Embark on a journey into the world of macronutrients, often referred to as ‘macros’, the dietary powerhouses that fuel our bodies. Unveil the unique function each macro performs and how adjusting their proportions can guide you towards your health aspirations. Whether it’s weight loss, muscle development, or boosting athletic prowess, comprehending macros is your cornerstone.
- Macros = Energy
- Protein and Blood Sugar Management for Diabetes
- Macronutrients vs Micronutrients
- What Is a Healthy Macro Ratio?
- What Should My Macros Be for Weight Loss?
- How Do You Track Your Macros?
- How Do You Count Your Macros?
- How Do I Figure Out My Macros?
- What Do I Eat to Hit My Macros?
Macros = Energy
Protein, carbs, fat, fibre, and alcohol are the large (macro) nutrients that give you energy.
In contrast, the various essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids are known as micronutrients. The small micronutrients do not provide energy but rather enable our mitochondria to use the energy in the macronutrients.
The energy in your food is measured in calories. This is estimated based on the amount of energy produced if you burn the food. But if you’ve ever tried to lose weight by simply counting your calories, you’ll know that limiting energy often doesn’t lead to the desired results over the long term.
For more details, see Is Counting Calories and Energy Balance a Waste of Time?
This article will help you understand more about each of the macronutrients and how much of each of them you require to reach your goal, whether that be:
- weight loss,
- healthy weight maintenance,
- weight gain,
- athletic performance, or
- diabetes management.
Although protein usually makes up only a small proportion of your diet, it’s the most critical macronutrient.
In fact, the word protein is derived from the Greek word ‘proteus’, which means ‘of primary importance’.
So, what makes it so important?
Your body requires the amino acids that makeup protein to build and repair your muscles, organs, hair, skin, nails, bones, and tendons. Additionally, protein is required to synthesise neurotransmitters, hormones, and enzymes and catalyse detoxification processes.
Surplus amino acids can also provide energy—amino acids are converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis—but this is an energy-intensive process, so your body would prefer to use fat and carbs for fuel.
Your body’s protein stores, also known as lean body mass (LBM), include your muscles, organs, and other critical body parts.
Your LBM makes up a significant proportion of your overall body mass, so it would make sense that you need to consume a lot of its building blocks each day!
Protein and Nutrient Density
Although protein is a macronutrient, it’s composed of smaller parts known as amino acids.
Some of the amino acids in protein-rich foods are essential (i.e., we have to consume them from food, or we die), conditionally essential (i.e., if we have certain conditions, we have to get them from food), or non-essential (i.e., the body can make them on its own).
For more details on the amino acids, see Optimal Amino Acid Intakes for Weight Loss and Satiety.
In addition to the amino acids in protein, higher-protein foods and meals also tend to contain a spectrum of other essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals critical for human health. For example, other micronutrients like niacin, zinc, selenium, phosphorus, calcium, sodium, and potassium tend to accompany higher-protein foods.
Until about 50% protein, a higher protein % aligns with greater nutrient density. Hence, you’ll be getting more of all the essential nutrients per calorie AND amino acids as your protein intake increases.
For reference, the western diet provides approximately 13% of its energy from protein. In our Macros Masterclass, where Optimisers are focusing on getting enough protein and nutrients, we see an average of around 30% protein. So, in this context, 50% protein is quite high. Rather than jumping to extremes, progressively increasing the protein % of your diet is an important first step to increasing satiety and nutrient density.
Protein and Satiety
Because we need protein to maintain our lean mass and execute all bodily functions, we have an exceptional appetite for protein. In other words, we will continue seeking food until we get the protein our bodies need to satisfy our demands. This is known as Protein Leverage.
Of all the macronutrients, research has shown that protein is the most critical for feeling full for longer or feeling satiated. This was supported by our in-depth satiety analysis and in numerous studies by Professors Simpson and Raubenheimer. Hence, if your goal is to eat fewer calories, it is critical to get adequate protein.
Protein and Weight Loss
Feeling full on fewer calories is critical if you’re trying to lose weight. It’s also crucial that you consume enough protein to maintain your precious lean muscle mass so you can fuel your metabolism and use your unwanted body fat for fuel.
Your body craves adequate protein to ensure it has all the raw ingredients (i.e., amino acids) it needs to ‘cover its bases’ and execute bodily functions. Hence, your appetite will ensure you eat enough over the long term to get the protein you need, even if that means eating excess calories.
Our satiety analysis has shown that people consuming a higher proportion of their energy from protein tend to eat less. It’s not simply about consuming more protein. To lose weight, you need to reduce the energy from fat and carbohydrates while consuming a little more protein (in grams). This leads to a higher protein percentage.
Additionally, your body not only requires dietary protein to maintain your muscles, organs, and other tissues that make up your lean body mass but also needs protein to build muscle.
Lean body mass is your most metabolically active tissue, which burns more calories at rest. If you do not get adequate protein, your body will begin to catabolise your metabolically active body mass, leading to a lower metabolic rate. Hence, if you’re trying to lose weight but lose an excessive lean mass, you will need to continue to slash your calorie target to unsustainable levels that won’t allow you to obtain adequate micronutrients.
Protein is also the most thermogenic macronutrient, or the macronutrient we burn the most calories turning into usable energy. Interestingly, we burn as much as 25-35% of the energy we consume from protein, turning it into usable fuel (ATP) and muscle protein synthesis. Hence, rather than feeling cold, tired and lethargic, eating enough protein can keep our metabolism in full gear.
How Much Protein Should I Be Eating to Lose Weight?
The United States Dietary Guidelines recommend a minimum protein intake of 0.8 grams/kg body weight to prevent diseases associated with protein deficiency. However, consuming additional protein above this minimum intake is often beneficial. As the chart below shows, the average protein intakes of our Optimisers are variable. The median intake is around 2.4 grams of protein/kg lean body mass (LBM).
It can be challenging to consume this much protein and maintain a consistent caloric deficit if you’re targeting weight loss. Although it’s desirable to get at least 1.8 g/kg LBM, we usually suggest working up to 1.4 g/kg LBM before you start trying to lose weight.
The table below shows what the minimum protein intakes look like for men and women based on height. Once you consistently consume a minimum of this much protein, you can begin dialling back energy from dietary fat and carbs.
If you’re struggling with where to start, you may enjoy our four-week Macros Masterclass. Here, we walk our Optimisers through dialling up their protein and fibre intakes while dialling back their fat and carb intakes so they can find the protein intake that suits their goals and preferences.
For more details on determining the ideal protein intake, check out Protein – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR)and How Much Protein Should You Eat to Lose Weight?
Protein and Blood Sugar Management for Diabetes
Protein does elicit a moderate insulin response over the medium term, but it also tends to have a negligible impact on blood glucose. However, consuming more high-protein foods and meals also limits the amount of refined, high-carb foods you eat. Hence, prioritising protein improves blood glucose control directly and indirectly.
Aside from blood glucose control, higher-protein foods tend to improve satiety, making it easier to eat less. This results in fat loss and a gradual decrease in insulin and blood sugar levels over time. For more detail on the effect of protein on insulin and blood glucose, see:
- Making Sense of the Food Insulin Index and
- What Foods Raise Your Blood Sugar and Insulin (Other Than Carbs)?
Protein for Athletes
People like athletes or bodybuilders who are more active tend to crave more protein so they can build and repair their muscles. Hence, their appetites will lead them to consume more protein. However, their energy requirements are also higher, so the overall percentage of their total calories from protein may actually be lower.
Conversely, you will naturally crave less protein if you are older or less active. However, your percentage of total calories from protein may need to be higher because your overall energy intake is lower.
A higher protein percentage as you age is critical to ensure you get enough protein to prevent sarcopenia and slips and falls, especially if you want to lose weight or manage your blood glucose levels.
If you’re wondering what you can eat to increase your protein %, some examples of popular high-protein foods are listed in the tables below.
|Food||% Protein||% Fat||% Carb|
|whey protein powder||89%||4%||7%|
|chicken breast (no skin)||75%||25%||0%|
|sirloin steak (fat not eaten)||75%||25%||0%|
|Greek yogurt (low fat)||69%||6%||25%|
|cottage cheese (low fat)||69%||13%||18%|
|ground pork (lean)||69%||30%||1%|
|chicken breast (with skin)||62%||38%||0%|
|ground beef (90% lean)||52%||48%||0%|
|ground beef (85% lean)||45%||55%||0%|
|sirloin steak (fat eaten)||44%||56%||0%|
|rib-eye steak (fat eaten)||44%||56%||0%|
|Food||% Protein||% Fat||% Carb|
|Food||% Protein||% Fat||% Carb|
In contrast to protein, carbohydrates are your body’s quick-burning energy source. Hence, they are critical for fuelling explosive activity and exercise.
Your cells convert converted carbohydrates into glucose to produce energy in the form of ATP. Your body can store anywhere from 1200-2000 calories worth of carbohydrates in your liver and muscles as glycogen.
While our bodies mainly rely on glycolysis and the Krebs cycle to synthesise glucose from carbs, they can also use protein to make glucose through a process known as gluconeogenesis.
However, gluconeogenesis is rate-limited and requires considerable time and energy. Thus, you will benefit from at least consuming enough carbohydrates to prevent your blood glucose from going too low if you do a lot of explosive activity.
Carbohydrates and Nutrient Density
As shown in the chart below, our analysis shows that a lower-carbohydrate diet aligns with greater nutrient density. Hence, dialling back your carbohydrate intake can help you get the nutrients you need with less energy.
While a lower-carb diet is beneficial, it’s worth noting that non-starchy, fibre-rich vegetables also contain micronutrients that are sparse in high-protein foods. Hence, there doesn’t seem to be a benefit from reducing your non-fibre carbohydrates below 10%.
Carbohydrates and Weight Loss
From our detailed satiety analysis, we know that increasing the nutrient density of our diet allows us to feel satiated and to give our bodies what they require for fewer calories. Thus, eating more nutrient-dense foods is positively associated with improved satiety.
Looking at the nutrient contents of various carbohydrate sources, we know that more fibrous, non-starchy carbs contain more nutrients per calorie.
Conversely, sugary, starchy, and processed carbs supply fewer nutrients per calorie. Hence, focusing on fibrous, non-starchy, whole-food carbs is critical for feeling full on fewer calories. The chart below of non-fibre carbs vs calorie intake was taken from our satiety analysis.
- We tend to eat the most when our diet consists of around 43% non-fibre carbohydrates, and the remaining energy is from fat.
- To the left of the chart, we see that a lower-carb diet that contains 10 – 20% energy from non-fibre carbohydrates tends to align with the lowest calorie intake.
- To the far right, we see how hard it is to overeat a high-carb, low-fat diet where more than 50% of calories come from non-fibre carbohydrates. However, obtaining adequate protein and micronutrients on a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet can be more challenging.
Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar Management for Diabetes
Refined carbohydrates raise blood glucose levels quickly, which may be challenging if you are insulin-resistant or managing diabetes.
When you consume carbohydrates, your pancreas produces insulin that works like a brake to keep your stored energy locked away until you have used up the energy from your mouth and cleared the glucose and lipids from your blood.
Rapid rises in blood glucose and insulin rises can lead to reactive hypoglycaemia, which are blood sugars that rise and fall not long after eating. As a result, you may experience more intense hunger when your blood sugar drops below your average, which will prompt your appetite, drive you to eat more, and push you to make less-optimal food choices.
Stabilising glucose into the healthy, non-diabetic range is beneficial for reducing your risk of chronic diseases related to metabolic syndrome. It is also critical for normalising energy levels and reducing cravings for less-than-optimal foods.
In our Data-Driven Fasting Challenges and Macros Masterclasses, we suggest participants dial back their intake of refined, starchy, and sugary carbohydrates if their blood glucose rises by more than 30 mg/dL (1.6 mmol/L) following a meal that contains them.
We don’t believe everyone needs to avoid carbohydrates, especially if you’re active! However, after eating, a substantial blood glucose response indicates you’ve overfilled your glucose fuel tank and consumed more carbohydrates than your body can handle.
Carbohydrates for Athletes
While you can fuel activity using energy from carbohydrates or fat, people who engage in intense activity will likely see an increase in performance from consuming more carbs before, during and after their workout.
If your glucose levels are low before exercising, you may benefit from eating some fast-acting carbohydrates during your workout to keep your blood sugars from dropping.
If you find your glucose is consistently low during or after your workouts, consuming a solid meal one to three hours before your workout can also be helpful. This gives your body enough time to process and store energy from the food before you start working out. It also ensures you avoid indigestion, rebound hypoglycaemia, low blood sugars, and low energy levels from eating too close to your workout.
For more details on finding your ideal carbohydrate intake, see Carbohydrates – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR).
Examples of High-Carbohydrate Whole Foods
Some examples of high-carbohydrate whole foods are listed in the table below.
|food||% protein||% fat||% carb|
Fat is our slowest-burning fuel source. Your body loves to use it during lower-intensity, day-to-day activities and to rest.
At nine calories per gram, fat is also the most energy-dense macronutrient. Meanwhile, protein and carbs only contain approximately four calories per gram. So, reducing calories significantly is easy by trimming some excess fat from your diet.
Because so much energy fits inside one gram of fat, our body can store impressive amounts of fat on your body that amount to over 40,000 to 500,000 calories!
Fat and Nutrient Density
Like carbohydrates, lower-fat foods and meals have higher nutrient densities than their high-fat counterparts. However, low fat is not always better either. Fat typically comes packaged with higher-protein foods. Hence, lowering your fat intake below around 40% of calories isn’t particularly beneficial if your goal is optimised nutrient density, satiety, and weight loss.
Fat and Satiety
The highest-fat foods are refined fats and oils like ghee, butter, olive oil, avocado oil, and other oil isolates. While these foods contain the most significant amount of energy, they do not supply many amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. minerals.
From our work on satiety, we know that eating more micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids coincides with a decreased calorie intake. Hence, ‘eating fat to satiety’ might not be the best option if weight loss is your goal—especially because fat is so energy-dense!
Fat and Weight Loss
Is Fat Better or Worse Than Carbohydrate?
Interestingly we elicit a similar satiety response when we reduce the percentage of fat and (or) carbohydrates in our diet. So, reducing dietary fat or carbohydrates (or both) in your diet will work if you want to lose body fat.
Fat, Blood Sugar Management, and Diabetes
Our work on the food insulin index shows that fat impacts blood glucose and insulin the least over the short term, with carbohydrates influencing them the most. While it makes sense to use fat as your energy source if you are insulin resistant, you don’t want to overconsume fat to the point that you gain weight.
With all that said, you still need some energy! Once you have adequate protein and reduce your carbohydrate intake to the point that your blood sugars stabilise, you can fill in the remaining calories you need to reach your goals with fat.
Fat for Athletes
Fat can also be an excellent fuel source for athletes, especially those participating in an activity that is longer in duration and lower in intensity. Interestingly, athletes who use more fat for fuel tend to have more stable blood sugars and are less reliant on using carbohydrates to top up during the event. With some trial and error, you can find the balance of fuel that aligns with your activity and preferences.
If you need to increase your fat intake to fuel your activity, we’ve included a list of some popular high-fat foods below. Reducing these high-fat foods will also be helpful if you want to allow your body to use your excess body fat.
|Food||% Protein||% Fat||% Carb|
|MCT oil powder||0%||94%||6%|
|half and half||10%||75%||15%|
For more details on finding your ideal fat intake, see Fat – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR).
Fibre isn’t a macronutrient of its own because it doesn’t supply a significant amount of energy that’s usable to the human body. However, it is a type of carbohydrate.
While humans don’t produce the enzymes needed to break fibre down, it does feed your beneficial gut bacteria.
Additionally, fibre provides bulk to your food, making it more satiating in the short term.
Fibre and Nutrient Density
While fibre is generally considered beneficial, it is not an essential nutrient. Nutrients like manganese, copper, iron, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, and magnesium also tend to come packaged with foods and meals that contain more fibre.
Fibre and Weight Loss
The chart below shows the average satiety response to all of the macronutrients alongside one another on one chart. We can see that fibre (brown line) has a modest impact on satiety but much less than protein.
Rather than prioritising fibre, our analysis suggests that it is better to focus on protein and simply ensure that the carbohydrates you consume are less refined and more fibrous.
Examples of High-Fibre Foods
Listed below are some examples of popular high-fibre foods. Note that several of these are also prebiotics, probiotics or both!
|food||% protein||% fat||% net carbs||% fibre|
While not part of the three main macronutrients, at seven calories per gram, alcohol can contribute a significant amount of energy to our diet. Alcohol is essentially high-octane rocket fuel for your system.
Because your body has no room to store it, it must use it before any other macronutrient. As a result, any carbs, protein, or fat you ate around the time you drank are put ‘on hold’ by your metabolism to burn the alcohol off first.
Hence, there is a higher propensity for weight gain with alcohol use. Additionally, you tend to lose your judgement about what foods you’re eating!
For more information on this, check out Oxidative Priority: The Key to Unlocking Your Fat Stores.
Alcohol and Nutrient Density
Aside from the sprig of herbs that might accompany your cocktail, alcohol is effectively ‘empty calories’ because it provides negligible amounts of protein or essential nutrients.
Alcohol and Weight Loss
Alcohol can be easy to consume, meaning calories from alcohol can add up quickly. At 7 calories per gram, they can add up quickly. If you’re tracking your macros, you must include your alcoholic beverages.
Additionally, alcohol tends to impair judgement, which might make it sound like a good idea to overconsume calorie-dense, nutrient-poor processed foods.
Alcohol and Blood Sugars
Interestingly, pure alcohol suppresses blood glucose over the short term. This is because your body keeps blood glucose in storage while your body uses up the alcohol in your blood.
Macronutrients are called ‘macro’ (large) because they provide the most substantial amounts of energy. In contrast, ‘micro’ (small) nutrients are the smaller components within your food that fuel bodily processes like repair, inflammation, detoxification, and energy production in your mitochondria.
Essential amino acids are those your body can’t make, so you must get them from your diet. They include:
The following amino acids are conditionally essential, meaning your body makes them from essential amino acids unless certain illnesses and conditions are present. Conditionally essential amino acids include:
Finally, we have non-essential amino acids, meaning that your body can make them from essential amino acids. These include:
- Aspartic acid
- Glutamic acid
While many trace minerals are beneficial, we require adequate quantities of ten essential minerals to sustain life.
Aside from merely surviving, our analysis has shown that we crave certain minerals and are driven to eat more of them until we get enough to support our bodies’ demands. Thus, it’s vital to get enough of each mineral while staying within your daily energy budget.
The essential minerals are listed below. You can click on each link to read more about them and what foods and meals contain more of them.
Like the other micronutrients, various vitamins seem to play a role in our appetite. We’ve included a list of the essential vitamins below.
- Vitamin A
- Thiamine (B1)
- Riboflavin (B2)
- Niacin (B3)
- Pantothenic acid (B5)
- Vitamin B6
- Folate (B9)
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K1
We also require a little bit of essential fatty acids from our diet each day.
Fats are a blanket term to describe the different types of fats. These include—but are not limited to—saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. Various fatty acids make up each, including omega-3s, omega-6s, omega-9s, and other structurally variable fatty acids.
showed are critical for satiety.
What Are Examples of Macros in Food?
Most packaged foods come with a nutrition label showing their macro content. As you can see below, we can see this food’s calorie content along with how much fat, carbs, fibre, and protein are in each relative serving size. You can use apps like Cronometer to find whole foods’ nutrient contents.
What Is a Healthy Macro Ratio?
Unfortunately, there is no universal target that will have you shedding pounds! Determining the best macronutrient range for you might take some trial and error.
But generally speaking, macros with less enegy from fat and carbs and a higher percentage of protein are healthier. This allows someone to get more of the essential micronutrients they require and feel satiated on less energy so they can use their body fat for fuel.
What Should My Macros Be for Weight Loss?
To safely lose weight, the first step is to ensure you’re getting adequate protein. After that, you can start to dial back the energy in your diet from fat and carbs to drive an energy deficit.
Once you begin losing weight at a sustainable rate of 0.5-1.0% of weight per week, we recommend holding at this macronutrient ratio. This minimum effective dose, or the minimum amount of restriction required to still see progress, is a sustainable rate from which you’re less likely to experience any ill effects. Losing too much weight too fast can signal to your body that food is scarce, triggering a binge response and weight regain. For more on this, see How Much Weight Should I Lose Per Week?
Rather than starting with an aggressive energy deficit, we always find it’s ideal to track your current diet for a week to understand how you normally eat to maintain your weight. You can then progressively tweak from there to achieve sustainable progress.
If this is too overwhelming and you feel like you would benefit from some guidance, you may enjoy our four-week Macros Masterclass. Here, we walk our Optimisers through slowly scaling up their protein and fibre while scaling back on their fat and carbs to determine the macro ratio that works best for them and their goals.
How Do You Track Your Macros?
You can use many apps to track your macros, like MyFitnessPal, Lose It, and Carb Manager. However, our favourite is Cronometer because it allows you to track your calories, macronutrients and all the essential micronutrients.
For more details on how we use Cronometer in our Macros Masterclass, see Cronometer: How To Optimise Your Macronutrients [Macros Masterclass FAQ #3].
How Do You Count Your Macros?
Macro calculators use theoretical formulas to estimate your current energy requirements based on weight, height, body fat and activity levels. If you want to estimate your target macros quickly, you can use our free macro calculator here. However, all of these macro calculators—including ours—will be inaccurate as they are rough approximations based on formulas.
If your calculated energy target is too high, you won’t make any progress and may even gain weight. If your macro target is too aggressive, you won’t be able to stick with it for long without becoming excessively hungry, ‘falling off the wagon’, and ending up in a guilt-ridden rebound binge.
Before you start moving towards a higher protein percentage of your total calories from protein, it’s critical to determine where you’re starting from. To do so, you can download free apps like MyFitnessPal or Cronometer and begin logging your regular diet for a week or more.
How Do I Figure Out My Macros?
The best way to understand your macro requirements is to track your weekly food intake and slightly adjust it for the coming week to align with your goals. Many people lose weight initially just by simply tracking their food. Tracking makes them more conscious of what they are eating.
We find most people are already reasonably close to their ideal macro intake; they need to make minor tweaks to progress toward their goals, as we explained above. The key is to make incremental but progressive adjustments to ensure you continue moving towards your goals at a sustainable rate. In our Macros Masterclass, Optimisers use the Smart Macros algorithm in Nutrient Optimiser to update their macro targets weekly.
To learn more about how we manage this in our Macro Masterclass, see Macronutrients [Macros Masterclass FAQ #2].
What Do I Eat to Hit My Macros?
We’ve put a lot of work into identifying optimal foods and meals for different goals. To learn more, see:
- The Most Nutrient-Dense Foods – Tailored to Your Goals and Preferences
- Low-Energy-Density Foods and Recipes
- Nutrient-Dense Meals and Recipes
Aside from knowing what to eat, we’ve also done considerable data-driven research into how much of each macronutrient to eat. If you’re interested in determining how much fat, protein, carbs, and fibre are suitable for your goals, you might check out our Macros Masterclass.