What Are Macros?

“Macro” is short for “macronutrient.” Macronutrients are nutrients that provide energy, or calories. The three macros are carbohydrates (carbs), proteins, and fats. The micronutrients, on the other hand, are nutrients that do not provide energy, namely the vitamins and minerals, plus other compounds that the body utilizes. Both macro and micronutrients are what make up the health supporting (or, in the wrong forms and amounts, damaging) components in food. They are needed for every function in your body: metabolism, building of new tissue, hormone activity, immune function, nervous system maintenance, brain health, and more. You are what you eat: the nutrients in food become a structural part of every cell in our bodies. 

Calories from macros represent the amount of energy found in food. The number of calories you need depends on many factors, such as your age, sex, size, activity level, fitness goals, and genetic makeup. Let’s explore each of the macros in more detail.

 

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Protein helps to build and repair blood cells, DNA, muscle tissue; produce hormones and enzymes; and act as transporters in the body. Pure protein contains approximately 4 calories per gram. Main sources of protein include, of course, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and protein powder and bars. Almost all foods found in nature have protein; even most vegetables, calorie per calorie, contain a percentage of protein similar to meat. Fruits have the least amount of protein.

Fats are necessary for brain health (in fact, 70% of our brain is made up of fat), blood sugar regulation, hormone production and transport, and cell membrane health. Every single cell in our bodies contains fat, or phospholipids. Pure fat contains approximately 9 calories per gram. Main sources of fat include oil, nuts, avocados, nut and seed butters, butter, and egg yolks.

Carbohydrates are made up of sugars, the body’s main source of energy. Your brain runs almost exclusively on glucose (a simple sugar). Carbs are broken down into two general categories: simple carbs (made of just one or two sugar molecules) or complex carbs (made up of sugar molecules strung together into a starch). Complex carbs generally have more fiber, helping to slow the rise in blood sugar and support healthy bowel movements. The main carb sources are fruits, grains, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, flour-based foods like bread and crackers, and pasta.

Most foods are a mix of two or all three macronutrients. The main exceptions are sugar (all carbs) and oil/butter (all fat). These foods are both processed; nature is smart about mixing up nutrients in foods so that we get everything we need. Regardless, many people classify foods as “a carb” or “a protein” or “a fat” as a way to build their diets. This is a quick and dirty method, because the other macros do add up. Fat from meats (“proteins”), carbs from nuts (“fats”), and proteins from grains (“carbs”) all make a difference.

Some also categorize alcohol as a macronutrient, since it also provides energy (7 calories per gram). But since alcohol doesn’t offer additional health benefits and can destroy tissues and cause additional harm, we won’t cover it as a macro here.

What’s the deal with macro breakdowns?

Different diets offer varying levels of macronutrients, and there are many different reasons to choose one over another. Your specific health and fitness goals will determine the best macro breakdown for you. The beauty of macro counting is that it’s not set in stone: not only can you change up your breakdown when your needs change, but your diet itself offers an endless variety of different foods to choose from to suit your preferences and goals.

When calculating macros, it is important to start with your calorie needs so you can get a relatively accurate calculation of your macros. Nutrition experts use sophisticated methods for determining calorie needs, but you can make a reasonable estimate quickly yourself. Most people who count macros have a general goal of holding onto and building muscle while burning excess fat. If this sounds like you, and if you’re not overweight, you should multiply your body weight (in pounds) by 14. However, if you classify yourself as muscular or if you work out intensely every day, use 15. If both are true for you, multiply by 17. If you’re overweight and trying to lose weight, use 13.

Next you’ll want to figure out the macronutrient ratio that will make up your diet. How do you know?

What are your fitness goals?

Your macro ratios will differ depending on what your goals are. For example, if you want to build endurance and are training daily for an hour or more, you should aim for about 15-20% of your calories from protein, 50-60% of your calories from carbs, and 20-35% of your calories from fats. For strength building, you should aim for no less than 20% of your calories from protein, 45-50% of your calories from carbs, and 25-30% from fat. If you’re trying to lose weight, you might find that no more than 25% of your calories from fat is best, with 20% coming from protein and 55% from carbs. Although for weight loss, total calories are the most important factor; different people do well on different macro ratios.

What is your body type?

Are you an ectomorph, mesomorph, or endomorph, or maybe a morph of two? Generally speaking, these body types tend to respond differently to different macronutrient levels. It’s common to assign carb levels to these three body types, and tweak the protein and carb amounts afterwards. This is one of the techniques the Shredz coaches use to figure out the best macronutrient breakdown for all of their clients.

 

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Ectomorphs, slim people who find it difficult to gain weight, might benefit from the highest carb intake in general, between 35 and 65 percent.

Muscular mesomorphs put on muscle easily but might find it hard to lose fat, and are often advised to keep their carb intake between 25 and 55 percent of calories.

Softer endomorphs, who might put on muscle easily but have a hard time losing fat, seem to thrive best on the lowest amount of carbs—20 to 45 percent. 

Take body type, fitness goals, and personal preferences into account to set up a macro ratio goal. Once you figure out the ratio that seems to work best for your goals, body type, and preferences, you will need to convert your macronutrient calories into grams of protein, carbs, and fats to allow you to hit your macro target each day.

 

Remember:

A gram of protein contains about 4 calories per gram

A gram of carbs contains about 4 calories per gram

A gram of fat contains about 9 calories per gram

 

Here’s how to do the math:

Multiply the total number of calories by each percentage, and figure out grams using the 4-4-9 rule above.

For example, let’s say you need 2200 calories, and you decide on a ratio of 40% protein, 30% carbs, and 30% fat.

40% of 2200 calories = 880 calories from protein. 880 calories divided by 4 calories per gram = 220 grams of protein

30% of 2200 calories = 660 calories from carbs. 660 calories divided by 4 calories per gram = 165 grams of carbs

30% of 2200 calories = 660 calories from fat. 660 calories divided by 9 calories per gram = 73 grams of fat

 

Design a diet that provides these daily levels of macros. Use free online nutrient calculators or smartphone apps such as myfitnesspal to plan out your menus. Food labels also have all the information you need to incorporate into your diet.

Give it a week or two; if you feel great and are meeting your goals, keep it up! If not, listen to your body and try a different approach.

 

Why Count Macros?

No two people will need the same exact amount nor prefer the same types of foods. You and your nutritional, caloric and hormonal needs are unique can and most likely will change, even on a day-to-day basis.

Taking a flexible approach to dieting through macro counting allows you more freedom with your food choices, more balance with your fitness routine, and more enjoyment, compliance, and longevity with your wellness journey.

 

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by Dina Aronson, MS, RDN

Oct 19, 2016

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