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As a nutrition coach, I want my clients to hit the macro targets that I’ve set for them but I also believe that it’s important that they be flexible with their approach.
So, it’s my job to educate clients on how strict they need to be with hitting their targets and what happens if they don’t.
Occasionally over-shooting or under-shooting your macros (once a week or less) has little to no impact on your goals. However, if you are consistently over or under your targets, you can impede progress toward your goal, and worsen body composition and recovery from training, especially if you’re off by 30% or more.
My goal with this article is to make sure you know what to expect if you don’t hit your macros, when to worry, and what to do to hit your targets consistently so that you can achieve your goals.
- You do not need to hit your macros exactly. If you are within 10 grams of your protein and carb targets and within 5 grams of your fat target then you are usually close enough.
- The most important macro to hit is protein; fat and carbs can be adjusted more easily to stay within your desired calorie range and to suit your personal preferences.
- The best ways to hit your macros are to plan and prep your food in advance, and to make sure that your targets are appropriate for your goals and realistic for adherence.
Do You Need To Hit Your Macros Exactly?
No, you don’t need to hit your macros exactly to make progress toward your goals. As long as you are tracking consistently each day and you are within a few grams of your targets (either over or under), then you will usually be close enough for it not to matter. Over time, these small variances tend to even out.
It’s common and normal to have a day or two each week where you are over your targets, and then a day or two each week where you are under your targets so that on average you hit your targets for the week.
“You DON’T need to stress about tracking with 100% precision…people who get too hung on tracking with perfect precision often end up burning out…and most people AREN’T pursuing goals that require absolutely perfect tracking, so a more laid-back approach can actually increase their odds of sticking with the habit of tracking, and being successful with it long-term.”
That said, if you are always over your targets or always under your targets, then it may not even out over time and you could slow or stall progress toward your goals.
How accurate you need to be with hitting your macros will also depend on where your calorie and macro targets are set.
Your calorie target will play a role in how “on point” you have to be with your macros to make progress toward your goal.
For example, if your target is set for just a slight calorie deficit (i.e. 100 calories below maintenance), then being over your macros could mean that you won’t lose weight at all. But, if your target is for an aggressive calorie deficit (i.e. 500+ calories below maintenance), then being over could mean that you will still lose weight, just at a slower rate.
On the flip side, if your target is set for just a slight calorie surplus (i.e. 100 calories above maintenance), then being under your macros could mean that you won’t gain weight at all. But, if your calorie surplus is quite high (i.e. 500+ calories above maintenance), then being under could mean that you will still gain weight, just at a slower rate.
If your goal is to maintain your weight, being under or over could mean that you end up losing or gaining weight, instead.
When it comes to the total calories coming from your macros, you’ll want to know if your targets are close to your expected maintenance calories (what you need to maintain your current weight), or if they are very low or very high, giving you more “wiggle-room.”
Each macronutrient has a recommended range for the amount of energy (calories) it should provide. If you’re underconsuming or overconsuming certain macronutrients then you may compromise your performance, body composition, and recovery.
I’ll discuss the recommended amounts of each nutrient in the sections to follow, but for now, keep in mind that it is important to get a good balance of macronutrients to make sure that you optimize your health and achieve your goals.
“Eating a variety of foods made up of all three macronutrients is important for your body to function well. Each macronutrient is made up of different building blocks that our bodies use for different important roles.”– Amy Marguiles, Registered Dietician
- Related Article: Counting Calories vs Counting Macros: Which Is Better?
How Close Is Close Enough When It Comes To Your Macro Goal?
In general, if you are within 10 grams of your protein and carb targets, and within 5 grams of your fat target (either over or under), then you are usually close enough to still make progress.
Protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, and each gram of fat provides 9 calories. Therefore, being within 10 grams of protein and carbs means being within 40 calories of your target, and being within 5 grams of fat means being within 45 calories.
However, if you’re off by 10 grams of protein, 10 grams of carbs, and 5g of fat all at once and they are ALL over (or all under) then you’ll be off by 125 calories which could be significant if you don’t have a lot of wiggle room in your calorie target and the same thing is happening every day.
On the other hand, if you’re a little over on one target and a little under on another target, the overall impact is very small. The same is true if you’re a little over all your targets on one day and a little under all your targets on the next day.
It can be helpful to look at your average intake for the week for each macronutrient to see how close you are to the targets, while also aiming to be within 10 grams for protein and carbs and within 5 grams for fat each day.
Related Article: Going Over Your Calories Once A Week: Is This Okay?
What Happens If You Don’t Hit Your Macros On A Regular Basis?
Going Over Your Macros
If you consistently go over your macros, it can slow or stall progress for a weight loss goal, or cause you to gain more fat than you want during a bulking phase.
This can make the rate of expected weight loss less than half, and may even be too small of a deficit for weight loss to occur since food labeling inaccuracies and measurement errors often lead people to underestimate their calorie intake.
As a nutrition coach, I can tell you that the number one mistake that most dieters make is underestimating the amount of food they are actually consuming.
Alternatively, if your goal is to gain weight and you’re going over your macros it could cause you to gain more fat than desired. The process of muscle gain is not 100% efficient, so at least some portion of weight gain will be fat mass along with gains in lean body mass.
For example, assuming your calories are set at 3,000 for a calorie surplus of 400 calories from your maintenance calories (2,600 calories), if you are consistently over by 10 grams on each of protein and carbohydrates and 5 grams on fat, then your intake will be 125 calories higher, which increases the surplus to 525 calories.
During a calorie surplus, weight gain can be 33-40% muscle mass and 60-67% fat. Instead of gaining 2 lbs of muscle and 3 lbs of fat, the higher calorie surplus could mean 1.6 lbs of muscle and 3.4 lbs of fat, so an extra 0.4 lbs of fat for every 5 lbs of weight gained.
You could also gain weight more quickly than expected, which may or may not be appropriate for your goals.
Going Under Your Macros
If you’re consistently under your macro targets, it can slow or stall progress for a weight gain goal and compromise recovery from training.
It could also create a rate of weight loss that is too fast to be healthy or sustainable, which usually means losing more lean muscle mass than fat and negatively impacting your body composition.
What Happens If You Aren’t Hitting Your Protein Goal?
Protein is the most important macronutrient target to hit because you need a certain amount of protein (0.7-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight), to retain or gain muscle and to feel satiated.
If You Are Under
If your target is set at the lower end of the recommended protein range (0.7g/lb BW or less), then going under could mean that you don’t consume enough amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to maintain (or grow) your muscle mass. You will likely also feel much hungrier because protein is the most satiating nutrient.
Whether your goal is to lose weight, maintain weight, or grow muscle, under-eating protein is a big deal.
When you are losing weight, the goal is usually to lose body fat and to keep as much lean tissue
as possible because lean tissue is “metabolically active”, which means that it burns calories even when you’re not exercising, which keeps you burning calories at a faster rate even as your body gets smaller and you are eating less.
This is why Marissa Vicario, holistic nutritionist at TRIM bootcamp, says that:
“Protein is a commonly under-eaten macronutrient but the MOST important macronutrient for weight loss.”
When you are maintaining or gaining weight, you likely want to keep your current muscle mass or build additional mass for aesthetic reasons, performance, or both. For this to happen, you need to eat enough protein (and engage in resistance training).
If You Are Over
If you go over your protein macros, especially if you are getting more than 35% of your calories from protein, then the biggest concern is that you will no longer be able to get the necessary nutrients from fat and carbs to support your health and your performance.
A higher protein intake (higher than the recommended range) does not mean more muscle so beyond a certain point, your protein intake will have diminishing returns.
Once you hit your protein target, you’ll want to leave room for other food groups like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds to provide the carbohydrates, fats, and micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) so that you’re adequately fueled and encouraging better overall health.
Related Article: Is It Okay To Go Over Protein Macros? (Here’s What Happens)
What Happens If You Aren’t Hitting Your Fat Goal?
Fats are the most calorie-dense macronutrient so under or over-shooting your fat macros will have a larger impact than being off target for the other macronutrients (protein & carb). Ideally, fat should provide 20-35% of your total daily calories.
If You Are Under
If your target is set at the low end of the range (20%), going under could have negative health impacts, especially if it’s happening regularly. Fat is important for hormonal health and cognitive function.
If You Are Over
On the other hand, if your target is set at the higher end of this range (35%), then going over could mean consuming excessive amounts of saturated and trans fats, which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Additionally, if you don’t (or can’t) adjust your other macros when you eat too much fat, then you will end up overconsuming calories, which can lead to weight gain.
Related Article: What Happens If You Go Over Your Fat Macros (Is This Bad?)
What Happens If You Aren’t Hitting Your Carb Goal?
Carbohydrates are the most variable in terms of targets, since they supply the remaining necessary calories after fat and protein targets have been set, ranging from 30-55% of intake.
If You Are Under
If you are under on carbs, you might feel low in energy, and struggle to feel recovered after your workouts. This can make it harder for you to train hard, which can stall weight loss progress, prevent you from building muscle, and minimize the performance gains you normally get from training.
Carbs help to reduce the stress hormone cortisol. If you’re not eating enough, then the stress levels in your body can make it harder to lose fat, disrupt your sleep (which makes it harder to make gains in the gym), and worsen your mood.
Ultimately, getting enough carbs is important for body composition, performance & recovery, and sleep & cognitive function.
If You Are Over
While carbs are great for all of the reasons above, there is still such a thing as eating too many carbs. Overeating carbs leads to overshooting your calorie intake (especially if not accounted for by reducing another macro), which can stall weight loss while cutting or lead to more body fat gain than desired while bulking.
The effects also depend on the source of the carbs: carbs from starchy vegetables, fruit, and whole grains will provide fiber and beneficial micronutrients, whereas refined carbs from processed foods have little added benefit.
Related Article: What Happens If You Go Over Your Carb Macros (Is This Bad?)
Ask Yourself: Why Aren’t You Hitting Your Macros?
There can be several reasons why you aren’t hitting your macros. I’ll outline five of the most common reasons and provide practical suggestions for overcoming them.
Reason #1: Lack Of Planning
It can be difficult to hit your macros if you don’t plan ahead. Without planning, you run the risk of eating all of your carbs or fat by the middle of the day or end up having to eat a huge evening snack to catch up to your targets. Neither approach is comfortable nor ideal.
Here is some great advice from Jessie Hulsey, a Registered Dietician at Health Down South, who agrees that “it can be stressful when you are low on protein at the end of the day and trying to find something to eat that won’t also contribute fats”, which is why she recommends you “try to plan out your meals minimum the night before to make the next day a breeze!”.
Along with Jessie’s approach of planning the night before, I recommend figuring out how many meals and snacks you would like to eat during the day, and dividing your macros across those meals and snacks evenly.
If you’re not sure what foods to eat to help you hit each target, check out the resource I put together for you: Best Single Macro Foods (Complete List + PDF Download).
Solution: Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time to get a balance of protein, carbs, and fat at each meal, and spread your macros evenly over the day.
Reason #2: Lack Of Prep
Even if you’ve made a careful plan for your meals and snacks, it won’t help you if you don’t actually prepare the food that you need to eat for your plan.
It’s way too easy to grab a donut out of the break room at work or stop for takeout on the way home when you don’t have your meals ready to go if your meals aren’t already prepped.
To set yourself up for success, start by making a grocery list based on your planned meals and snacks so that you have all of the ingredients you need.
Next, you’ll need to go to the grocery store (or order online) to get what you need. If you plan ahead, you can usually get everything you need for the week, rather than making multiple trips to the store.
Then, many of my clients find it easiest to pick a weekend afternoon (or any other two-hour block of time they have available) to devote to batch cooking to prepare food for the days ahead.
This can involve grilling or baking a full tray of chicken breasts or thighs or other lean protein like pork tenderloin, cooking a large pot of rice or pasta for complex carbohydrates, and peeling and washing vegetables and fruit.
If you want to skip a step during your prep, then Jessie Hulsey (R.D.) has a pro hack for you., She recommends “taking advantage of pre-packaged convenience items” because “buying pre-portioned proteins and pre-cut vegetables can save on the time normally spent prepping food at home”.
Once everything is prepped, it’s easy to prepare your meals in grab-and-go containers like Tupperware, or glass containers with snap-on lids like these.
Solution: Look at your planned meals and snacks to make a grocery list. Buy what you need for the week, and block off a few hours to prepare your food in advance.
Reason #3: Food Environment
I already mentioned how easy it can be to grab a donut from the break room. Studies show that if food is near you, you are more likely to eat it. The good news is that the reverse is also true: placing a snack farther away makes it less likely that you will eat it.
Make your prepared meals and snacks the first choices you will see. Consider keeping a cooler bag near your desk so that you don’t even have to go into the break room to get your lunch.
Or plan your route so that you are not walking by vending machines, or driving by takeout restaurants.
I cover a lot of details about food environment in my article “34 Tips for Getting Used To Eating Less (Science-Backed).” Even if your goal isn’t to lose weight, there is helpful advice for sticking to any kind of macro target.
Solution: Make sure that your prepared meals and snacks are the easiest and most convenient food choices. Keep temptations out of sight and out of mind, but also plan for some “fun” foods within your macros so that you don’t feel overly restricted and start obsessing about things you “can’t have”.
Reason #4: Peer Pressure
Another common reason for not hitting your macro targets is that people around you are offering or encouraging you to eat food that isn’t part of your plan.
Sharing food socially is a vital part of human life, and it’s great when you can plan special snacks and meals with friends into your macro targets so that you can enjoy this aspect of life while also staying on track with your goals.
But if this is happening every day and it’s causing you to miss your targets, then it’s a good idea to practice setting boundaries. You can either politely decline a food item, take it and discard it later, or freeze it and enjoy it on a day when it fits into your macro targets.
If you’re often experiencing peer pressure in a restaurant setting, then I recommend checking out the menu ahead of time, so that you will have a clear plan for what you are going to order and you won’t be swayed in the moment by the people around you.
Solution: Decide which occasions and food items are “worth it” to plan into your macro targets. For others, practice politely saying no.
Reason #5: Macro Targets That Are Too Aggressive
Finally, if you’re still struggling to hit your targets consistently, the problem could be with the targets and not with you.
If your targets are too low, you can be left feeling ravenous, which leads to episodes of binge eating. Another key sign that your targets are too low for you, is if you’re losing more than 2% of your bodyweight each week.
A more realistic rate of loss is 0.4-0.6% of body weight per week.
On the other hand, if your targets are too high, you can be left feeling uncomfortably full, to the point of stomach pain. This can be a sign that the calorie surplus is too much for you and likely unnecessary.
Aim for a rate of weight gain of no more than 0.25-0.6% of body weight per week (stick to the lower end if your goal is to minimize fat gain).
Solution: Adjust your macro targets to create a moderate deficit or surplus for a healthier, more sustainable approach to weight loss or weight gain.
Practical Advice For Not Worrying About Hitting Your Macro Goal
If you don’t hit your macros from time to time, there is no need to stress out. Usually, the best path forward is to simply get back on track the next day by hitting your macro targets. Your results aren’t defined by any one day, but rather by what you do most often for weeks and months.
Even though it’s okay to miss your targets, if it’s happening too often then I recommend trying one of the following solutions to keep you on track with your goal when hitting your targets “spot on” isn’t possible.
Make Sure You’re At Least Hitting Your Protein Goal
The one macro that should always be a priority is protein because of its role in supporting lean muscle mass. Even if you don’t meet your calorie goal, you should still try to hit your protein goal (or come close to it).
Going under on protein is a bigger problem than going over, so if you do find yourself short on protein macros at the end of the day, whipping up a quick protein shake with a scoop of protein powder can be a quick and easy solution to get those missing grams.
Swap Carbs & Fats If You Need To
If you realize that you’re on track to eat more carbs than normal, but you still have some grams of fat remaining, you could choose to “swap” some fat for some carbs so that your overall calorie total stays on track.
Remember that each gram of fat has 9 calories, but each gram of carbohydrate has only 4 calories. So, if you’re going to be 20 grams over on carbs (80 calories), you could reduce your fat target by 9 grams (81 calories) to stay on track with your calorie target.
Of course, you can also do the opposite if you’re going to be over on grams of fat, but have some grams of carbs to spare.
This approach allows you to keep your protein intake the same (which is very important), but still achieve your calorie target for the day.
This isn’t just my advice; Greg Nuckols also advocates for keeping protein intake on track and letting carbs and fats be whatever they need to be to hit the calorie goal. He explains “for most people, most of the time, I think it’s fine to just focus on calorie and protein intake, and let carbs and fats align with your general dietary preferences.”
“Borrow” and “Bank” Calories
If you know that you have a special event or occasion coming up where you want to enjoy more food and beverages than usual, you can choose to “bank” some calories by reducing your intake slightly in the days leading up to the event, so that your overall average intake matches your macro targets.
That said, you don’t want to get into a “binge and deprive” cycle where you feel like you need to reduce your intake after a meal or day of overeating. Make sure that you’re only doing this for special occasions and not all the time.
Related Article: Is It Better To Hit Your Macros Or Calories?
Adjust Your Targets
Finally, if your targets really aren’t realistic, then one of the best things that you can do for your mental AND physical health is to adjust them so that you can hit them more easily without feeling starving or stuffed.
It might take longer to reach your goals this way (or maybe not, since you’ll actually be able to hit your targets consistently), but you’ll know that your approach is healthier and more sustainable, which can make it easier and more enjoyable to stick to.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Happens If You Don’t Hit Your Macros While Cutting?
If you don’t hit your macros while cutting, you may or may not lose weight. This will depend on whether you are over or under your targets and how large your calorie deficit is. If you are over, you will not lose weight as quickly (or at all) and if you are under, you may lose muscle mass.
What Happens If You Don’t Hit Your Macros While Bulking?
If you don’t hit your macros while bulking, it will depend on whether you are over or under, and whether you hit your protein target. If you are under, you will not put on as much muscle, especially if you are under on protein. If you are over, you may gain more fat from a larger surplus even if it’s from protein.
How Long Does It Take to Start Losing Muscle If You Don’t Hit Your Daily Macros?
Muscle loss can occur within 72 hours if you are under your macros, especially protein. In a large calorie deficit, your body will prioritize getting rid of lean mass because it takes more calories to maintain muscle than it does fat, and your body will do whatever it can to survive when it thinks it’s starving.
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About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.