The Truth About Macro Dieting

June 5, 2018
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It never fails. Every year, even as often as every month, a new dieting fad gets popular. We are constantly searching for the next solution to our weight problems, digestive issues, and general lack of physical well-being. Some diets even claim to help with mental health because of the connection between the gut microbiome and the brain. Whatever the claims are, plenty of people are buying them.

The Washington Post reports that, compared to springtime of 2017, the percentage of people following specific diets and grouping up in food tribes has gone from 14 to 36 percent. The diets (in no particular order) include whole 30, paleo, keto, intermittent fasting, Mediterranean, DASH, vegetarian/vegan, “cleanse,” low-carb, and gluten-free — and these are only the major ones people are following.

Of the minor ones, the carnivore diet is supposed to increase productivity, mental clarity, and libido. It’s an extreme take on the keto diet, which falls into the low-carb camp. Carnivore dieters, keto dieters, and all of the different food tribes advocate for cutting certain foods out of your diet. Carnivores cut out anything but meat; vegans cut out all animal products, and so on.

None of the food tribes are adhering to a macro diet, perhaps because the macro diet isn’t hip and extreme, nor is it a fad.

What Is the Macro Diet?  

Simply put, the macro diet is an expanded form of calorie-counting that includes macronutrients (macros). Macros include carbs, proteins and amino acids, fats and cholesterol, fiber, and water.  The macro diet is also called a flexible diet — you can eat a variety of foods as long as your nutrient intake doesn’t exceed a certain level. Macro dieters get very granular with nutrients. They set a number for each macro and then monitor their intake throughout the day.

Sound familiar? The FDA food pyramid most of us grew up with is based on the same idea. A balanced and healthy diet can and will include a certain number of servings from all of the food groups. The problem with the food pyramid is its vagueness and its lack of emphasis on things such as the importance of whole grains versus empty carbs. The food pyramid didn’t tell you things like too much sodium is bad for you. Nor did the food pyramid account for different body types. Nor did it account for the fact that an athlete needs more protein, and can afford to eat more carbs, while the average adult does not and cannot. The macro diet makes up for these oversights and makes sure you get the right amount of carbs, fats, and protein for your body type and weight-loss needs.

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What Isn’t the Macro Diet?

This diet has spawned a crazy child called “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM). IIFYM says you can eat anything, including doughnuts and fast food, as long as it “fits your macros” — as long as you don’t go over your levels. The efficacy of IIFYM is a myth, and here are its problems:

  • IIFYM can cause a vitamin or nutrient deficiency.
  • IIFYM does not account for sub macros; sodium, for one, is a sub macro that, if you eat it in excess, can contribute to high blood pressure. Sugar is another sub macro that IIFYM doesn’t curtail.
  • IIFYM’s emphasis is on losing weight, not on maintaining overall health.
  • IIFYM doesn’t account for the difference between empty carbs that convert into sugar in your system, and whole grains that have nutritional benefits

The macro diet isn’t an excuse to eat whatever. The diet does acknowledge that, in moderation, once in a while you can eat things like doughnuts and pizza; moderation is just good common sense. But IIFYM makes no sense whatsoever because it contends you could eat fast food every day as long as you only eat so much.

How Do I Do the Macro Diet?

You’ll start by formulating a plan. Healthline has an evidence-based macro diet plan I’m referencing here. Your plan begins with calculating your total daily energy expenditure. The most widely accepted equation for energy expenditure is the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation:

  • Men: (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age) + 5
  • Women: (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age) – 161
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Then, take that number and multiply it by your activity level factor to determine your calorie needs:

  • Sedentary (little or no exercise): x 1.2
  • Lightly active (1–3 days per week): x 1.375
  • Moderately active (6–7 days per week): x 1.55
  • Very active (every day): x 1.725
  • Extra active (twice or more per day): x 1.9

The number you see now is your calorie intake if you want to maintain a certain weight. If you want to lose weight, subtract about 20 percent from your total daily energy expenditure.

Now, you’ll calculate your macronutrient needs based on the number you came up with after you have subtracted 20 percent from your energy expenditure (you don’t have to subtract 20 percent; adjust accordingly based on your weight-loss needs). The following numbers provide calorie approximations and recommendations for the macronutrients:

  • Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram, typically 45–65% of total daily calories
  • Proteins: 4 calories per gram, typically 10–35% of total daily calories
  • Fats: 9 calories per gram, typically 20–35% of total daily calories

Apply these numbers to your calorie needs. Furthermore, the recommended amount of fiber is 38 grams for men and 25 for women.

The Benefits of an App for Tracking Macros

According to George Washington University, healthcare apps are here to stay — they increase efficiency and make the macro diet a whole lot easier. Many diet apps can calculate your calorie needs for you, and you can use them to track your macronutrient intake on a daily basis. They can give you reminders, as well as recommendations, and generally make the whole process a lot easier.

That said, you can also do it yourself with a spreadsheet, as long as you’re able to carry it around with you every day.

The macro diet is a daily, regimented diet that makes a lot of sense. What doesn’t make sense is to replace whole, quality foods with empty calories from junk food. The nice thing about counting macros is you can indulge here and there — just don’t go over your calorie intake goal.