Macros might seem like the New Kid on the Block when it comes to healthy eating habits, but it’s really a tale as old of time when it comes to nutrients. It’s basic math, it’s basic science. It’s a process of figuring out what nutrients your body needs to maintain or reach your nutrition and fitness goals, and then matching that formula with your eating. It’s such an exact science and tailor-fit to each individual that unfortunately, there is a little homework and strategy involved for finding the correct macro levels and then eating foods that reach those levels. This extra attention might scare off some in favor of easier methods (like straight calorie counting), but, for those who put in the work, counting macros has proven to be an effective weight loss and weight maintenance method.
There’s a lot to absorb when it comes to macros, how to calculate need and matching your macro needs to the food in your fridge. Let’s break it down, Q&A style.
What are macros, anyway?
Macronutrients are the three nutrients your body needs in large amounts – carbohydrates, protein and fat.
These are your energy superstars. Carbs get broken down into glucose (or sugar), which your body then can either use right away for a burst of energy or store in your liver and muscles as glycogen for later use.
Carbs provide 4 calories per gram. This will be your largest source of caloric intake (45%-65% of your daily calories).
Carbs can be found in places other than bread and pasta! Your best sources are grains, veggies, beans, dairy and fruit.
Your strength builders! Protein builds up bones and muscle, as well as supporting blood circulation and skin growth. But that’s not all! They also support cell signaling and immune function. A true workhorse!
Like carbohydrates, proteins provide 4 calories per gram. Experts recommend making proteins 10%-35% of your daily calorie intake.
Common sources of protein include meat and poultry, eggs, fish, tofu, and lentils.
Yes, really. Fats get a bad rep (and sometimes, they get it honestly), but your body needs healthy fats for energy and hormone production, but also to absorb nutrients and maintain a healthy body temperature.
Unsurprisingly, fats are the most calorie dense of all macronutrients at 9 calories per gram. You also need to use them sparingly – the typical recommendation is 20%-35% of your daily calories.
Look for the right types of fat in fatty fish, meat, nuts, avocados, seeds, and butter and oils.
What are my specific macro needs?
Here’s where the math comes in. To figure out your macronutrient levels, you need to start with the number of calories you need for your day. Your specific health and fitness goals will really come into play here. Do you want to lose a few pounds? Maintain your current figure? Add muscle mass?
To get started, you will determine your resting energy expenditure (REE), or the number of calories you burn while at rest, and your non-resting energy expenditure (NREE), or the number of calories you burn during activity or digestion. Adding these two numbers give you the total number of calories for the day.
For women (because we are the Barbell Beauties, after all!): calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) – 161
Next, add in your activity factor:
Sedentary: x 1.2 (limited exercise)
Lightly active: x 1.55 (moderate exercise most days of the week)
Moderately active: x 1.55 (moderate exercise most days of the week)
Very active: x 1.725 (hard exercise every day)
Extra active: x 1.9 (strenuous exercise two or more times per day)
The total is your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). You can adjust your daily calories based on this TDEE for different goals (e.g., subtract calories if you want to lose weight, add calories if you want to bulk up).
So, now that you know your TDEE, you will next need to figure out your specific macronutrient percentages. Again, these will vary based on your goals, so adjust the dials as needed.
Here are the breakdown ranges:
Carbohydrates – 45%-65%
Protein – 10%-35%
Fats – 20%-35%
Let’s run an example: Antoinette is a 30-year-old woman, 5’7, 140 lbs. She is interested in maintaining her weight and muscle mass, without gaining additional weight or losing muscle.
Antoinette does CrossFit five times every day, so she would be considered very active.
Her recommended daily caloric intake is 2, 513.
Her macro breakdown:
Carbohydrates – 331g
Protein – 140g
Fats – 70g
Translating Macro Needs into Actual Meals
Part Two of your macro tracking homework comes in here. Throughout your day, you need to monitor the foods you’re eating to ensure you meet your macronutrient needs while keeping the balancing act of eating sufficient calories and not significantly exceeding your limits.
Thanks to technology, there are several apps out there that can help you enter your meals and then will automatically generate the number of macros consumed. Some of the most popular apps include MyFitnessPal, MyPlate, and Cronometer, among many, many more!
You can also go Old School and track your macros using a food journal or an Excel database. There are spreadsheets of common foods that can help track your meals. A food scale can also be used for portion control.
Here are a few macro breakdowns of some popular menu items:
Chicken Breast – 150 grams
Sweet Potatoes – 82 grams
Brown Rice – 75 grams
Avocado – 70 grams
Will counting macros help me lose weight?
It can! Counting macros follows the tried-and-true “energy in vs. energy out” concept. If you have a healthy awareness about the number of calories in each gram of a macronutrient, meeting each of these percentages will ensure you’re eating the right variety of foods that your body needs and eating in a deficit can contribute to weight loss.
And if weight loss isn’t your goal, but you are looking to increase or maintain your muscle mass, adding calories healthily will help accomplish that! Win-win!
Other benefits of counting macros
Counting macros is a sustainable way of healthy eating, and also cuts out some of the “feeling restricted” that you might encounter with fad diets. There are some other benefits too.
· It holds you accountable every day with set numbers
· Identifies other nutritional deficiencies you may already have
· Raises awareness on portion sizes
Drawbacks of counting macros
Yes, tracking macros can be time-intensive process. That’s drawback #1 (and #2, let’s be honest). A few more:
· It doesn’t take food quality into account (100 calories of sweet potatoes > 100 calories of chocolate)
· Can lead to disordered eating (Overly monitoring, tracking and restraining yourself to stay within your macros isn’t healthy)
· Social isolation (Fewer Happy Hours and Pizza Nights if you’re committed to staying within your macros – and we all that going and not participating isn’t much fun)
Counting and tracking macros can be a worthwhile habit for your health and fitness goals, but it can also be a time and labor-intensive process. But if you’re serious about making a change or adopting a good practice for the long haul, your hard work and dedication can seriously pay off.
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Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.