With more and more information circulating the internet these days, it’s becoming difficult for people to decide what’s useful and what isn't.
In this definitive guide to macronutrients, we’re going to address what are macros. Along with that, we’re going to address why you should stop counting calories and instead shift your focus to macronutrients along with learning how to read a food label. Let’s get started.
What are calories
A calorie is a measurement of heat (energy) equal to 4.18400 Joules (in case you were curious). The proper definition for the studious individuals is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1° C (Celcius).
What are macros
The word “macro” means large, so you should already assume that these nutrients are needed in large quantities. Macronutrients affect many different processes in your body such as:
- Hormonal production
- Immune system health
- Ability to digest food and absorb nutrients
- Cellular structure and function
- Body composition (your lean body mass and body fat)
- Metabolic functioning
- And much much more
A brief primer on the major macronutrients
When thinking about what are macros are, they break down into 4 major units that provide energy to your body. These consist of protein, carbohydrates, dietary fats, and alcohol.
Each of these nutrients provides a specific amount of calories which varies:
- Protein provides 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram
- Dietary fats provide 9 calories per gram
- Alcohol provides 7 calories per gram
The lowdown on protein
Why are proteins useful? Basic building block of life that plays an important role for healthy skin, hair, eyes, organs, and nails along with repairing muscle tissue and cells. Besides those functions, protein helps with creating hormones and forming antibodies that help prevent infections.
What is a protein? It’s made up of hydrogen and carbon molecules but also contains nitrogen as part of the amino groups. At the smallest unit of a protein is the amino acid. When these join together, they form peptides. Most of these proteins are a long chain of amino acid, these proteins form secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures (most foods are in the later three structures).
How do proteins travel? The process starts in the stomach through gastric hydrochloric acid breaking apart (denaturing) the secondary, tertiary, and quaternary structures of the ingested proteins and the enzyme pepsin, which breaks down the peptide bonds.
After hanging in the stomach, the next destination is the small intestine where proenzymes (secreted by the pancreas) make their grand entrance. These normally inactive proenzymes have to be activated by other enzymes and chemicals released into the small intestine which forms enzymes for carrying out the peptide digestion and leading to free amino acids to roam to their various destinations.
After absorption into the cells of the intestinal brush border, these amino acids are used for things such as energy, new digestive enzymes, hormones, and heading to the liver (most amino acids head here). In the liver, many different functions will happen depending on what our body needs at the moment in time.
Average daily needs: For the average sedentary healthy adult who isn’t training or exercising intensely, about .8 grams of protein per kg of body mass is enough to cover daily requirements: Ex: 72 g of protein per day for a 200 lb (90 kg) person.
But, remember that protein is involved in the repair and rebuilding of our tissues, hormones, and maintaining a healthy immune system. Thus, if you’re training hard (i.e. strength training), injured or sick, or trying to lose weight—increasing your protein intake will be key.
With that said, around .8 – 1 grams of protein per BW seems to be the sweet spot. This is at the top end 2.2 grams of protein per kg of body mass. If you’re 200 lb (90 kg), then 200 grams of protein per day is the top you would need to go. Not to go down a rabbit hole, but I usually set my protein intake for clients based on their desired/target bodyweight.
Good/ideal sources: Any kind of animal meat, eggs, fish and seafood, tofu, beans and legumes, protein powder (whey, egg, hemp, plant-based, & many others), Greek yogurt.
The lowdown on carbs
Why are carbs useful? They’re your go-to energy source for your body. Helps with your central nervous system, muscles, kidneys, brain, and immune system among many other functions.
What is a carbohydrate? It’s a sugar molecule that’s either a simple or complex carb depending on the number of sugar molecules it holds (so sugar isn’t part of the evil empire since all carbs are a sugar).
Carbs break down into 3 types: monosaccharides, polysaccharides, and oligosaccharides.
- Monosaccharides: The simplest form of carbs with one one sugar chain (ex: think glucose traveling through your bloodstream)
- Oligosaccharides: Short chains of monosaccharide units linked together in the form of disaccharides (“two sugars”, trisaccharides (“three sugars”, and so forth. Most popular are the disaccharides which show up through maltose, sucrose, and lactose (think fruit & honey as a few examples).
- Polysaccharides: These have many chains (10 or more) and are complex chains of carbs teaming up (think rice, potatoes, areas, empanadas, veggies, beans, and much more).
How do carbs travel? We can’t absorb larger carbohydrate molecules. Thus, we have to break them down into monosaccharides which are released into the bloodstream as glucose. This occurs throughout the GI tract. It starts in the mouth and then travels from the esophagus into the stomach that gets mixed into chyme. Your stomach is destroying any potentially harmful pathogens here.
Next stop is the small intestine and then the liver— where it gets all it needs for energy transfer and glycogen storage. Afterward, it ships the rest out for circulation and this goes through your blood until it’s taken up by your various cells.
Average daily needs: First off, your brain needs around 130 grams of glucose per day (this will come from your diet somehow, someway). If you’re on a super low carb diet, through gluconeogenesis (glucose made from amino acids, glycerol, & glucose metabolism intermediaries) and ketosis will be how you get your glucose unless there isn’t enough protein and fats.
Your carbohydrate intake is dependent upon many factors such as age, gender, body composition goals, your activity levels, intake level of other macronutrients, current metabolic condition levels, and food culture and preferences.
The more active you are, the more carbs your body can use for recovery and optimization. Couch potatoes don’t need to eat cups of rice per day since Xbox live doesn’t burn a lot of calories nor is that strenuous on your body.
Good/ideal sources: Fruits, root vegetables (ex: sweet potatoes), whole grains, beans & legumes, vegetables, fast acting & lower fiber carbs like dextrose (only for post-workout) can be helpful for athletes or those looking to gain weight.
The lowdown on dietary fats
Why are dietary fats useful? Provides insulation to maintain our body temperature within a normal range along with cushioning & providing protection for our organs. Fats also help in preventing an array of diseases along with transportation of fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E, & K through our bodies. Forms our brains, nervous systems, and cell membranes along with providing energy.
What are dietary fats? Consists of carbon and hydrogen elements which form hydrocarbons (long groups). The simplest unit of a fat is a fatty acid. There are two types which are saturated (no double bonds) and unsaturated fats (some double bonds). Unsaturated fats break up into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
How do fats travel? Your body breaks down triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol (the backbone of a triglyceride) before entering your bloodstream. This action is mostly taking place in the small intestine. After breaking down with the assist of various types of enzymes, these fatty acids diffuse across the intestinal cell layer and become chylomicrons. These chylomicrons release into your lymphatic system and slowly enter into generally circulating in your body.
Next, they can be of use for transporting energy to muscle and other tissues along with converting back into triglycerides for storage in adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and muscle. A full discussion on lipoproteins and various other classifications goes beyond the goal of this article and isn’t needed for the big picture here.
Good/ideal sources of fat: For simplicity sake, let’s break these into three to stay consistent with the explanation about fats. Also worth mentioning is to avoid trans fats which are what a lot of fried and processed foods have. These can lower your HDL (i.e. good cholesterol), suppress the excretion bile acids, increase cholesterol production (making it too high), and create fatty acid deficiencies.
- Saturated fats (which are useful and needed, just don’t go overboard) — Butter (prefer grass-fed), coconut (oil, milk), dark chocolate (70% + cacao), fatty cuts of beef, lamb, pork, whole fat milk, yogurt.
- Monounsaturated fat — Almonds, avocado, brazil nuts, cashews, egg yolk, hazelnuts, olives (olive oil), safflower & sunflower oil (check the label because it alters depending on how you use it), pecans.
- Polyunsaturated fats – chia seeds, cod liver oil, fish, flaxseeds, grapeseed oil, hemp seeds, pine nuts, walnuts.
The lowdown on alcohol
What will an article about what macros are be without mentioning alcohol? This will be covered in detail at another time to give it the attention it needs. To summarize: alcohol can wreak your diet if you’re aware of your usage since it does contain empty calories (no nutritional value) and at 7 cals/per gram). Alcohol isn’t evil nor a sure-fire way to ruin your diet when used intelligently.
It becomes problematic because it often times leads to bad decisions—besides with making people more attractive than they are, but with your food decisions. Binging and eating whatever is around usually accompanies chronic drinkers and this is what leads to the weight gain, not the beverage itself.
Why count/track macros instead of calories
Tracking your macros instead of calories ensures that the calories you’re consuming are all going to the right places in your body. You’re going to preserve lean muscle mass along with removing unwanted body fat. Also, focusing only on calorie counting doesn’t take into account what you’re eating (calories alone isn’t the solution). Remember, the quality of your food comes before anything else.
Portion control can work (it’s often how I start with clients completely new or those more concerned with a generally healthy lifestyle). But unless you’re eating the right foods, your plan won’t last for the long-term. The right foods leave you satiated even while on your fat loss plan.
Before we of any further, let’s get the basics of weight gain and fat loss out of the way. To lose fat, you need to consume fewer calories than your body expends (caloric deficit). To gain weight, you need to consume more calories than your body expends (caloric surplus)
Focusing on calories will lead to some weight loss in all actuality, providing you’re eating at a deficit. But, the problem with this is the likelihood of not having the proper ratio of the macronutrients. This can lead to muscle loss, loss of strength and performance, and moodiness among other things. Your macros are important because…
- Not having enough fats in your diet could lead to hormone issues.
- Not having enough carbs in your diet will lead to sluggish workouts. lethargy, foggy brain, and moodiness.
- Not enough protein in your diet will cause your body to start using precious muscle as energy (no one wants that).
Here’s how this looks
Knowing your total caloric intake is a must. After deciding on your number, you’ll keep up with macros instead. If you hit your macros, then you’ll be well within your daily caloric needs.
Here’s an example of a 200 lb client of mine who is eating 2085 calories.
- 200g protein (4cal/gram)
- 175g carbs (4cal/gram)
- 65g fat (9cal/gram)
200 x 4= 800 calories 175 x 4 = 700 calories
65 x 9 = 585 calories
800+700+ 585 = 2085 calories
Keeping up with 3 numbers is all it takes. If you’re tracking your macros and hitting the same numbers, you’re reaching roughly the same calorie goal each day.
How to break down a nutritional label like a pro
Now that you understand how to count macros and realize the importance of this skill, let's look at a food label. Below is a food label from an ice cream spot in Nashville.
The label reads 280 calories, 16g fat, 31g carbs,& 5g protein.
A quick run through of the numbers here:
- 16g of (fat) x 9cals/gram = 144 calories
- 5g of (protein )x 4cals/gram = 20 calories
- 31g of (carbs) x 4cals/gram = 124 calories
- Total amount of cals= 288 calories (it’s a little different than the listed number, don’t worry, this happens from time to time)
Watch out for the trap. Notice the label reads per serving which is a 1/2 cup. There is a total of 4 servings in this container which people fail to notice. It’s easy to overeat foods when most people grab handfuls or in this case, eat out of the container while watching tv or playing video games (maybe that’s only me). If you eat the entire pint at once (it happens), your total calories would be 1152 calories, 64g fat, 124 carbs, & 20g protein. The takeaway from this is to be mindful of your serving sizes when eating foods.
If you eat the entire pint at once (it happens), your total calories would be 1152 calories, 64g fat, 124 carbs, & 20g protein. The takeaway from this is to be mindful of your serving sizes when eating foods.
Explaining each section on the nutrition label
Here’s a brief explanation of each item on the label.
Calories – As mentioned already, calories provide our body with energy. Calories come from only protein, carbs, fats, & alcohol (these are empty cals though). Once you determine how many calories you need, then counting calories becomes unnecessary.
Total Fat – This includes your saturated fats, trans fats, unsaturated fats, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats.
Saturated Fats – Saturated fats have been the ugly step-sister for some time. People who have been blaming saturated fat for the increase in obesity and heart disease are delusional. Saturated fat has proven to be of benefit when it comes to regulating testosterone.
With all that said, there’s no need to keep track of daily saturated fat intake.
Trans fat – Also called ‘partially hydrogenated oils’. These fats are long lasting, cheap to produce, and easy to use, making them a prime candidate to use in fast food establishments. Avoid trans fat unless it’s a naturally occurring trace amount in select meat and dairy products.
Cholesterol – It’s naturally produced by our bodies. Its reputation is finally turning around for the good after years of taking the blame for a myriad of health issues. Feel free to keep eating the yolk (who really likes egg whites?). No need to track your intake unless you have a family history of high cholesterol. Remember that HDL is the good cholesterol and LDL is the bad one.
Sodium – This mineral is important for muscle contractions, nerve transmissions, proper pH balance, and hydration. Don’t get crazy and follow some low to no sodium diet, unless you have high blood pressure or some other illness. (Note: manipulating sodium levels for physique purposes is another story in and of itself. And I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet—one year was enough, so listen to your doctor if given other directions.)
Total Carbohydrates – Total amount of carbs including fiber and sugars.
Dietary fiber – Made up of soluble and insoluble fiber. Benefits range from controlling blood sugar, lowering cholesterol levels, reduction of heart disease, and good times on the toilet (no constipation here—embrace your poops). No need to keep track of fiber unless you’re having toilet issues & other digestive problems. Good sources of fiber are found in fruits, veggies, nuts, and sweet potatoes to name a few.
Sugar – Sugar isn’t evil nor meant to be some forbidden item. It’s best to consume in moderation.
Protein – This increases our sexy meter by adding muscle on and keeping us satiated.
Micronutrients (various minerals & vitamins) – No need to keep track of these as long as you are eating a balanced diet.
Percent Daily Value – Close your eyes and pretend this isn’t even on the label. No joke. This number is irrelevant (it’s outdated).
What about fruits, veggies, and meats?
Unfortunately, not everything in life includes a nice and clear label. Fruits, veggies, and meats require a little more effort. Foods without a label can be located using a variety of online tools and apps.
Examples are My Fitness Pal (good since it links up with all those wearables and health apps) and Cronometer (I like this one). Expect some variations in numbers across these platforms. The end goal is to be close to your target macros and make good food choices, not to seek perfection.
What about Restaurants?
Most medium to large chain restaurants has their nutritional information online so that makes life easier. Also, on a couple of apps, you can type in the restaurant and their information will pop up. For those small locally owned restaurants, they usually don’t have a menu so you’ll have to estimate to the best of your abilities using your hand for estimated portions along with making smart choices.
How many calories should I eat & FAQ
The rest of this guide is about answering some popular questions that you may have along with questions I’m asked on a consistent basis.
The truth about all calorie formulas
There’s a plethora of options to choose from when deciding on the number of calories you should eat. Caloric formulas are educational guesses at best. There’s an excellent theory behind all formulas, but at the end of the day, it comes down to testing and assessing weeks later. When handing out nutritional information to my clients, I have them wait 4-6 weeks before making any substantial changes.
The simple and stress-free way to determine calories
Below are two of the easiest ways for you to determine calories. I left out detailed formulas for the sake of keeping this article simple and straightforward.
- Maintenance & body recomposition – 13-15 cals x BW (body weight)
- Weight loss – 10-12 cals x BW (body weight)
- Muscle Gain – 16-20 x BW (body weight)
If you have a lot of weight to lose, then you can multiply the number by your target bodyweight. Also, if you have a smaller frame, then err on the side of caution and start with a higher number than the ones given above and then go from there.
If you know your bodyfat levels, then you can figure your number by first determining your LBM (lean body mass). Lean body mass is the amount of weight you carry on your body that isn’t fat. Your LBM isn’t your ideal weight because the human body needs fat on it to protect your internal organs, regulate your hormones, and provide energy.
- LBM = total BW – fat mass
- Total BW = how much you currently weigh
- Fat mass=how much fat is on your body
Example: If Peter Parker weighs 202 lbs, bf% is 15.2%
- His LBM is 171.6..round up to 172lbs
- How? 202 x .152 = 30.7 (fat mass)
- 202 – 30.7 = 172 LBM
Remember these are general guidelines which don’t include the type of job you have, your activity levels, and a few other factors. The goal here is to get you going and to begin to learn what are macros.
An example of laying out your macronutrients:
Protein: Use .8 grams – 1.5 grams (highest) x LBM. If LBM is unknown, then use your current bodyweight or target BW and use .8 grams – 1 grams BW (2.2 grams of protein per kg of body mass).
Fats: As previously discussed, fats are important for preventing diseases, providing energy, and helping with many of your hormones. Following a low-fat diet is idiotic and so 1990’s. Fats should make up 20-30% of your total caloric intake. There are diets that go higher than this, but those are specialized diets used for specific situations.
Carbs: Reducing carbohydrates is one of the most effective methods to losing weight. With that said, eating 25–75 grams per day isn’t the smartest of things to do over time. Living in a carb phobic world, people shit a brick when you tell them to eat 150 grams a day (Btw…that isn’t close to being a lot for most people).
After determining your protein and fats, the rest of your calories are carbohydrates.
Example: Natasha Romanoff (total badass) wants to lose a little fat in preparation for her summer vacation. She’s 145lbs and doesn’t know her body fat.
- 145 x 10 cals = 1450 calories
- Protein = 145 grams (1 grams x BW)
- Fat = 40 grams (25% of total calories)
- Carbs= 127.5 grams (round up to 130 grams)
***Important — Smaller woman will have to do a little more work with calories because calories should never dip below 1200. If you’re already small, the last thing you should do is try to get even smaller. Instead, opt for a slight surplus of calories and work on body recomposition.
The percentage above breaks into 40% protein /35% carbs/25% fats.
Common questions about macros
1. What’s the minimum to maximum amount of protein, carbs, and fats I should eat?
Protein is .8 grams–1.5 grams (max) LBM or .8 grams–1.25 grams (max) BW. Fats are no lower than 20% and can often range as high as 40% (certain diets). Carbs vary. They make up the remainder of calories after fats and proteins. I tend to favor higher carb diets due to easier lifestyle integration and satisfaction.
2. What’s the ideal ratio to use for proteins, fats, & carbs?
The simplest way is to allocate calories toward each nutrient based on a particular percentage. Here’s a common split: the 40:40:20 split. 40 percent of calories allocated to protein, 40 percent allocated to carbohydrates, and 20 percent allocated to dietary fats.
An example of someone eating 2000 calories per day.
- 40 percent for carbs
- 4 x 2000 = 800 calories
- 4 calories/gram of carbs, so the total amount is 200 grams of carbs (800 / 4 = 200)
A few other popular splits are the 40:30:30 split (40 percent protein, 30 percent carbs, & 30 percent fats). And the 33:33:33 where there’s an even amount of macronutrients spread across one.
3. What if weight isn’t coming off?
If the scale isn’t moving, make sure you’re tracking accurately and not overestimating your caloric requirements. Also look at your “refeed days” or cheat days as some call them and make sure you’re not being a little too liberal with your eating on this day.
If all this checks out okay, then decrease your macros by 5-10%. If you happen to be insulin resistant or any other type of issue with carbs, then lower your carbohydrate intake while increasing your dietary fat intake.
4. What are some good sources of protein?
Cheese, beans, and nuts are good sources of protein but won’t cut it at the end of the day (not enough per serving). ½ cup of beans will yield only 8 grams of protein. If you rely on beans to get protein, you’re going to be one gassy mofo that no one wants to be around. For protein, keep it simple and rely on an animal (beef, fish, chicken, pork, and eggs) with protein powder helping fill in the gaps.
5. For fattier cuts of meat, fish, and eggs, do I count the protein & fat?
Absolutely. You should count both. This is a great way to hit your macros if you struggle with fat.
6. Should I count the carbs from veggies and include those in my macros?
Nope. No need to because most of the carb content consists of fiber which helps keep you full. Veggies are full of micronutrients, which is why I call them free foods and encourage clients to eat unlimited amounts. I’ve never seen anyone blow up from eating copious amounts of broccoli, spinach, and kale chips.
7. Should I weigh my food?
Is it helpful? Yes
Is it necessary? No
While being a hassle and meticulous for most, weighing your food has benefits. Accuracy is the main benefit since it’s more reliable than measuring or eyeballing food. I don’t weight food and leave that decision up to each individual.
8. Should I measure my amounts of food?
Though not as accurate as weighing food, I am a huge fan of this method when it comes to determining portions for rice, oats, nuts, and oils. I recommend measuring foods out until eating becomes intuitive.
9. Should I weigh meats before or after they’re prepared?
Weigh your meats before cooking. Meats will shrink up and lose weight due to water.
10. What are some good apps to keep track of macros?
As with all apps, you’ll have to add in some custom recipes and foods, but once entered they’re there for eternity.
Two of my favorites are My Fitness Pal and Cronometer. Another device I like is Fitbit, which is an awesome tool that’s able to track food, activity, and measure sleep quality.
This concludes the guide to what are macros. I hope you now understand what are macros, why they're important, how to count them, and why counting calories aren't the most important tool. If you have any questions, leave them at the bottom in the comments section (I will answer each and every one) or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org