Counting calories. Counting carbs. Counting…macros?
“Macros,” which is short for macronutrients, appears to be a popular strategy for losing weight, building muscle, and answering the ongoing question of, “What should I eat?” By counting macros, promoters contend that followers can achieve their weight-loss goals without essentially eliminating an entire group of foods, such as the carbohydrates avoided by “keto” fans.
Let’s break down the word “macronutrients.” Macro means large, and nutrients are substances that provide nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life. In food, these “large substances” are namely protein, carbohydrates, and fat. (Micronutrients, on the other hand, are the smaller components of food, like vitamins and minerals.) According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, there is a wide range of acceptable macronutrient ranges for adults: 10-35% calories from protein, 45-65% from carbohydrates, and 20-35% from fat.
Warning: Math Required
Before you can count macros, you must decide your daily percentage break out of the big three: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Now comes the math. Both protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories/gram, while fat provides 9 calories/gram. The next step is to divide the calories by the desired percent to determine the number of daily calories from each macro. Then, divide the calories for each macronutrient by 4 or 9 to determine the number of grams you need to count per day. Now you can start counting grams of macros. Quickly, it becomes clear just how confusing (and error-prone!) this process can be, doesn’t it?
Do Macros Matter?
Over the years, researchers have manipulated macronutrients to determine if there is an ideal combination. Should our intake be high protein, low carb, low fat? Results are mixed. But research has shown that for weight loss, it really doesn’t matter how we divide our macros. After one year, the results between the high carbohydrate and high protein diets were about the same. Typically, researchers conclude that the best eating plan is the one you can stick with for the long run.
Perhaps the act of counting – whether calories or macros – gives us a sense of control and defined boundaries in a world with endless food choices. But most major health organizations are recognizing that it’s your overall dietary pattern that matters the most. It’s not the percentage breakdown of foods that make up that pattern.
It’s this simplified approach that Nathan Pritikin promoted when describing which foods, and how much of them, we should be eating. After researching populations around the world, Nathan discovered that the healthiest populations have a specific dietary pattern. This pattern reflects a macro distribution that is rich in carbohydrates while remaining low in animal protein and added fat.
Over the last several decades, we’ve made eating rather complicated. This latest trend of counting macros adds to this unnecessary complexity. For me, that is precisely why the Pritikin Eating Plan is so appealing. It offers the freedom to enjoy a bounty of minimally processed foods while using internal cues of hunger and fullness to determine when, and how much, to eat.