Why It Could Be Worth Counting Your Macros

Why It Could Be Worth Counting Your Macros

Whether it’s counting calories or carbs, chances are you’ve attempted to track something when trying to lose a few pounds. But how much thought have you given to tracking your macros? Going one step further than calorie counting, tracking macros is the expert’s way to get your diet back on track. We went to Angela Dowden and Helen Foster, authors of The Macro Method, to find out more…
Photography: ISTOCK/ST_LUX

What exactly are macros?
“In a nutshell, macros is short for ‘macronutrients’, which are components required in the diet in relatively large quantities to keep the body functioning optimally. In other words, macros are protein, carbohydrates and fat. They are the ‘big’ nutrients that provide both energy (i.e., calories) and varying levels of nutrition. Both protein and carbs provide four calories per gram and fat provides nine calories per gram. Alcohol is also a macro, with seven calories per gram, although alcohol provides zero nutritional value.” – Angela Dowden, registered nutritionist

How much attention should you pay to them?
“A lot – you need to eat protein, carbs and fats to provide balanced nutrition. In The Macro Method, we settle on 30% energy from protein, 40% energy from carbs and 30% energy from fat. People can, and do, manage on different ratios, but this is the ideal, and most sustainable, ratio for people who want to watch their weight while also staying healthy and feeling full. Macros may seem confusing  but counting them buys into the crucial concept that a calorie is not just a calorie. In terms of the health effects, your hunger and how satiated you’ll feel, the type and ratio of calories – and the protein, carbohydrate and fat-rich foods they come from – is important. For example, a medium-sized apple, which contains 70 calories, will fill your stomach better than 70 calories of crisps. Subcategories of different nutrients become critical here too: for example, a slice of white bread and one of wholewheat bread may have the same amount of carb but the fibre in the whole wheat variety will fill you up and nourish the good bacteria in your gut better. A teaspoon of butter and a teaspoon of olive oil provide similar amounts of fat, but butter has a lot more saturated fat, which isn’t as good for your cardiovascular health as the monounsaturated fat provided by the oil.” – Angela

How is macro counting different to calorie counting?
“Counting macros takes calories out of the equation and puts the emphasis on the quality of what’s on your plate – i.e., its nutritional quality and how well it’s going to fuel you. This can take the pressure off for people who’ve counted calories for years, but keeps you feeling in control.” – Angela

“As a long-term calorie counter, I also find it psychologically different. If I went over my allotted calories in a day, I’d feel as if I’d failed and that my diet was blown – but I don’t feel that as much when counting macros. If I go over my fat macros, and it’s from something like salmon or because I was greedy with an avocado, I don’t stress as much as if I’d gone 100 calories over my daily limit from the same food. If I go over my carbs, I find it easier to see where I need to cut back and identify what’s kicking me off track than if I just have this nebulous figure that I’d ‘blown it by’.” – Helen Foster, leading health journalist

Counting macros buys into the concept that a calorie isn’t just a calorie. An apple which contains 70 calories will fill you up better than 70 calories of crisps.

Are there any other benefits to tracking your macros?
“When you count your macros, you learn more about the food you eat and the negative patterns that contribute to not reaching your goals than on any other diet plan. When you start to track your macros, you might realise that the breadsticks you nibble while cooking supper are what tip you over your daily carbohydrate intake and are therefore probably the main contributors to the two kilos you put on last year. Or the spoonful of mayo you like to put on your bread adds quite a lot of fat to your daily total but doesn’t have much nutritional value to go with it. Once you track your macros, you’ll start to wonder if maybe you’d prefer to ‘spend’ those macros in a different way. By recording your food intake, you may also start to notice how foods affect you. Maybe you’ll discover that if you have most of your carbs at lunch, you feel more sluggish in the afternoon. You can learn a lot about why your body behaves the way it does through tracking your macros.” – Helen 

So, does the 30:40:30 ratio work for everyone?
“Yes, the 30:40:30 protein, carb and fat ratio works well for weight loss and toning. There’s plenty of evidence that getting 25-30% of your calories from protein can help curb appetite and give your metabolic rate a minor boost. In one study, dieters getting 25% of their calories from protein were only half as likely as those on a lower protein diet (14% of their calories from protein) to have the urge to snack at night and 62% less likely to find themselves obsessing over food. Some people, however, prefer to go higher on protein if they are looking to build muscle, in which case 40:30:30 can work. If this is the case, just be sure to spread your protein out over the day as most people can’t metabolise more than 25-30g of protein at once. Carb quality also becomes even more critical when you are having less of it, and you’ll need to focus on eating more fibre.” – Angela 

Can you really eat carbs and lose weight?
“Yes, studies show that low-carb diets work well for weight loss in the short-term, but they don’t necessarily win out over the longer-term as they aren’t easy to follow. Carb quality is key – if you reduce sugary carbs and focus on the healthier, slower-releasing, higher-fibre ones, you should be able to better control your weight. That said, going low-carb could be a good idea if you are have diabetes or are heading that way. Getting 40% of your calories from carbs, as we recommend, is actually a slightly carb-reduced diet without being severely carb-restricted – and that is the best compromise for most weight watchers.” – Angela 

What about fats – are some better than others?
“There’s a wealth of evidence to suggest that the healthiest fats are monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats, found in nuts, seeds, oily fish, olive oil and rapeseed oil. Coconut oil is often regarded as a healthier fat, but the science is mixed. Coconut oil is a saturated fat that is said not to come with as many downsides as other forms of saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol levels. This is because coconut oil has a high proportion (compared with other common fats) of medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs, which have been linked with fat burning and reduced insulin resistance. However, most studies that show the benefits of MCTs use them alone, not in coconut oil, which is a combination of different fats and also contains a fair amount of the ‘bad’ saturates, too. When coconut oil itself has been directly compared with butter and safflower oil in studies for effects on cholesterol – it’s shown to be better than butter, but not as good as safflower. Using coconut oil in moderation is fine, especially when cooking, but it shouldn’t be your go-to oil.” – Angela 

If you count your macros, what results can you expect?
“On average, with a balanced macronutrient profile, you can expect a weight loss of around 0.45-0.9kg (1-2lb) per week. It’s a slow and steady approach, but what’s important is that it’s a plan you can safely sustain for however long you need to lose your desired amount of weight.” – Angela 

If your macros for a day are 10% out in either direction, don’t sweat it – it’ll balance out over the week.

What’s the best way to start counting your macros?
“The fundamental key to making macros work for you is to work out your personal macro calculation. These figures tell you exactly how many grams of protein, carbs and fat you should eat each day. You’ll need to start by calculating your basal metabolic rate, which is the number of calories you burn simply through being still. To this, you’ll need to add your activity levels. There are calculators online that will work this out for you.” – Helen

What kind of person is best suited to macro counting?
“While it can work for anyone, people who will really enjoy it tend to be more organised, like to plan ahead and don’t mind a bit of maths. It’s probably not the right plan for you if you thrive on spontaneity and never know where you’re going to be one minute to the next.” – Helen 

What’s the biggest mistake you see people making?
“Falling into a macro rut. Because macro counting can be fiddly, there’s a temptation to eat the same meals over and over again to make it easier. That might get you weight loss results, but, unless you plan those meals very carefully, it might also mean you miss out on the variety of food you need to meet your micronutrient levels or to feed the bacteria in your gut that keep you healthy. Yes, it’s good to create meals you know the macros of that you can turn to quickly to plan your week’s menu – but try and ensure you have a good selection of these, not two or three combinations of chicken and vegetables, and rotate them throughout the week. Batch cooking and meal prep are great for saving time, but don’t eat the exact same thing more than two days a week.” – Helen 

Finally – any top tips for counting your macros?
“Download My Fitness Pal, which makes tracking your meals easier by saving you time on the maths. Its only downfall is that if you need to add, say, 10g more protein, 12g additional carbs and 2g more fat to fit into your macros, it doesn’t provide suggestions. There’s no need to get obsessive when using the app, either. If you want to stop counting all leafy green vegetables, for example, that’s not going to destroy your results, as they contain very few carbs, protein or fats. If your macros for a day are 10% out in either direction, don’t sweat it – it’ll balance out over the week.” – Helen 

“Good kitchen scales are vital. You might think you know what 25g of dry pasta looks like, but chances are you don’t. The same goes for measuring spoons or cups. If you’re heading to the office, it could also be a good idea to invest in some decent Tupperware, as well as a small pot for dressing. Salads taste so much better when this is added at the last minute. And if you’re the type of person who feels deprived when trying to lose weight, buy a smaller plate and focus on spiralising your vegetables, which creates an illusion of bulk and slows down how fast you eat them.” – Angela  

Here, the experts share their tips to make counting your macros easier…

GET PLANNING: “Spend a Sunday playing with your tracking app and come up with five or six days of breakfasts, lunches and dinners. This will help when you’re tired or busy.”

BATCH COOK: “Calculate the macros for single servings of one-pot or cook-ahead meals such as stews and curries. Freeze them in individual portions and rotate them through your week.”

UP THE PROTEIN: “Have protein at every meal. It’s usually the hardest macro goal to meet, so think about how you can fit it into every meal and work everything else around it. Breakfast is likely to be the meal you’ll have to tweak the most.”

LOOK AT MENUS IN ADVANCE: “If you eat out regularly and have a favourite chain-style restaurant, head to their website and see if they offer a nutritional breakdown, then list four or five choices that fit your macro breakdown. You’ll be unlikely to find exact matches but get as close as you can.”

STOCK UP ON YOGHURT: “Always have 2% or full-fat Greek yoghurt in the house. It’s a great way of increasing all three macros quickly – top with fruit to increase the carbs, add protein powder to up the protein or add nuts if you need more fats. Cottage cheese is also a good emergency food that ticks a lot of macro boxes.”

DON’T STRESS: “Remember, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get your precise numbers in a day. Plus or minus a few grams won’t hurt.”

The Macro Method by Helen Foster and Angela Dowden is available to buy now.

DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.


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