Confused about which macro diet approach is best for weight loss? Should you be low carb? High fat? High protein? The truth is, it depends, and what works for one person doesn’t work for everyone. To help you cut through the noise and misinformation on the internet, here is exactly how to determine the best macronutrients for your weight loss goals.
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Macro Diet 101: Weight Loss vs. Fat Loss
In reality, you can lose weight on any diet. Yes, even though we don’t recommend it, you can drop pounds eating fast food and ice cream - as long as you stay in a consistent calorie deficit.
But while it is well understood that calories are the key to seeing the number on the scale decrease, what you eat can make the process feel a lot easier or harder. Anyone who has ever tried a crash diet or extreme diet can attest to this, and balance is crucial for long term success.
Additionally, the quality of your choices strongly impacts body composition - how much body fat and muscle mass you lose or maintain in the process.
Luckily, macronutrients solve for a lot of these concerns all at once.
Macros are your calories from food organized into nutrient groups: protein, fat, and carbs. Each of which provides different health benefits and a different amount of calories (protein = 4 calories per gram, carbs = 4 calories per gram, and fat = 9 calories per gram).
Thus, counting macros can help you lose weight. And as a bonus, a good macro balance can help you control your appetite, support energy levels, lose more body fat, and protect your lean mass while in a calorie deficit. Meaning you can potentially lose more fat and achieve better results overall with a macro diet compared to calorie control alone.
What is the best Macro Ratio for Fat Loss
Each macro is used a little differently by the body, and understanding how each one supports your daily health and fitness needs is key:
- Carbs are your preferred source of quick energy, and excess carbs can be stored in your muscles for fuel or as body fat.
- Fat is your source of long-term energy, used as immediate fuel or stored as body fat.
- Protein is the builder macro, used to build and maintain a majority of the cells throughout your body, including your DNA, bones, and muscle mass - any excess protein can be used as energy or stored as body fat.
How Many Carbs to Lose Weight?
It feels like carbohydrate intake has become one of the most controversial topics when it comes to losing weight. For decades, health and nutrition experts have battled it out over low-fat and low-carb styles of eating for the best results. And in recent years, a keto style diet has taken the low carb approach even further by restricting them to less than 5% of your calories.
So what gives?
According to the US Dietary Guidelines, Carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 percent of total calorie intake. But other popular diets recommended intake as low as 20g of carbohydrates per day. So what gives? Is there any proof that cutting carbs is an efficient way to lose weight, and how many carbs do we actually need?
First, as far as we know, weight loss is only accomplished by eating fewer calories than you burn each day. We don't have any research that disproves this concept. So the argument is not whether or not eating too many carbs will make you fat; it's whether or not eating fewer carbs can promote more body fat loss during a calorie deficit. And whether or not low carb diets offer specific advantages over other macro diets for weight loss.
The truth is, we don't know for sure. There is plenty of research suggesting low-carb diets may be more beneficial than low fat, but there are also large, high-quality studies implying no difference between the two (1). What we can take away from the science is that everyone is a little different when it comes to dietary approaches, and what works well for some may not work for all. We are in need of more individual approaches to dieting and more research, looking at what variables we should be guided by.
They type of carbs you choose is likely more important than the amount for most people.
Carbohydrates come from anything that grows out of the ground, including fruits and vegetables - and carbohydrates contribute fiber to the diet. They are the body's quickest and most efficient source of fuel and the only macro that is able to readily supply energy to the brain (ketones can also do this, but requires your body to go into a state of ketosis and metabolize fat into usable fuel).
They are also important for muscle recovery, endurance, and strength building. And they play a role in helping regulate our energy, mood, and self-control. Lack of carbs can actually make you "hangry," tried, and even create brain fog. And poor blood sugar control from too much added sugar and poor dietary choices can do the same thing.
Depending on your fitness level and personal goals, striving for low carb intake (less than 100g of carbs per day) may not be the best solution. But the less active you are, the fewer carbs your body needs.
Depending on your calorie level, you will want to eat roughly 30 to 60% of your calories from carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are embraced in the athlete world. Macro timing and balance
|Higher Carb Foods||Low Carb Foods|
How Much Protein to Lose Weight?
Protein is the most unique of all the macros because it is not a preferred source of energy and is the least likely to be stored as body fat. Protein also helps maintain lean muscle takes more energy to digest (more thermogenic than the other macros), and is thought to help control hunger and reduce cravings.
Research continues to suggest that higher protein intakes may support more weight loss, but the amount of protein you actually need is still widely debated. US Dietary Guidelines recommend 0.36 to 0.45 grams per pound of body weight - while others argue this amount is based around getting minimum adequate needs for the general population and does not take into account differences in body composition and fitness needs.
Some studies point to 0.45 to 0.55 grams/pound body weight as the minimum intake (2,3,4,5,6). And when looking at weight loss in specific, some studies argue that even higher protein intake at 0.6 to 0.72 grams/pound, and meals providing at least 25 to 30g of protein are associated with decreases in appetite and better weight management overall (7). Furthermore, studies looking at athletes who are cutting calories, suggest that intakes as high as 1 to 1.5 g/pound to minimize their loss of lean mass (8,9,10,11).
Overall, science suggests that approximately 0.6 to 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight with sufficient energy intake can support building lean mass while cutting calories.
And while some research still argues that eating more than 0.8 grams/pound does not result in any additional benefits, additional intake has not shown to be harmful either (12).
How Much Fat Per Day to Lose Weight?
Dietary fat is essential for good health, but because it is the most calorie-dense macro, it can also be easy to overdo it.
The amount of fat you need each day to lose weight ultimately depends on the person. Some people are much more efficient at utilizing fat for energy and do well on a higher fat diet, while others prefer higher carb intake - this is partially determined by your fitness needs as well as your overall lean body mass.
For most, keeping your fat intake around 20% to 30% of your calories will support good health and provide an ideal macro ratio for fat loss.
Your perfect macronutrient goals can depend on your individual goals, fitness level, age, health, genetics, and much more.
For weight loss purposes, a moderate-fat (20% to 30% of calories), moderate carb (30% to 40% of calories), and a high protein diet (25% to 35% of calories) tend to work for most people.
It can also help to use a scaled approach if you are newer to dieting - cutting a bunch of carbs or jacking up your daily protein intake all of a sudden can feel pretty difficult at first. So if you are new to the process, start slowly and work your way towards your macro goals.
How Do You Determine Your Macros?
The easiest way to calculate your unique macro needs is by using an online macro calculator.
Based on your calorie needs, fitness level, and other personal characteristics, you can roughly estimate how much of each macronutrient you should aim to get a day.
Use this simple calculator to get your custom macros:
Counting Macros for Weight Loss
Knowing your macros is only have the battle, you’ve got to organize your food choices accordingly and strive to hit your calorie and macro goals on a consistent basis to get real results.
When it comes to tracking your macros, a macro-friendly fitness app is the easiest way to hold yourself accountable and make sure you are hitting your goals.
An app does all the hard work for you. And with a searchable database of millions of food items, you can get a handle on your intake even without a nutrition label.
Download the Trifecta app for free to get started on your macro diet for weight loss.