What Are Macros?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how combining a Paleo approach with counting your macros is an incredibly powerful approach to your diet (and I mean diet in the sense of what you eat, not "a diet" that you are on short-term to reach a goal). I wanted to take a step back and discuss macros a little bit more for those who may not know much about what I mean when I say that. 

Why am I qualified to tell you this? I'm a family nurse practitioner and a woman of science (SCIENCE!). Right now I work in women's health, but nutrition and nutrition science are what I am most interested in. I will take any and every opportunity that I can to talk to my patients about food and nutrition because it's such an important part of overall health and an area where there is a lot of confusion and misconceptions. 

So, what are macros?  Macros stands for macronutrients which are the building blocks of the food you eat everyday. There are three kinds of macros - proteins, carbs, and fat.

  • Protein contains 4kcal/gram so if something has 20g of protein, it contains 80 calories.
  • Carbs contain 4kcal/gram so in the same way as protein, if it has 20g of carb, it contains 80 calories.
  • Fats contain 9kcal/gram so if you have something with 5g of fat, it contains 45 calories.
  • Alcohol contains 7kcal/gram but it is not one of the essential macros because it is not required for survival (or at least according to medical science it's not). 

Note: Net carbs are the amount of carbs that are in a particular food minus the amount of carb that has no impact on blood glucose levels (i.e. fiber). Keeping blood glucose levels stable can impact fat loss but your body still absorbs the same amount of calories, the food is just lower glycemic index. This plays a minimal role in overall fat loss, so counting complete carbs is a less confusing and better option.

Why do different distribution of macros matter?

Carbohydrates (or carbs) are what we mainly utilize for energy. Think of them as the gas you put in your gas tank. They are converted directly into energy and are essential to the function of many of your organs, most specifically your brain.  

Fats are a more concentrated form of energy but harder for the body to convert. There are three different types of fats - saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat. 

Proteins are required for growth and development. They help to build muscle mass and are what the body uses for energy when there is no carbohydrates available (fat is the last place the body goes for energy since it is so hard to convert). For the sake of simplicity, muscle mass = metabolism. If you don't eat enough carbohydrate, your body will break down your muscles for energy, which will slow your metabolism. 

How do I count macros?

Most apps that allow you to count calories can also be used to track macros. I use MyFitnessPal. It's not a perfect system, but it works. I don't pay any attention to what it tells me I should be eating calorie/macro-wise, I just simply pay attention to the actual numbers (if you flip the diary page horizontally on your phone it will give you macros and totals at the bottom) There are other apps such as Macros+ that I've heard are great too, but I haven't used those. The best way to count macros is to simply start by tracking your food the way you normally eat. This will help you get familiar with what foods offer what macros. 

Which foods are protein sources? Which foods are carb sources? Fats? After you are familiar with that it becomes more like putting together a puzzle. You have to learn how to fit those pieces together in a way that fits within certain numbers for any given day. 

It is important to note that all protein sources also contain fats and carbs. All carb sources also contain fats and proteins. It all matters. There is no such thing as a food with 0 calories, although some are close. I don't share this information to create an obsessive macro tracking monster, but to make sure you are knowledgeable about what you are putting into your body. 

How do I know what my macros are? 

  1. Trial and error. No one, no matter how smart or experienced, is going to be able to tell you how to gain muscle and lose fat from day 1. Everyone is different and the thing that makes macros seem hard or makes people believe that they don't work is that it takes a little bit of time to figure out what will work for you. This leads me to my next point...
  2. Get a human to help you. The online calculators out there are just using population averages. They do not take into account the complicated history and many factors that make you, you. They don't know your goals or how your body reacts to certain foods. And while some of them do take into account your daily activity level, they assume that most of that is strength training or that your goal is to build muscle. 
  3. Higher protein and lower carb. Most online calculators, and MyFitnessPal, do weird things with your macro ratios that really don't make a lot of sense for fat loss (see above, they assume you want to bulk up on muscle). For the average person, higher protein and lower carb is a better option as a general rule. That does not mean LOW or NO carbs, it just means having an appropriate ratio of the two (confused? see point number 2). Remember too that lower is not necessarily better in this case. Yes, I said lowER carb but you still need carbs. 

Learning your total daily expenditure or caloric amount can be tricky. While it seems counterintuitive that trial and error would be the most efficient way to do this, it truly is. What works for me isn't going to work for you because our bodies and our goals are different. 

Do you want help getting started with macros? 

I've got a 6 week macros coaching program where we work together to figure out what macros are right for you! I'll calculate your initial macros prescription and then, through weekly check-ins, we will take some of the guesswork out of figuring out exactly what will work for you and your goals! Click here to check it out and get started today! 

What the heck does IIFYM mean?

This stands for "if it fits your macros" which means that you can pretty much eat whatever you want as long as the macros fit within your numbers for the day. As I said in my post about macros and paleo, I don't think that this approach is necessarily best, but incorporating the idea behind it into an overall healthy diet makes this approach more flexible. 

The theory behind IIFYM is that no matter what the source of your food (veggies vs. pop tarts) your body will process them the same if the macro content is the same. While I understand this to be scientifically true, I don't believe that it's the best approach and I think that while your body may process the food the same, the end effect that those different foods have on your body after processing can be vastly different. Which is why I think macros and Paleo belong together!

Your body produces a different insulin response based on the kind of carbohydrate you give it. High glycemic index foods (most of the time more processed foods) vs lower glycemic index foods (things like sweet potato, brown rice, oatmeal). A stable insulin response is good for many reasons including fat loss, however if you maintain a balance of both high and low glycemic index foods, the response is still stable and your body adapts. 

So, while I'm not at all saying that you should be eating crap all day, I am saying that IIFYM allows you not to feel guilty about indulgences or lower quality food choices. Your body will adapt to eating processed foods as carbohydrate sources. Because so long as you hit your macros for the day, you will make progress towards your goals. From a strictly weight and fat loss perspective, carbs are carbs and it doesn't matter where they come from. So if you weren't worried about your overall health (which you should be), it wouldn't matter what you at so long as you ate the right balance of macros. 

Click here to check out my 6 week macros coaching program! 

Linking up with Amanda.

Martha Rosenstein