10 May 11 Fat, Carbs, and Protein: Which Macronutrient Percentage is Best for You?

I often get asked what proportion of calories from fat, carbs, and protein is best for weight loss. There is no one right answer to this question. As long as your total calories intake is less than your total calories expended, you will lose weight. As long as the plan is nutritionally sound, allows you to eat foods that you enjoy, provides satiety, reduces risk of chronic disease and allows you to lose weight - it works!

Having said that, there is a growing body of current research that supports using lower carb intakes to help curb appetite and lose weight. Last Friday, I had the pleasure of hearing Christopher Gardner, Ph.D. talk about his study on diet types ("The A to Z Weight Loss Study"). This study compared weight loss, blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels in women assigned to one of four diets: Atkins, Zone, LEARN and Ornish. Here is a description of these four diets:

  • Atkins: The New Diet Revolution (20 g carbs during Induction Phase and then up to 50 g carbs (about 15% calories from carbs, and fat and protein as desired)
Interestingly, by six months and again at 1 year, study participants were not eating the macronutrients in the amounts recommended by their assigned diet books. At one year, the folks following the Zone and LEARN diets were averaging similar macronutrient percentages (46-48% carbs, 33-34% fat, 19-20% protein); whereas Ornish (very low fat) dieters were eating 52% carbs, 29% fat, and 19% protein. Atkins dieters were eating an average of 32% carbs, 46% fat, and 22% protein. It is striking that all four groups eventually drifted to nearly the same protein percentage - somewhere between 19-22% calories from protein. Note that this study had participants follow the diets without keeping records or using diet tracking tools. Food intake was collected by using multiple 24-hour recalls conducted by trained study personnel.

In case you are wondering, the dieters assigned to the "Atkins group" lost the most amount of weight at both the 6-month and 1-year time points. They also had the best retention rate (88% vs. 76-78% for the other groups), and they experienced the most improvement with blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels (which is likely related to their weight loss). The Zone, LEARN, and Ornish groups did not differ significantly in terms of weight loss, but they all lost weight.

If you want to try low carb, do you have to do Atkins? Not necessarily. After all, the study participants assigned to the Atkins Diet didn't even follow it - they drifted up to 32% calories from carbs and still lost weight and improved their blood cholesterol levels. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines low carb as anything below 35% total calories.

Tracking is helpful since you have your data at your fingertips. You can figure out which macronutrient distribution works best for you. Start with whatever eating plan appeals to you first, then tweak it as you go. To check for nutrient adequacy, review your average intake at MyNetDiary online, under the Reports tab.

Remember, the bottom line for weight loss is calories. No matter what diet type or eating plan you follow to lose weight, you must eat fewer calories than you expend.
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RD
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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Meal Planning & Diets/Paleo & Low Carb

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