Have you made a commitment to start eating a healthier, more balanced diet? Giving your body a variety of nutrients can lead to a myriad of health improvements, such as increased energy, better sleep, and even improved mood. But making a new meal plan can be both exhilarating and daunting. Where do you start?
Many people begin by making sure that each meal or snack they consume contains the major nutrients that their bodies need. These macro-balanced meals help them to feel healthier, lose weight, or make muscle gains in the gym. Whatever your goals, you can achieve the best macro balance for you by learning some background information and using a few basic nutritional guidelines.
What Does "Macro" Mean?
Macro is short for macronutrients. Everything you eat is made up of macronutrients and micronutrients. Put very simply, macros are big and micros are small.
Macros are the big building blocks of your nutritional intake and they are where you get all your calories. All of your food contains macronutrients.
Micronutrients are the smaller (but still very important!) building blocks, also called vitamins and minerals. The foods you eat may or may not contain certain micronutrients.
Types of Macros in a Balanced Diet
The three main types of macros are carbohydrates, fats, and protein. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), says this is how our macros should be broken down:
- 45% to 65% of daily calories from carbohydrates
- 20% to 35% of daily calories from fat
- 10% to 35% of daily calories from protein
These percentages are given in a range because your body's requirements aren't rigid. Everyone has slightly different requirements based on their needs and goals. For example, while some people may be trying to lose weight, others may be trying to gain.
The primary job of carbohydrates is to provide energy to the body. Carbs, like the other macros are an essential part of your diet. Your body uses carbs differently based on their type: complex vs. simple.
- Simple carbs like those in candy, milk, and fruit have a different chemical structure than their complex buddies. Your body will take simple carbs, break them down quickly down into sugar and absorb them. This raises your blood sugar and energy levels lickety-split but then crashes them back down just as fast.
- Complex carbs like whole grains, oats, and starchy veggies digest more slowly, keeping your energy and blood sugar levels steady. Because they are slow to digest, they are also able to reach your large intestine, which keeps your gut healthy and has all sorts of health benefits.
There are different types of fat and some are more healthy than others.
- Saturated fats tend to stick to your arteries. A high intake of saturated fat can raise your cholesterol levels and increase your risk for heart disease. You'll find these fats in butter, cream, cheese, many kinds of meat, ice cream, and coconut oil.
- Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats) can lower your cholesterol and decrease your risk for heart disease. They are also great sources of vitamin E and other nutrients. You can find unsaturated fats in plant-based oils, avocados, peanut butter, and lots of nuts and seeds.
The primary function of protein is to provide your body with amino acids which are building blocks that give structure to tissues like skin, hair, nails, and muscle. Protein is commonly found in meat, dairy, and seafood. But you can also find protein in plant-based foods such as soy products, vegetables, fruits, and grains.
3 Ways to Build Balanced Macro Meals
There are different ways to approach meal prep when you've decided to plan macro-balanced meals. The best approach for you depends on your lifestyle, the amount of time you have for food preparation and shopping, and your budget. Consider these three options.
Use Macro-Based Recipes Online
You can dive in and try fun new recipes or food combinations, like those found on popular macro-balancing websites. You don't even have to visit a website that focusses on macros. Many recipe websites and health sites that offer recipes provide nutritional information. Sometimes you can even tweak the nutrition data based on the servings you plan to make. Simply choose the recipes that align with your macro needs.
If you come across a recipe that does not provide nutritional information, use apps or websites like Nutritionix. Simply copy and paste your recipe and the calculator provides instant data about macros and other nutrients.
Try Macro Meal Delivery Services
If you are short on time and your budget allows, another option is to use a meal delivery service, like Trifecta Nutrition, FreshNLean, or MacroPlate. These meal delivery services are designed for those who seek macro-balanced meals so they make the nutrition data available up front before you order. Some of these services even have full programs based on different macro balances.
Keep in mind, however, that these programs also tend to be slightly more expensive than many other meal delivery services. So do your homework before you sign up if budget is a concern.
Make Macro-Balanced Meals at Home
Lastly, you can you can tweak your usual meals to align with your macro goals. Evaluate the meals that you usually make and make adjustments to meet the macro balance that you choose or the recommended balance provided by the USDA.
To help make the process easier, the USDA offers a free program called MyPlate in which you can choose your calorie goal and they offer a sample plan for you to follow. While their macros are not broken down specifically, they have been careful to offer a macro-balanced variety. For example, in an 1800-calorie-per-day goal, you should include:
USDA Food Group Recommendations
1800 Calorie Daily Goal
1 1/2 cups of fruit
1 cup =
1 cup raw, frozen, or cooked/canned fruit
|5 ounces of protein|| |
1 ounce =
1 ounce seafood, lean meat, or poultry
|2 1/2 cups of vegetables|| |
1 cup =
1 cup raw or cooked/canned vegetables
|3 cups of dairy|| |
1 cup =
1 cup dairy milk or yogurt
|6 ounces of grains|| |
1 ounce =
1 slice bread
If you use the USDA meal plans, you can be sure that your macro balance will align with their nutrition guidelines and recommendations.
Balancing Macros for Weight Loss or Weight Gain
Using a balanced diet has long been used to reach weight goals. But the best macro balance for you might depend on whether you are looking to lose weight or gain weight.
Best Macro Balance for Weight Loss
Some studies have suggested that adjusting your macro balance (even beyond the USDA guidelines) may work better for weight loss. But if weight loss is your goal and you choose to increase your protein intake, you'll need to decrease your carbs and fats so that your total calorie intake stays in line.
The breakdown can look like this:
- 30% to 40% carbohydrates
- 20% to 30% fat
- 25% to 35% protein
You may also wonder about the best macro balance for fat loss. Some say it doesn't matter: as long as you are eating fewer calories than you use, you will lose fat. Others claim that you should decrease your fat intake to 15% of your total caloric intake. Very little research exists to prove either side right. To find the right balance for you, reduce your intake slowly and gradually to see if it helps. But remember, your body needs fat so don't eliminate it entirely.
Best Macro Balance for Weight Gain
If you are tracking your macros to pack on the muscle, your percentages may look a little different. The International Society of Sports Nutrition evaluates research on an ongoing basis to provide guidelines for athletes regarding protein and other macronutrients. The guidelines are given based on body weight rather than percent of daily calories.
Their most recent position stand suggested a daily protein intake of 1.4-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is sufficient for most people who want to build muscle mass. These recommendations are consistent with the percent-based guidelines provided by the USDA.
Should You Try Macro-Balanced Meals?
Balancing macros is a popular trend right now. You've probably seen fitness influencers post images and videos of their macro-balanced meals on TikTok and Instagram. But, here's the bottom line: this approach to eating takes a little extra time and you don't know how your body will respond to any diet. Some people have great success with a certain macro breakdown, while others will see no progress at all. Your body is unique, and it needs individualized attention.
There are certainly health benefits associated with consuming a balanced diet. Try comparing your current diet to the recommendations provided by the USDA for healthy eating. Then make adjustments over time to see what works best for you. Remember that the most important thing is your body's health and how you feel in your skin. Make your own goals and be persistent. You can do this!