What are macros?
While you were reading a fitness article, exploring Instagram hashtags, or even perusing this blog, you’ve probably come by the word “macros” by now. The fitness community loves to talk about macros these days, but the meaning of the word “macro” is often glossed over. While I’m by no means a dietician or nutrition expert, I’ve read enough to regurgitate the basics in layman’s terms (because let’s face it: I don’t know many big, fancy words).
First things first: macro stands for macronutrient. So, what is a macronutrient? Macronutrients are nutrients your body needs in a large amount in order to function properly. Think of them as the bare minimums for survival. There are micronutrients that are important too (vitamins & minerals), but macronutrients are what fuel your body with energy (calories). There are three types of macros: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Each macronutrient serves a different purpose and has a different caloric value. Let’s delve a little deeper into each:
Most gym bros will make you believe this most important macro. While protein is important for muscle repair, keep in mind that ALL macronutrients are important. Carbohydrates also play a pretty vital role in muscle repair as well. That being said, protein is pretty darn important for building muscles and taking care of your tissue and organs in general. Outside of the protein shake guzzling population, a lot of people don’t get enough protein. Protein is made of amino acids and blah blah blah something about building blocks… go read a legitimate health source if you want the full lowdown!
In case you haven’t heard, fat doesn’t make you fat! Everyone wanted to hate on fats when I was growing up in the 90s because they’re the most calorie-dense macronutrient. Healthy fats are good for your heart and brain, help your body absorb certain vitamins, and even help fight inflammation. What are healthy fats? Monounsaturated and Omega-3s for sure. Omega 6 is good but you don’t want to overload it. There’s a decent amount of controversy right now over whether saturated fats are our friend or foe. Trans fats are for sure bad guys. Sadly, donuts are a great example of a food usually high in trans fat.
If fats were enemy #1 in the 90s, carbs became the villain in the 2000s. Diets like Atkins and South Beach became popular, and suddenly it was low carb everything. Why? Because, technically, carbohydrates are the one macronutrient your body can function without. Your body turns carbs into glucose, which supports just about every bodily function. You absolutely need glucose, and the more active you are, the more glucose your body will need. However, our bodies are brilliant and scrappy, and if enough carbohydrates aren’t present, they’ll turn fats and even proteins to glucose. It’s a much harder process though, so running a low carb diet can negatively impact energy levels and athletic performance. And in some people (me), running a very low carb diet will turn you into an emotional hot mess ready to kill anyone eating a bagel in front of her or him.
How do you count macros?
As I mentioned above, each macronutrient has caloric value. You’ll start off by determining your daily calorie goal (that is a whole other topic, but there’s a good TDEE & BMR calculator here). From there, you determine how you’ll divide your calories across macros:
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Fats = 9 calories per gram
- Carbs = 4 calories per gram
Every dietician and personal trainer seems to have a slightly different stance on how you should begin calculating your macro goals. Below is my general summary of what I’ve read – but remember, do your own research!
- Calculate protein needs – Most specialists seem to agree on calculating protein first. Research articles have suggested that you can see athletic & body composition benefits from consuming up to 1 gram per pound of lean body mass.
- Calculate carbs OR fat, depending on your tolerance – Most IIFYM (if it fits your macros) dieters begin by calculating fat, since there is a minimum amount of fat you need. This method works pretty well for most people, but if you know your body doesn’t tolerate carbs very well or you are extremely active, you may want to start with carbs first. If you’re starting with fat, you can use somewhere between 0.3 to 0.7 gram per pound of bodyweight, depending on your current body composition and your goals. If you’re starting with carbs, you can use anywhere from 0.5 to 3 grams per pound of lean body mass, depending on your activity level and goals. Either way, most experts agree that you’ll want to make sure you’re getting at the very minimum at least 0.3 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight.
- Calculate remaining macro nutrient – Once you have your first two macronutrients figured out, you’ll figure out your remaining macronutrient goal (either fat or carbs) by looking at your remaining calories.
So, let’s do an example together. Let’s assume there’s a 160 pound female who is moderately active and her body responds well to carbs. She has 28% body fat and has a daily calorie goal of 2,000 calories. If she used the steps above, her daily marco goals would be:
- 115 grams of protein (160 x (1-.28))
- 64 grams of fat (160 x 0.4)
- 241 grams of carbs ((2000 – ((115 x 4) + (64*9))) /4)
As you can see, there’s a lot of room to adjust according to your needs. Personally, I start off calculating carbs first according to my activity level. Since I have PCOS, my body doesn’t always process carbs the best way. At the same time, I find my athletic performance really suffers if I do an ultra low carb / ketogenic diet. I seem to have the best success when I calculate the carbs my body actually needs for working out and then allowing fats to make up the remainder.
The Maybe Sometimes Macronutrients
While protein, fats, and carbs are unanimously recognized at macros, I have seen a few other nutrients labeled as macronutrients. I don’t have the background to support whether or not it’s scientifically true, but I figure they’re worth mentioning briefly:
- Fiber – Fiber is a carb, so it’s a little redundant to list it as a macronutrient. However, your body does require a minimum amount (25-40 grams depending on gender & age). If you don’t get enough fiber, things can get unpleasant real quick (we all know I’m talking about pooping, right???).
- Alcohol – Despite my feelings on a Friday at 5pm, alcohol is not necessary for survival. However, it does provide your body with calories, so some people roll it in as an extra macronutrient. I think the main takeaway here is just to be conscious of your alcohol intake and the “empty” calories it contains.
- Water – On the flip side from alcohol, water is absolutely necessary for survival but contains no calories. Make sure you’re staying well-hydrated (hint: if you work out at all, 8 glass a day isn’t enough).
There’s so, so much more to this topic. However, this post is long enough already. I’ll leave you with a few resources that go deeper into nutrition. Would you want to see a part two of this post? What other macro-related topics? IIFYM? Meal timing? Micronutrients?
USDA National Agricultural Library – Resources on Macronurtients
McKinley Health Center – Macronutrients: the Importance of Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat
Medline Plus – Dietary Fats Explained
Today’s Dietician – Athletes and Protein Intake