Macronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in large amounts, namely carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. When it comes to weight loss, research shows that how much you eat may matter more than the amount of carbs, fat, and protein in your diet.
A recent trend in weight loss is counting macronutrients.
These are nutrients that your body requires in large amounts for normal growth and development — namely, carbs, fats and proteins.
On the other hand, micronutrients are nutrients that your body only needs in small amounts, such as vitamins and minerals.
Counting macronutrients is similar to counting calories but differs in that it considers where the calories come from.
This article reviews the best macronutrient ratio for weight loss and why diet quality matters.
When it comes to losing fat, how much you eat matters more than the amounts of carbs, fat and protein in your food.
In a one-year study, researchers randomized over 600 overweight people to a low-fat or low-carb diet (
During the first two months of the study, the low-fat diet group consumed 20 grams of fat per day, while the low-carb group consumed 20 grams of carbs per day.
After two months, people in both groups began adding either fats or carbs back into their diet until they reached the lowest level of intake they believed they could maintain.
While neither group had to consume a certain number of calories, both groups reduced their intake by an average of 500–600 calories a day.
At the end of the study, the low-fat diet group lost 11.7 pounds (5.3 kg) compared to the low-carb group, which lost 13.2 pounds (6 kg) — a mere difference of 1.5 pounds (0.7 kg) over the course of a year (
In another study 645 overweight people were randomly assigned to a diet that differed in proportions of fat (40% vs 20%), carbs (35% vs 65%) and protein (25% vs 15%) (
Regardless of the macronutrient ratio, all diets were equally successful in promoting similar amounts of weight loss over the course of two years (
These results and others point to the fact that any reduced-calorie diet can cause similar amounts of weight loss in the long term (
Research shows that you can lose fat regardless of your macronutrient ratio. Moreover, different macronutrient ratios do not significantly affect how much total fat you lose in the long run.
A calorie measures the amount of energy a particular food or beverage contains. Whether from carbs, fats or proteins, one dietary calorie contains approximately 4.2 joules of energy (
By this definition, all calories are created equal. However, this assumption fails to consider the complexities of human physiology.
Food and its macronutrient composition can influence how hungry or full you feel, your metabolic rate, brain activity and hormonal response (
So, while 100 calories of broccoli and 100 calories of doughnuts contain the same amount of energy, they affect your body and food choices much differently.
Three cups (270 grams) of raw broccoli have close to 100 calories and pack 7 grams of fiber. Conversely, just two doughnut holes provide a little over 100 calories, largely from refined carbs and fats (
Now imagine eating four cups of broccoli in one sitting. Not only would it take a lot of time and effort to chew, but its high fiber content would leave you feeling much fuller than eating two doughnut holes, in which case you will most likely want to eat more.
As a result, a calorie is not just a calorie. You should also focus on diet quality to increase dietary adherence and fat loss.
Calories supply your body with the same amount of energy. However, they differ in how they affect your health and ability to stay on track with your diet.
To lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit by eating fewer calories than you burn.
By doing so, you force your body to draw energy from its current stores (body fat) regardless of the carb, fat and protein makeup of your diet.
Once you create a calorie deficit, it’s important to account for the types of foods you’re eating as some are more diet-friendly and nutritious than others.
Here are some foods and macronutrients to focus on along with some to limit.
Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods
Foods that are nutrient-dense contain high levels of nutrients but are relatively low in calories.
Nutrient-dense foods pack fiber, lean protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds like phytochemicals.
These include foods like dairy, beans, legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean meats and fish.
Many of these foods are also rich in fiber and contain a high percentage of water. Water and fiber help increase feelings of fullness, which can help you eat fewer total calories throughout the day (
Consume High-Protein Foods
Protein promotes feelings of fullness, spares muscle loss and has the highest thermic effect, meaning it takes more calories to digest compared to carbs or fats (
Look for lean animal-based sources like meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy. You can also get your protein from plant-based sources like soy, beans, lentils, and whole grains.
Protein shakes or meal-replacement beverages are also a good option in between meals or in place of a meal to increase protein intake.
Limit Fat and High-Carb Foods
Just as some foods can benefit your weight loss goals, others can make them more difficult to achieve.
Foods that contain high amounts of fat and carbs, without much protein or fiber, can stimulate the reward center in your brain and increase your cravings, which can lead to overeating and weight gain (
Doughnuts, pizza, cookies, crackers, potato chips and other highly processed snacks contain this combination of fats and carbs.
Instead, combining carbs and fat with protein and fiber can help you feel full and may prevent overeating.
The foods you eat can impact your fat loss efforts. Consume foods that are nutrient-dense and high in protein but limit foods that contain a combination of carbs and fats, as this combo makes it easier to overeat.
While the macronutrient composition of your diet may not directly influence fat loss, it can affect your ability to adhere to a reduced-calorie diet.
This is important, as studies have shown that the single greatest predictor of weight loss is adherence to a reduced-calorie diet (
However, sticking with a diet is difficult for most people, and it’s the reason why so many diets fail.
To increase your chances of success on a reduced-calorie diet, individualize your macronutrient ratio based on your preferences and health (
For example, people with type 2 diabetes may find it easier to control their blood sugars on a low-carb rather than a high-carb diet (
Conversely, otherwise healthy people may find they’re less hungry on a high-fat, low-carb diet, and that it’s easier to follow compared to a low-fat, high-carb diet (
However, diets that emphasize a high intake of one macronutrient (like fats) and low intakes of another (like carbs) are not for everyone.
Instead, you may find that you can stick to a diet that has a balance of macronutrients, which can also be effective for weight loss (
The acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDR) set forth by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommend that people get (28):
- 45–65% of their calories from carbs
- 20–35% of their calories from fats
- 10–35% of their calories from proteins
In any case, choose the diet that best fits your lifestyle and preferences. This may take some trial and error.
Diets commonly fail because people can’t stick with them for long periods. Therefore, it’s important to follow a reduced-calorie diet that fits your preferences, lifestyle and goals.
Macronutrients refer to carbs, fats and protein — the three basic components of every diet.
Your macronutrient ratio doesn’t directly influence weight loss.
The acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDR) are 45–65% of your daily calories from carbs, 20–35% from fats and 10–35% from protein.
To lose weight, find a ratio you can stick with, focus on healthy foods and eat fewer calories than you burn.