Looking to shed a few pounds this spring? You may have heard about “counting macros” as a way to lose weight. So what are macros? Today we’re going to demystify macronutrients and micronutrients and give you the skinny on what all the macro-counting talk is all about.
There are two main categories of food sources in our typical diets – macronutrients and micronutrients. These nutrients are what our bodies use to grow, for maintenance, and for energy.1 There are some nutrients that our bodies cannot synthesize on their own, and so we must get them from the foods we eat. These include vitamins, minerals, certain amino acids, and certain fatty acids. While we need these micronutrients, our bodies require them only in small amounts.
There are other nutrients that our bodies need in relatively large amounts. These macronutrients make up the foundation of our diet, and include carbohydrates, protein and certain amino acids, fats, fiber, and water.
How does this all relate to trying to lose weight or just be healthy? Taking in too few micro or macronutrients can result in undernutrition, which is associated with certain diseases like kwashiorkor. On the other hand, consuming too many macronutrients can lead to obesity and other related diseases.
So getting just the right amount of nutrients, in particular macronutrients, for our body is important is helping us achieve the right weight for our body type and activity level, and for overall health. “Macro counting” has become popular lately—although any bodybuilder will tell you that this is certainly not a new revelation—because it gives people guidelines within which to limit their daily food consumption. Here’s what you need to know:
- Carbohydrates (“carbs”), proteins, and fats are all energy sources
- You can manipulate the amounts of these macronutrients you consume to get the weight loss / health benefits you seek; for example, a bodybuilder trying to build muscle might want to increase protein intake while reducing carbohydrate and fat intake
- You never want to eliminate any one macronutrient from your diet
- Carbohydrates always give you 4 calories/g; proteins also give you 4 calories/g; and fats will always give you 9 calories/g, regardless of what food they come from
What does this all mean? You can figure out the macronutrient makeup of your daily diet by counting how much carbs, protein, and fats you are getting in your food. For example, if you had a bowl (1/2 cup) of plain oatmeal for breakfast this morning, you got 150 calories, 5g of protein, 27 g of carbs, 2 g of fat, and 4 g of fiber. Do this for everything you eat and you’ll know how many calories you had, and the breakdown of your macronutrients. If you’re following a particular diet plan, for example 40/40/20, where 40% of your diet is carbs, 40% protein, and 20% fats, you can work backwards to figure out what your macros for the day should be. If you take in 2000 calories, for example, 800 of your daily calories can come from carbs, 800 from protein, and 400 from fat.
For some people, this way of eating not only makes it easy to figure out what to eat, but allows for more flexibility than a typical strict diet plan. If you want to eat a donut, you just figure out your macros and then adjust what you eat the rest of day accordingly. As long as you’re within your range for your goals, go ahead and enjoy! For others, this way of eating can be tedious. Who wants to use math and get out a calculator every time you want to eat?
There are a host of calorie and nutrition calculators, food databases, and apps, that are widely available for free that can make counting your macros much easier. The important thing to remember is balance. We need a variety of foods every day to keep us healthy, and to make sure we’re getting enough micro and macronutrients for optimum health. As always, check with your health care provider before beginning any kind of new diet, in particular if you have existing health conditions.