What are macros and why should you care? Though dieting is something I aim to avoid, lately I discovered that the balance of macronutrients (fat, carbs, and protein) in my real food lifestyle was WAY off.
Based on the fact that I'm really physically active, I needed far more protein, and less fat and carbs than I was getting. Monitoring and shifting those proportions has helped me to lean out and have more energy.
Do you need a macro adjustment? Let's find out… ~Emily
Many diets talk about macros although we don't often call them by that name – low fat diet; low carb diet; high protein, low fat diet – often looking for the same results. But what are macros, and why should you care? Balancing macros consistently, paying attention to the amount you consume of each of them in balance, will get you the lean body results you are looking for.
What are macros, anyway?
Macros refers to macronutrients that provide calories, which happen to also be the nutrients we need in the largest amount-carbohydrates, protein, and fats.
Calories are not all created the same, so balancing them, and using the best quality macros, will give you the best results.
Let’s break down the role of each of these nutrients.
Protein is made up of amino acids that work to build and repair. Major sources of these amino acids are primarily found in all chicken, beef, pork, fish, seafood, and eggs; and to a lesser extent protein is found in grains, legumes, and other plant foods. Among many other things, these amino acids develop our skin, muscles, create enzymes throughout the body, and build strong hair and nails.
Fat is quite necessary in our diet. Contrary to what we have been told, consuming moderate amounts of fat can help you burn fat. It is important for proper cell structure in every cell of your body; it also plays a role in promoting healthy brain and nerve function, builds and stores hormones, and transports some vitamins. Of course, not all fats are created equal and choosing the ones that are life supporting is very important to getting the health benefits of fat. These supportive fats include olives and olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, coconut and coconut oil, nuts, seeds, and saturated fats from pastured animals are the kinds to choose.
Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap over the past decade but they also play a vital role. Carbohydrates efficiently give your body quick energy and fuels your brain. The key is to be smart about your carbs. These “smart” carbs are more complex, having more micronutrients including vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, polyphenols, flavenoids, and other food compounds that are proving beneficial when eaten regularly. Foods that have smart carbs are vegetables, root veggies, fruits, beans, and grains (I go for the gluten-free ones).
Each of the macronutrients play an important role, and allowing space in the diet for them to fulfill their role is a key factor to creating a plan for long term health.
Why balance macros?
There are many benefits to balancing macronutrients. The most common reasons are to aid with fat loss, build muscle, and balance hormones.
While we know not all calories are created equal, this type of eating plan starts on a calorie level (see below) which is the springboard for creating a calorie deficit to promote weight loss. With the appropriate protein to accompany your fat and carbs, building muscle is a benefit when you include some weight training.
Evenly distributing macronutrients is also a great way to balance blood sugar – preventing peaks and valleys which make you feel tired, sluggish, and foggy-brained. When balancing blood sugar and insulin it aids in the balancing of the symphony of hormones that work in conjunction with insulin.
How do you balance macros?
While this is not a calorie counting diet, there is an element of counting to get the proper balance. Here's how you get started:
1 – Determine your caloric needs
Start by determining the number of calories that is correct for your body. Clinically, I've always used the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation for this, then factoring in your level of activity. This gives you the total calories per day that you should be consuming.
I'm cautious to go below 1200 calories despite what your weight loss goals are. If you go lower, you run the risk of creating metabolic mayhem.
2 – Calculate your macro targets
From there you calculate the number of total calories and grams of each macronutrient you need by using a percentage of calories. Here are the recommendations:
Protein range is 15-35% of calories. Multiply the total calories by the percentage to get the number of calories of protein that you should have per day. Go for a lower range if you have some kidney problems, and higher in the range if you are looking to build muscle, balance hormones, and lose fat.
Since protein is usually distinguished by grams rather than calories you need to convert the calories to grams. There are 4 calories in each gram of protein, so divide your number of calories by 4 to get the total number of grams of protein you should shoot for each day. You will do this for each of the macronutrients.
Fat range is 20-35% of calories. I recommend the higher range here, as it helps with feelings of fullness and with hormone balance. Once again, the quality of fat is as important as the quantity. There are 9 calories in each gram of fat, so divide the number of calories by 9. This gives you the number of grams of fat to aim for each day.
Carbohydrate range is 30-65% of calories. For carbs, I recommend sticking to the lower range, and incorporating whole foods rather than processed muffins, crackers, and pasta. Like protein, carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram so you will divide your total calories by 4 to get the number of grams you consume.
An example of counting macros could be 25% (94 grams) protein, 35% (58 grams) fat, and 40% (150 grams) carbs based on a 15oo calorie diet. Need a little help? This video will walk you through a calculation.
Once you have calculated your grams, then evenly distributing them between your meals throughout the day is best. Each meal should include all macros. You will use the nutrition facts on labeled foods, or a nutrient calculator to determine the amount of macros that you should eat. You can think of it as balancing 3 bank accounts – you have a budget of 94g protein, 58g fat, and 150g carbs and each time you eat you subtract from your “macro budget.”
Everyone has an eating pattern that works for them. Macro balance is a way to use the planned calculations to help you fine-tune what your body is asking for. Ultimately you have to listen to the signals your body is sending, be willing to try new things, and be forgiving when things don't work out just perfect.
Sometimes life can get in the way of the perfect diet, which is just fine. You don't get extra points for perfection and it won't result in better weight loss for you. Just like balancing macros, balancing life is just as important.
Are you ready to try counting macros?
Daphne Olivier is a registered, yet unconventional dietitian who started My Food Coach, her nutrition coaching practice. She has a passion for using real food as medicine and the many ways it affects the body. Daphne works with individuals and groups, in person and online.