July 12, 2021 10 min read

Do you ever feel like there's a new fad diet every year that promises to deliver results only to leave most people disappointed? If so, you're not alone.

And, we don't need to tell you that most of these one-size-fits-all diets are a complete sham. However, one dietary trick with real potential to help you reach your fitness goals is tracking macros. But, what are macros, and what does it mean to track them?

Here's everything to know about macros and how to track them to reach your fitness goals!

A control panel with three knobs each controlling one macronutrient type

What Are Macros (Macronutrients)?

Macronutrients are large nutrients. Macro stands for large, and nutrient stands for... nutrient. We call them macronutrients because your body needs them in large amounts to carry out essential functions. There are three macronutrients:

  • Carbs
  • Protein
  • Fat

The way that you get macronutrients is through food. And, almost every food you eat is composed of different concentrations of macronutrients. Most foods are a mix of carbs, proteins, and fats. But, they are typically classified as either a carb, protein, or fat, based on which macronutrient makes up the majority of their composition. 

For example, we consider steak a protein because protein is its most abundant macronutrient.  Yet, it also contains carbs and fats.  In addition to macronutrients, your body also needs micronutrients. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals such as Vitamins A, C, and D, iron, and potassium, just to name a small few.

We call them micronutrients because our bodies don't need them in as large of quantities as they do macronutrients. Nonetheless, they are still essential for a healthy body. Here is everything you need to know about the three macronutrients!

Carbohydrates

More likely than not, the majority of your diet should be composed of carbs. Carbs come in three forms, including sugars, starches, and fiber.  The average person needs between 45 and 65% of their daily calories from carbohydrates. Carbs have several functions, with the most important ones being:

  • Converting into glucose for energy
  • Synthesizing amino acids
  • Absorbing proteins and micronutrients

The most crucial function of carbs is to convert into glucose. Once consumed, all three forms of carbs turn into glucose. Glucose is your body's primary source of energy. Your body needs that energy for everything from exercising, to pumping blood, to activating each of your internal organs.

In addition to providing energy, carbs also help synthesize amino acids. Your body can synthesize ten different amino acids. Aminos are the building blocks of protein; without the aminos, your body wouldn't be able to build proteins. And, without the carbs, your body wouldn't be able to synthesize the aminos in the first place.

Also, your body needs carbs to absorb the protein and micronutrients in your food. You may think you're doing a good thing by getting in those nutrients, but they're useless unless you eat them with carbs.

The three forms of carbs, starches, fiber, and sugars, are classified as either simple or complex carbs. Starches can be either simple or complex, fiber is more likely complex, and sugar is more likely simple.

Simple carbs are easily and quickly processed by your digestive system, meaning they quickly convert into glucose once digested. As a result, simple carbs cause a quick and high spike in your blood sugar levels. Examples of simple carbs include:

  • White bread and white rice
  • Table sugar
  • Naturally sweet honey and fruit

We commonly refer to simple carbs as the less healthy of the two types of carbs. This statement does hold some truth to it. Not only do simple carbs spike blood sugar, but they also tend to be higher processed and contain little to no nutritional value. Yet, some simple carbs such as honey and fruit are high in micronutrients and are nutritionally dense.

On the other hand, complex carbs take more time and energy to process in the digestive system. As a result, they won't spike your blood sugar.  Thanks to the slow processing, they help keep energy levels high long after being consumed.  High-fiber foods, including whole-grain bread, brown rice, and quinoa, are great examples of complex carbs. 

More often than not, complex carbs are whole foods that have undergone minimal processing. The bottom line is that you need carbs.  But, when you can, opt for the complex carbs. 

They have a higher macronutrient value, keep energy levels higher for longer, and won't spike your blood sugar.  Also, interlace naturally sweet, simple carbs like honey and fruit into your diet to reap their micronutrient benefits.

Protein

The second of the three macronutrients is protein. More likely than not, protein should be the second most abundant macronutrient in your diet.  The average person needs between 10 and 35% of their daily calories from protein. Protein has several functions, with the most important ones being:

  • Cell and tissue growth
  • Building lean muscle mass
  • Catalyzing biochemical reactions

First off, proteins are your body's building blocks. Proteins build every body cell and are composed of amino acids. Without enough protein, your body would cease to grow because your body is constantly turning over new cells. Your body can synthesize some amino acids, and therefore proteins on its own.

However, the body cannot synthesize all of the amino acids. The aminos that your body can't synthesize are called the essential amino acids, and you can only get them through food intake. Therefore, you must incorporate the essential amino acids into your diet to keep cell and tissue growth going.

Second, you need protein to build muscle. It's no secret that the key to building mass is to eat a high-protein diet. But, what makes protein so important? Protein helps drive post-exercise muscle protein synthesis (MPT). When you exercise, your muscle tissues break down.

Following exercise, those tissues rebuild through MPT. Not only do they rebuild, but they also rebuild stronger and larger than what they were before exercising. As a result, you gain muscle mass. Without protein, not only would you not gain muscle mass, but your muscles would weaken because they would have no protein to use for rebuilding.

Lastly, proteins function as enzymes to catalyze countless internal body functions. They catalyze everything from DNA repair to sending chemical signals and responding to physical stimuli.  These reactions, among many others, help your body sync with the outside world. Dietary protein comes from both animal and plant sources. The most common animal sources include:

The most common plant sources of protein include:

  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Veggies including broccoli and spinach

Both animals and plants are good sources of protein. However, keep in mind that almost no plant source of protein contains the essential amino acids. Therefore, if you are vegetarian or vegan, you need to make sure that you take an amino acid supplement to ensure that you're getting all of the essential amino acids. A registered dietitian might be a good person to talk to to get an idea of the supplements you need.

Fats

The second of the three macronutrients is fat.  Years ago, it was almost taboo to consider fats healthy and essential.  However, these days, fats are touted as a champion for good overall health. The average person needs between 20 and 35% of their daily calories from fats. Fat has several functions, with the most important ones being:

  • Storing and providing energy
  • Protecting organs
  • Creating and regulating hormones

First off, fat works with carbohydrates to provide energy.  Unlike carbs, however, fats do not convert immediately into glucose when consumed.  Instead, they convert into high-calorie fatty acids. 

Fatty acids have a higher calorie concentration than glucose, meaning they pack more energy per gram than glucose.  In addition to providing energy sources, fat also stores energy for future use and regulates body temperature.

Second, fat helps protect your organs. Like it or not, everyone needs fat on their body to keep them safe. Without it, we would be much more vulnerable to deadly injuries. For example, imagine falling flat on your face without any fat on your body; the odds that you would puncture a vital organ would be much higher than if you didhave fat on your body.

Lastly, fats help create and regulate hormones. Hormones are chemicals that send signals throughout your body via the blood. They're responsible for regulating body growth, metabolism, and mood. There is some truth behind the stereotype that people on low-fat diets are always moody.

This is because fats help boost your mood by keeping hormones related to happiness high. While fats are healthy and necessary, some types are better than others. There are three different types of fats, including:

  • Unsaturated fats
  • Saturated fats
  • Trans fats

Unsaturated fats are healthy fats because they have all the positive benefits of fats, including providing energy and regulating hormones. Foods like avocado, olive oil, and salmon are high in these healthy fats.  Be sure to integrate them into your meal plan.

On the flip side, saturated and trans fats are unhealthy fats. Instead of making you healthier, they have multiple downsides, including increasing the likelihood of developing heart disease and obesity. Processed foods like desserts and fast food tend to be very high in unhealthy fats. Saturated fats can be consumed in small amounts and still be healthy. However, trans fats have no benefits for you.

Woman using calorie counter application on her smartphone

Should You Count Macros?

Regardless of who you are or what your fitness goals are, you can benefit from counting macros. And, when done right, counting macros can help you reach your fitness goals faster. There are few to no downsides to making sure that you're getting enough nutrients each day. At the same time, there are several key benefits to keeping track of macros, including:

  • Boosting energy levels
  • Changing body composition (losing body fat or building muscle)
  • Making healthier food choices

Moreover, you have little to lose and a lot to gain from tracking macros. Thankfully, tracking macros is simple with apps like MyFitnessPal and MyMacros. But, before getting started with tracking, here are a few things to consider:

The Keto Diet and Macros

Are you one of the millions of people who have tried the keto diet in the past few years?  If so, then you need to pay attention! The keto diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet plan most commonly used to stimulate weight loss. People following the diet cut out almost all carbs, including simple and complex carbs, and substitute them with fats. 

Because it can be highly effective, we wouldn't necessarily call it a fad diet. But, at the same time, it dramatically reduces carbs and increases fats to levels beyond what is considered normal.Therefore, if you're on the keto diet or attempting to try it, know that your macronutrient ratios won't be comparable to normal ranges or estimates.

The Macro Diet

The macro diet is a diet plan in which your daily meals meet an exact and calculated number of carbs, protein, and fats. Counting macros is not the same as following the macro diet. The bad thing about the macro diet is that all of your attention is on meeting an exact number of macronutrients each day. Hyper focusing on numbers makes it easy to forget about the quality of the foods that you eat. 

Moreover, when you become so locked in on a number, it can be easy to forget if your meals are healthy or not. A better solution is to set a range for each macronutrient, then eat high-quality foods that help you get there (AKA eating healthy while tracking macros).  You do not want to sacrifice food quality for the sake of meeting an exact number.

How to Count Your Macronutrients

Ready to start tracking your macros?  Here's how to do it correctly in a few simple steps:

1. Set a daily calorie intake goal: The first thing you need to do is decide the number of calories you need to eat each day. Your calorie needs are based on a couple of different factors, including:
  • Your current bodyweight, height, and age
  • Your current activity level
  • Whether or not you want fat loss or muscle gain
Plug the first set of factors into one of the following equations: 
  • MEN: (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) - (5 x age in years) + 5​​​​
  • WOMEN: (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) - (5 x age in years) - 161

Then, multiply your answer by one of the following activity levels:

  • Sedentary: 1.2
  • Lightly active: 1.375
  • Moderately active: 1.55
  • Very active: 1.725
  • Extremely active: 1.9

If you want to maintain your current body composition, then you've just finished calculating your daily calorie goal. If you want to lose weight or gain muscle, take your daily intake and factor in one of the following metrics:

  • MEN LOSE WEIGHT: Eat between 500 and 700 fewer calories each day
  • MEN GAIN MUSCLE: Increase your daily calorie intake between 10 and 15%​​​​
  • WOMEN LOSE WEIGHT: Eat between 300 and 500 fewer calories each day​​​​
  • WOMEN GAIN MUSCLE: Increase your daily calorie intake between 5 and 10%

At this point, you should have calculated the total calories you need to eat each day for either maintaining or changing your current body composition.

2. Decide your macronutrient ratio: Once you're done calorie counting, you can calculate your macronutrient ratio. The macronutrient ratio is the proportion of your everyday diet made up of carbs, protein, and fats. There are different macronutrient ratios for different fitness goals.

If your goal is to maintain your current body composition or fat loss, aim for:

  • 45 - 65% of daily calories from carbs
  • 10 - 35% of daily calories from protein
  • 20 - 35% of daily calories from fats

If your goal is to build muscle mass, aim for:

  • 35 - 45% of daily calories from carbs
  • 30 - 45% of daily calories from protein
  • 25 - 35% of daily calories from fats

3. Track macros daily: Once you know your macro ratios, you can start dieting to meet those ratios. Specifically, you can meal plan according to grams of carbs, grams of protein, and grams of fats. For example, there are 4 calories for every gram of carbs.

If your daily calorie intake is 2,000 and you're trying to maintain your body composition (45 - 65% of daily calories from carbs), then you would calculate: 2,000 x 45% = 900/4 calories = 225.

You would need a minimum of 225 grams of carbs per day. You can do the same calculations for protein and fat. There are 4 calories for every gram of protein and 9 calories for every gram of fat.

Final Thoughts

Knowing your macros can help you reach your fitness goals sooner.  And, tracking macros is no diet fad. As long as you continue to eat healthy foods, we highly recommend keeping tabs on your macros!

Bonus tip: Tracking your macros to bulk up?  Don’t neglect your lifting!  Check out our favorite exercises for muscle growth!


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