I first heard about macro counting—an eating plan that involves, well, counting your macronutrients—where so many nutrition fads go mainstream: on Instagram.
That intel came mainly from selfies of male CrossFit enthusiasts gulping down protein powder, so I wasn’t sure macro counting and I would be a good fit.
But I was intrigued by hearing people tout benefits like more muscle and higher energy levels, so for more than a year I weighed, measured, and tracked everything I ate and drank. And, to my surprise, it’s not as difficult (or crazy) as I first imagined.
Intrigued by macro counting? Here’s what you need to know.
The first thing I had to learn is WTF macronutrients are. It’s simple, actually: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. They’re called macronutrients because they’re the three large nutrients your body can use or store for energy, explains Matthew Walrath, founder of Beyond Macros and a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition practitioner.
In some ways, macro counting is similar to old-school calorie counting. “Each macronutrient has a specific amount of calories per gram,” Walrath explains. “Protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram. So when you count your macros, you are controlling your calories, too.”
But the same isn’t true in reverse. When you’re counting calories, you’re not necessarily finding a balance of all the macronutrients your body needs—and that is what enthusiasts like Walrath believes sets this approach apart.
Who’s it right for?
Choosing the right eating plan is a lot like dating: You need to find one that works with your personality, and sometimes that takes a lot of swiping right. I’ve tried everything from vegan to Paleo and so far, nothing’s stuck. Walrath thinks the people who tend to click with macro counting enjoy the “game” of getting the numbers just so every day, whereas people who find that frustrating tend to get annoyed and give up.
It’s also a diet that many people can maintain long-term, since it’s not too restrictive. “Counting macros not only shows you what the right balance of food looks like for health and performance, but it can also serve as a great way to shift your eating habits and create a sustainable transformation,” says Walrath. “It gives you wiggle room for eating out with friends or going out for lunch meetings at work.”
As far as the plan, there isn’t one blanket formula. Some people might need, say, 5 percent carbs, 15 percent protein, and 80 percent fat, while others thrive on something totally different.
That’s a good reason to use a nutrition coach, says Walrath (I opted to). But as a general starting point, he recommends eating about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight if you exercise regularly, then using a handy macro counting guide to figure out a good ratio of fats and carbs for your body and your goals. It may take some trial and error, and that’s okay.
The cut phases
I was the heaviest I’d ever been when I started working with Walrath, so, honestly, weight loss was my main goal. But I was also dealing with fatigue—like, I could hardly get out of bed in the morning to get to work on time—and I wanted to address that, too.
My macro counting journey was divided into “cut phases” and “recovery phases.” Cut phases each lasted three months and involved eating at a calorie deficit. I got 45 percent of my calories from protein, 30 percent from fat, and 25 percent from carbs. I measured everything out with a food scale, and tracked all of my macros in a food journal on my phone.
The first few weeks were a serious adjustment, largely because I wasn’t used to eating so much food. Getting nearly half of my calories from protein meant eating a lot of chicken and fish. But the good news is, I never really felt hungry.
The recovery phases
After each cut phase, I’d start a recovery phase, which lasted around two months and involved me gradually upping my fat and carbs. These phases ended up being surprisingly fraught for me. On the one hand, I loved them because, well, fat and carbs. But I also felt frustrated that I was putting in the hard work of logging all my food and not losing weight.
Walrath says recovery phases basically reassure your body that it’s still getting plenty of food, so your metabolism doesn’t slow down (and yes, there’s science backing the idea that longterm calorie restriction can do that). Recovery also makes sure the body is getting all the good stuff it needs, because fewer calories can equal fewer vitamins and minerals, and macro counting is meant to be a sustainable thing.
Even though I wasn’t dropping weight, I was seeing other results. I had more energy. I was back at the gym and getting stronger. I was sleeping better, too. The recovery phases really reminded me that what matters most is feeling good and nourished, not the scale.
Where I’m at now
Sticking with macro counting isn’t easy. Some days I just don’t want to deal with the hassle of logging all of my food, and I’ve also questioned my ability to consume another bite of chicken breast. But in a little over a year, I’ve lost 30 pounds.
More importantly, I have more energy and my relationship with food has begun to repair itself a little. If there’s one thing this past year has taught me, it’s to be patient and dedicated because true change takes time. And in my case, even some protein powder.
If you’re looking to up your protein intake sans shake, try one of these surprising protein-rich foods. And if your healthy-cooking inspiration is waning, you need to try one of these cauliflower recipes.