Life Wellbeing Counting macros: The alternative to counting calories explained

Counting macros: The alternative to counting calories explained

The macros eating plan is flexible but takes planning. It's also not suitable for people with eating disorders. Photo: Getty
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Most people, when looking to lose weight, will rely on counting calories.

It takes a bit of planning, keeping records and sticking at it. After a while, most of us are sick of the hassle.

About four years ago, counting ‘macros’ was touted as a more flexible alternative – and is more complex and demanding, and still involves counting calories.

The main idea is to focus primarily on what you’re eating, rather than how much.

But it has since been taken up by body builders, celebrities and people who want strict control over their eating.

The most popular incarnation of the macros eating plan – If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) – is more a slogan than a detailed prescription.

What are macros?

‘Macros’ is short for macronutrients.

These are what we usually call our main food groups: Proteins, fats, carbohydrates.

Weight loss and altering body shape (more muscle, less fat) is said to be achieved by altering the percentage of these foods.

The ketogenic diet is a hard-core example of this strategy – where 70-80 per cent of the total daily calories comes from fat, 5 to 10 per cent carbohydrate, and 10 to 20 per cent protein.

The Zone Diet, a purportedly ‘anti-inflammatory eating plan’, follows a specific ratio of 40 per cent carbs, 30 per cent protein and 30 per cent fat.

Both these diets have their issues.

The keto diet, which has had some success as a treatment for diabetes, may work best in the short term.

The Zone Diet is said to have over-reached with some of its claims.

According to a piece at The Conversation, “there’s currently no scientific research that has specifically examined whether counting macros is as effective as other methods in achieving different weight goals”.

So … the jury is out on that question.

Doesn’t the government have macros guidelines?

There are government guidelines, but as a 2018 paper makes clear, they do have some wiggle room.

In Australia and New Zealand “the acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) is 15 to 25 per cent of energy from protein to ensure adequate intake of protein and other micronutrients, 20 to 35 per cent from fat to sustain body weight and ensure adequate micronutrient intake, and 45 to 65 per cent from carbohydrate to ensure adequate fat and protein intake”.

The recommendation for carbohydrate stipulates that the source of carbohydrate should “predominantly be from low glycaemic index and low energy dense sources as the quality of carbohydrate is paramount to health”.

The 2018 paper investigated how the focus on cutting fat in dietary advice may have tripped the obesity crisis.

In other words, drastic changes in your macronutrient ratios can have unintended consequences.

How to get started

It’s fiddly. The first step is to establish your Basal Metabolic Rate, the number of calories you burn at rest.

From this you can determine how many calories you need a day.

You can do it the hard way, using what’s known as the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation:

  •  Men: Calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
  • Women: Calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161

Or you can do it the easier way with this IIFYM calculator.

Then you’re back to counting calories but with a focus on manipulating your macros – with an emphasis, say, on more protein if you want to build muscle, or more fat if you want to lose weight in the short term.

We advise talking to a doctor or a nutritionist about putting together a plan.

The pros of a macros plan

According to a helpful report at Medical News Today, there is some relatively new evidence that a macros plan can help with the following (we’ve linked to relevant papers):

The disadvantages

  • Keeping track of your macros takes more time than you might care to give, and so hitting targets can be difficult
  • It’s socially restrictive: Your dinner party invitations might dry up
  • By focusing on the macros, you could be missing out on vital micronutrients such as minerals and vitamins
  • Potential for disordered eating.There is some evidence that “an intense focus on tracking health may even put people who do not have a history of eating disorders at risk for developing disordered eating behaviours”.

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