If you Google nutrition or weight loss, you’ll most likely come across macros or the macrobiotic diet—or both—in your search results. “Both the macro and macrobiotic diets have been around for a very long time,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, a New York City-based registered dietitian author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. “Although they sound similar, they are totally unrelated.” But what exactly are these diets? How do you follow them? And most importantly: Are they effective?
The macro diet: Tracking macros
The macro diet is directly related to the basics of nutritional science. “A macro diet refers to counting macronutrients,” says Harris-Pincus. “These include protein, carbohydrates, and fat.” Examples of lean proteins include tofu, salmon, and chicken breast. Carbohydrates are found in whole grains such as oats and whole-grain bread, vegetables, fruits, and more. Healthy fats include avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
In a nutshell, you track your macros by tracking the calories you get from each macronutrient. Protein and carbs each contain four calories per gram, and fat contains nine calories per gram. To follow the diet, you’ll want to establish how many of each macro you want to consume in a day based on your daily calorie intake goal.
“You are looking to achieve a certain calorie level with a calculated breakdown of these macros,” says Harris-Pincus, and the goals will vary depending on what you’re trying to do with your diet. For example, “Some people may want a higher protein intake, and some may want higher fat or lower carbs. It’s a way of flexible dieting that does not strongly consider the source of the food, just its macro distribution. So if you want a doughnut, as long as you fit it into your daily macros, that’s no problem.”
Indeed, you can eat anything on the macro diet, from a vegetarian rice bowl to avocado chocolate brownies. A typical ratio for the macro diet is 50 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 20 percent fat, notes Jacqueline Gomes, RDN, MBA, a New York City-based supermarket dietitian. However, individual macro ranges for a balanced diet can fall anywhere between 45 percent to 65 percent carbohydrates, 10 percent to 35 percent protein, and 20 percent to 35 percent fat, according to The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine guidelines.
To follow the macro diet, you’ll need to do some calculations to get started. “The first step is to calculate your energy needs based on your sex, height, weight, activity, and end goal—such as weight loss, weight maintenance, or muscle building,” explains Gomes. “Macronutrient calculators, which can easily be found online, can help you calculate the macro quantities in a tailored diet plan. If your goal is weight loss, a percentage of calories is deducted from the overall maintenance calorie level to create a caloric deficit.” Once you determine your ideal macronutrient breakdown, you can use a meal-planning app such as MyFitnessPal to track what you eat, as well as your daily macronutrient breakdown. (See why people count macros to lose weight.)
As for how hard your brain is going to work following this diet, Gomes says the diet itself is not complicated. “However, what may be complicated is building a balanced meal plan around macros with no nutrition background,” she says. (Take a look at healthy meal ideas you can make in 20 minutes.)
Pros and cons of the macro diet
“Counting macros can be effective for weight management and building muscle, as the method helps keep you close to your calorie and nutrient requirements,” says Gomes. Some research shows success with specific macronutrient breakdowns. For instance, in a 2018 study in Nutrients, researchers had older women eat a high-protein, reduced-carbohydrate diet with 30 percent of calories from fat, while also participating in a resistance-based exercise program. Compared to those following a high-carb diet, these women experienced more favorable body composition changes. “However, there is no one size fits all approach to weight management,” says Gomes.
To properly adhere to the diet, you may find it useful to measure your food, either through using measuring cups and spoons, or food scales—or both. Counting macros is meant to help a person meet his or her nutrition goals from eating a variety of foods he or she loves, says Gomes. “But there’s one caveat. You still have to be mindful about selecting the right foods for balanced nutrition, as it is possible to meet your macros by choosing less optimal food choices. Like any eating plan, a balanced diet on the macro diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.”
The macro diet has other potential downsides. These include possible food obsession and stress, says Gomes. “For some people, it can become overwhelming to track all foods consumed and have them fit into a very specific number of grams of macronutrients,” she says. “Eating at restaurants or a friend’s home may become challenging due to the inability to accurately estimate portion sizes.”
GrapeImages/Getty ImagesThe macrobiotic diet: Balance
Although similar-sounding, the macrobiotic diet is completely different from the macro diet. The first thing to note about it is that it has some pretty deep roots. “It’s a fad diet with roots in Zen Buddhism,” says Harris-Pincus. “The goal is to create a balance in health and life, based on the yin-yang philosophy.” Although the macrobiotic diet wasn’t designed for weight loss, Harris-Pincus notes that some people use it for that purpose.
How do you follow the macrobiotic diet? It’s a mostly plant-based diet, and it requires eating mostly whole grains, beans, and cooked vegetables—and making an effort to choose organic and locally grown foods, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information. More specifically, about half your calories will come from organic whole grains, another quarter or so from locally grown veggies, and 5% to 10% from beans and sea vegetables, notes Harris-Pincus. “Fresh seafood, local fruit, and nuts are OK several times per week, and you can have a little rice syrup on occasion.”
The list of what you can’t have is longer than what you can eat. It includes dairy, eggs, poultry, meat, tropical fruit, juice, refined sugar, spicy foods, processed foods, coffee, and even certain veggies such as asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and spinach, says Harris-Pincus. Examples of recipes you can eat include plain healthy roasted chickpeas and an oatmeal bowl. “In general, this diet is lower in fat and sugar,” adds Amanda Blechman, RD, senior manager of scientific affairs at Danone North America at New York City.
The macrobiotic diet focuses on lifestyle habits, too. “In addition to food choices, following a macrobiotic diet often includes a component of mindfulness, such as thoroughly chewing each bite,” says Blechman.
Pros and cons of the macrobiotic diet
A 2015 study in Nutrition and Cancer shows that following a strict macrobiotic diet may lead to greater anti-inflammatory benefits than the typical American diet. “Although this diet eliminates many animal products, it allows for limited intake of other nutritious foods like fish, fruit, and nuts,” says Blechman. “This makes balanced nutrition possible with careful planning.” The macrobiotic diet also tends to be low in calories while providing a high amount of nutrients. This could help with weight-loss efforts.
If you’re planning to follow the macrobiotic diet, you should focus on making sure to include nutrient-rich foods. Since the diet lacks dairy, incorporating other sources of calcium, such as calcium-fortified soymilk, is important, says Blechman. “Adequate protein intake is also possible with careful planning,” she says. “Fish and soy are two high-quality protein sources allowed within a macrobiotic eating plan.”
As with the macro diet, the macrobiotic diet isn’t without downsides. “There is not conclusive scientific evidence to support the long-term weight loss benefits of following a macrobiotic diet,” says Blechman. “While the macrobiotic diet does encourage consumption of many nutritious foods, it also eliminates entire food groups. This may result in inadequate nutrient intake if your diet is not carefully planned. Restrictive diets can also be difficult for people to adhere to if favorite foods are suddenly cut out.” (Also, check out the worst diet advice nutritionists ever heard.)
Macro versus macrobiotic diet
“Both have drawbacks,” says Harris-Pincus. “Counting macros can be good for weight loss if you stick to the numbers and begin with a calorie total that will create a deficit for you. Ultimately, you need to consume fewer calories than you burn to lose weight. A macrobiotic diet may or may not help you lose weight, depending on what you choose to eat and how much.”
Neither diet is easy to follow. “Both diets are labor-intensive,” says Harris-Pincus. “If you don’t have a lot of time in your day to shop, cook, or count, neither one may be good for you. And neither are likely to create permanent lifestyle habits for most people.”
If you have to choose one, a macro diet may be more likely to get you the nutrients you need. “Counting macros is more likely to lead to a balanced diet because the whole point is balancing macronutrients,” says Harris-Pincus. If you aren’t a very type-A person, though, the degree to which you need to plan and track your diet may make your head spin. (Get healthy recipes for weight loss that aren’t salad.)
No matter what eating plan you choose—the macro diet, the macrobiotic diet, or just a general plant-based diet—meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist can help you make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to lead a healthy life and meet your goals. You can find one in your area at eatright.org.
Amy Gorin is a freelance writer, a plant-forward registered dietitian nutritionist, and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. Connect with her on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.