“How much protein should I eat?”
“How many grams of carbs should I consume?”
“I know I shouldn’t try to avoid fat, but what percentage of my calories should come from fat?”
These are questions that get asked over and over again — both to me and to “the experts.” And depending on who is answering the question, the advice can range wildly. It’s no wonder that confusion quickly sets in and people get turned off with the whole thing.
Or, worse, people attach themselves to one ratio of these macronutrients as if that ratio applies to everyone at every time and is the holy grail of weight loss, fitness, and health.
I want to try and tackle this topic once and for all without bogging you down with a bunch of science. Instead, we’re going to come at it from the lifestyle angle and I hope to be able to lay out my argument in layman’s terms.
What the heck is a macronutrient ratio anyway?
We know that it’s not really calories that matter, it’s the context of calories that’s important. There are three macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Each gram of fat provides the body with 9 calories. Each gram of protein provides the body with 4 calories. And each gram of carbohydrates provides the body with 4 calories.
If you were designing a weight loss program and weren’t really sure what you were doing, it would be easy to assume that people should eat a bunch of carbohydrates and protein and skip the fat and they’d automatically reduce their caloric intake.
But that’s not how it works in the real world, mainly because a calorie is not a calorie and the human body is not a calculator.
To define macronutrient ratios simply, it’s the percentage of carbs, protein, and fat that you eat. For instance, a “high fat, low carb” approach might be 60% of calories from fat, 30% of calories from protein, and 10% of calories from carbs.
The mainstream approach is low fat, high carb: 60% of calories from carbs, 30% from protein, and 10% from fat.
These aren’t your only two options. In fact, the options are nearly unlimited.
So which ratio is better for weight loss?
Any human being who wants to be weight stable at a healthy weight with decent body composition needs to have three goals:
- Long term satiation after a meal.
- Proper intake of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
- Functional hormone regulation.
Long term satiation after a meal
Lack of satiation leads to overeating and overeating leads to weight gain. In this sense, macronutrients become important because fat and protein trigger satiation far longer than carbohydrates do.
Proper intake of micronutrients
If you’re not eating the amount of micronutrients your body needs, hunger will be triggered to send you on a search for those vital nutrients (eat more food! This leads to overeating). The best way to prevent this is to eat nutrient dense food sources.
Functional hormone regulation
The reason your body is not a calculator is because it is regulated by hormones. Those hormones are responsible for telling your body to store fat, release fat, trigger hunger, and so on. Certain macronutrients trigger a hormone response more than others and some don’t at all. For instance, carbohydrates and protein both trigger an insulin response when consumed where fat does not.
You don’t want to choose one ratio.
Where most people go wrong is choosing one ratio and sticking to it. This makes them feel like they’ve unlocked the key to the weight maintenance universe.
The truth is that different ratios work for different people and different ratios work for different people at different stages of their progress and depending on their goals.
As an example, a high fat low carb approach might work very well for an obese man with a busted metabolism and not work so well for a CrossFit athlete. And as that obese man loses weight and gets closer to his goal, a different ratio may work better for him at that point.
The goal is in understanding how your body relates to food. It’s a personal thing. In Total Body Reboot, we work specifically to figure this out so you get concrete answers on what ratio works for you. And then we show you how to tweak them as you continue your lifestyle transformation.
The most important truth about fat, protein, carbs and your ratio.
There are a lot of “diets” and “programs” designed on a foundation of playing with macronutrient ratios in order to trigger weight loss. This is highly effective short-term, but probably won’t be effective long term for a few reasons.
Atkins is a popular program that is most known for focusing on ratios. There are other classics as well, like the mainstream mantra of low fat dieting. Then there are diets that take a more “balanced” approach (like the FDA food pyramid or Weight Watchers — though the “balance” they advertise is highly questionable).
All of these programs will fail long term (or will require lots of work and willpower to maintain) because they choose NOT to focus on three key areas: food/source quality, micronutrient density, and toxicity.
This kind of goes along with the next two factors.
The quality of the food you eat ensures that you’re getting the most nutrients in each meal and the lowest level of toxicity. As an example, grass fed beef is higher in nutrients than grain fed beef and likewise is lower in toxins. Considering food and source quality goes a long way toward effortless lifestyle permanence.
Just as food and source quality is rarely talked about, very few programs care much about micronutrient density. As we discussed earlier, if you shun nutrient density, your body will not function optimally and you’ll live in a constant state of hunger. Either that, or you’ll develop preventable disease. Or both.
The only way to effortlessly maintain your new lifestyle is to consider the nutrient density of what you eat. Considering the source quality helps greatly with this as I already mentioned.
Toxic foods impair your ability to live an effortless lifestyle. They cause nagging issues, reduce immune function, disrupt your gut health, cause preventable disease, and render you generally unhealthy.
Here are some quick examples of how toxicity impacts our progress:
The low fat diets tell you to eat a bunch of whole grains which are pretty toxic to most people (negatively impact gut health/immune/etc.) and in most forms will exacerbate hormone dysregulation. Fail.
The Atkins diet tells you to eat according to a certain macronutrient ratio and worry about little else. This means you can eat a bunch of hormone-laden meat and pesticide-covered plants and you’re “on plan.” But those “foods” trigger immune response in your body, don’t provide a dense source of nutrients, and negatively impact health markers. Fail.
Weight Watchers tells you that you can eat whatever the hell you want as long as you just eat less of it. As far as health and changing your relationship with food goes and creating a permanent lifestyle, this is a disaster. Fail.
In simple terms, avoid ANTI foods at all costs.
ANTI foods are foods that are addicting, nutrient-poor, toxic, and/or inflammatory. Most grains would be a great example of this. As would dairy for many people. And depending on your individual body, tomatoes could even fall into this category.
While there are general guidelines that most people can start out — a framework, if you will — the only way to find out what qualifies as an ANTI food for you personally is to pull some different levers, experiment, and change your relationship with food. This is the foundation of the Total Body Reboot program. And it’s why I say every program or coach out there who doesn’t focus on this stuff is UNlegit.
The ratios matter. The ratios don’t matter.
Using certain ratios at different points in your progress can help you reach your goals faster. However, the ratios are far less important when viewed in the context of what you’re actually putting in your body.
To put it simply: Play with different ratios all you want as long as you’re eating real food!
You can technically try a Weight Watchers type deal — as long as you base it on eating real food. You can simply choose to eat less real food and see what happens. You can even make a cute point game out of it if you want.
You can try an Atkins type approach where you only eat 10% or less of your calories from carbohydrates — as long as you’re eating real food.
You can even go low fat and high carb and see what happens — as long as you’re eating real food. I don’t recommend it, but if you want to find out why for yourself then go right ahead. Won’t kill you.
Any program that claims to help you lose weight and keep it off that doesn’t teach you the difference between real food and fake food, nutrient density, toxicity, and source quality is BOGUS.
All of those things need to be first and foremost. And after they’ve been considered, then you can do whatever your little heart desires with your ratios. In fact, I encourage it. Experiment and find out how these different methods of eating help your progress or hurt it.
In the meantime, make sure you’re focusing on the important pieces of the puzzle first. Eating real food provides the solid foundation for everything else you want to accomplish. If you can’t accomplish what you want by eating real food, then your goal is misguided.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s helped tens of thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and now offers all of his signature programs through a “pay what you want” model.