Is macro dieting a good strategy for healthy eating?

Man eating apple while looking at phone


With the myriad of diets and eating plans on the market today, it's not surprising many of us are confused about what's best for our bodies. These days, we can find paleo, omnivore, vegan, gluten-free and everything in between online, so how is a person supposed to know what's truly healthy?

There's a good amount of internet buzz around the terms macro dieting and flex dieting these days. What is it anyway? Is it healthy? Is it the right fit for everyone? 

What is macro dieting?

Macro dieting and flexible dieting mean essentially the same thing. The term macro in this diet, short for macronutrients, focuses on the percentage of carbohydrates, fat and protein consumed in a day. How much you are allowed per day (or per meal) depends on your body composition, age and health goals. Meeting with a sports-certified dietitian for macro dieting is the best way to narrow down a daily plan.

Some people use macro dieting to lose weight, gain muscle mass or adjust nutrients based on their personal health goals. Instead of counting calories, there are two significant steps to macro dieting:

  • Calculating your macros: Calculations are used to determine how many grams of protein, carbohydrates and fat you need each day to meet your health goals. See a macro calculator for an example of how this may look 
  • Tracking your macros: Once you know your macros, you need to stay within them each day and adjust as needed

Macro dieting advantages and disadvantages 

A macro diet may be flexible, but it is also cumbersome.
While the macro diet can pair with other diet plans or dietary preferences, it does mean a strict and detailed accounting of everything you eat. It requires that you measure or weigh food intake on paper, a spreadsheet or through an app like MyFitnessPal. You may have flexibility in what you eat, but if you eat that doughnut for breakfast, your whole day must be adjusted to accommodate it.

Can't I eat whatever I want? Yes and no.
Macro dieting fans claim that all foods can be enjoyed as long as they fit into your macros for the day. Trending social media posts with the hashtag #iifym, meaning "if it fits your macros," can be deceiving, however. "Yes, you can eat what you want on the macro diet, but if you splurge on higher macronutrient foods, you have to figure out how to fit them in your allowance for the day," says Jenna Roeding, Nebraska Medicine nutrition therapist. "This is where it gets more restrictive and not necessarily satisfying. Even if your body is telling you that you're hungry, you can't listen to what your body is telling you because your allotted amount of macros is gone. It can be an unhealthy cycle."

Use for short-term goals rather than a long-term lifestyle.
Macro dieting may be helpful short-term if followed to meet a specific fitness goal. "It can be helpful short term if you are bodybuilding or trying to build lean muscle for competition, but not as a sustainable life-long healthy pattern of eating," explains Roeding. "I recommend that if a person decides to try it, use it with caution because these kinds of diets are unsustainable as a lifestyle. It's not only unsustainable because our bodies aren't built for this kind of restrictive eating, but it also limits a wider variety of nutrients due to the complexity of figuring out what macronutrients are allowed. Many people find they end up eating the same things over and over because it's just easier." 

Consider the social and psychological aspects. 
How will this diet fit into your social lifestyle? How do you feel before and after that big event? Sometimes restrictive diets can take the fun out of eating altogether, especially in social settings. If we're not careful, we may end up feeling guilty, frustrated or overwhelmed. "The American social culture is so wrapped around food that strict diets can make it near impossible to stay on track," comments Roeding. "People can end up feeling anxiety around it, so I feel it's just not practical in the real world. We can get so laser-focused on counting numbers that we end up with obsessive behaviors surrounding food. We need to be mindful about our habits and the ‘why' behind our eating."

The real question is: What is your end game?

When deciding if something like macro dieting is right for you, it's best to look at your lifestyle and what you ultimately want out of a diet. Particular caution is recommended for those with preexisting conditions, prior history with eating disorders or a person with diabetes on insulin. "I feel that we just need to focus on eating healthy, real food," says Roeding. "Building life-long healthy habits should be our ultimate goal. My goal with patients is to help them lose weight sustainably, and this diet is not one I would recommend for long-term health."

"For the majority of us, it's about what is going to work with your lifestyle," adds Roeding. "What can we make work for you? I teach my patients how to build a meal on a plate, such as one-fourth protein, one-fourth carb and the rest filled with nonstarchy vegetables. All foods fit, but it's more about listening to your body and making healthy choices that are going to keep you full from meal to meal while still satisfying cravings.

Are you interested in losing weight?
Make an appointment with your primary care doctor or one of our nutrition therapists by calling 800.922.0000.