IN YEARS PAST, diet programs and personal trainers liked recommending that people track their nutrition by counting calories.
We have a better way: counting macros.
But while counting macros may seem like sports nutrition’s newest golden wonder, it’s remarkably simple. It just means tracking your daily intake of the three major macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
“Counting calories will ultimately help you lose or gain weight, but when you want to fine tune your diet and focus on specific goals, it’s important to know where the calories are coming from,” says Alix Turoff, R.D., a nutritionist at Top Balance Nutrition in New York.
Furthermore, counting macros is a hugely important method of adjusting your nutrition to account for your physique goals.
Besides calories in versus calories out, “elements like training style, volume, consistency, and the types of foods you eat—protein, especially—play a big role in determining body composition,” agrees Brian St. Pierre, R.D., C.S.C.S., director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition.
Why counting macros is better than counting calories
“Counting macros also accounts for calories, with the added advantage that you can see how your body responds to different macronutrients within the same total number of calories—more protein, less protein, more carbs, less carbs, more fats, less fats,” St. Pierre says. “You can see what helps you look, feel, and perform your best.”
Furthermore, counting macros helps you get to know your food. Why does a handful of nuts keep you fuller for longer than a handful of mini popcorn? If you just count calories, you’ll know that you can have a bigger handful of popcorn compared to almonds within the same caloric limit. If you know the macro breakdown, though, you’ll see it’s because nuts are filled with healthy fats and a balance of carbs and protein, rather than solely fast-burning carbs.
Why macros aren’t the only answer
There is one concern about counting macros: Because it can be so easy to focus solely on fat, carbs, and protein, counting macros’ style makes it easy to overlook other important areas of nutrition, like micronutrients (e.g., vitamins and minerals).
Marc Perry, C.S.C.S., founder and CEO of the weight-loss program BuiltLean, offers a pretty easy fix to the “micro” problem: Focus on counting macros, but also on eating produce, particularly vegetables. “As long as at least 75% of your diet is from whole, unprocessed foods in their natural states, you’re going to have a high-quality diet,” he adds.
How to determine your macro breakdown
There is no “best” macronutrient breakdown. If you ask five different people for an ideal macro breakdown, they’ll give you five different answers, Perry points out.
The standard, U.S. government recommendation is for your daily diet to consist of 50% carbs, 30% fat, 20% protein. However, we all know building muscle and trimming fat requires more protein, so your typical fit-guy breakdown would look more like 30–40% carbs, 30–40% fat, and 30–40% protein.
For guys trying to build or maintain muscle and keep body fat in check, Perry recommends anchoring your protein first in that range, then fine-tuning carbs and fat from there. Why? Protein is what controls hunger. If, say, 40% of your daily calories come from protein, you’re less likely to be hungry no matter your overall calorie count, he explains. Plus, focusing on high protein versus lower carbs is what helps make low-carb diets so effective for weight loss, a study in Physiology & Behavior found.
Then, test out different breakdowns over the course of several weeks. “One day, try a diet that’s 40/20/40 carb, fat, protein; then 20/40/40, and see how you feel,” Perry says. “Which leaves you feeling fuller with more energy? This alone can be quite a useful question, because some people function better with higher carb intake, others with higher fat.”