What are macros?

There have been many food experiences in my life that have completely changed my perspective on food.

The first came when I had my second baby and suddenly acquired a food sensitivity to gluten postpartum.  It literally rocked my world and led me on my gluten free journey (which I’ve ended up being quite grateful for).

The second experience stemmed from when I immersed myself in the Paleo lifestyle because it seemed to be the easiest way to become gluten-free.  Instead of really understanding the values of food, it was easiest for me to pick between a Yes and No list of foods without any limitations in daily intake or quantity.  Although my body felt better and this food experience greatly improved my understanding of what real, whole foods were, it left me heavier on the scale, exhausted after WODs (workout of the day) and in desperate need of afternoon naps.

It wasn’t until I discovered macronutrient tracking that I truly brought all the pieces together in my own food awareness to dive deep into food values and understanding.  Each of these experiences shaped my knowledge of food, my understanding of what my body needs and how it best performs.

Tracking my macronutrient intake has been the biggest shift of all of these experiences as a person, as a coach and as a mom in desperate need of-of gaining her confidence back. I am frequently asked “What are macros?”  so this post seeks to bring it all together in one comprehensive guide.  If you want to download it now you can click HERE to skip ahead and have it nice and handy.

This guide is divided into the following parts so feel free to click below to jump ahead to the part you want.

What are macros?

Calculating your TDEE

Calculating your target macros

Tips to getting started

 

What Are Macros?

So what are macros? Macro Tracking, also known as flexible eating, is a scientific approach to using a target system to record your macronutrient intake to maximize your nutrition goals. Macronutrients or macros for short are the body’s building blocks including carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

By consuming specific ratios of macronutrients, your body can maximize metabolic capacity to hit your nutritional goals including fat loss, muscle gain, performance gains or day to day energy increases.  (Click HERE to get right to the steps that will help you calculate your macro ratios.)

Flexible eating is personal. Each person’s body runs on a unique set of macros that are determined by current intake, nutritional goals, age, and gender.

The beauty (and in all honesty, the sometimes demise) lies in the lack of a required food list.  You are in control of what foods you take in and are forced to learn how to live around food, understand portion control and navigate life around the foods you love.

In the macro tracking world, so much slang has come from the approach like:

“Macro tracker”

“What are the macros on that?”

“Dial in your macros”

“Adjust your macros”

 

They all lead back to one thing…learning how to increase food awareness.

What Are Macros: The Reality

The reality though is that tracking your intake is so much more than just food budgeting (and my client success stories will attest to that).  The knowledge acquired through the process empowers you to find freedom in food, say “buh-bye” to food guilt and often banish a life of yo-yo dieting.

What Are Macros: The Scientific Basics   

So what are macros when it comes to science? Food is made from macronutrients and micronutrients. You get your “macros” from the food you eat.  Everybody eats “macros.”

Macronutrients are molecules our bodies require in large amounts to create energy, grow and develop. They come in the form of protein, carbohydrates and fat, each of which provides its own unique function within the body.               Micronutrients are chemicals or substances our bodies require in trace amounts to also grow and develop. Examples include vitamins and minerals such as potassium, calcium and iron and vitamins A, D and E to name a few.

Both macronutrients and micronutrients come from the food we take into our bodies. We must supply our bodies with nutrient dense sources to make sure we are getting enough of both macro and micronutrients.

Energy In Macronutrients   

Each macronutrient has a value of energy it provides when consumed

Protein: 4 kcal/gram

Carbohydrates: 4 Kcal/gram

Fat: 9 Kcal/gram

 

That means if a food item has …

20 grams of protein= 80 Kcal

35 grams of carbohydrates= 140 Kcals

8 grams of fat= 72 Kcals

The total value of 292 Kcal of energy is provided for that serving between all three macronutrients.

Not only are their energy values different, so are their purpose within the body. Each macronutrient plays a unique role within the body and is thus required in differing amounts depending on an individual’s needs.

 

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy currency. We take in carbohydrates and convert them into energy for growth, development and daily tasks in the form of glucose.  We also store glucose in the form of glycogen for the body as a storage energy reservoir.  I liken it to a big ol’ diesel truck that has dual gas tanks.  When the first runs out, glucose, the second tank kicks in as back up, glycogen.

The amount of carbohydrate necessary in the diet is dependent upon each individuals activity level, body type, metabolism, and DNA.  It is also a massively hot topic in the nutrition world because of the plethora of anti-carb and pro-carb research that exists.

Carbohydrates come in 2 forms, simple and complex.  Simple carbs are those that are rapidly digested and can be used by the body as energy quickly.  Examples are things like sugar, syrups, baked goods, cereals, and candy.  Its counterpart is the complex carb, which is broken down by the body at a slower rate for energy, typically because it has higher fiber content.  Examples include sweet potatoes, brown rice, legumes, dairy, whole grain pasta and bread, most fruits and vegetables.  If you would like a super handy real food list to hang on your fridge as a reminder of what foods fall into which macronutrient category you can download it HERE.

The Glycemic Index is a scale used to show us how quickly certain carbohydrates are converted to glucose and are released into the bloodstream.  The more glucose that reaches the bloodstream the higher the GI and the opposite being Low GI foods.  Check out this link for a list of foods and their GI:

Generally speaking, complex carbs are where the majority of your intake should be.

Why?

They are digested at a slower rate and thus help to maintain blood sugar levels. They are also more filling because their fiber content is higher and tend to carry more micronutrient density.

 

Fats

Fat provides cushion and protection to the body and at a cellular level. Fats are also crucial to hormone regulation and absorption of micronutrients.

Fats come in two forms: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fat, often deemed the “bad” fat, has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Examples of unsaturated fat includes fat from animal products, dairy, butter and coconut (coconut oil).  Unsaturated fat is often labeled as the “good”fat as it can reduce cholesterol levels when replacing saturated fat in the diet.  Samples of unsaturated fats include nuts, seeds and avocado.

 

Protein

Protein is used to build muscle…we all know that.  It is also crucial in the creation of enzymes, regulating immune building as well as support hair, skin and nail growth. When the body is made up of a greater amount of lean protein, metabolic rate is higher and thus improves fat loss.    Foods that are rich in protein include chicken, fish, turkey, dairy and beans.

But how much protein do you really need to consume to achieve your goal? That largely depends on your current weight, eating habits, activity level and goals.

The first place to begin is to establish your protein intake based on your current weight. From there, the amount of carbohydrates and fats you take in is loosely based on goals and food preferences.

Where Do I Start?

This is the juicy part.  The “how-to” create your targets is widely sought after in order to determine the magic numbers that will lead you to success.

Spoiler Alert: there are a whole lot of ways to determine macro targets that will bring you success.

Yes..it’s true. The bottom line in any nutritional goal is setting your intake so that it supports your goal.  Your macro ratios should be created based on the energy requirements of your goals. No matter what a fad diet/gimmick may advertise, the only way weight loss happens is when a caloric deficit is created.  I love this article by Precision Nutrition that breaks down the concept of energy expenditure so well.

Determine your TDEE

You must first understand what your overall calorie needs are by establishing your TDEE or total daily energy expenditure.  All that means is how many calories you burn each day in all of your activities including exercise and rest. TDEE is a very dynamic number as your metabolic rate shifts each day depending on how active you are.  The goal is to target in on it the best you can with the knowledge you have.

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is how much energy our body uses while at rest.  In other words, these are the calories your body needs for basic survival tasks like breathing, the beating of your heart, digestion and brain function.

 

To calculate use the following equation (called the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation):

Males: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) + 5= kcal/day

Females: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) – 161= kcal/day

 

Determine your level of activity

Part of your TDEE is your level of activity or fitness.  You do not have to work out 6 times a week to lose weight.  However, being physically active has a host of health benefits including increased energy expenditure that may help you accomplish your goal a bit faster.

Select which multiplier fits your activity level:

Sedentary (1.2): Sits most of the day, walks around for household chores and work tasks

Light (1.35): Walks or moves the body 1-2 times per week

Moderate(1.5): Exercises 3-4 times per week at a moderate intensity and live an active lifestyle

Highly active (1.75): Trains 5-6 times per week at a high intensity with an active lifestyle

Elite athlete (1.9): Trains 5-6 days a week with multiple training sessions

Determine total TDEE

Once you determine your activity multiplier, you can establish your total daily energy expenditure:

TDEE= BMR x activity multiplier

 

Let’s look at an example:

Brooke is a 200 (90 kg) pound female, is 37 years old and 5’2” tall (158 cm).  She does Crossfit 3x a week and yoga once per week and has a job where she moves around a decent amount. She also has a weight loss goal.

 

Her BMR will look like this:

Females: 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) – 161= kcal/day

(10 x 200) + (6.25 x 158) – (5 x 37) – 161=

990 + 987.5 – 185 -161=1631.5

 

This means that she needs 1631.6 kcal/day for her basic metabolic functions not including activity.

We then take her BMR and multiply it by the activity multiple that fits her fitness frequency, 1.5.

1631.5 x 1.5=2445 kcal

 

That means that to maintain her current weight, 2445 calories will support that.  But wait — she doesn’t want to maintain, she wants to lose. To do that she must create a calorie deficit each day to achieve her goal.  By reducing her intake 500 calories to 1945, she would see roughly one pound of loss per week initially.  Of course, this is all on paper equations that don’t take in account the many variables of weight loss.

If a person had the strength or composition goals to put on muscle, then creating a calorie surplus would be the goal.  After calculating TDEE that person would need to consume over their TDEE to achieve weight gain.

                       

Establishing macronutrient targets

Once you have a rough estimate of your TDEE, you can bring to zone in on the ratios of macronutrients you need to accomplish your goal.

The first place to start: protein.

Research supports roughly .7-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.  This is a hug range and is dependent on your current learn mass, goals and current protein intake.

If you have a large amount of body weight to lose, use your estimated target goal weight instead of your current weight.  I’ve found that people who fall into this category are defeated by how much protein they must try to get in if their current body weight is used and give up quickly.

A sedentary to the lightly active person may consume on the lower end of the range, while a highly active person with a large amount of lean muscle mass would consume on the higher range.

Using Brooke (from above) who has a fifty-pound loss goal and is moderately active:

150 lbs x .85= 130 lb protein target (I rounded up for simplicity)

 

Carbohydrate and Fat targets

Setting the remaining portion of your targets can be done in so many different ways.  My focus as a coach is looking at what the person’s lifestyle is, what their food preferences are and their current habits when I set the remaining portions.  As I said above, the most important part is to create a calorie deficit to produce results.

For Brooke, she is a moderately active person who needs carbohydrate.

If we use her total TDEE 2773 and subtract roughly 500 calories to create a deficit, her daily target initially would be 2200 calories.  I say initially because as she loses weight that will cause the equation to shift and she will need less.

Because protein has a value of 4 kcal/gram:

130g of protein x 4    kcal/gram= 520 kcal per day will be consumed in protein

 

After protein, carbohydrate and fat targets need to be set. A great place to start is with a moderate ratio of 30% protein, with a fat set in the 25-30% range for weight loss and 30-35% range for strength/performance gains with a remaining percentage going towards carbohydrates.

Coming back to Brooke who has a fat loss goal, let’s set her fat intake on the higher side for weight loss around 30%.

 

1945 x .30= 583

Because one gram of fat is 9 kcal/gram, Brooke would start by consuming

583kcal/9g/kcal= 65g of fat

 

Now that 520 kcal are targeted towards protein and 583kcal will be used for her fat target, that leaves 840 kcal left for carbohydrate.

840 kcal/4g/Kcal= 210g of carbohydrate as her target.

Leaving Brooke’s final targets:

Protein: 130 grams

Carbohydrate: 210 grams

Fat: 64 grams 

 

Disclaimer

Using the data collected from a person’s current eating habits gives so much insight into the potential success of the targeted numbers created from an equation. In our hypothetical setup for Brooke, so much would change if we discover Brooke was actually way under eating at around 1200 kcal per day.  She would then be a candidate for a metabolic rebuild and reverse diet.  In addition, if she was barely eating 30-40 grams of protein initially, 130 grams might seem impossible initially.  All of these variables make setting initial targets a bit more subjective than what is done with pen and paper.  These equations are merely starting points to begin your macro tracking journey.

Just like any nutritional lifestyle, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.  Some people feel better with higher fat, higher carb or lower fat or lower carb.  SO much of how the targets are set depends on your lifestyle and your current eating habits.

What’s Next?

Once you have established some baseline targets, start learning by using an app like MyFitnessPal (my favorite) to learn more about your food habits and values.

After creating an account, you will set your daily target goals. The act of trying to do this helps create food awareness and understanding what the ultimate goal is.

MyFitnessPal has a host of really cool tips and tricks that make the tracking process less tedious.  You can read about these tips HERE.

Put it in perspective

There is a general misconception that tracking your macros means you will live with your head buried in your phone for the rest of your life.  That you will be “stuck” using the MyFitnessPal app for-evaaa.

WRONG! (insert buzzard noise here)

For some who thrive on accountability, you just might.  And if that works for you I say “heck yes”.

But for others that isn’t sustainable.  What is sustainable is investing time in learning to understand macronutrient value and portion size by weighing and measuring to acquire the skills necessary to begin to eyeball the portions your body needs to maintain your goals. Day-to-day practice becomes habit and may help you eat intuitively down the road.

Why It Works

When 2 out of every 3 adults are considered to be “obese” in the U.S. then clearly there is a misunderstanding in the energy balance needs of our bodies.

There is no “magic” behind tracking macros (although many of my clients would disagree…lol). The “magic” is a scientific approach to fueling your body with the right quantity of fuel for your goals. It is creating a caloric deficit or surplus, driven by goals, and having such great food awareness that you have the power to shift in whichever direction you want and need. Beyond that, it is day-to-day consistency that yields progress.

Macro tracking is effective because there are not an “off limits” food list.  In fact, the learning curve when you begin tracking macros is HUGE because most clients realize that junk food consumes a majority of their daily macro budget if they eat it.  The more whole, real foods you consume, the more food you have to enjoy in a day.

 

Over Restriction Breeds Non-Compliance

I’ve been there.  I followed a strict Paleo approach to eating for years after I discovered I had a gluten sensitivity. There was so much value in that experience, including the knowledge I gained in food quality and awareness.

The problem was that it restricted so many foods. When I had a desperate craving for something that wasn’t on the list of approved foods I would have a non-Paleo bender of tortilla chips, hummus, ice cream and gluten-free pizza.  My caloric intake quadrupled over a weekend and then I wondered why I was constantly starting over on Monday.

Once I discovered a balanced approach to eating I found myself consuming more real-foods, heavy on micro nutrients, than ever.

What’s even more amazing is I crave those foods less because they aren’t “off-limits” and I don’t feel the pressure to deny myself.  It’s kind of like when your parents tell you that you can’t date the “bad boy” when you are a teenager.  The more they say no the more desperate you become to find the “Danny Zuko” of your school and make it official. (shameless Grease plug…I was obsessed with that movie growing up.)

You Will Have Struggles

Like any nutritional endeavor, it won’t always be puppies and unicorns. There are going to be moments you question the process and feel like you’ve hit a roadblock.

I have found that there are a few common struggles that many people encounter along the way. Let me save you time RIGHT NOW….here they are and here is how you can overcome them.

Always Have a Goal in Mind

Before beginning any nutritional journey, you must have a vision of the road ahead. To guarantee success, determine what you want out of your nutritional journey, write it down and take action towards it. Your goal must be realistic, specific and measurable.

Establishing a “why” at the start of your journey keeps you motivated and allows you to gain momentum along your journey. When my own clients begin to forget their “why”, they begin to lose focus of that ever-changing finish line. When I ask them to reassess their why, their motivation and drive returns.

Measure to Become Food Aware

Learning to track your macros is a journey to becoming food aware. It is learning to weigh and measure now so that you can acquire a skill set to help you achieve your goals in life.

Investing in a food scale and accurate measuring devices will allow you to begin to learn to eyeball accurate portion sizes. Seeing actual measurements in front of you provides a major “ah-ha” moment to your previous version of portion sizing. Although this may seem like a tedious job, I guarantee the insight and skill gained from doing so are extremely worthwhile.

Use an App

Research has proven time and time again that the number one reason a nutritional strategy is effective is due to increased accountability. Whether that accountability comes from a diary, an app, a friend or a coach, it will greatly increase your success rate.

I require all my clients to use the MyFitnessPal app to log their food and increase their awareness; the MFP app allows you to individualize your macronutrient goals. The app also offers a huge database of food for meals out and for some of your grocery store favorites to simplify the logging process.

I have stuck with the free version of the app for years and it works wonders. If you want to be able to dial in your goals, to be extremely specific and have access to bonus features, a premium version is also available for a monthly fee. As you begin to log your intake, learn to assess food values and learn what is really inside your food.

BEWARE: MFP is a huge database of both verified nutritional values and those inputted by the general public; ensure the selections you make are realistic. It is always a great idea to double check the macro values. There are also some super simple tips that I have on my blog that will help you navigate MFP with much greater ease.

Backwards Plan

The single most important tip that I share with my clients is what I call “the backwards plan.” Just like a monthly budget, you must learn to “pay” the necessities first. Similarly, learning to take a few minutes each evening to plan for the next day, starting with dinner and working up to breakfast is a huge win in the success box. Start with protein and dinner. Once the necessities have been filled, you can plug in the “fun money” options like carbs and fats.

Flying by the seat of your pants will leave you being a reactive eater. By planning ahead, you shift to proactive eating and put yourself in control of the day’s outcome. If you are craving a treat, pre-log it and plan for it in your day. If you have a social event or a dinner out, plan ahead for what you’d like to enjoy and then work backwards to assure your macros will be satisfied for the day.

Understand the impact of alcohol                                

Is alcohol a macronutrient?  

Yes…and no. It isn’t a macro necessary for survival (but darn it don’t you wish it was) but it is one that has caloric value. There are many ways to track the macronutrient value of alcohol but it all boils down to consistency.

So…whydoes not track the carbs on the label?

Labels don’t account for pure ethanol contained within the beverage, so macros on the label don’t match the calorie per serving guide.

I have my clients track alcohol as a carbohydrate by taking the total caloric value and dividing it by 4 kcal/gram.

A beer containing 100 calories (100/4) would yield 25 grams of carbs

There are other ways to track by tracking it as 7 Kcal/gram

That same beer tracked this way (100/7) would yield roughly 15 grams of carbohydrate.

 

Regardless of how you track alcohol, the biggest piece is consistency. Chose the way that works well for you and stick with it.               

Be easy on yourself

Like any new life endeavor, it takes time to adjust, learn, and get in a groove. I inform clients that around the 30-day mark they will start to really find a rhythm in planning their day.

There will be days where you hit those targets dead on and others where you fall short or go over. Go easy on yourself and learn to celebrate all the small victories along the way. Steady progress is still that…PROGRESS.

Focus on macros, not calories

Not all calories are created equal. The old notion of setting a caloric intake and eating whatever combination of foods to arrive at a particular calorie count does not account for each person’s unique macronutrient needs.

A person may eat an extremely high fat intake to satisfy a “calorie” goal, but still be deficient in protein and lack energy without any carbs. Learning to identify the combination of nutrients that fits your body, activity, lifestyle and food preference takes time and is key to achieving your nutritional goals.

When you hit your macronutrient goals, your calories will fall in line. Learning to assess the value of the food you take in begins to provide purpose in its consumption and timing.

Increase diversity

Don’t get stuck in a rut of eating the same thing day in and day out. Food boredom will likely set in and then you are likely to take a trip to your pantry for an entire package of Double Stuffed Oreos.

Variety breeds sustainability. Learn to include more in your diet to keep you motivated. When you frequently change up your food stimulus, you maintain high motivation and compliance.

Add new spices and fresh herbs, try a new lean protein for dinner this week or add in a new recipe into your weekly lineup. Doing so will break the monotony of food regularity and keep you feeling like your meal choices are fresh and new!

Seek the 90/10

Above all, seek the 90/10. The reality is that the best nutritional strategy for you is the one you can stick with. Tracking macros are effective because it allows you to find balance in your relationship with food and eliminate food guilt.

The 90/10 rule means to seek to consume 90% whole real foods each day and 10% something you love. The 10% helps you maintain the 90% and helps preserve compliance. If you love dark chocolate (like me), then plan for a bit of dark chocolate in your day so you can satisfy that craving and maintain the other 90% of your day with nutrient dense food.

 

How do you know if macro tracking is a right fit for you right now?

Tracking is right for you if:

  1. You understand the basic values of food and are ready to dive deeper
  2. You are ready to go beyond the basics of nutrition
  3. You can’t thrive off of a “food list”
  4. You have a specific goal
  5. You have time in your life to make your nutrition a priority
  6. You are DONE with yo-yo dieting and fad diets and are ready for a sustainable approach to eating

 

Tracking your macros is not a static strategy for weight loss or gain. Tracking your macros is a dynamic strategy that shifts weekly depending on the body’s response. Having a coach to communicate with regularly provides the opportunity to make the needed adjustments to push for success. Being able to dive into a more scientific dialogue with a coach provides huge value to your understanding of the body.

When you find balance in your relationship with food, there is great longevity. It takes time to learn and invest in the skills necessary to maneuver through life with food balance. Invest in learning to make your health (link to food awareness post?) a priority in a way that is sustainable and enjoyable for you.

               Work Hard Be Kind,                

AWalk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

” width=”20″ height=”20″>

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.