Last week, we discussed the fundamental principle of weight management, calories in versus calories out (details here). I stated that in order to take charge of our weight we must first understand our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Once we are aware of our TDEE we can then eat more calories to be in a caloric surplus or consume fewer calories to be in a caloric deficit, resulting in weight gain or weight loss respectively.
Although this concept is tried and true, understanding calories and their relationship with the body is only a small portion of the big nutrition picture.
Let’s go further.
Macronutrients (macros, for short) are the structural components of our foods that provide the body with energy (calories). The body needs these substances in large amounts (hints macro) and uses them to grow, metabolize, and function properly. There are three essential categories of macros:
While each of these macronutrients contain calories, the amount that is provided to the body varies.
Protein: There are 4 calories in each gram of protein.
Carbohydrates: There are 4 calories in each gram of carbohydrate.
Fats: There are 9 calories in each gram of fat.
Aside from these three, there is one other substance that we can consume that contains calories: alcohol. There are 7 calories per gram of alcohol. Alcohol is not considered a macronutrient, though, simply because it is not essential and we definitely do not need it in large amounts.
Macros Over Calories
Because the amount of calories per gram of each macronutrient is known, many people consider this a superior method of tracking food.
Have you ever wondered why the calories in our foods always seem to end in a 0 or a 5? Why aren’t there any foods that contain 122 calories or 333?
This is because the FDA allows companies to round their items to the nearest 5 or 10-calorie increment. With this amount of variation, you could easily eat 100 calories or more under or over your goal. For someone with a huge calorie in-to-out difference this may not mean much but for someone who is competing or really trying to dial in on their diet, this could hinder their progress.
Fortunately, the FDA keeps a tighter reign on the macronutrients, declaring that companies must round to the nearest 1-gram increment. This means that we can track macronutrients more accurately than we can calories from the nutrition labels.
In order to count macros effectively, we need to have a target to reach. This is where macro ratios come in. Each macro (protein, carbs, and fats) will consume a certain percentage of your calorie goal. The following ratios are ranges provided by the National Institutes of Health:
Protein: 10% to 35% of caloric intake
Carbohydrates: 45% to 65% of caloric intake
Fats: 20% to 35% of caloric intake
Consuming outside of these ranges can produce negative side effects.
As you lose weight, gain weight, and/or hit plateaus, your body’s macronutrient demands might change. For this reason, there is not a magical ratio spread. One way to come up with a starting point is to decide whether or not you like carbs or fats more. To calculate your macro ratios, check out my macro calculating spread sheet here.
Besides the accuracy of it, another reason why people prefer to count macros is because of IIFYM. IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) is a popular diet that states that you can eat anything as long as it fits your macros since your macros are tailored toward your calorie target. The beauty of this is that you don't have to eat protein and broccoli everyday to reach your goals. In fact, you can keep eating the items you love, making your weight loss or gain journey feel less like a chore and easier to adhere to.
Understand that junk food will fill your macros up quickly, which could leave you eating little food for the rest of the day and hangry for most of it. Whole foods such as fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and legumes will not only provide you with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) but will also take up less of your macros, allowing you to eat like a king throughout the day.
Putting It All Together
Essentially, counting macros is a more accurate way of counting calories. We take our calorie goal and divide it into macro ratios. From there, we can break the macro ratios down into grams, which will give us a daily number to consume for each macronutrient.
In order to make tracking easy, I recommend downloading an app to your phone that will do all of the math for you. The app that I specifically recommend is MyFitnessPal. It's simple to use and seems to have the largest, most accurate food database. If for whatever reason, though, you'd like to kick it old school, you can use the above information, a pen, and a piece of paper to calculate it all by hand.