t provide enough calories.
- It’s important to eat a diverse diet filled with foods of varying nutrient densities to keep you full and happy.
- If you are interested in learning more about nutrition and how to eat for better health, taking the time to understand how to balance your diet can be helpful.
- "If It Fits Your Macros” is still a diet and diets are not appropriate for many people, so approach with caution.
What do you think?
Did this help you understad the macros diet? Have you tried, or are you planning to try this approach? I'd love to hear what you think. If there are other topics you'd like me to tackle in a blog post, let me know.
Not sure where to start?
If you’re ready to make some changes but want to ensure you’re taking the best, most sustainable steps in the right direction without starving yourself, trying to live on broccoli, or carrying your calculator to the dinner table I can help! I offer personalized meal planning, nutrition lessons, and intuitive eating coaching depending on what your needs are.
Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to see if we’re a good fit or book an appointment if you’re ready to jump in.