Eating for health and weight loss can be a frustrating experience. You diligently count calories and aim to get enough iron, calcium, and vitamins in your diet. Despite all of this, you’re feeling totally depleted of energy, you aren’t losing weight, and your workouts are suffering. If this sounds familiar, it’s time to find out what a macronutrient is so you can decide if a macronutrient-based diet might be right for you.
Depending on your goals, there’s a macro-based diet for almost everyone—regardless of your fitness level or favorite foods. Macro diets don’t necessarily restrict intake of meat, dairy, or other food groups, but they can accommodate vegetarianism and veganism, meaning the basic principles and defining ratios of macro diets are applicable to anyone looking to eat healthfully and reap the benefits of doing so.
Why Macros Really are a Big Deal
Whether you decide to go macro or not, understanding the role of macronutrients will help you better understand your body and whether the foods you choose are helping or hindering when it comes to your health and fitness goals. While many of us are interested in clean eating and fitness, the facts about how food impacts or performance, weight, and disease risk really do exist at the macronutrient level, which makes educating ourselves in this area super important.
A solid understanding of the major components that make up everything we eat is powerful knowledge. In fact, a thesis completed at University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, in 2012 reports a positive relationship between nutritional knowledge, proper eating habits, and decreased incidence of obesity. With estimates that 72 percent of American women will be overweight or obese in 2020 and the fact that even trained athletes who get plenty of protein may not spread protein intake throughout their day to their best advantage, it’s clear that understanding macros can benefit you now and well into the future, whether you’re training, looking for an energy boost, or gearing up to lose weight.
Ideas to Invest in Before You Begin a Macro-Based Diet
Like many trending approaches to eating, a macronutrient-driven diet should include plenty of whole foods so that you can keep up with your body’s micronutrient needs. If possible, it’s definitely worth sitting down with a registered dietician or similarly trained wellness professional to discuss a macronutrient ratio that will work best for you and your current activity level.
Macronutrient calculators can also be helpful when determining the correct macro ratio for your lifestyle. These calculators will use information about your weight, gender, activity level, and goals to suggest a macro ratio (more on that to come!) that you should aim to consume. The ratios can be tweaked based on your body’s responses to the changes in your diet.
Most importantly, obsessing over your diet for any reason can be stressful. Make sure to give yourself room for mistakes, an occasional treat, and plenty of kindness as you embark on this new eating adventure!
So, what are macros?
Macros, or macronutrients, are the three basic building blocks of our diets that we need to consume in large quantities: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Macronutrients can be eaten in different ratios depending on the particular wellness goals you’re trying to achieve. But first, it’s important to understand the role each of the three macronutrients serves when it comes to fueling your body and keeping it running smoothly.
The Power of Protein
Protein is a macronutrient frequently praised for its ability to help the body build and maintain muscle tissue. In fact, protein is a building block for many of your body’s most basic structures and functions. Protein is used all over the body. It helps keep bones strong, forms the keratin that makes up your skin and hair, and makes up part of your DNA. Protein is more difficult for your body to digest than carbohydrates, which means your body burns more calories when digesting protein.
As a macronutrient, protein is recognized for its ability to stave off hunger and keep you feeling more satiated for longer periods of time, which is why it’s often associated with its ability to help with weight loss and weight maintenance. A single gram of protein contains four calories. Ultimately, the proteins in food are made up of very small amino acids, which are utilized by the body to put together new proteins.
All About Amino Acids
The protein in our own bodies is made up of 20 amino acids, nine of which we’re unable to create for ourselves and must get from our diets. On a molecular level, protein is made up of strings of amino acids which break down into single amino acids or small strings of them (which are called peptides) in our digestive systems.
These individual amino acids form new protein bonds that are unique to their specific functions in the body. Protein that comes from meat is similar to our own and contains all nine essential amino acids whereas most plant-based sources contain only a few amino acids.
It used to be thought that vegetarians and vegans needed to combine protein sources at every meal to satisfy their macronutrient needs, however current research shows that as long as you’re eating a varied plant-based diet, your essential amino acid needs will be met, which is reason for flexitarians, vegetarians, and vegans to rejoice!
A Frank Look at Fat
Fat has long been the most vilified of the three macronutrients our bodies need to run smoothly. But, while it can feel counterintuitive to reach for the full-fat option of your favorite snack, it might actually be healthier than opting for a fat-free alternative.
Fat is in almost all foods, from meat and dairy to plant-based cuisine because fat is used by many living things (including human beings) as an efficient means of storing energy. Fat is the main carrier of flavor, which is why low-fat and fat-free products often have copious amount of sugar and salt added to them for flavor.
Fat is a crucial part of our diets because it gives us energy, keeps us warm, cushions our organs from harm, keeps our skin and hair looking healthy, contributes to normal brain function, and is a source of fatty acids that our bodies can’t make on their own.
So why, when fat is clearly so important, has it historically had such a bad reputation in the Western mindset? At 9 calories per gram, fat is the most calorie-dense of all the macronutrients. Fat is often seen as a culprit that instigates heart disease, obesity, and high cholesterol, but these claims are now being debunked by new research.
Here a Fat, There a Fat—Thinking About All the Kinds of Fat
Triglycerides make up the vast majority of the fat that is in our bodies and that we consume through our diets. A triglyceride is one glycerol molecule that has three fatty acids attached to it. These fatty acids can be either saturated or unsaturated, which leads us to the following…
Saturated fats are typically found in meat and dairy products and are usually solid when stored at room temperature. You might think of saturated fat as the “bad” fat, but recent studies have disproven much of the negative stigma surrounding this particular macronutrient. In fact, saturated fat, which has long been linked to raising “bad” low density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol is now thought to have little if any effect on increasing LDL cholesterol.
The recommended daily intake of saturated fat is between 5 and 6 percent of a 2000 calorie-a-day diet according to current information from the American Heart Association, making it an important component of a macro-based diet. Common sources of saturated fat include red meat, dairy, poultry, and cheese.
Polyunsaturated fats are typically found in oils which are liquid at room temperature and are often described as “heart-healthy” fats because they are effective at lowering LDL cholesterol levels when eaten in moderation. Polyunsaturated fats are high in vitamin E, an antioxidant that plays a key role in supporting your body’s immune system and keeping your skin and eyes healthy.
It’s recommended that the majority of your daily fat intake should consist of polyunsaturated fats, meaning olive oil, sesame oil, avocado, and seeds have their place in macro-conscious cuisine.
Where do the omegas fit in?
A great example of healthy fats, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found in polyunsaturated fats and are especially important to include in our diets because our bodies can’t make these fats on their own. Good sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids include fish and shellfish, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, kale, and cod liver oil.
Consider your carbohydrates.
Carbs have been given an undue bad rap since the Atkin’s diet was reintroduced as a popular weight loss method in the ‘90s. When it comes to carbs, the important thing to consider is the type of carbohydrate you’re eating because not all carbs are created equal.
Many potential health benefits of carbohydrates depend on whether your carb of choice is simple or complex. But first, what is a carb and what does it do?
Technically, carbohydrates are a source of glucose (aka blood sugar), which your body turns into energy so that you can remain active and your bodily functions can continue running smoothly. There are three carbohydrates that our bodies use for fuel: starch, fiber, and sugar.
Fiber is the only carbohydrate we don’t digest, although it still needs to be a regular part of your diet as it reduces the risk of several cancers, is great for gut health, and plays a role in preventing certain types of heart disease.
Complex carbohydrates are made of long sugar-molecule chains and take longer for your body to digest, which means they serve as a time-released source of energy for your body. Good sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, legumes, some fruits, and vegetables, which will definitely be a part of your macro diet given the importance of incorporating fresh eats.
Simple carbohydrates, which should be eaten in small quantities regardless of your diet, are made up of one or two sugar molecules which are quickly digested and only usable as energy for a short amount of time. Unfortunately for us, many tasty treats are technically simple carbohydrates. Sugary fruits, white rice, white bread, desserts, candy, and white pasta are all on the simple carbohydrate list. They can be part of a macro diet, but need to be consumed in thoughtful moderation.
Types of Macronutrient Diets
Diets that focus on macronutrients place a strong emphasis on what your body actually needs by counting macronutrients by the gram either alongside or in place of counting calories.
However, a diet based on tallying up your daily macros isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be eating healthier. Karina Inkster is a certified personal training specialist and certified online trainer who specializes in teaching her clients about a plant-based nutrition and physical activity.
She cautions against blindly following a macronutrient diet, saying, “Macros are just one aspect of nutrition. They’re an important piece of the puzzle, but they’re not the be-all, end-all measurement in nutrition. Remember that you could theoretically have a ‘macro balanced’ diet eating processed junk foods.”
With that advice in mind, let’s explore some of the more popular macronutrient-based diets you might decide to follow.
40 to 60 percent carbohydrates, 25 to 35 percent protein, 15 to 25 percent fat
Good for: bodybuilders, endurance athletes, long-distance runners
This diet is focused on high carbohydrate intake, which is great for people who expend a lot of energy. Inkster specializes in weight lifting and follows a vegan form of this diet, albeit with a slightly higher fat percentage and lower protein percentage.
“I aim for 50 percent carbs, 30 percent fats, and 20 percent protein. This is the macro ratio I suggest for my vegan strength-training clients as well. For endurance athletes, ratios will differ slightly, favoring higher carbs,” she says.
Her favorite vegan meals that fit into the high carb ratio include pan-fried tempeh with a veggie stir fry, tofu scramble with veggies, and Thai coconut curry with tofu.
Note that a high carbohydrate diet should include plenty of whole grains, vegetables, leafy greens, fruit, and cereals.
10 to 30 percent carbohydrates, 40 to 50 percent protein, 30 to 40 percent fat
Good for: weight loss, prevention of heart disease
Low carb diets can be an effective way to kick off weight loss, although a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that at the one-year mark this diet didn’t boast any benefits when compared to diets with a more balanced ratio of macronutrients.
When following a low carb diet, it’s important to include plenty of lower fat and plant-based sources of protein in your diet, of which there are plenty! It’s important to make sure you’re still eating carbohydrates, specifically complex carbs that will give you long-lasting energy throughout your day. Steamed, grilled, or roasted veggies are great choices when paired with a protein source such as meat, fish, eggs, tofu, legumes, and tempeh.
30 to 50 percent carbohydrates, 25 to 35 percent protein, 25 to 35 percent fat
Good for: weight maintenance, overall wellness
This ratio of macronutrients is a good place to start if your goals have more to do with maintaining your weight and eating a straightforward, healthy diet. Like high and low carb diets, the focus should be on the quality of the foods you’re eating, not just meeting macro requirements. Choose from a wide array of whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, pulses and legumes, organic dairy (whenever possible), lean meats and fish, and polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil and avocados.
To macro diet or not to macro diet?
If macronutrient ratios are a helpful reminder to include certain foods in your diet, then by all means use them as a way to track your goals and achieve an overall sense of wellbeing.
If you find yourself obsessing over this diet, or any other one for that matter, then it may be helpful to speak with a registered dietitian, a clinical therapist, or your family doctor about how you can eat for overall health and wellness, not just your waistline or gym agenda. Eating should be a pleasurable activity, and it’s difficult to enjoy your meals if you’re constantly worrying about having the right macronutrient ratio on your plate.
And remember, there’s always room for the occasional dessert when eating for health and happiness!