If you’ve been in the fitness community for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard about macros. Understanding the facts behind macros and about your personal nutritional requirements will make a difference in your own health journey. In this article we’ll explore what macros are, how to know if you’re getting in the right ratios and the best foods for delivering them.
Ready? Then let’s look at the details.
What are Macronutrients?
As the name suggests, macronutrients are nutritional compounds that your body needs in significant quantities for daily functioning. The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. While each type supplies you with most of the energy you need to operate, they all have different roles in your body overall. Let’s look at each category separately before we dive into how to track your macros.
Formed of sugars and starches, carbs are the macronutrient that your system most requires. Your body breaks down most carbohydrates easily, so they are responsible for supplying you with a significant source of energy. Unless you are on a specialized eating plan like the ketogenic diet, carbs should make up approximately 45-65% of your energy needs.
Carbohydrates supply your body with glucose, its primary fuel source. Once glucose enters a cell, a series of metabolic reactions convert it into ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate), which is a form of cellular energy. Any unused glucose is transformed into a starch called glycogen, which is stored in the liver and as body fat for later use.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal, as not all carbohydrates are easily digestible or used for energy production. Cellulose, for example, is a non-digestible carbohydrate found in fruits and vegetables that acts as a dietary fiber. This means that it helps the body remove waste from the large intestine, consequently keeping it in working order.
Most types of carbohydrates are divided into two primary categories: simple and complex. This refers to the length of the overall molecule. Shorter molecules are easier for your body to break down, so they are classified as simple. They primarily consist of sugars (both natural and otherwise). Complex carbs, in contrast, are larger molecules that your body takes longer to break down. Despite these differences, a carb is a carb in regards to your macros. This isn’t an invitation to snack on processed food, but rather an acknowledgment that all carbohydrates fit under the same metabolic classification. This means that every gram of carbs (both simple and complex) contains four calories.
Protein is the building block of the body. Proteins should make up 20-35% of your diet. All proteins are composed of combinations of twenty different amino acids, which your body consequently breaks apart and combines to form different physical structures. Your system uses amino acids in three main ways: to build new proteins for cellular functioning, as an energy source, and as a building material. In other words, your body needs protein to support organ functioning, power enzyme reactions, and form your hair, nails, and other tissues.
Of the twenty amino acids, nine are classified as essential, meaning that your body can’t create them so you need to take them in through food. The other eleven can be consumed in your diet or synthesized by the liver. If you follow a non-vegetarian diet, you will get all essential amino acids through animal products. Those who eat a plant-based diet instead can also meet their amino acid needs by eating a well-balanced diet that consists of multiple plant-based sources of protein like nuts, legumes, and whole grains.
Like carbohydrates, one gram of protein contains four calories.
Despite their damaging reputation in past decades, you shouldn’t ban fats from your diet. In fact, your body needs fats to stay healthy, and between 10-35% of your food should consist of this macronutrient. Though fat often gets a bad rap because of its high-calorie levels (9 calories per gram), the compound is critical for staying healthy. Consuming adequate amounts of fat supports your hormone functioning, insulates the nerves, and promotes healthier skin, and hair.
Fats also act as an energy reserve, as it is your body’s preferred method for storing unused calories. Your system will only store small amounts of glucose in your tissues, but body fat lets you secure unlimited quantities of energy instead, which you use while sleeping, during exercise, and between meals.
When it comes to consuming fats, you need to ensure that you supply your system with fatty acids it needs but can’t make itself, like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. You can source omega-3s in oily fish, walnuts and eggs, and omega-6s from most vegetable oils.
Dietary fat helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, and it adds flavor and texture to your food. There are three primary types of dietary fat (saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and trans fat), and they all have different impacts on your health.
- Saturated fat: found in meat, butter, cream, and other animal sources.
- Unsaturated fat: found in olive oil, nuts, avocados, canola oil, and other plant sources
- Trans fat: found in commercial products like snack foods, fast food, and margarine.
It’s important to note that you should minimize your trans fats consumption as much as possible. Often called “frankenfats,” trans fats can increase your risk of coronary heart disease and obesity.
Should You Count Macronutrients Instead of Calories?
Considering that calories are the standard way to quantify your food intake, why would you consider switching to grams of macronutrients? A primary reason that calories aren’t ideal for measuring how healthy your food choices are is that they don’t take into account what you’re eating. For instance, 100 calories of broccoli will rank the same as 100 calories of cake, though the two couldn’t be more different nutritionally.
Switching over to counting your macros, in contrast, takes food quality and satiety into account. By tracking your macro requirements, you have a far greater chance of following a diet that makes sense for your health.
How to Figure Out Your Macronutrient Requirements
While nutritionists recommend specific ratios of each macronutrient for optimal health, everyone’s nutritional needs will be different. You can figure out your specific macronutrient levels with these steps.
1. Determine Your Calorie Requirements:
Your daily calorie needs are dependent on many factors, including your age, weight, fitness level, and more. You can determine your levels by tracking what you eat in an average week (assuming you aren’t gaining or losing weight). The average level from these days is a good indicator of your calorie needs.
2. Convert Calorie Counts to Macronutrients
Once you know your calorie targets, you can allocate these calories towards macronutrients based on the ratio you are following. Most often times the macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDR) are 45–65% of your daily calories from carbs, 20–35% from fats and 10–35% from protein.
Next, you can determine the number of grams to you available through basic math. Here’s an example:
Assuming you need 2,000 calories per day, you can determine your fat intake by multiplying 2,000 by 0.20 (the ratio of fat for 40:40:20 macronutrient splits). That totals 400, which is the number of daily calories to devote to dietary fat. To determine your gram intake, divide 400 by 9 (the calories in a gram of fat) for a total requirement of 44 grams of fat per day.
Tips for Tracking Your Macronutrients
Ready to start monitoring your macro levels? One crucial step is determining which foods will help you achieve your goals. Consuming your carbs, protein and fat as donuts and bacon won’t do much good for your health, so follow these eating suggestions instead to ensure you’re maximizing your macros.
- Stick with high-quality whole foods as much as possible to ensure you get adequate amounts of micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Some of the best foods for eating for macros include the following:
- Fat: almonds, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, avocados, olive oil, Brazil and macadamia nuts.
- Protein: fatty fish (salmon, herring, tuna), eggs, nuts, grass-fed beef, quinoa, and beans.
- Carbohydrates: leafy greens, whole grains, root vegetables.
- Get all three macros in with every meal to ensure you don’t experience insulin spikes, energy crashes, or food cravings later on.
- When you first start monitoring macros, it’s best to use a food scale to measure out gram levels. After you’re comfortable eyeballing the amounts, you can put the food directly on your plate instead.
Following your body’s macronutrient needs is a smart way to stay in control of your health. The process of tracking grams of food might seem daunting, but with practice, you’ll gain the skills necessary to ensure each meal is well-balanced to optimize your health.