Ah yes, macros! Wait, what the heck even is a macro?
What it is, is that way-too-confusing subject that everyone thinks they need to know about to truly get into “fitness.”
The world of fitness is a confusing place in itself and it’s easy to feel lost. Since its inception, modern fitness has led to more fads, diet trends, workout routines, and Instagram pages with “Fit” in the username than anyone can keep track of.
Our trending topic to talk about this month is macros. The word alone sends the brain to ‘Google Search’ mode, asking questions like: what are macros? How important are they? Do you need to be tracking them, and if so how do you do it? And so on.
By the end of this post, the goal is for you to have a better understanding of the basics of macros as well as a better grasp on how to implement this into your fitness and nutrition routine. Let’s keep it simple and easily applicable!
So first things first: what are macros?
Macros is the abbreviated name for macronutrients, and there are three types: fat, carbs, and protein. Let’s call them “The Macro Big 3!” The ‘Big 3’ aren’t naming specific types of foods. They are in fact the title card for a specific category. Take carbs for example, which could be fructose, starch, glucose, etc. “Macronutrients” is simply the word we use to group the similar categories, and fats, carbs, protein are the three types.
Let’s pay a visit to each of the Big 3, and talk about specifics and what the body does with it.
First off, eating fat doesn’t make you fat — you don’t just consume fat and then your body immediately stores that fat as body fat. Your body uses the fats that you come for a plethora of jobs, such as:
- Helping balance hormones
- Forming and rebuilding our brain and nervous system
- Helping transport vitamins A, E, D, and K
- Protecting our organs
- Providing us with energy (quick note that our body prefers carbohydrates as an energy source, but our body can also efficiently use fat as an energy source too!)
The building block of fats are fatty acids, which can be used to build molecules such as saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. You have also probably heard of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. I won’t go too much into the chemistry behind it — the main takeaway is that “fat” is a category, not just one molecule.
Because there are multiple types of fat that all benefit our body in multiple ways, the best practice is to eat a variety of them! Fat sources include: nuts, avocados, olives and olive oil, dairy, beef, poultry, seeds, cacao, and coconut.
The one fat type to avoid is ‘trans fats,’ which is common in refined and highly processed carbohydrate sources. Trans fats overtake our body’s transport systems to compete with essential fat sources, which result in deficiencies of essential fatty acids that our body needs. As long as you avoid highly processed and fried food, you are in the clear.
The general recommendation of daily fat intake is 20-35% of your daily calories.
And next up, let’s hear it for…
The building block of a carbohydrate is a monosaccharide, which can be used to create molecules such as sucrose and dextrose (usually found in sweet treats and drinks) or even cellulose, a plant fiber. When you consume a food that contains carbohydrates, your body can break it down and use it as fiber or break it down into glycogen, which we use in our liver and muscles.
When you digest carbohydrates, they are shipped to the liver and muscles. The excess enters general circulation throughout your body (this is when you can get the dubbed “sugar rush” in your bloodstream). So, why the liver? Well, the liver stores it for energy that is transferred to the rest of your body, whereas your muscles use it to rebuild and have energy for your workouts!
Because of this, the best times to eat carbohydrates are BEFORE and AFTER your workouts. You may have heard of the “Glycemic Index,” which rates food as ‘high glycemic’ or ‘low glycemic.’ Whether or not a food is high or low in the Index comes down to how much our blood sugar is raised when we eat that food. Generally the more processed a food is, the higher it is on the Glycemic Index, whereas the less processed and more fiber a food has, the lower it falls on the Index.
The best practice is to consume less processed carbohydrate sources with more fiber, typically referred to as “complex carbohydrates.” Throughout the day you will notice that you stay full longer and that your blood sugar doesn’t go up and down too quickly, either. As mentioned earlier, the best time to consume those easily-digestible carbohydrates is before and after a workout.
High glycemic foods include sugary foods, rice, crackers, toast, etc. Low GI foods include vegetables, whole grains, legumes, etc.
And now, let’s pay a visit to our final teammate,
Proteins’ basic unit is an amino acid, which works out because we use amino acids to build things. We are always using protein to build up new things and not just muscle! Protein can be used as antibodies, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and many other necessary things.
The reason that you have to focus on getting enough protein is because we can’t keep a surplus in our body like we can for carbohydrates and fats. We are always losing a little as we put it to work so it’s important to make sure that you are consuming an adequate amount of protein.
So, how much protein should I be consuming? Active individuals should aim for 1.2 – 2.2g of protein per kg of body mass, so for example a 150lb. individual should be aiming for 81-149g of protein per day. That might seem like a lot of protein, but remember that we aren’t just supporting our muscles; we are supporting multiple processes and systems in our body with protein intake. Not to mention that protein consumption throughout the day is beneficial to even out blood sugar levels and to staying fuller longer after each meal. This goes right into my next point – you don’t have to consume protein immediately after a workout, throughout the day is fine!
A variety of protein is best! Animal-based protein sources include beef, goat, lamb, chicken, fish, eggs, and seafood. Plant-based sources include tofu, beans, legumes, and edamame.
If you are plant-based, eat as much of a variety as possible of all three macronutrients and avoid building your diet around processed foods. If you struggle with your protein intake, then considering a plant-based protein supplement might be beneficial.
Now that we have a basic understanding of the ‘Big 3,’ the next question to cover is: should you be tracking macros?
A simple answer: It depends.
Most clients benefit from looking at their food intake as a whole, such as looking at their plate at each meal and asking “is this meal balanced with a variety of carbs, fats, protein, and vegetables?” If this is something that can use some work, start there. Oftentimes people will turn to calorie/macro counting because it’s more rigid and provides structure, but the downside is that can be overwhelming and lead to a smaller variety of foods.
Eat when your body tells you that you need to eat, pay attention to hunger cues, and don’t be too restrictive. When it’s time to eat, think about the categories we have talked about and pick foods from within the each group. You probably pay close attention to your workouts, pushing yourself hard and paying attention to your reps. You do it intentionally and mindfully. Do the same with your food. Become intentional and mindful. Scout the markets for fresh ingredients and find a recipe that fits your palate and recreate it for yourself. Steer away from the processed goods and steer into the home kitchen.
If you do decide to track, then we need to go over a basic understanding of the energy provided by each macronutrients.
Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram.
Protein provides 4 calories per gram.
Fat provides 9 calories per gram.
Have you ever noticed that high fat foods such as chocolate or nuts tend to have more calories? It’s because fat is more dense, it has more energy stored up inside each gram. This is also why some professionals will caution their audiences to only have small servings of nuts, because the calorie difference between one handful and three handfuls can be a pretty big jump in calories. This is not to say that nuts are bad (we already learned all the benefits of them), it’s just to say that you should be aware that they are calorically dense if your goal is weight loss!
If you decide to track, and you use MyFitnessPal, I highly recommend NOT using the numbers that they give you. Precision Nutrition has a wonderful macro calculator here that would be a great place to start. Once you have those numbers, and if you still prefer the MFP system, then select More>Goals>Calorie, Carbs, Protein, and Fat Goals to go into your account to input the numbers.
Another option is to consider working with a Registered Dietician or a Nutrition Coach like myself to provide professional guidance for your nutrition intake, especially since basic calculators in diet apps don’t take fully into consideration activity level, adaptation over time, etc.
However you decide to move forward, pick one small change to implement. It might even just be focusing on creating balanced meals at every meal, instead of just eating cereal or just toast for breakfast. Start small, create realistic and sustainable steps, and know that bettering your diet is a process and won’t happen overnight.
Your body is your own personal vessel and there is no other body like the one that you have, so make sure it’s being fueled right, worked out the right and safe way, and decompressed and exercised mentally. Whether you are being efficient and tracking macros or eyeballing it, keep working at it and don’t give up!
Have questions? Comment below!