Losing weight isn’t easy, but it is simple. Anyone looking to lose weight needs to ensure they’re in a caloric deficit — or, put simply, burning more calories than they take in each day. That is the only foolproof way to drop the number on the scale.
The truth, though, is that not every calorie is created equal, and where you get your calories from will determine your success. Calories from the three macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fats — will create different body reactions. So after figuring out your calorie mark, you need to figure out how to divvy them up.
So what’s the best split? In this piece, we’ll give you a guide on how to distribute your calories from each macronutrient and how each one works in the body.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Consult with your doctor before undergoing a change in diet.
Why Macronutrients Matter
A caloric deficit is the only path to weight loss. One study noted that low-fat and low-carb diets resulted in the same amount of weight loss — meaning you could try Keto or Paleo and achieve the same results. (1) Diets that cut out an entire food group, like Keto or low-fat diets, work mainly because they reduce calories, not because those particular macronutrients cause weight gain.
Macronutrients add an extra layer of complexity to calorie-counting, but if you’re concerned with building muscle and burning fat, then macros matter. That’s because calories from different sources will react differently in the body. For example, an average slice of cheese pizza is about 300 calories. You can make yourself a sandwich with turkey, mustard, lettuce, and tomato for roughly the same amount of calories.
What’s the difference? The sandwich is packed with lean protein, healthy carbs (assuming you chose whole-wheat bread), and very little fat. On the other hand, the pizza is chock full of refined grains, simple sugars, and lots of fats.
The refined grains and simple sugars in the pizza will raise your blood sugar, meaning you’ll get hungrier quicker than if you chose the sandwich. The crust and the cheese combo is also a textbook example of what you don’t want to do while trying to lose weight: combining carbs and fats.
This is because our brains are actually hard-wired to “pay” for high-fat, high-carb foods than foods high in just one or the other, according to a 2018 study in the journal Cell Metabolism. By “pay,” we mean you’re more willing to excuse the calories in that slice in pizza than bread or cheese alone because the combination of the two is more addicting. (2)
Though it may not be as tasty, the protein in the sandwich will keep you full and help maintain lean muscle mass. And the lettuce and tomato, both of which contain minimal calories, have vitamins and micronutrients.
This is why it’s important not to get hooked in when a snack pack touts it’s “only 100 calories.” Sure, it’s not going to break your calorie bank, but you can do many more favors for yourself by choosing something like chicken breast or a small serving of cottage cheese.
How Protein Helps You Lose Weight
Protein is often discussed when it comes to gaining muscle, but it’s equally vital for those looking to lose weight. Protein has been shown to increase satiety, or the feeling of being full, more than carbs or fats. Naturally, this leads to people eating less food and fewer calories, making a caloric deficit more achievable.
Protein also helps increase thermogenesis in the body —meaning it takes more calories to digest protein than any other macronutrient. So you’re burning more calories without having to actively do anything. (3)
Lastly, protein helps the body maintain lean muscle mass, which burns calories faster than fat.
Just as not all calories are created equal, the protein from turkey is a little different from the type you get from your protein shake. Furthermore, researchers in recent years have begun sounding the alarm of the health effects of animal proteins, which has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease (due to most animal products having higher saturated fat and cholesterol) and decreased bone health (from bone resorption due to sulfur-containing amino acids associated with animal protein). (4)
However, animal proteins are called “complete proteins,” or a protein with all essential amino acids, or EAAs. Amino acids are the strands that make up protein molecules and protein without all nine EAAs as effective as complete proteins. Soy is the only “complete protein” suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Other protein sources need to be paired with complementary amino acids. Beans, for example, lack the EAA methionine, which is present in rice and other grains. So both need to be eaten together to get the full benefit of protein.
You can also supplement with BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, though you don’t want to rely on these supplements to get your full EAA allotment.
However, whey and casein protein remain the king of proteins and are the two most common types found in protein supplements. Research suggests a combination of whey and casein is optimal. Still, whey should be consumed more often because it has a greater impact on protein synthesis (the body’s ability to absorb and use protein).
Best Protein Sources
Here are some protein sources recommended by the Cleveland Clinic:
- Split Peas
- Low-fat Meats (such as boneless, skinless chicken breast)
- Greek Yogurt
- Low-fat cottage cheese
- Canned Tuna
- Egg Whites
Carbs Don’t Make You Fat
Many popular diets demonize carbohydrates — Keto being the most popular example. Yet, carbs are essential for performance in and out of the gym as it’s the body’s preferred source of energy. The carbs are converted into sugar and used for everything from lifting weights to carrying your bags home from the grocery store.
So why are carbs labeled as evil for anyone looking to shed some pounds? This boils down that most carbs people eat in the United States are simple carbohydrates — sugar, white bread, corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrate. These things are present in sodas, pastries, most snack foods, and breakfast cereals.
These simple carbs are digested by the body more quickly than complex carbohydrates — such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. The more quickly you use that energy, the sooner you’ll need more energy. On the other hand, complex carbs provide more sustained energy — meaning you’ll be more energized for longer.
Think of your body as a car and carbs as gas. Simple carbs are like cheap gas that will make your car go fast for an hour, but then you’re suddenly on E and in need of a pit stop. Complex carbs are diesel — you can pass through more exits on the highway and keep cruising without as many stops at the pump.
Complex carbs also help control blood sugar levels, preventing hunger pangs and preventing conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
This isn’t just important for your weight loss journey but your long-term health as well. A 2020 study found that low-carb and low-fat diets didn’t increase people’s life span — the choice to eat healthy carbs and healthy fats did, though. (5)
Best Carb Sources
Here are some of the best sources of carbohydrates, as suggested by the Mayo Clinic:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Whole-wheat bread, pasta, or crackers
Use Fat to Burn Fat
Fats have been just as demonized as carbohydrates, and with some good reason. Every gram of protein and carbs comes with four calories, but a gram of fat is packed with nine calories. So yes, fat is a little more fattening.
That doesn’t mean you need to cut it out of your life altogether. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning for them to be absorbed in the body, there needs to be some fat. Fat is also necessary for some hormonal functions. Low-fat diets have been linked to lower testosterone counts in men — and testosterone is vital to muscle growth and other activities conducted outside of the gym. (6)
Some studies have indicated that low-carb diets are more beneficial for weight loss than low-fat, but that might be related to America’s tendency to rely on simple sugar carbs than complex carbs. (7)
At the same time, a two-year-long study found that fat content was the main difference between successful and unsuccessful weight loss macronutrient splits. (8)
Best Fats Sources
Here are some examples of good fats, provided by the American Heart Association:
- Canola Oil
- Sesame Oil
- Sunflower Oil
- Albacore tuna
- Lake trout
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
Drink Plenty of Water
Water isn’t a macronutrient, and it has zero calories, yet it’s still worth mentioning in a weight-loss piece.
A 2018 study found that people who drank about eight fluid ounces of water before a meal ended up eating less food because they already felt a little full. Additionally, cold water has been found to increase energy expenditure (or the number of calories you burn throughout the day) (9) (10)
Aim for three liters of water per day. This number might also increase depending on your workouts’ severity (a long-distance runner, for example, will need more water than someone who does yoga for 20 minutes).
So What’s the Best Macro Split?
Let’s go back to the beginning: weight loss comes when you burn more calories than you need. To do that, you first have to figure out how many calories you need to maintain your weight. To that number, you’ll subtract 100-300 extra calories every day — eating any less might lead to you dropping weight in an unsustainable manner, which might lead to you regaining the weight you worked so hard to lose. (11)
As we’ve discussed, these calories can be split up in any way you want, and most of it will come down to personal preferences. A general guide Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicines is a good starting point. They recommend 45-65 percent of your calories come from carbs, 10-35 percent from protein, and 20-35 percent from fat. (12)
Again, feel free to play around with these numbers. You can also refer to our calculator to find a good starting point based on your goal (which, because you’re reading this article, we’re guessing is weight loss.)
More on Macronutrients
So you’ve got your macronutrient split down pat, and now you’re ready to go on your way, right? Not quite. Counting calories is more of a science than an art in the sense that you need precise calculations and measurements — winging it and shooting from the hip won’t cut it here.
The nutrition facts on any label are based on a very specific amount of food, measured via a scale and not by volume. Take peanut butter, for example. Eyeball one two-tablespoon (32-gram) serving into one bowl. Then, weigh out 32 grams of it onto your scale. See a difference? The unweighed serving is probably bigger and therefore packed with more calories and fats than you need. As you consistently weigh out food, you’ll eventually be able to eyeball portions over time. However, start out by weighing everything you eat.
To this end, you’ll want to invest in a food scale and an app such as MyFitnessPal. The scale will ensure you’re eating just enough food and not go over your daily allowance. This will be tracked in the fitness app of your choice.
You’ll also want to buy a body weight scale. You need to know which way your weight is trending. (You can also take full-body pictures and measure your waist and muscles as another way to track progress. Which way your weight is trending — and how quickly — will help you decide how many calories to either add or subtract weekly.
Additionally, you’ll want to keep track of how many calories you burn during the day, especially if you do something like hike a 3,000-foot mountain. That kind of strenuous activity is going to require a lot of calories you’ll have to replace. If you’re serious about tracking your caloric burn, it might be worth it to invest in something like a FitBit, though it should be noted there are questions on how accurate those are in tracking calories. (13)
More Macronutrient Tips
Macronutrients rule just about everything that happens with your physique. Here’s some more information on macros from BarBend.
- Best Macros Calculator For Tracking Muscle Gain And Fat Loss
- Macronutrients Vs. Micronutrients: Which Matters Most?
- 6 Tips To Make Counting Your Macros Way Easier
- Gardner CD, Trepanowski JF, Del Gobbo LC, et al. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2018;319(7):667–679. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.0245
- DiFeliceantonio AG, Coppin G, Rigoux L, Edwin Thanarajah S, Dagher A, Tittgemeyer M, Small DM. Supra-Additive Effects of Combining Fat and Carbohydrate on Food Reward. Cell Metab. 2018 Jul 3;28(1):33-44.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2018.05.018. Epub 2018 Jun 14. PMID: 29909968.
- Douglas Paddon-Jones, Eric Westman, Richard D Mattes, Robert R Wolfe, Arne Astrup, Margriet Westerterp-Plantenga, Protein, weight management, and satiety, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 87, Issue 5, May 2008, Pages 1558S–1561S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558S
- Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein – Which is Best?. J Sports Sci Med. 2004;3(3):118-130. Published 2004 Sep 1.
- Shan Z, Guo Y, Hu FB, Liu L, Qi Q. Association of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets With Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2020;180(4):513–523. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.6980
- Fantus, R. J., Halpern, J. A., Chang, C., Keeter, M. K., Bennett, N. E., Helfand, B., & Brannigan, R. E. (2020). The Association between Popular Diets and Serum Testosterone among Men in the United States. The Journal of urology, 203(2), 398-404. https://doi.org/10.1097/JU.0000000000000482
- San-Cristobal, R., Navas-Carretero, S., Martínez-González, M. et al. Contribution of macronutrients to obesity: implications for precision nutrition. Nat Rev Endocrinol 16, 305–320 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41574-020-0346-8
- Sacks FM, Bray GA, Carey VJ, et al. Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. N Engl J Med. 2009;360(9):859-873. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa0804748
- Jeong JN. Effect of Pre-meal Water Consumption on Energy Intake and Satiety in Non-obese Young Adults. Clin Nutr Res. 2018;7(4):291-296. doi:10.7762/cnr.2018.7.4.291
- Girona M, Grasser EK, Dulloo AG, Montani JP. Cardiovascular and metabolic responses to tap water ingestion in young humans: does the water temperature matter? Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2014 Jun;211(2):358-70. doi: 10.1111/apha.12290. Epub 2014 Apr 15. PMID: 24684853.
- Hall KD, Kahan S. Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. Med Clin North Am. 2018;102(1):183-197. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012
- Manore MM. Exercise and the Institute of Medicine recommendations for nutrition. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2005 Aug;4(4):193-8. doi: 10.1097/01.csmr.0000306206.72186.00. PMID: 16004827.
- Feehan LM, Geldman J, Sayre EC, Park C, Ezzat AM, Yoo JY, Hamilton CB, Li LC; Accuracy of Fitbit Devices: Systematic Review and Narrative Syntheses of Quantitative Data; JMIR Mhealth Uhealth 2018;6(8):e10527; doi: 10.2196/10527
Featured image: Alexander Lukatskiy/Shutterstock