Macros, short for macronutrients, are the big nutrients essential to keeping our bodies moving. They consist of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. They are in all the foods we consume and found on most nutrition labels. They provide us with energy (aka calories), and they all contain a certain amount of calories per gram consumed. An individual’s macros depends on several factors including age, height, weight, activity level, and goals. Each macronutrient plays a very different and specific role within our bodies.
The primary function of carbohydrates is to provide our bodies with energy. They include sugars, starches, and fibers and most will break down into glucose. The body needs readily available sources of energy like glucose and carbs; otherwise, your body will tap into your muscle tissue. However, in the event of a caloric surplus (after carbs are converted to glucose), whatever is not used to fuel bodily functions is moved into fat stores. It's wise to choose fruits, vegetables, legumes, lentils, and whole grains most of the time and to limit foods made with starch and sugar.
Carbohydrates are your main source of energy, providing 4 calories per gram; however, there really isn’t an ideal amount that meets the needs of all individuals. Carbohydrate intake should really be based on an individual’s level of activity. The more active an individual is, the more they can eat. The majority of the population can meet their carbohydrate needs by eating just fruits and vegetables. Athletes may find benefit including more fruit and starchy vegetables, depending on activity level and goals. A good starting point is to limit carbs to about a half-cup (about 4 oz.), or a fist-sized portion, two or maybe three servings during the day.
Protein helps us maintain our lean body mass, forms our organs, hair, nerves and muscles, and building and repairing tissue. Proteins cannot be stored and need to be replenished daily. Examples of protein-rich foods include chicken, turkey, pork, beef, lamb, buffalo/bison, fish/seafood, eggs, & dairy (cottage cheese, milk, & yogurt) and protein powder. Proteins, like carbs, provide 4 calories per gram, and the general recommendation vary depending on body composition, goals, age, health, and more. A good rule of thumb is to aim for eating a portion of protein equivalent to the thickness and circumference of the palm of your hand (2-3 eggs, 4-6 oz. of chicken, beef, or fish) with every meal.
Fats are super-important for a healthy metabolism. Fat is essential for every cell in our body, the membranes of every cell in our body are made from fats. Fats play a role in the functioning of our nervous system, brain function, skin integrity, and vitamin absorption. Fat keeps us full and satiated. They also aid in male & female hormone production and boosts healing during inflammatory processes. We need healthy fat. Healthy dietary fats do not turn into body fat; excess carbs that are converted to sugar are stored as fat, not dietary fats. Unlike proteins and carbs, fats provide 9 grams of calories per gram. Animal fats (saturated fats) can be healthy in the diet, especially when they come from pasture-raised or grass fed animals. Nuts (monounsaturated fats) are a great source of healthy fat. They’re sometimes mistaken for a protein source, although they do have some protein, it isn’t enough to meet an individual’s needs without taking in a significant amount of fat. Other healthy fat sources include extra virgin olive oil, flax seed oil, coconut oil, butter (or ghee), seeds, olives, coconut milk, heavy cream, and avocados. For most people, having a minimum of 1-2 servings of fat at every meal and snack, generally the size of 1-2 thumbs. When in doubt about portion sizes, it’s usually safe to have more fat and less carbs.
Traditionally, we’ve been told to count calories in order to meet our goals, especially weight loss. However, counting macros may help us achieve fat loss, muscle gain, and other various health goals faster than focusing on calories alone. It helps us understand which foods make us feel good or bad, which foods improve our athletic performance, and which foods fill us up or leave us wanting more. Unlike some restrictive diets, counting macros doesn’t limit any foods which helps with cravings. While counting macros allows for more flexibility and is relatively simple, it can be confusing and take time trying to find out what foods work for our individual goals and preferences. If you would like to know your ideal macronutrient breakdown, ask your local YMCA if they have a Nutrition Coach you could work with.
Written by: Corey Bivins, MSACN, CPT