What are Macros? A Guide to Counting them for a Balanced Diet
If you’ve been trying to get your diet together for any length of time now, you’ve no doubt heard of the concept of “macros”.
You know they’re important, you know you should count them, and you know they should be balanced…you just don’t know what they actually are.
And if you are one of these people who has absolutely no idea what all this macro talk is about, don’t worry - you’re not alone.
Today we’re going to clear things up. We’ll finally explain (once and for all) what macros are, why they matter, and most importantly, how they can help you with your health and weight loss goals.
What Are Macros?
The term macro is a fitness industry abbreviation for “macronutrient”. These are the nutrients that we require in large amounts, and act as the fundamentals of human nutrition.
Each macronutrient (three in total) serves a unique function, and plays a specific role in the body.
We’ll also be talking about why they’re important. Because since each one plays a different role in your diet, eating them in balance is absolutely critical for good health.
If you’re even somewhat familiar with nutrition and working out, you’ve likely heard all about the wonders of protein.
And, unlike a lot of things in the fitness world, when it comes to protein, the hype is real.
Seriously, it’s pretty amazing. Dietary protein, once ingested into the body, breaks down into amino acids. These amino acids then act as the building blocks of muscle, repairing lean tissue that’s been damaged after a workout, and rebuilding it to be bigger, stronger and more resilient than it was before.
But protein isn’t just for building muscle. It’s also a vital component at almost every level of the body. It supports the healthy development of blood, bone, cartilage and skin, as well as hair and nails (which are made up almost exclusively of protein).
It’s also used in enzyme and hormone production.
Oh yeah…and a high consumption of dietary protein has also been shown to help keep you feeling full for longer.
In summary - protein is pretty damn important, and any halfway sensible diet should prioritize it.
Fat gets a bad rap. Over the last few decades, it’s been demonized as the cause of everything from obesity to heart disease.
Fortunately, that’s simply not the case. Not only has the link between fat consumption and heart disease been wildly overstated, but the idea that it causes obesity is a complete fallacy - the only thing that can cause you to gain weight is an overconsumption of calories (more on that later).
In fact, not only will fat not hurt you, but an underconsumption of dietary fat can lead to serious health consequences down the road.
Fat performs a number of essential functions in the human body, and acts both as a protective layer between organs as well as a kind of fuel storage mechanism. This storage function also extends to certain nutrients - vitamins A, D, E and K are all stored in fatty tissue in the body.
Fat also acts as a regulator of certain hormones, including sex hormones (ask any fitness model who’s dieted down to extreme levels of low body what it does to their sex drive…not pretty).
Like fat, carbohydrates are another macronutrient that’s gotten quite a bit of bad press over the last few decades. Many fitness “gurus” would have you believe that eating carbs is the cause of every health related ailment we used to think was caused by dietary fat and MORE (diabetes in particular).
However, just like fat isn’t the enemy, neither are carbs. And while the amount you need will vary from person to person, there are some serious benefits to consider.
The most basic function of carbohydrates are as the bodies preferred energy source. Once digested, carbs in the food we eat breaks down into glucose, which is then used by both the body and the brain for energy.
Most people generally understand this. But what you may not know is that carbs do quite a bit more than just “give you energy”. They also regulate the amount of sugar that’s in your blood stream at any given time and help absorb calcium.
And since most high carbohydrate foods contain fibre, they also assist in digestion.
It should be noted that, among all the macronutrients, carbohydrates are the only one that’s not strictly speaking necessary. Although it is considered the bodies “preferred” fuel source, fat can pick up most of the energy producing slack in the absence of carbohydrates.
Having said that, just because it’s not necessary to eat carbs doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. There are certain kinds of people (those suffering from metabolic and autoimmune diseases, for example) who perform very well on zero carb diets.
But for the vast majority of us, the benefits of consuming them far outweigh the drawbacks.
Which Foods Have Which Macros?
Now that you understand what exactly a “macro” is and the different types, let’s talk a little bit about which foods contain which macronutrients.
Carbohydrates are typically found in plant foods (fruits and vegetables), grains, legumes and processed foods. These include:
- Leafy vegetables (lettuce, kale, etc)
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, etc)
- Starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc)
- Fruit (apples, bananas, berries, etc)
- Wheat and wheat products (bread, pasta, cereal, etc)
- Beans and legumes
Basically any processed food (bicuits, crackers, cereal bars, croissants, etc)
Fats are generally found in animal products, but are also found in certain fatty fruits, as well as nuts, seeds and oils. Common fat sources include:
- Meat (beef, pork, etc)
- Dairy (milk, cheese, butter, etc)
- Oil (olive oil, coconut oil, etc)
- Nuts (peanuts, cashews, etc)
- Fatty fruits (avocados, coconuts, etc)
Finally, we have protein. Like fat, it’s commonly found in animal sources, as well as dairy, nuts, and certain beans and legumes.
Generally speaking, you’ll find that there’s quite a bit of overlap between fat sources and protein sources, but with differing ratios (chicken, for example, has more protein and less fat than beef).
Common protein sources include the list below. Keep in mind that that you’ll often find a number of foods that have overlapping macros in ways you wouldn’t expect. Pasta, for example, is typically thought of as a good source of carbohydrate, but also contains a surprising amount of protein.
- Meat (chicken, turkey, etc)
- Eggs (the protein is found mostly in the egg white)
- Dairy (milk, cheese, whey protein, etc)
How Are Macros and Calories Different?
Before we get into how to calculate your macros so you know exactly what you should be eating each day, we need to clarify the distinction between macronutrients and calories.
Most people who are even somewhat nutritionally literate know that macros and calories are two different things. But what they don’t realize is that the two concepts overlap - and understanding how they work together is key for setting up your diet properly.
Here’s how it works - protein, carbs and fat each have a specific amount of calories per gram. 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories, 1 gram of carbs contains 4 calories, and 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories.
Now, if you’re thinking that sounds like a reason NOT to eat fat if you want to lose weight, keep in mind that it’s not that simple.
Yes, fat contains more than double the calories per gram than protein and carbs. However, fat also has the effect of being quite satiating (i.e. it makes you feel full).
To illustrate this, imagine eating 500 calories worth of bread…now imagine eating 500 calories worth of butter. Which do you think would do a better job of killing your hunger?
Of course, eating pure butter would be absolutely disgusting, but you get the point - that you need less fat to feel full overall.
What About Alcohol?
If you’ve been going through this article, and you’re wondering which macro exactly booze fits into, you’ve stumbled on a very important question.
The answer is - NONE. Alcohol is sometimes called the “fourth macro” because it doesn’t fit into protein, carbs or fat, and 1 gram of alcohol contains 7 calories, with most alcoholic beverages containing carbs as a bi-product as well (wheat in beer, for example).
How to Calculate and Count Your Macros?
Now that you’ve stuck in it this far, let’s finally get into what you’re probably dying to know - “how the hell do I calculate and count my macros”.
First of all, let’s talk about what the best ratio of carbs, fat and protein is. Unfortunately, this is a highly subjective area and is going to vary from person to person. And the only real way you have of figuring it out is by experimenting.
With that said, there are a few “best practice” principles we can put in place to get you started.
The vast majority of people are going to do well on a high protein diet. This will not only help keep hunger at bay, it will also support muscle growth and promote healthy tissue (hair, skin, nails, etc). Try to get at least 30% of your daily calories from protein.
When it comes to balancing fat and carbs, a good place to start is in the middle - 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% carbs represents a healthy, balanced approach that will ensure your body is getting all of its needs met.
So, here’s how to figure it out. First, determine how many calories you should be eating per day (the best way to do this is with any “total daily energy expenditure” calculator online). From there, you can figure out how you should be counting your macros.
For example, let’s say you need to eat 2200 calories per day. With a 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% carb diet, you’d perform the following math:
Protein (4 calories per gram)
- 2200 Total Calories x 0.30 = 660 Protein Calories
- 660 / 4 = 165 Grams of Protein Per Day
Carbs (4 calories per gram)
- 2200 Total Calories x 0.40 = 880 Carb Calories
- 880 / 4 = 220 Grams of Carbs Per Day
Fat (9 calories per gram)
- 2200 Total Calories x 0.30 = 660 Fat Calories
- 660 / 9 = 73 Grams of Carbs Per Day
Eating Healthy Macros Vs Indulging
Remember, just because you’ve been diligent about counting your macros doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll automatically be healthy.
Because while a calorie is a calorie and a carb is a carb, it’s undeniable that 100 calories worth of bananas is far healthier than 100 calories worth of biscuits (remember, micronutrients matter too).
So, what’s the best way to approach this? Honestly, a good, common sense approach will serve you well - try to get 70-80% of your calories from clean, whole food sources (meats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc), and then indulge on the other 20-30% (ice cream, chocolate, pizza…you get it).
As long as you’re counting your macros and staying on top of it, you’ll be just fine.
The Best Macros for Fat Loss
The best macros for fat loss are the ones that allow you to eat less food.
Confused? Well, here’s the deal. Fat loss, at the end of the day, is a matter of energy balance - not macronutrient balance. And it ultimately comes down to eating less calories than your body is using each day.
Having said that, the right macros can make reducing calories easier. We’ve already talked about how protein decreases appetite, but it’s important to understand that carbs and fat also have an effect.
This effect will be different for different people. Generally speaking, fat (like protein) is quite satiating. Some people will find that ramping up the fat and taking the carbs way down is effective for appetite suppression.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people who find dropping their carbs too low makes them feel lethargic, irritable and miserable. It’s all about experimenting to find that balance.
In conclusion, a balanced macro diet may not be the determining factor in weight loss and health - but it can sure make things a hell of a lot easier. Learn how to calculate your daily requirements, count your macros throughout the day, and be prepared to tweak things to make it work for you. Your body will thank you.