What’s the Big Deal with Macronutrients?
If you’re checking out LGA, then it’s probably safe to say you have an interest in nutrition and fitness and have heard the term “macronutrient” at some point. As a dietitian, I receive a ton of questions regarding this from people wondering “Should I care about macronutrients and, if so, what are they?” and “Why is that guy at the gym constantly talking about counting his ‘macros’ to meet his fitness goals?” To help clear things up, let’s discuss what macronutrients are, what macro counting means, and whether or not it’s something that is worthwhile for you, personally.
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the primary components of our diet and include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. They make up the calories we consume each day and contribute a different number of calories per gram. Let’s break it down.
Carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of fuel to make energy. Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram and generally make up the biggest portion of a typical balanced diet. Certain carbohydrate sources also provide us with significant amounts of healthy fiber, such as in grains, beans, dairy products, fruits, and starchy vegetables. We’re all familiar with the HUGE amount of controversy surrounding carbohydrates from the past several decades and they continue to be a hot topic today. The general recommendation from most health organizations is that carbohydrates intake should consist of 45-65% of total calories a healthy diet.
Fats are necessary for many critical biological processes to function in our bodies, such as hormone synthesis, maintaining body temperature, and proper nutrient absorption (we see you low-fat 90’s diet!). Fats have the highest caloric content of the macronutrients at 9 calories per gram. Recommended fat consumption is 20-35% of total calories from sources such as fatty fish, oils, butter, nuts, seeds, avocado, and meat.
Protein has by far been the least villainized of the 3 macronutrients and is essential for our immune systems and (unsurprisingly) building and maintaining muscle mass and other tissues, as well as cell communication. It is also important for enzymes and hormone synthesis. Foods high in protein include meat, eggs, fish, beans and lentils, and soy products such as tofu and tempeh. It is generally recommended that 10-35% of total calories come from protein.
How do I calculate my macronutrient needs?
First, calculate your resting energy expenditure (REE) using an online calculator or an equation such as Mifflin-St. Jeor or the Harris Benedict Equation.
Multiply your REE by your activity factor. For example, a sedentary person would multiply by 1.2, and a very active person would multiply by 1.55. For more information, you can simply Google activity factors if this is something you want to try calculating.
Once you’ve calculated your estimated daily calorie needs, multiply that total by the ideal percentage of macronutrients you have determined you want to consume. We will use a 2000 calorie diet here as an example. For someone aiming to get 60% of their calories from carbohydrate, multiply 2000 calories x .60 = 1,200 calories from carbohydrates each day.
Finally, to determine how many grams of carbohydrate you need to reach 1,200 calories, divide the total number of calories this macronutrient provides by the calories per gram. In this case 1,200 calories/4 calories per gram of carbohydrate = 300 grams of carbohydrate per day.
Repeat this process to calculate how many grams of protein and fat you need to consume daily to meet your goals. Remember, your calories per gram and desired percent intake will be different.
Should you be counting macros?
Proponents of this way of eating tout that counting macros helps with meeting specific goals, primarily for fitness and weight loss purposes. For example, someone trying to gain muscle and lose fat might increase the percentage of protein in their diet and decrease their carbohydrate and fat intake percentages.
Counting macros has the potential to help improve overall diet quality, though it is important to focus on the nutritional density of food with this approach. Food is not unidimensional and many healthy foods often provide more than one macronutrient. For instance, brown rice is an excellent source of both carbohydrates and protein and salmon is an excellent source of protein and healthy fat. Both of these also provide many vitamins and minerals! Eating foods with high concentrations of nutrients is critical to most effectively meet macronutrient goals.
A possible downside of this approach to diet is that counting macros takes a lot of discipline and determining what macronutrient ratio works for you can be a long-term learning process. There is no perfectly established amount of macronutrients (or calories for that matter) that a person should be consuming and it is very important to remember that nutrition is highly individual. As with any diet, counting macros does have the risk of leading to restrictive eating patterns and creating an unhealthy relationship with food. If you are someone that has a history of disordered eating, then counting macros, calories, or any form of food tracking can put you at risk of worsening or re-developing disordered eating patterns and is something I would strongly caution against trying.
The bottom line is that it’s really up to you to decide if counting macronutrients is something that you find beneficial for your goals, your lifestyle, and health! As always, listen to your body.
If you have questions or feel that you need additional help with your nutrition and fitness needs, I would always encourage you to get in touch with a professional who can give you tried-and-true advice.
Juliana Mills, MS
Registered Dietician Nutritionist
ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist
Founder and curator of @vibrantrootskitchen on Instagram