So you’ve decided to dive into the world of nutrition. Good for you! It’s important to know how to take the best care of your body and how your body uses food for fuel.
After all, your diet affects everything from your weight to your mood, from your skin complexion to your ability to heal from an injury, and from your quality of sleep to you energy levels throughout the day.
As you dive into this rich topic, you’ll likely bump into the word “macros” on a regular basis. Macros are the foundation of the nutrition discussion, so understanding what macros are and how they relate to you is step #1.
Here’s your ultimate guide to understanding what this “macros” thing is all about.
What Is A Macro?
The term “macro” is short for “macronutrient.” Macronutrients are the essential building blocks of everything we eat. They help us understand the composition, structure, and caloric value of the seemingly endless number of foods available to us.
There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fats.
Think of macronutrients as the building blocks of a house – like wood, brick, or mud/adobe.
You may also hear the term “micros” or “micronutrients.” We’ll explore micronutrients and how they affect your health a little later, but for now think of micronutrients as the secondary material your house is composed of – like grout, stucco, clay, nails, screws, etc. Vitamins and minerals make up most of the micronutrients and they’re fascinating little things that deserve a post all their own.
But for now, let’s stick to the macros.
Get Pumped for Protein
Let’s start with protein. If you’ve ever heard of Dr. Atkins, the Zone Diet, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, you know protein is essential for building lean muscle. But protein is so much more than that…
Everything in your body exists because of your DNA. Your DNA tells your cells how to replicate, grow, repair, and function. And your DNA is made of protein – as are your cell membranes, hormones, neuron receptors, neurotransmitters, and tons of other important bits.
Protein is made up of amino acids. According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, there are nine amino acids everyone needs in order to enjoy a healthy, happy body:
- Methionine + Cysteine
- Phenylalanine + Tyrosine
For each gram of protein you eat, you’ll get 4 calories. Your body stores protein in the form of muscle tissue, which is what everyone strives to build. Why’s that? Because muscle cells burn more calories at rest than fat cells, which means you’ll have a higher resting metabolic rate (more on that later).
Side note: Even if your goal is to be lean and not “bulky,” you should still aim to build muscle. Unless you’re doing some serious hulk-esque bodybuilding, you shouldn’t worry about getting bulky. Got that, ladies?
Depending on your muscle-gain goals, you should aim for consuming 0.8 – 1.3 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass, depending on your unique build and goals. The exception here is pregnant ladies, who should always aim for 1.1 – 1.3 grams of protein per pound of lean muscle mass.
While most people assume you have to eat meat to get protein, there are plenty of plant- and animal-based proteins to go around. So even if you prefer a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can get plenty of healthy proteins to hit your macros.
Fat, By Any Other Name
One of the most confusing things about macronutrients has to do with fats. You’ve likely heard whispers about “good fats” and “bad fats,” but what does that even mean? How can fats be good? How do I know which ones are bad?
The truth is, the jury’s still out on which fats are good or bad. It all comes down to your preferred diet, the composition of the fats you’re eating, and the source. For example, while some people swear by coconut oil and claim it’s chock full of wonderful and necessary MTCs, the American Heart Association says to avoid coconut oil just as much as you should avoid chocolate cake and donuts.
Though there are different types of fats, they all give you 9 calories for every gram you consume – much more than either protein or carbohydrates. This is why high-fat foods tend also to be high-calorie foods. But “high-calorie” doesn’t mean “bad”!
We’ll get into the controversy over good fats and bad fats a little later, but for now all you should worry about wrapping your brain around are the different types of fats.
The terms “saturated” and “unsaturated” refer to the molecular composition of a fat molecule. Saturated fats are fat molecules that are surrounded by hydrogen atoms. Hence, they’re said to be “saturated” with hydrogen.
Saturated fats are most commonly found in animal-sourced foods, like meat, cream, butter, and cheese. While there are some exceptions, saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats are different because they don’t have a complete halo of hydrogen atoms. Rather, monounsaturated fats are missing just one hydrogen atom along the perimeter of the molecule. These are fats that are often liquid at room temperature but solidify at cooler temperatures (like in your refrigerator). Olive oil is one you’re likely familiar with.
Polyunsaturated fats are just like monounsaturated fats, except they have multiple hydrogen atoms missing from the molecule. These fats are always liquid, like vegetable and canola oils.
Omega-3s & Omega-6s
Despite all the different varieties of fats, our bodies really only need omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s (aka, alpha-linolenic acid) and omega-6s (aka, linoleic acid) are polyunsaturated fats that make up the membranes of all of our cells. This dynamic duo is also responsible for creating many of the neurotransmitters in your body that send signals throughout your brain and body.
Omega-3s and omega-6s have an interesting relationship and need to be eaten in balanced qualities in order to avoid problems like heart disease and asthma.
Omega-3s are found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, albacore tuna, and mackerel. Omega-6s are found in many meats, as well as sunflower, safflower, soy, sesame, and corn oils.
Here’s the doozy. Trans fats. They’ve been all over the news, health blogs, and even the former First Lady’s “Things To Make Extinct” agenda.
While most people think trans fats only pop up in highly processed foods with a long shelf life (think: pre-made cookies and cakes, breakfast sandwiches, microwave popcorn, doughnuts), they can also be found in natural, whole foods, too. Natural trans fats are created in the digestive tracts of many animals and are found in animal-sourced products like beef, lamb, and butterfat. So far the American Heart Association doesn’t think these are as bad as the artificial trans fats, but they’re not 100% sure yet.
However, to make mass-produced foods last longer at your corner market, man came along and made his own artificial trans fat. These trans fats are listed on packages as “partially hydrogenated oils” and have a really bad habit of raising LDL and lowering HDL cholesterol levels in your body (which is the opposite of what you want to happen).
Those Illustrious Carbs
Oh, carbs… delicious little morsels that everyone craves in some form or another. Whether you’re more of a chocolate fiend or a french fry fanatic, carbs are in all of our favorite foods. But carbs aren’t as simple as they may seem on the outdated food pyramid everyone was forced to memorize in grade school.
Carbs come in a variety of forms, including starch, fiber, sugar, and sugar alcohols. All carbs provide 4 calories for every gram you eat.
Sadly, many people are afraid of carbs. We’re here to tell you that there is no Carb Boogeyman. The source of your carbs is certainly important, but carbs in and of themselves are not evil. In fact, carbs are where you get the majority of your energy.
The human body uses the carbohydrates you consume to create glucose. Glucose is an important and efficient molecule used throughout your body – from your brain to your muscles to your organs. Not only are carbs useful, but they’re downright essential.
The problem is when people assume they need to avoid carbs or be afraid of certain carbs. While we always recommend that your carbs come from clean, natural, healthy sources like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (think: brown rice and quinoa), what’s life without a little variety?
The great thing about counting your macros is you can always add in your favorite foods without feeling starved, deprived, or restricted. Going out with friends? Enjoying a date night with your partner? Glad it’s Friday? Us too! Live a little and don’t feel bad about enjoying a slice or pizza or a cookie, as long as you count up your macros.
There’s no reason to be afraid of carbs – carbs are important! Understanding what 20 grams or 80 grams of carbs looks like can help you enjoy every meal while still reaching your weight loss and fitness goals.
Fiber is great. It’s found in all the healthiest natural foods like leafy greens, whole fruit, and colorful veggies. Fiber fills you up without causing your blood sugar levels to spike. It also aids in digestion and keeps things (*cough*) moving.
According to the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine, men and women need different amounts of fiber at various stages of life:
- Men over 50: 30 grams per day
- Men under 50: 38 grams per day
- Women over 50: 21 grams per day
- Women under 50: 25 grams per day
Sugar comes in both “natural” and “artificial” varieties. While natural sugars found in fruits and some vegetables are safe overall, they can still cause your blood sugar to spike (which can send your hormone and energy levels out of whack) if eaten in large quantities.
Artificial sugar and added sugar (even natural cane sugar) is what you want to watch out for. Apart from providing a very short-lived source of glucose that may give you a brief burst of energy or muscle performance boost, sugar offers little nutritional benefits. In fact, it’s what your body likes to store most as fat and is the hardest to get rid of. So best to just avoid those added devils all together.
Lastly, we have sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that your body can’t store. Rather, when you eat something containing sugar alcohols (like those found in adult beverages and artificial sweeteners), your body has to burn those for energy before it can touch anything else. This often leaves your digestive system scrambling to store all the other molecules for energy later.
Though sugar alcohols aren’t necessarily bad for you, they don’t offer anything in the way of nutritional value and should be consumed in moderation.
Now that you know your ABCs and 123s about macros, you’re ready to start counting yours. Of course, if you have any questions about macros, let us know! We’d love to help you sort your potatoes from your pomegranates.
Macronutrients in Health and Disease – Protein. NutritionMD.org.
Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. ISBN 987-0-309-08537-3
Omega-6 Fatty Acids. University of Maryland Medical Center. Trans Fat. American Heart Association.