Move over, calories. We’re tracking a new nutritional value: macronutrients. “Although counting calories is still a valid tracking weight maintenance method, it lacks the substance to address how to eat for optimal health, rather than just what number shows up on your scale,” says health coach and personal trainer Ajani Burgess. Fortunately, nutritional research has opened our eyes to a more effective way of making food choices—balancing our macros. Read on for an in-depth look at macronutrients and how to measure and track yours.
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients, or macros for short, are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. So, basically, everything you eat can be broken down into these three macronutrient categories. Micronutrients are the subset that includes the various vitamins and minerals we consume. “Typically, when someone appropriately balances out their macronutrient intake with wholesome fresh food, their quota for micronutrients are more than adequately met, too,” says New York City based dietician Samantha Rigoli. “When macros and micros are well balanced, your body responds with good physical energy and sharp mental focus,” says Rigoli.
How does my body use macros?
- Carbohydrates: Despite their sometimes poor reputation, when consumed from healthy sources, carbs are essential. You need carbs to keep your brain and muscles working at their optimal levels. “Carbs, in various forms, are the macronutrients required in the largest amounts,” says Rigoli. “When eaten and broken down, complex carbs provide the major source of energy to fuel everyday activities. Carbohydrates should supply 45 to 65 percent [of] a client’s daily calorie needs, depending on their specific goals.”
- Fat: It’s easy to think that the more fat you eat, the more fat you’ll retain. This isn’t necessarily true. Fat is essential for the body to function properly. “Healthy fats help with vitamin absorption, supply the body with essential fatty acids it doesn’t make [by] itself, and gives the foods we love the flavor and texture that makes them so enjoyable,” says Burgess. That said, not all fats are equal. “It’s best to replace as much saturated fat (meat, butter, cream) and trans fat (found in processed, pre-packaged foods, fast food, and some margarines) with the healthier plant-based unsaturated fats (found in foods like nuts, avocados, olive oil, etc.),” says Rigoli.
- Protein: Protein breaks down in the gut into amino acids and utilized as building blocks. “Protein helps to repair all tissues like muscle, bone, skin, etc,” says Rigoli. “It’s also used in making essential hormones and enzymes that support your immune system.” When used as an energy source by the body, it’s typically because the carbohydrate and fat storage in the body has been depleted to the point where protein is necessary to continue to maintain normal functioning, she adds.
Why should I track macros and not calories?
Because calories aren’t all the same. A calorie is a a unit of measurement that represents the amount of energy your body gains upon consumption. However, you must consider the source of the calories. Two foods may have similar calorie contents, but completely different macro- and micronutrient breakdowns. Something made up of a lot of simple carbs and fats, such as chocolate cake, will absorb quickly and store as fat. Something with a more even balance of carbs, fats, and protein, as well as vitamins, minerals, and fiber, such as sweet potato, will act as fuel for an active body. And, you’ll stay satiated longer.
You can certainly lose weight tracking calories only as long as you’re taking in a caloric deficit. But pay attention to macros if you want to make nutritious choices that will allow your body to perform at its optimal level.
How do I know my macronutrient breakdown?
“It’s first important to understand what your eventual health and fitness goals are,” says Burgess. “Most people fall into one of three categories: weight loss, muscle gain, or general maintenance.” Your macro requirements will shift based your physical goals. Whether you recently started a new workout regimen or are simply trying to bounce back from holiday party indulgences, you can alter your macronutrients to help you make progress. Start here to get baseline idea of what a regular macronutrient balance might look like for you. From there, you can adjust your carb, fat, and protein amounts based on your personal wants and needs.