The Ultimate Macro Diet Guide for Beginners and Newbie Dieters
A macro diet is any food diet that involves counting macronutrients (or macros for short).
You’ve probably heard it commonly referred to as Counting Macros or If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM).
When most people think about dieting, the first thing that comes to mind is keeping track of your calories but sometimes focusing on calories alone can be difficult.
That’s where a macro diet comes in.
Counting macros, as you’ll soon find out, is a really effective way for you to reach different health goals – whether it’s gaining some muscle or losing some weight.
The process is also a lot easier than counting calories.
Before we get into the full details of what a macro diet is, I believe it’s important to take a look at its foundation – macronutrients.
Table of Contents
Macronutrients and Their Importance For Any Macro Diet Regimen
Every food item you eat contains some form of macronutrient.
There are 3 main types available:
These 3 macros are the basic component of every diet.
And since (almost) every food item has a combination of all 3, the food we eat is classified based on the highest percentage present.
Don’t worry it’s not as complicated as it sounds and it will all make sense after looking at the examples below
– Whole grain cereal for instance consists of about 71% carbs, 19% fat and 10% protein. Since the highest percentage present is carbs, it is classified as a carbohydrate.
– Egg yolk on the other hand is classified as fat because it consists of about 5% carbs, 75% fat and 20% protein.
– Here’s the macro breakdown for fish: about 72% protein, 28% fat and 0% carbs.
What macro category do you think it’s classified as?
Ta-da! Makes a lot of sense right?
I bet you already knew fish is a protein-rich food but now you understand why it’s classified as such.
Understanding the different nutrient breakdown is essential when it comes time to actually count your macros.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at each macronutrient.
Carbs are a major food source and the most important source of energy for your body.
The provide fuel for your Central Nervous System (CNS) and energy for all your working muscles.
That source of fuel is gotten after the carbs are broken down into sugar (glucose).
Carbohydrates are divided into 2 main groups: Simple Carbs and Complex Carbs.
We’ll look at each one but for the sake of simplicity, we won’t dive too deep into each group.
The main difference lies in the chemical structure and how quickly each one is digested and absorbed.
Simple Carbs vs Complex Carbs
By definition, simple carbs are easier to break down and digest while complex carbs take a longer time to be broken down in the body.
That doesn’t necessarily mean one is better than the other. There are good versions and bad versions of each.
I want you to think of it more so in terms of energy production.
Since complex carbs take longer to digest, they are a more stable source of energy for your body.
Simple carbs on the other hand provide a quick spike in blood glucose levels a.k.a your “sugar rush”.
When you understand the role and importance of carbs in your diet, you can begin to see how some of the rumors aren’t all true.
In fact the idea that carbs are bad for you or that they do nothing else besides add on some extra pounds is just a myth.
As noted in the Cleveland Clinic article linked above, many carbs do contain excess calories and sugar but it’s the type and quantity of carbs you eat – not carbs themselves – that cause weight gain.
Examples of Good Carbs
In general your good carbs are found in unprocessed foods (veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, etc.).
I’ve included more good examples are listed later in this post.
Examples of Bad Carbs
- Beer (sorry if you love your booze)
- Packaged chips
- Sugary drinks (sodas)
- White rice
Bad carbs are typically found in your processed foods (desserts, sodas, snack foods, etc.)
Most of them will fall under the simple carbs category.
These are your good/healthy fats.
Unsaturated fats are the recommended fats to include in a healthy diet because of their beneficial aspects such as better cholesterol levels, improved heart health, and reduced inflammation.
They tend to be in liquid form at room temperature.
Based on their molecular bond structure, unsaturated fats can be further divided into 2 types:
– Monounsaturated fats: which have only 1 double bond in their structure. Examples include: Avocados, olive oil, canola oil, nuts such as almonds & pecans.
– Polyunsaturated fats: which have more than 1 double bond in their molecular structure. Examples include: Flax seed (oil), corn oil.
N.B. Polyunsaturated fats also contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids which play a number of important roles in your body.
Your body can’t make those fats so they must come from your food.
Think of these as your “in between” fats.
They’re good in relatively small amounts (AHA recommended 5-6% of daily calorie intake) and you should definitely avoid consuming large amounts.
Recent studies have shown that saturated fats may not be as bad as we once thought they were – as long as you keep it in moderation.
That said, it is still recommended you substitute saturated fats for unsaturated fats.
If you’re unsure, best to stay away.
You’ll find saturated fats in foods such as: Butter, ice cream, fatty portions of pork and beef, chicken skin, whole milk.
If there’s any fat you need to be worried about in your diet, it should be trans fats.
Trans fats are a BIG N.O!! Run away from it.
These are the worst fats for a macro diet or any diet for that matter.
This is where a lot of people have issues with fatty food.
That’s because trans fat raises your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol.
They also increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks and diabetes. They have no known health benefits.
The FDA has banned the use of trans fats in processed food but it is important that you still check the nutritional information for the foods you eat – especially when you’re eating out.
Last but definitely not least of the macros are your proteins.
These are the essential macronutrients for building muscle mass.
Unlike carbs and fats, your body does not readily store protein which means you need to rely on an external source for your appropriate protein requirements.
This begs the question “How much protein do you really need?”
By now you should already understand that too much of anything isn’t good for you.
Protein is no exception.
Do not limit yourself to a protein only diet just because you’ve heard other people talk about it being the next best thing.
If you’re trying to gain muscle (or lose weight) adding protein to your diet definitely helps but you’ll need to include regular exercise as well.
The amount of protein you need really comes down to a variety of factors:
- Your age
- Level of physical activity
- Your overall health
- Your body size
- Total calorie intake
The reason all those factors are important is because the rate at which the body utilizes protein is different for every individual.
Instead of focusing just on a given number, you should consider your current situation and what your goals are.
Gulping down 20 protein shakes a day and stockpiling protein bars is not the solution when you have no idea how they’ll affect your body.
But if you’re keen on numbers, the Dietary Reference intake is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound.
Which is the equivalent of about 56 grams/day for the average adult man and 46 grams/day for the average adult woman.
(Keep in mind athletes need more protein than the average adult does).
Vegans and vegetarian need a little bit more protein. Click here to find out why.
Another popular question is Which is better? Whole food proteins or protein powder?
Truth is a valid case can be made for whichever option you choose as long as it’s a healthy one.
However you do need to maintain some sort of balance between both.
Protein shakes or supplements should NOT be used as replacements for a decent healthy meal!
How Macros Are Used In Your Body
As we’ve seen, all 3 macronutrients play a vital role in the body and understanding a few of their functions can help dispel some of the stigmas floating around.
Let’s begin with carbs.
Carbs are really not as bad as many people will suggest. (Refer back to the good vs bad carbs section above.)
Here are some of the important things they can do for you:
– Act as an energy source.
– Regulate your blood sugar and insulin levels.
– Fibers (found in carbs) are essential for healthy digestion.
– Brain functionality. (Our brains require a lot of energy).
– Weight regulation. Probably the most controversial topic around carbs but with the right type and in right amounts, you can regulate your weight.
It’s no secret that fat also gets a bad rep when it comes to proper nutrition but it really does have its own benefits.
– Acts as an energy source in the form of body fat.
– Functions in insulation and maintaining a normal core body temperature.
– Helps with the absorption and storage of certain vitamins (A,D,E,K) which the body needs.
– Essential for brain health and development (The human brain is nearly 60% fat).
Here are some of its important functions:
– Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues.
– Transport proteins help move molecules throughout your bloodstream.
– Helps your immune system by the formation of antibodies which help remove foreign substances and fight infections.
– Provide a structural framework and support for cells.
– Used for enzyme and hormone production which facilitates different biochemical reactions in the body.
I sincerely believe counting macros is an excellent option for anyone who wants to improve their diet but it only works if you put in the effort to understand what’s required for you to be successful.
Health related information can sometimes be subjective.
For that reason I think it’s also important for you to take a look at the pros and cons of a macro diet so you can make a well informed decision.
Pros of a Macro Diet
1 - Helps You Maintain the Proper Macronutrient Balance
Counting macros as I’ve mentioned is an excellent way to make sure you meet your proper dietary needs.
It helps ensure you’re eating the right amounts of food and that you also include the proper ratios of all 3 macros in the foods you eat.
2 - Can Help You Lose Weight or Build Muscle
Macro dieting is a great option to help you achieve your weight goals – whether it’s shedding a few extra pounds or gaining lean muscle.
That’s because counting macros helps you understand how much and what kinds of foods you should be eating.
When you understand what your goals are, you can adjust your meals accordingly.
For example if you want to burn body fat (ketosis) then a low-carb, high-fat and moderate protein diet will be the optimal way to go.
3 - It is Not Restrictive
Counting macros isn’t as strict of a diet regimen compared to other options out there.
You don’t have to completely strip yourself off of different foods as long as you don’t go over your macro target.
Having such flexibility makes it easier for you to follow through and stick with the diet.
4 - Helps You Make Informed Food Choices
Truth is most people jump into dieting blindly.
They may have good intentions but not fully understand what is actually required of them.
Once you know what tour goals are and what kinds of nutrients you’ll need, it’s easier for you to make better food choices.
You’ll have an understanding of what your body needs and what foods you should avoid.
It makes a huge difference when you actually visualize and keep track of what you eat.
5 - It is Educational
This ties directly into the previous point but when you think about it, your perspective and approach completely change when you take time to understand your diet.
Ever had that feeling that no matter how hard you try you can’t seem to meet your weight goals?
It could potentially be due to an imbalance in your diet but you may never know for sure if you don’t keep track of what you eat.
Cons of A Macro Diet
1 - It is Time Consuming
Choosing to maintain and count your macros does require some time and effort.
If you have a hectic schedule this is something worth keeping in mind.
You have to remember you’re not keeping track of just the foods you prepare but even when you go eat elsewhere.
2 - Doesn't Take Into Account Your Micronutrients
Your body needs micronutrients (minerals and vitamins) just as much as it does macros.
Since the body does not produce its own micronutrients you need to make sure you don’t completely eliminate them from your diet.
Make sure you choose healthy and nutritious foods.
3 - Could Potentially Lead to Some Unhealthy Eating Habits
Well, counting macros becomes an issue when you focus on hitting a numerical number instead of focusing on what your body needs.
A macro diet is not meant to make you stress or obsess over numbers.
You primary focus should be making sure you’re eating healthy.
4 - Flexibility Can Be A Curse
Since there aren’t too many limitations on a macro diet it means you have a huge variety of food options to choose from.
But not all food sources are the same.
Processed foods and whole foods can help you reach your count but which option is better.
If you’re not paying keen attention you may still find yourself eating the wrong things.
That’s why I keep reiterating you need to choose wisely.
When you understand where things could go wrong, it’s easier to work on preventing them.
The above pros and cons are all things you need to keep in mind if this is something you’re thinking about.
Counting macros definitely works but not without due diligence.
In the following section, I want to tackle the difference between macros and calories to give you a better understanding of both terms and how they apply.
Macros vs Calories - What's the Difference?
Since both words do come into play it can become very confusing.
Are you counting calories or are you counting macros?
Short answer: Both!
But I know you’re not here for a technical response so let me explain.
So far we’ve covered what macros are, their importance in the body and why you need all 3.
Calories on the other hand are units of energy. They measure how much potential energy any given food possesses.
That means all foods, macros included, contain a certain amount of calories.
So in essence counting macros means you’re also keeping track of your calorie intake as well.
The big difference is instead of focusing only on your calorie count, a macro diet helps you determine the appropriate amount of calories you should be getting from your nutrients each day.
The question then becomes “What percentage of calories do you need from carbs, protein and fat?”
Think about this for a second.
150 calories from a slice of chocolate cake and 150 calories from oats technically provide the same amount of energy for your body but do you think they’ll be broken down in a similar manner?
Absolutely not and obviously the outcomes will be different.
I’m sure you may have heard this before but Not all calories are the same.
That’s why macro diets are beneficial.
When you think big picture instead, it could help improve the overall quality of your diet.
Now you can see how the answer was Both.
Logistically if you hit your macros you’ll also hit your calorie requirements.
Meeting Macros = Meeting Calorie Count = Happy You! 🙂
The Proper Way to Start A Macro Diet
If you’ve already figured out this is a great option for you then I’m sure you’re eager to get the exact steps it takes to start counting macros.
But before you skip over this section, I want you to know there is indeed a proper way to start and stick to a macro diet.
There’s really only one thing I need you to remember here.
You need to know what your goal is and why you’ve chosen to do so in the first place.
I cannot overemphasize this point!
Don’t do it just to follow the crowd but understand exactly what YOU want to achieve.
Believe me clarity makes the process a lot easier.
Which leads me to the 4 main reasons why anyone would be on a macro diet.
- Gain Muscle (Add weight)
- Weight Loss
- Ketosis (Fat burning)
Now let’s put all the pieces together.
How To Count Macros
Now that you understand what a macro diet consists of, its importance to your overall health and why you’d even consider it in the first place, we move on to the holy grail.
Learning how to count your macros.
Counting macros requires you to keep track of your daily gram total for each macronutrient.
You record the total number of grams per protein, carbs and fat.
There are a number of ways you can accomplish this:
- Using a scale
- Reading nutritional labels
- Using a macro counting app
In most cases you’ll need a combination of all 3.
The most important thing to remember though is you need to do this with every single food item you eat on a given day.
And if it crossed your mind, Yes alcohol consumption needs to be included as well.
Not saying there won’t be a nuisance or two here and there but the actual process itself is relatively simple to follow.
- First determine what your goal (or outcome) is.
- Next figure out your daily calorie intake based on your specific goal.
- Figure out your best macronutrient breakdown i.e percentage of carbs, fats and protein to meet your daily intake.
- Keep track of your macro intake to know if you’re above or under your target.
Yes there is a little bit more work involved with each one of those steps but that’s the basic outline you need to follow.
I feel the need to reiterate that counting macros isn’t a form of punishment.
You may fall short of your target sometimes for one reason or another.
You’re human and those things happen. Just don’t make it a habit.
Recommended Macro Ratios
Remember the 4 main goals I mentioned earlier?
Each one of those has a particular ratio you need to follow in order to reach your specific goal.
Please keep in mind that all the ratios below are just recommendations.
They are more of a guideline to help you achieve a particular goal.
If you can, it’s always a great option to consult with your dietitian or maybe even your trainer to help develop a ratio that’s tailored to you.
Macro Diet Ratio for Muscle Building
If you’re looking to build some muscle then you’ll obviously want a diet with a higher calorie intake so you can add some weight.
A suggested ratio for you is: 40-60% Carbs, 25-35% Protein, 15-25% Fat.
Macro Diet Ratio for Weight Loss
Macro Diet Ratio for Ketosis
Keto diets help shift your body’s metabolism from using carbs as fuel to burning fat instead.
In order for that to happen you’ll need a low carb, high fat diet.
The recommended ratio is about: 5% Carbs, 25% Protein, 70% Fat.
Macro Diet Ratio for Maintenance
Let’s take a look at an example to see how you can apply these ratios to your own situation.
This will provide you with some clarity as to how counting macros will in essence help you meet your calorie goals.
For this example, our goal is to build muscle or add some more weight per se.
Let’s assume a daily calorie intake of 2000 calories and a macro ratio of 50% Carbs, 30% Protein and 20% Fat.
What we need to figure out then is the amount of grams we need to consume daily in order to meet our goal.
Keep these Numbers in Mind
1g Carbs = 4 calories
1g Protein = 4 calories
1g Fat = 9 Calories
50% x 2000 calories = 1000 calories of carbs daily
# of grams = 1000÷4 = 250g of Carbs daily
30% x 2000 calories = 600 calories of protein daily
# of grams = 600÷4 = 150g of Protein daily
20% x 2000 calories = 400 calories of fat daily
# of grams = 400÷9 = about 44g of fat daily
Based on our calculations we know we’ll need 250g of carbs, 150g of protein and 44g of fat to meet our daily calorie intake and build some muscle in the process.
Now all those nutritional labels begin to make some sense don’t they?
Best Foods To Eat On A Macro Diet
This is by no means intended to be a definitive or restrictive list.
Everyone certainly has different tastes and different food limitations.
The idea is simply to show you some healthy food options you should consider adding to your diet.
Remember you should always strive to stick with the good carbs.
I mentioned a few earlier but here are a few more to add to your list:
- Whole wheat bread
- Brown rice
- Black beans
- Multigrain cereal
- Chickpeas and Lentils
- Whole wheat pasta
- Plain Greek yogurt
High quality protein is essential for any diet.
Here are a few options:
- Turkey breast
- Chicken breast
- Protein powders
- Whey Protein shakes
- Pumpkin seeds
- Cottage cheese
No need to feel squirmish about fats any more.
You need to include these as well:
- Peanut oil
- Olive oil
- Hemp seed oil
- Dark chocolate
- Chia seeds
- Oily Fish (ex. Salmon)
- Parmesan cheese
- Healthy nutty butters
5 Popular Macro Diet Apps For You To Use
The best way to simplify the process and to make sure you’re tracking your macros accurately is to use an app.
It eliminates a lot of the stress and guesswork it takes to figure everything out and it also comes in handy when you’re dining out.
The big plus is that they also act as companions to help make sure you stay on track with your goals.
Here’s a list of some the top apps you can use to count macros.
1 - MyFitnessPal
MyFitnessPal is a very popular app with a database that contains over 11 million food items.
You have access to both a free and paid membership option.
With the free membership you’re able to build your own personal diet profile and also get support and motivation from other people which is great for reinforcement.
If you upgrade to the paid version, it allows you to set targets for each macro and weight loss goals.
2 - MyMacros+
MyMacros+ is a comprehensive app built specifically for counting macros.
It also has a huge database of over 1.5 million food items and provides tons of nutritional overviews.
It also has features that help with body weight tracking.
There’s a one-time $2.99 fee to download the app.
3 - MyPlate
MyPlate helps you track your daily goals and also offers calorie recommendations based on your weight targets.
You can also get suggested meal plans and different workouts within the app.
It’s free to download but you can also get the premium version to unlock all its features.
4 - Lose It!
Lose It! has been around for quite some time now and is recommended by many nutritionists.
The free version allows you to keep track of your meals and macro consumption.
However the app has many other options and integrations which only come with a paid upgrade.
5 - Lifesum
Last but not least is Lifesum which is another popular health app for counting macros.
Besides its interface, most of the functionalities are similar to the previous apps mentioned on this list.
You get your daily macro count, meal suggestions and even options to set manual macro targets.
The app has a free and paid version.
Counting macros is an excellent way for you to meet your health goals and improve your overall diet.
It may not be as strict as some other diet regimens but it still requires a lot of commitment nonetheless.
I strongly recommend you eat the right foods and stick to your macro requirements.
When done right, a macro diet might just be the answer you need to make the changes you desire.