What matters more for losing weight: calories or macronutrients?
While cutting calories helps ensure rapid weight loss, dialing in your macronutrients can reduce your appetite, speed your metabolism, enhance your health, and help prevent disease.
Ultimately, the best diets combine both approaches to ensure long-term success.
In this article, you’ll learn the role of each macronutrient, how they affect weight loss, the best ways to count macros, and 5 macro ratios for losing fat fast.
Macronutrients (or macros for short) are the major components of food that provide your body with energy. They also act as building blocks for all the tissues in your body.
On the other hand, calories are units that describe the amount of energy supplied by the foods you eat.
Some people believe that the number of calories you eat is all that matters for losing weight.
And indeed, creating a calorie deficit–consuming fewer calories each day than your combined metabolic rate and activity level–does lead to weight loss.
However, losing weight isn’t the same as losing unwanted fat.
But before we learn which macro ratios work best for fat loss, let’s take a closer look at each macronutrient by itself.
One gram of protein has 4 calories. Common sources of protein include meat, fish, eggs, dairy, seeds, and nuts.
In your body, protein occurs in your bones, muscles, connective tissues, skin, and blood. Your body also uses protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals, as well as repair and rebuild tissues.
And when it comes to weight loss, a higher protein intake helps speed up your metabolism and increase satiety (feelings of fullness)[*].
A gram of fat has 9 calories. Some common sources are fatty meats, lard and other animal fats, high-fat dairy products, nuts, and oils such as olive oil and coconut oil.
Recently, research has shown that eating fat doesn’t make you fat. As a result, high-fat diets like the keto diet have become more popular for fat loss.
Like protein, each gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories.
The most common types of carbs are sugars, starches, and cellulose (plant fiber).
In your body, the primary role of carbohydrates is to provide energy. During digestion, your body breaks most carbs down into glucose, a simple sugar.
Conversely, fiber-rich foods such as veggies typically don’t raise your blood sugar or contribute to fat gain.
Alcohol consumption isn’t essential for health or survival, which is why lots of people don’t realize that alcohol is a macronutrient unto itself.
Ethanol, the type of alcohol people drink recreationally, has 7 calories per gram. In other words, a “standard drink” with 14 grams of alcohol contains 98 calories.
Here’s the thing about alcohol and fat loss: your body doesn’t typically store alcohol as fat, but drinking alcohol does temporarily reduce fat-burning (similar to eating simple carbs)[*].
And of course, plenty of mixed drinks and other beverages also contain carbohydrates.
The takeaway: alcohol in moderation is probably fine for your health, but it doesn’t do you any favors for weight loss.
For the majority of diets, tracking macronutrients is essential to ensure you’re on track.
There are essentially just two ways to count macros: an old school food diary, or a tracking app (or website).
To keep a food diary, you simply write down each food you eat, plus the amount you ate, and count up the corresponding macros on the nutritional label. In the case of foods without labels (such as whole foods), you can use a reference guide or website to look up the correct macros.
Most of the time, you’ll be recording the percentage of calories coming from protein, fats, and carbs –in other words, your macronutrient ratio, not just the amount of each.
Tracking apps are more modern, and they’re also more popular because they’re much easier to use than a food diary.
All you have to do is enter what you ate (or even scan a barcode) and your app of choice does all the math.
Here are some of the most popular tracker apps and sites:
- IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros)
Also, with both methods, having a food scale to gauge your intake of whole foods helps.
However, if you don’t own a food scale, but you’re shopping at a grocery store, you can also weigh and record each item you purchase.
Finally, most of the time, you don’t need to track macros forever.
In most cases, after 2-3 weeks, you’ll be able to follow your new diet by habit. And you can always resume tracking if you change diets or hit a plateau.
#1: The Ketogenic Diet
Keto is a very-low-carb, high-fat diet.
Typical keto macros are:
- 20-25% of calories from protein
- 70-80% of calories from fats
- 5-10% of calories from net carbs (the amount of carbohydrates minus the grams of fiber in a food)
The keto diet promotes fat loss by dramatically restricting your carb intake. As a result, your body relies on fat for fuel.
To determine your ideal keto macronutrient ratio, try the Keto Macro Calculator.
Want to learn more about keto? Check out Keto Diet for Beginners: A Complete Guide to the Ketogenic Diet.
#2: Targeted Keto and Cyclical Keto
The targeted and cyclical keto diets are specialized versions of the keto diet that allow more carbs at specific times.
In both cases, you follow standard keto macros most of the time.
The targeted ketogenic diet (TKD) introduces carbs prior to intensive physical activity such as sprints, metabolic conditioning, or weight training.
The benefits of TKD come from the fact that it allows athletes to perform at a higher level, but still deplete glycogen and attain ketosis through exercise.
And the cyclical ketogenic diet (CKD) has users follow standard keto macros most days, with a few high-carb loading days (typically around 15-20% protein, 70% carbs, and 5-10% fats) each week.
Benefits of CKD may include better exercise performance, higher insulin levels that help build muscle, and possibly faster recovery compared to standard keto.
But unless you’re a very physically active person, the chances are high that the standard keto diet is a better fit, especially if you want to lose fat.
#3: Low-Carb and The Atkins Diet
Not all low-carb diets are keto.
Here’s an easy way to remember the difference: if your body isn’t in a state of ketosis (producing ketones), your diet isn’t ketogenic.
You’re unlikely to achieve ketosis unless you limit carbs to at most 30-50 grams per day–and even then, testing your ketone levels is the only way to know for sure.
Nonetheless, some people still get fantastic weight loss results by following non-keto, low-carb diets like the Atkins diet.
Most dietitians agree that if a diet has less than 100 grams of carbs per day, it’s low-carb. Some set the bar even higher, at 150-200 grams per day.
Typical low-carb macros are as follows:
- 20-35% protein
- 15-30% carbs
- 35-70% fat
To learn more about the differences between Atkins and the keto diet, read Keto vs. Atkins: What Are the Differences and Which One Is Better?
#4: The Paleo Diet
The Paleolithic diet, or paleo for short, is a whole-foods-only diet.
People on paleo eat foods like meat, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and healthy fats. They avoid processed foods, grain, sugar, and usually dairy.
For the most part, paleo dieters don’t tend to count macros. Instead, their results depend on eating from the limited menu of allowed foods.
Not only that, there’s no official macro ratio for the paleo diet. Depending on the individual, carb and protein intake could be low, moderate, or high.
But as you might imagine, limiting your food selection to whole foods does reduce simple carbs and excess calories. As a result, paleo works reasonably well for weight loss and lowering blood sugar[*][*].
Want help deciding between paleo and keto? Check out Keto vs. Paleo: Is Ketosis Better Than Paleo?
#5: The Zone Diet
The Zone Diet is popular among Crossfitters and athletes.
People who follow the Zone Diet eat these macros:
- 30% protein
- 30% fat
- 40% carbs
Additionally, the only carbs allowed are low glycemic index (GI) carbs.
Because sugars, grains, starches, and processed foods are absent, plenty of people find that the Zone Diet offers a practical compromise between low-carb diets and other, less-restrictive meal plans.
Bonus: IIFYM or Flexible Dieting
IIFYM stands for “If It Fits Your Macros.” Another name for IIFYM is flexible dieting.
This approach to eating doesn’t involve a specific macronutrient ratio. Instead, it’s a philosophy you can apply to any diet.
In a nutshell, IIFYM says that there are no “bad” foods and that any food is acceptable–as long as it fits the macronutrient ratios you’re following.
Is IIFYM valid?
On the one hand, flexible dieting can help preserve your sanity during busy times, mandatory business meals out, or traveling.
But if you take it too far, you’ll end up eating garbage foods that are bad for your body and the planet.
To learn more about why “flexible dieting” isn’t a good idea all the time on keto, take a look at Dirty Keto: What Is It and Is It Good For You?
If your current goal is to lose weight, it’s smart to focus on both calories and macros for optimal results.
Cutting calories drives weight loss, while fine-tuning your macros helps ensure you lose fat rather than muscle.
And as you may have noticed from this article, most successful weight loss diets have one thing in common: they limit carbohydrates in some way.
Reducing carbs enhances fat-burning and also helps prevent disease by raising insulin sensitivity.
And along with reducing carb intake, another critical aspect of a healthy diet is eating mainly whole foods rather than processed foods.
Even if processed foods fit your preferred macronutrient ratio, they are typically far less healthy and nutritious than whole foods.
In the end, the most effective diet is the one that works for you–and that you stick with long-term.
But regardless of which diet you choose, counting macros to ensure you’re on the right track is wise, particularly as you begin your weight loss journey.