Macronutrients are the nourishment your body needs to complete all its various processes from hair and skin growth to providing energy to your cells. There are micronutrients such as vitamins that help improve your body’s functions, but the difference is that macronutrients, often just shortened to ‘macros’, are absolutely essential micronutrients are optional.
What we consider to be the essential macros are carbs, protein, amino acids, fat, cholesterol, fiber, and water. Once upon a time, nutritionists concentrated all their efforts on making sure people consumed enough of these vital nutrients because food was just more scarce. While that’s certainly still important, growing obesity rates and less than ideal eating habits in many parts of the world led to a need for balancing the consumption of macros to accomplish health goals like weight loss.
The first thing you need to do is set your health goals. Are you trying to build muscle, or is weight loss more important? Are you trying to maintain the weight you’re at or sculpt muscle mass you already have? Whatever the case may be, a meal plan for counting macros paired with the right Fitplan will get you where you want to go. Read on for the specifics about counting macros to reach your health goals.
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What Do Macronutrients Do?
Let’s take a closer look at each of the macros we listed earlier and examine what purpose they serve in the human body.
Carbohydrates are made up of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. Your body uses them for energy for loads of different things. Your body converts carbs into glucose and then distributes it to cells via the bloodstream. Carbs get turned into adenosine triphosphates, also known as ATP, and while cells can make ATP from a variety of other sources such as fats, your body will prefer to use carbs because they’re harder to store than fats, easier to transform into usable energy, and can be transformed into the ketones that power your brain. In addition, the central nervous system can only be powered by carbs, not fats.
One of the most important macronutrients, protein is used by the body to make hair and nails grow, build muscle mass, repair damaged tissue, make enzymes and hormones, and create blood, bones, and cartilage. It’s one of the central building blocks of pretty much everything the human body does. Making sure you get enough protein is essential for nutritional health and any other fitness goals you might have. You can up your protein intake with foods like sweet potatoes, beans, and of course meat products.
There are 20 amino acids and nine of them are considered essential to the human body. They’re the building blocks of proteins, which are in turn the building blocks of many other things, as we mentioned above. The body cannot make the nine essential amino acids and must find them in foods like eggs and meat. Without amino acids, your body couldn’t make neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. It also uses them to make serotonin, power the immune system and metabolism, heal from wounds, produce growth hormones, regulate the sleep cycle, and operate the reproductive system.
The sworn enemy of everyone trying to monitor their calorie intake, fat has a bad name. Dieticians, however, understand that there are some healthy fats that are imperative for proper bodily function. These are sometimes called dietary fats. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are the two healthy fats, and they help lower blood pressure, regulate the heartbeat, fight inflammation, and reduce the hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart attacks or strokes. Healthy fats are also used as an energy source, for brain health, and to absorb vitamins.
How Many Macros Do I Need Per Day?
Your size, age, activity level, and fitness goals all affect the amount of these essential macronutrients you need in a day. Sedentary lifestyles will need less energy from carbs than a high-activity one, for example. If you’re trying to maintain your current weight you might need to eat less fat while you might want to up your protein intake if you’re trying to build muscle mass with our Bodybuilding 101 Fitplan, for example.
The good news is that you can adjust your macros for fat loss, fitness goals, or just to suit your personal preference. Below you’ll find how much macronutrients you need (shown as percent of daily calorie intake) from researchers at Washington State University. Bear in mind that they’re just a loose set of guidelines and setting your own macro goals could likely net you different numbers.
|Carb Intake By Activity Level
|Protein Intake By Activity Level
|Active – Recreational
|0.45 – 0.68
|0.54 – 0.82
|0.82 – 0.91
|0.64 – 0.91
|0.64 – 0.91
Dieticians advise that no more than 25% of your daily calorie intake should be from healthy fats and no more than 10% of those should come from saturated fats.
One interesting thing about the information in the above table is that protein intake should be the same for bodybuilders and for those who are dieting. Let’s examine that a bit more closely to understand what that might be and learn a bit more about setting macro goals to achieve certain ends.
Macro Goals and Weight Loss
Dieticians universally agree that weight loss is controlled by your calorie intake. If you burn more energy than you get from food, it will lead to weight loss. Now, does that mean you should set your macros so you can eat 100% veggies and nothing else? Of course not. You can lead a healthy lifestyle and still have healthy fats and carbs.
That being said, many dieting people prefer to try low carb diet plans or protein-rich programs like the Keto Diet. Macro goals can take all of that into account and still help you reach your weight loss goals.
Protein curbs your body’s appetite by reducing the amount of ghrelin, a hormone that causes your body to feel hungry and increasing the production of peptide YY, which makes you feel full. Eating healthy fats can prevent your body from developing a leptin resistance, which can discourage you when you’re dieting and derail the whole project.
Leptin is a hormone produced by the fat cells in your body. They’re kind of like a signal to your brain that the fat cells are there. When not enough leptin has been registered, it sends a signal to your body that you need to eat more to get more energy. The jury is still out on the finer details of leptin and leptin resistance, but there does appear to be a correlation between developing a resistance and having high leptin levels in the first place.
Macro Goals and Muscle Mass
Just like balancing your macro tracking to support weight loss goals, you can do the same thing to promote building muscle mass, like you will with our Beautiful You Fitplan. You’ll also shed some body fat, which means you can reach both fitness goals at the same time if you want to as long as you write a deficit into your calorie intake.
Protein is the most important macronutrient for building muscle mass. It’s also important to remember that carbs are your body’s main energy source and power it through really hard workouts, so you probably shouldn’t go really low-carb if you’re trying to lose weight with intense exercises.
Try a 40-30-30 ratio (that’s 40% protein, 30% each for healthy fats and carbs) if you’re building muscle mass. It can also be higher or lower, just make sure you listen to your body and make needed adjustments along the way.
Macro Goals and a Healthy Lifestyle
So that we don’t leave out people who are just trying to maintain rather than build muscle mass or achieve a weight loss goal. You can count macros to improve your overall health without the weight loss by equalling out your calorie intake. Just remove the built-in deficit. It will still improve your eating habits overall.
If you have a certain number of carbs you need to eat in a day, it’s easy to sneak some whole grains in. Only measuring calorie intake is a fine enough way to lose weight, but it doesn’t ensure healthy eating necessarily. Making better food choices is easier for everyone who counts macros because it makes you think about what you’re eating and how much you should be eating of it.
Calorie counting alongside macro goals is probably the best way forward for just about everyone, no matter what your particular nutritional goals, fitness goals, or weight loss goals might be. It will help improve your overall health because you’ll cut out empty calories and eventually naturally gravitate toward healthier options.
Food Choice and a Macro Diet
It’s just as important to make sure your food intake is nutritious as it is to make sure it’s the right amount. You might say micro counting is what makes healthy food healthy in the first place. If you’re a bit stumped on how you can fit these macronutrients into a healthy lifestyle, here are a few foods that are rich in each of the main macros your body needs.
Foods to Eat for Carb Macros:
- Whole grains
Foods to Eat for Protein Macros:
- Lean beef
- Low-fat cottage cheese or yogurt
- Whey protein
- Egg Whites
Foods to Eat for Healthy Fats Macros:
- Egg yolks
- Olive oil
These are all the staple foods that offer these macronutrients, but most foods generally offer a mixture of nutrients inside them. For example, beans are a good source of both protein and carbs. Sprouts, quinoa, peas, and skim milk will also help round out your protein intake and your carbs macro. Similarly, chia seeds, cottage cheese, whole-fat dairy, salmon, and duck are all foods that will help you hit your macros for both proteins and healthy fats.
How to Track Your Macros
Now that you understand the nutritional science behind macro counting, you’ll be able to better understand how to track macros. There are a few different methods and you should shop around, tweak programs, and try out different ones to see which suit you and your lifestyle most successfully. There are even some tracking apps that can help you record what you’ve eaten in a given day and compare trends over longer periods of time.
The first thing you should do is figure out how many calories your body needs to stay energized throughout the day. You can do this with an online calculator or you can use the Mifflin St. Jeor Equation, which is widely held to be the most accurate formula for calculating calorie needs.
Mifflin St. Jeor Equation
Men: 10 x Weight (in kilograms) + 6.25 x Height (in centimeters) – 5 x Age (in years) + 5
Women: 10 x Weight (in kilograms) + 6.25 x Height (in centimeters) – 5 x Age (in years) – 161
Take the number from the equation above (BMR) and multiply it by one of these numbers depending on your lifestyle habits:
- Sedentary = BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active = BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active = BMR x 1.55
- Very active = BMR x 1.725
- Extra active = BMR x 1.9
If you can’t really tell which multiplier to use, consider yourself sedentary if you’re mostly at your work desk throughout the day and don’t tend to go running or get other exercise. If you exercise a few times a week, you’re lightly active. Exercises every day or almost every day makes you moderately active while being very active means you’re doing hard exercise every single day or exercising multiple times a day. Extra active is a category reserved for marathon runners or people doing strenuous exercise multiple times a day.
The resulting number should give you the right calorie intake for a given day. If you’re geared toward weight loss, add a deficit by consuming, say 500 calories less than the number the equation gives you. We’ve already mentioned how you can count macros to achieve weight loss or fitness goals. If you want to do lots of hard workouts, make your carbs 40% of your total calorie intake. If you want to build muscle mass, protein should be in the top spot. If you’re trying to lose weight, eat less of those healthy fats.
The hardest part of this whole process is keeping track of how many grams of what macronutrients are in what foods. The good news is that you only have to figure out these measurements once for each food and then you can design your dieting plan around them. Keep a journal so you can remember different foods and their macro counts.
If It Fits Your Macros
One macro diet that many people have used successfully is the “If It Fits Your Macros” diet, which is just what it sounds like. Rather than focusing on a certain calorie goal, it focuses on the nutrients in the foods that make up your diet. It’s more flexible dieting than solely monitoring the number of calories you consume, but maintaining that calorie count is still important for weight loss and other things. If all you want to do is eat more nutritiously healthy foods, then the IIFYM is probably fine for you. But if you want to gain muscle, then you’ll still want to know the number of calories you’re taking in and expelling to make sure you don’t gain weight instead of muscle.
What you eat is just as important as how much you eat. If you’re trying to shed some bodyweight or get some muscle gains, your body composition is key, and that means what you eat is critical. Balancing your macro intake and energy expenditure might sound like a ton of work, but it’s actually one of the easiest and most effective ways to lose weight, gain muscle, or just maintain a healthy lifestyle. The key to understanding how tracking macros can help you reach health and fitness goals is to learn exactly how your body uses each of the different nutrients.
Scientists and researchers are still publishing studies about how macronutrients affect appetite and build muscle, but there are a few things that have wide consensus in the professional nutrition community. One of those truths is that you cannot completely eliminate any macros healthily (yes, that includes carbs). The benefits of the different macros are also fairly well-established as well, even if all the inner workings of the human body are not.
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