Calculating macros is a dietary process that very quickly went from unknown, to widespread fad, to less favored system hounded by "waste of time" articles. For as many posts have been written about the process as a successful diet, there are just as many written about why it's ineffective and you should ignore it. So what's the truth here?
What Is a Macro Diet?
So let's start at the beginning. What is a macro diet? Or, more specifically, what are macros?
"Macro" is a short term for "macronutrient". Macronutrients are essentially just the broad overall categories of nutrients you consume. Think "food pyramid" style categories.
Your macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Some version of macro diets also count Water and Fiber as macronutrients, and some others also consider mineral and vitamin supplements to be a component as well.
- Carbohydrates are mostly made up of sugars and starches, though some macro diets also consider fiber to be part of the carb macro. You find them most in grains, dairy, fruits, starches, and derivative products.
- Fats are highly calorie-dense and come in both good and bad forms. Bad fats, like saturated and trans fats, need to be cut down, while good fats are beneficial to consume. Things like fatty fish, healthy oils, avocado, nuts, and some meats are in this category.
- Proteins have the same calories-per-gram as carbohydrates, and are vital to survival, so you need to make sure you're eating enough. Part of macro diets means figuring out how to balance the different macros. Proteins come in foods like eggs, fish, poultry, and lentils.
The goal of a macro diet is to count those macros you consume. It's meant to be restrictive in some ways, but less restrictive in others. Counting macros has more flexibility than, say, counting calories. Calories don't always tell the whole story of the nutrition inherent in a piece of food.
At the same time, you'll quickly find that counting macros will restrict what you eat in terms of carbohydrates and fats. One or two small snacks, and suddenly in order to meet your ratios, you need to find low-carb, low-fat snacks to fill you up for the rest of the day. Protein becomes a major part of your diet, while carbs and fats take the back seat, simply because you can't keep up your ratios otherwise.
Looking at Numbers
Wait, "ratios"? What are those? It's exactly what it sounds like: the ratio of each macronutrient to the others.
- 40-60% carbs, 25-35% protein, 15-25% fat: This ratio is higher in carbs and is most frequently used for bodybuilding and building long-term muscle mass.
- 30-50% carbs, 25-35% protein, 25-35% fat: this ratio is lower in carbs and higher in fat, and is used as a more maintenance style; neither losing or gaining weight or muscle.
- 10-30% carbs, 40-50% protein, 30-40% fat: this ratio is a low carb diet and, like other low carb diets, is primarily used for losing weight prior to shifting to a maintenance diet.
As you can see, there's a lot of flexibility here. It also relies on percents, so you have to think: percent of what?
The answer is the percent of your overall total diet. In fact, the first step of a macro diet is calculating a bunch of numbers. You need to calculate your resting energy expenditure and your non-resting energy expenditure. In other words, the amount of calories you burn passively and the amount you burn while working out, each day.
You can use an online calculator to estimate this, or you can use an equation to work it out on your own. The most commonly used equation is the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, which looks like this:
- Men: calories per day is equal to 10x your weight in kilograms, plus 6.25x your height in centimeters, minus 5x your age in years plus five.
- Women: calories per day is equal to 10x your weight in kilograms, plus 6.25x your height in centimeters, minus 5x your age in years minus 161.
The numbers you get for those equations are then multiplied by an "activity factor", which is a multiplier based on how much activity you get in a given day. Sedentary, like a desk job with no other activity, is a 1.2x multiplier. Very Active, such as someone who hits the gym and works out for a couple hours every single day, is a 1.725 multiplier.
The final end result gives you a single number, which is your total number of calories you're "allowed" each day.
This number of calories is then split up into macros. So let's say you calculated that you need to consume 2,000 calories per day. The low carb weight loss macro ratio would then put you at 200-600 calories from carbs, 800-1000 calories from protein, and 600-800 calories from fat per day.
Yes, unfortunately, the macro counting diet is basically a calorie counting diet with more work. You need to track not just your calories, but the division of those calories. Considering many foods contain all three kinds of macros, every food needs to have three numbers attached to it, and you need to stay within the ratio range of all three numbers.
Most people quickly notice that things like snack foods and fast food very quickly exceed ratio numbers for fats or carbs, and that a healthier whole foods diet tends to be more balanced in terms of ratios.
The Drawbacks of Macro Counting
If the macro counting diet was a resounding success, you can bet it would be everywhere, but it's generally more limited to gym rats, bodybuilders, and other fitness buffs. You rarely see it as a casual diet, and with good reason.
The first major drawback of macro counting is simple: it's a TON of work! Just look at those equations and all those numbers! You basically have to keep an app going at all times, plugging in every single thing you eat down to the gram, or else you're just going to be woefully off base with your estimates. That's probably the biggest reason that macro counting isn't more widespread; it's just too much work for a casual dieter to pick up.
Because of the time investment, many people who try the macro diet fall into a pattern. They're willing to put in the work for a while, and they develop a couple of meal routines that fit within their macros, but then they encounter a wall. The wall is the effort required to calculate out a new meal. Why calculate a new meal when the old one suffices? Then they grow bored with the meal routine, and start breaking it, without making adjustments to their macros, which undoes all of the progress they've made.
After all, the single largest roadblock to dietary success is sticking with it. The more boring your meal plans, the less likely you are to stick with a diet.
The other primary drawback to macro counting is the IIFYM mindset. IIFYM stands for If It Fits Your Macros, and it's a way to promote the macro diet by emphasizing its flexibility. You want that piece of cake or brownie? You want a cookie with lunch? You want some ice cream after dinner? You can have all of that if you want, so long as it fits your macros. You may have to cut back on other sources of carbs and sugars elsewhere, but you can if you want to, and that's the point. That's what draws a lot of people to a diet. After all, is it really even a diet if you can eat whatever you want?
And that's where the argument comes in. Many people will tell you that, no, it's not a diet if you can eat anything. And indeed, it's entirely possible to eat like crap and still stay within your macros. Eating nothing but fried chicken (high in fat and protein) and mashed potatoes (high in carbs) can still keep you within your macros, but no one is going to argue that eating KFC for every meal is a good, healthy diet.
Because macro diets focus so much on calculating macros, it tends to overlook micronutrients. Vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other ingredients are all important to your body's health, but if you're not paying attention to them, it can be easy to overlook them and end up with a minor or major deficiency. This is why so many macro diets recommend supplements as well; to make sure you're healthy while you're eating a poorly balanced diet you put together yourself.
Finally, one concern that many people, particularly doctors, have about macro counting is that it can lead to obsessive behaviors. People who have had or currently have an eating disorder are going to find their problems made worse by trying to count macros, and it has even lead to some people developing eating disorders because of it.
Is Counting Macros a Waste of Time?
So back to the real question at hand. Is the macro diet a waste of time? After all, it takes several minutes each time you eat anything to log your nutrients, and it can take weeks before you've developed even a hint of a macro-balanced diet. It takes months or years of practice before you can learn to keep the data in mind when you choose new foods, or estimate macro counting intuitively.
Is macro counting a waste of time? Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, it does eat up your time, and can be tedious and boring to do. On the other hand, it might work for you. So who's to say whether or not it's a waste?
The answer is, give it a try. Set up one of those macro counting apps and start logging your food, making adjustments to stay within the macro range you want, and developing a diet plan. If you're lucky, something will click, and it'll all fall into place as just the right kind of diet plan for you.
On the other hand, a lot of people try to count macros and quickly fall off the wagon, because it's so much work for what is comparatively little benefit. After all, macro counting alone won't help you lose weight. You still need to calculate a total number of calories and stay under that total number, while exercising to maintain a caloric deficit. You can't lose weight any other way.
Personally, we've seen that counting macros can help people who have no idea just how poorly balanced their diets are. If you're not already aware of the nutrient balance of many of the foods you eat – what is high in carbs, what is high in fat, what is high in protein – you may be shocked at just how poor your diet is. Even people who think they're eating well can find out they're actually not.
At the same time, counting macros isn't necessary for living a healthy lifestyle, making dietary changes, or losing weight. It's one option among many.
Therefore, if it works for you, great! That means it's effective, it's not a waste of time, and it's something you should keep up doing. On the other hand, if you find it tedious and you don't stick to your ratios, then it's probably a waste of time for you to keep doing without some external pressure to keep you on track. It's a personal decision, and the only way you can determine if it's a waste of time or not is to give it a try.