Why Macros Are the Key to Unlocking Your Dieting Potential

By James LaSalandra

One of the most common beliefs in fitness nutrition – that weight loss and muscle gain depend simply on how many calories you eat versus how many calories you burn – also happens to be one of the most inaccurate.

The body is a far more complicated system than the century-old caloric model (“calories in, calories out”) gives it credit for. And while this has always been true, recent research on metabolism has elaborated on this complexity, which involves not just net calorie intake or loss but also the body’s metabolic processes (particularly where insulin is concerned), age, energy expenditure, and body composition, among others.

This is why the best response to the oversimplified view of counting calories is to abandon it…at least to some extent.

Your Step-By-Step Guide to Building a Diet That’s Easy, Effective, and Enjoyable

For years, you’ve been told that the only way to lose weight was to deprive yourself by cutting calories. But if it were that simple, anyone who wanted to be thinner would be, wouldn’t they?

The truth is, over 95% of diets fail.

Notice that it doesn't say “dieters fail.” Whether it’s because calorie-cutting plans are too strict to maintain, or simply don’t take into account the many other factors involved in how the body actually handles nutrition, it’s the diet plans themselves that fall short.

What makes a macro-based diet so different?

If there’s one thing these destined-to-fail diets have in common, it’s their lack of understanding as to how macronutrients (or “macros”) work.

What are macros? Primarily, they’re where your calories come from: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. What makes them so important versus just counting calories is how much of each macro you get in your diet. And this is true in terms of your daily intake as well as each meal you eat.

Because of the way these molecules interact in the body during digestion, your macro ratio can have a significant impact on your metabolism. By following a macro-based meal plan, you can take advantage of those interactions for better results.

Before continuing, there’s one more common bit of confusion that needs clearing up: a “diet” is not some special plan you follow – it’s whatever your regular eating habits are. If you eat nothing but fast food, that’s your current diet.

What you need to succeed isn’t just a new diet, it’s a change in your lifestyle. And while depriving yourself for short-term weight loss may be tempting, it’s actually fat loss you want to focus on – a plan that provides better performance and lasting results, without costing you any lean muscle gains.

A macro-based diet is about giving your body what it needs, and both a muscle-building and fat-loss lifestyle. You’re not going to build or maintain the muscle you want, or reach and maintain your ideal level of body fat, with simple calorie counting. The goal is to eat as much as you can and maintain muscle while also losing or keeping off unwanted fat.

That’s another reason the macro-based approach is so effective – you’ll be far less likely to feel deprived or starved, which helps to keep your willpower going and your new lifestyle on track.

That having been said, let’s dig into some details…

How do macro-based diets work?

Just like any other approach to dieting, there are a few versions of macro-tracking. If you’ve ever encountered the concept before, it was likely presented in terms of percentages and how much of your diet should be made up of each macro.

For example, one may suggest 40% of your calories come from protein, 30% from fats, and 30% from carbs. For muscle-building, the ratio may be closer to 60/10/30. These general guidelines tend to miss the mark in a few aspects – namely, that there are no one-size-fits-all ratios, your needs will change over time, and calculating the percentage of calories you get from each macro is an unnecessarily complicated way of doing things.

The alternative? A simple system that’s customizable, uses grams of each macro based on your bodyweight and goals, and adapts as you progress toward those goals.

A Better Approach to Fat Loss & Lean Gains

The gist of this alternative is that, rather than having you bust out a calculator to multiply grams of each macro by their caloric content (9 calories per gram of fat, 4 calories per grams of protein and carbs) and then figure out percentages, you just track the grams themselves and apply them to a simple formula.

That’s why Dr. Jim Stoppani’s meal plans like Dieting 101 and Muscle Building Nutrition Rules recommend 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, 0.5 grams of fat, and set your carb target depending on your starting point and goals. (If you’re over 230 lbs and looking to lose fat, use that to set your targets at first.)

There are several options you can choose to increase your fat loss or lean muscle gains even further, like intermittent fasting and carb cycling, but they all start with this introduction to counting macros instead of calories in general.

Before getting more specific, let’s be clear: counting macros is counting calories, in a way. The point here is that there’s a big difference between 2,000 calories a day from ice cream and 2,000 calories from a balanced, macro-based diet. With that in mind, let’s start with the most important macro: Protein.

Setting Your Protein Intake Goals

You may have already noticed that getting 1-1.5 grams of protein each day is what many would consider a high amount. For a 200 lbs individual, for example, that’s between 200-300 grams, or 800-1,200 calories from protein alone.

Why should you eat so much protein?

For starters, your body needs a certain amount of protein in each meal to maximize muscle protein synthesis – the body’s process for repairing and building muscle. For most people, that’s roughly 30 grams or so per meal. Also, as we age, the optimal amount of protein per serving increases.

But there’s more to it than that: because more muscle tissue means a higher resting metabolism, promoting muscle synthesis also helps with your overall daily fat loss. In fact, research suggests the simple act of eating more protein in general can help you lose fat.

For example, one high-protein study Dr. Stoppani references showed that subjects whose diet included 1.5 grams of protein each day lost more body fat than those eating less – even though they were actually getting 500 calories more each day.

Read that again: 500 more calories per day, but more fat loss. This is why a high-protein diet is key to both building muscle and losing fat.

And as if that’s not enough, a high-protein diet also helps keep you feeling satiated for longer, reducing cravings between meals and the chance of slipping off to the pantry for unhealthy snacks that could derail your progress.

How do you fit that much protein into your diet?

Details on each individual macro, like how best to hit your targets, would be enough to fit in their own articles. When it comes to protein, you have the option of simply eating enough protein-sources, or supplementing your diet with protein shakes (like Pro JYM, Plant JYM, or Iso JYM) so that your jaw doesn’t end up being your sorest muscle at the end of the day.

You can learn more about how best to implement protein powders as part of your daily diet with Jim's Protein Powder User's Guide as well as his article on how to use protein powders to help build more muscle.

For now, the bottom line is this: No matter your goal, you’re likely to see better results by gradually increasing your protein intake.

Why Low Fat Diets Fall Short

Everywhere you turn, there’s a low-fat or “lite” version of just about anything you can find in the grocery store. This is because of a misunderstanding about fat storage, as if skipping dietary fat will prevent you from gaining unwanted body fat.

This approach is a mistake for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that your body needs fats – many of which it cannot produce on its own – it just needs the right fats, and in the right proportion.

If your diet is too low in healthy fat sources, not only will you be missing out on those essential fats that can only be gotten through food, but your body will also make up the difference through lipogenesis, converting available carbohydrates into fat and storing it as body fat.

Why are dietary fats so important?

Dietary fats play a role in everything from cardiovascular health, muscle function, joint health, and hormone production (like testosterone, which is obviously an important thing to consider).

Now, you do want to make sure you’re not overdoing it when it comes to saturated fats, although even they have their part to play in your overall health. The only fats that you should absolutely stay away from are unnatural trans fats.

As Dr. Stoppani recommends, when aiming for 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight, the ideal ratio is 1/3rd saturated fats, 1/3rd monounsaturated fats, and 1/3rd polyunsaturated fats (which include omega-3 fatty acids like those found in Omega JYM).

Managing Carbohydrates

Carbs are where things can get tricky, because unlike the other macros these vary consistently based on your goals. As referenced above, there are additional methods that can be added to basic macro-tracking, like carb cycling. For the most part, however, what will change the most when it comes to carbs is reducing them when fat loss has plateaued – but only gradually.

Should you avoid simple carbs at all costs?

As stated above, the goal is to eat as much as possible while still seeing progress, and this holds true for carb intake as much as proteins and fats. While simple carbs are ideal post-workout to enhance nutrient uptake, in general you want to stick to complex carbs like whole grains, oats, or brown rice.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, mind you. Remember, it’s the combined macros of your meals that ultimately count. Adding protein and fats to your carbs helps reduce their impact. Still, for a number of reasons, it’s best to stick to complex carb sources versus simple sugars and fast-digesting carbs.

How many carbs should you fit into your diet?

As far as calculating your carb target, that depends in large part on your current intake and your goals. If Dr. Stoppani’s protein and fat recommendations already exceed your current caloric intake, you’ll want to at least aim for fewer grams of carbs per pound than you currently take in. On the other hand, if those recommendations leave room, simply match your caloric intake by filling in the rest with carbohydrates. We’ll dive deeper into macro tracking and individual macros more later.

What really makes carbs different from the other macros is their variability. Your protein and fat intake should remain the same, per your bodyweight, but with carbs they can and should change based on your progress – or lack thereof.

So, while you may find yourself aiming for as much as 2 grams per pound of bodyweight, you could just as easily wind up aiming for less. The important thing to remember is that, of all the macros, carbs are the ones you want the freedom to cut when necessary.

When should you cut carbs?

While the goal is to eat as much as possible while still seeing progress, when progress stops it’s your carb target that will change. It may be an increase if you’re looking to add muscle, or a decrease when fat loss stalls. Just like getting into a meal plan like this from your current diet, these will be gradual changes, as little as 0.25 grams per pound each week to two weeks.

In part, this approach will allow your body to adapt to the changes in a good way – giving it time to adjust to your new macro levels so as not to shock it – and in part it will also generally guide you in terms of pacing. You should never make massive changes to your diet, as a rule, because of the havoc it can wreak on the body and your metabolism.

Bottom line: Less is more when it comes to making adjustments to your macros, especially with carbs as they’re the macro you’ll adjust the most.

Macro-Based Diet Summary

By focusing on macronutrients versus counting calories, you’ll not only find yourself not starving between meals or craving favorite foods; you’ll also be doing a great deal more for your metabolism and overall nutrition when it comes to supporting training and results.

How exactly to track your macros, and the importance of the role each macro plays in your diet, will come in future installments. But for now, hopefully this intro to the basic concept helps steer you away from the misguided calorie-centric view. If you’re focused on macros, calories take care of themselves, and it will definitely show in the results you see as time goes on.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease

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