What are Macros, and Why is Everyone Counting Them?

The term "macros" is short for macronutrients, or "big" nutrients. These are the nutrients and calories we need in large quantities to keep our bodies going. They are: Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats. These big three provide energy for you to live, repair cells, build muscle, protect your organs and play roles in balancing hormone production. Each is absolutely essential, so be wary of fad diets that tell you to skimp or surge on one and not another. 

Carbohydrates

Carbs get such a bad rap these days because of the myths surrounding them. But, guess what? Carbs are your body's energy source and they also supply the main form of energy needed for our brain. Now. I'm not saying carb-haters are dumb, but their tired ass brains might have something to do with their no-carb theories.  The truth is, carbs don't make you fat, too many calories makes you fat. Carbs don't cause diabetes, insulin resistance, hyperactivity, or chronic inflammation that leads to cancer, Alzheimer's, or autism, among other things I've seen them blamed for. They are not a catchall cause for every ill or feeling of sluggishness. Chances are, a host of bad habits are causing you to feel like crap, so don't blame it on the bagel you ate this morning. 

Carbs and are made out of sugars, starches, and fiber. The word "sugars" is enough to send self-proclaimed health nuts running for the hills. But with food, it's really too many added sugars in our diet that is the problem, not so much the natural sugars found in food... unless you consume too many calories in general. Sugars are what fuel us. Even diabetics can (and should) consume a moderate amount of carbs daily, as part of a balanced diet. 

Simple carbohydrates, like the kind you find in fruits, milk, refined flours and table sugar are digested quickly because they only have one or a few sugar molecules. Complex carbohydrates, the kind in whole grains, vegetables and legumes, take longer to digest because they are made up of longer (aka more "complex") chains of sugar molecules. The caloric load determines your weight, no matter which you choose to eat. But the way you feel and the health benefits are definitely skewed in complex carbohydrates favor. So it's best that the majority of your carbs come from those sources. Simple carbs aren't "bad," they just aren't as beneficial to your body as a whole and should be consumed in moderation.

Carbs also supply fiber which is incredibly beneficial to our body. The sugars in fiber aren't broken down by the body, so it's not used as energy. Instead, fiber (insoluble fibers) helps the digestion process. While some folks like to go to fancy spas for coffee enemas in hopes of washing out their insides, all you really need to do is add fiber to your diet. It's a cheaper, less butt-rapey way, to clean out those pipes. Fiber (soluble fibers) also helps to reduce cholesterol, and control blood glucose levels. Diets high in fiber are associated with lower risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and some cancers. Fiber comes from carbs. Do you really want to eliminate them from your diet? Didn't think so. 

The Institutes of Medicine says 40%-65% of a healthy diet should come from carbohydrate sources.  

Proteins

Proteins are a must , not only for building big sexy muscles, but for constructing and repairing every cell in your body - EVERY CELL -  which are constantly in a cycle of growth, death and repair. This is why we need a fresh supply of protein every single day, not just when we hit the gym. 

Protein consists of amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of life. Nine of twenty are considered "essential" because our body can't produce them. And if we don't get enough of these nine, our body has to cannibalize itself to find what it needs. Yuck. Do you want your body to resort to that scene in "The Road" where they eat the baby, or would you rather it run like a well-oiled construction company with a stocked warehouse of parts, where workers aren't desperately hunched over baby carcasses?  Thought so. 

When you think of protein, big slabs of meat probably spring to mind. But you can also get proteins from plant-based foods. The best proteins are what we consider "complete" proteins, meaning they have the whole string of essential amino acids in the right amounts needed by the body. It's like receiving a shipment at your construction warehouse with all the parts you need, put together properly, in one box. These are found in animal products, such as meats, fish, dairy, and eggs. "Incomplete" proteins, the kind you find in plant-based foods like vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fruit and legumes, do not contain all the essential amino acids at once. It's like receiving that shipment of parts in a bunch of boxes in random amounts. Your body has to unpack everything and try and piece it all together. It's not "bad," per say, it's just a more difficult way of getting the protein you need. Soy and quinoa are the only two plant based foods that contain all nine essential amino acids. 

High protein diets are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve as people are becoming more interested in lifting weights and being strong. I'm glad to see this in the face of the vegan and raw foods movements trying to scare people away from meat and every other animal product. This resulted in a bunch of protein-phobic people slugging raw juice and seeds all day and getting weak, gassy, and weird. You may not want to eat meat, but get smart about your aminos and learn good food pairings to get the most complete array you can. 

There is no evidence of high protein diets being linked to ill effects, unless you are allergic to them, or have kidney disease and are overdoing supplements. Your body excretes it's extra protein, so it doesn't build up. Consuming animal products has not been linked to cancer in any conclusive or credible way. The only link that has a bit of traction is a link between some gastro-intestinal cancers and excessive intake of red meat, in particular processed red meats preserved with nitrites. 

The recommended daily protein intake from the Institute of Medicine is .37 grams per pound of bodyweight in adults, but most other health and fitness sources recommend a bit more, between .5 grams and 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight in adults.

Fats

Fats are another maligned macronutrient that are becoming better understood and embraced. For a while, people were convinced that fat makes you fat, but it doesn't. Fat doesn't slide on down your intestinal tract and make a b-line out of some invisible hatch to attach itself to your belly or thighs. It has more calories per gram than carbohydrates or proteins, this is true, but it is broken down just the same and utilized or stored, like everything else. 

Fats cushion and insulate your body and organs, they are part of hormonal function, muscle contraction, immune function, they help digest vitamins and aid in blood-clotting, they serve as an energy source and, as I like to say, put a nice gloss on your coat. You don't need as much fat as you need carbohydrates and proteins, but you need a moderate amount in your diet. 

What kind of fat you take in seems to be even more important than how much, exactly, you eat. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats have less hydrogen bonds and improve your cholesterol ratio. These are the types of fats you find in fish, nuts, seeds and oils like canola, flaxseed, soybean, sunflower, safflower and olive. Saturated fats have their hydrogen bonds intact and tend to increase your overall cholesterol and create a less desirable ratio of healthy versus unhealthy levels. These are the types of fat you find in meats, animal products, butter and oils like coconut and palm. Trans-fats have gotten a lot of buzz these days for having negative effects on the body. They are "partially-hydrogenated," which means hydrogen bonds have been added to make them more shelf stable and solid. Unfortunately they are linked to poor cholesterol ratios, heart disease and stroke. Fully hydrogenated oils have been loaded with hydrogen bonds for the same reason. They are also linked to poor health, even though they aren't "trans-fats." Basically, you want to consume more mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, a smaller amount of saturated fats, and you want to try to avoid anything artificially hydrogenated, for the most part. This should be easier within the next few years, as the FDA has begun banishing trans fats. 

The Institutes of Medicine suggest 20%-35% of your daily calories come from fat. 

Now For the Math Part...

Counting macros and Macro ratios are hot topics lately. Bodybuilders and other athletes are pioneering the theory that if you eat your macronutrients in the right amounts every day, you will burn fat and enjoy increased performance and energy. 

Does it work?

Yes. Counting macronutrients still relies on a caloric goal.  Calories in >Calories out = Weight Gain. Calories In <Calories Out = Weight Loss. Calories In=Calories Out = Weight Maintenance. So, if you set the proper caloric goal, you will gain/lose/maintain your weight. That part isn't magical.

But to optimize your macros for performance is where it becomes interesting. It's kind of an art, and depends a lot on your goals and activity level. If you are a hardcore lifter or if you are on a caloric deficit (eating less calories than you are burning to lose weight), you want a higher amount of protein to repair and build muscle, or keep muscle mass. If you are an endurance athlete, you want to up your carbohydrate level so you have plenty of energy to keep pushing. You have to find the right percentage for your goals to make it "work" for you. 

That said, a very general cutting (fat-burning or weight loss) ratio, assuming you'll be on a bit of a deficit (consuming less calories) while trying to build some muscle and hit some good gym sessions, is 40/40/20. That means 40% Carbohydrate, 40% Protein, 20% Fat. This is by no means what will work for you for the rest of your life, if at all, but it's a guesstimate to start. 

This is how you do it:

1. Calculate your TDEE

2. Decide if you want to lose weight (subtract 250-500 calories), gain weight (add 250 calories) or maintain your current weight (leave the total alone.) 

Example: My TDEE = 2,000 calories. I want to lose weight, but not a ton. So, I will subtract 250 calories to get 1,750 calories. (this is not really MY goal, but you get the drift.) 

3. If you want to try a 40/40/20, Multiply your ADJUSTED CALORIE GOAL by .4 and this will be the amount of calories you need from Carbohydrates in a day. Protein will have the same amount. Now multiply by .2 and this is the amount of calories you should consume from fat. 

Example: 1,750 x .4 = 700 calories from carbs. 1,750 x .4 = 700 calories from protein and 1,750 x .2 = 350 calories from fat. (700+700+350=1,750 or 100%)

4. Carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram, so you divide the amount of calories by 4 to get the grams. Fat has 9 calories per gram, so you will divide by 9 to get your number in grams.  

Example: 700/4 = 175g of carbohydrate. 700/4 = 175 g of protein. 350/9 = 39g of fat. 

So, log all of your macronutrients as grams. Stop eating each one as you hit your limit. Or divide those macros into however many meals you eat in a day and come up with macro-balanced meals. 

Sounds easy, but... try making recipes, using sauces, adding ingredients beyond your simple, clean meat + vegetable + starch and it gets out of hand really quick. It seems easier for the youngsters who eat fast food and packaged items, because nutrition labels are easy to read. I suggest my followers aim for percentages but don't bug out if you don't nail it to the gram. Mine are working out to an approximate 45% carb/35% protein /20% fat at the moment and so far, so good. I tend to be a bit more fluid with my macros. Again, myfitnesspal gives you a nutrient breakdown, too, so check your totals while you are managing your diet and see what feels best to you. 

A Note About Alcohol and Fiber

Believe it or not, Alcohol is a macro, too, because it supplies 7 calories to the gram. I leave it out because there isn't a recommended intake level, for good reason. Just be mindful of logging your liquor and knowing too much can screw everything up. 

Where fiber is concerned, you should aim for 25-30 or so grams (at least) a day. This means getting the majority of your carbs from nutrient dense, complex sources like whole grains, vegetables, fruit, etc. Not enough fiber is bad for your guts and gums up the works. Feeling like you have to shit and not being able to is no fun, especially when you're trying to work out, so get that fiber in! 

What's the Deal With IIFYM?

IIFYM or, "If It Fits Your Macros" touts a "flexible" diet plan where you can swap any macro you like, be it dounut or oats, fried chicken or baked chicken breast, canola oil or lard, as long as the grams do not change. A carb is a carb, protein is protein and fat is fat. Your body doesn't know the difference. 

And that is true to a point, but your body isn't that stupid. Remember it needs the other stuff, like vitamins, minerals, fiber, polyunsaturated fatty acids and the rest to keep it tip top. 

While I definitely advocate the occasional cheeseburger and donut, and while on a vacation or short bender, IIFYM is a way to keep your body composition while you indulge, I don't think it is healthy to eat like that all the time, macros on point or no. I think the intent is to eat as healthful as possible, but sneak in some gluttony once in awhile, but it's fans sometime take it to silly extents, especially on social media. Most of these kids are young and dim. They'll learn, as age creeps in and tells them what's up. 

So when I talk about counting macros, I mean eating clean most of the time, but not being afraid to binge out once in awhile. You don't want an unhealthy, fearful relationship with food, whether that means being afraid of a macronutrient  or a treat. Balance is key.