I had a realization yesterday, I talk about macros all the time, but I haven’t quite broken them down for you yet. While many of you may already know what macros are, I figured it might not hurt to give you an overview. After all, as a dietitian I am technically supposed to be an expert in the area, so perhaps I should shine some light on it.
You can certainly find many macro calculators on the internet but know that they do not tell the whole story nor should they be used without the guidance of a professional. Your diet is far more than just the quantity that you put in your body, you must also take into consideration quality, lifestyle factors, health status, and so much more.
The Macro Fad
Why am I bothering to bring these “macros” up anyway?!
Well, there has been a big surge of macro based diets and coaching over the past few years. It seems every time I turn on my phone, social media or my computer I see another person or company pushing macros. While, I get it, monitoring your macros (aka portion size and distribution of caloric intake) can help, it can do more harm than good when done out of context.
The fad involves you being told a certain macro level by a (usually) self-proclaimed “macro coach” that you need to hit daily. You need to hit said macro level throughout the day and if you don’t you must cram it all in before you go to bed. Aka the opposite of intuitive eating. Look, i’m not a macro hater, I use it for some clients BUT it’s not as black and white as the online calculators make it seem.
While there are some coaches who have the education & experience to back it up (i.e. Laurie Christine King), many others have no business telling you how many macros you need. I’ve heard of macro coaches giving ACTIVE humans under 1,000 calories a day to meet their needs, with almost NO fat and minimal carbs. It hurts me and angers me, and it needs to stop. So, let’s get ourselves educated, shall we?l
What Are Macros?
So glad you asked. Macros are your macronutrients, and as you guessed since there’s a macro there’s also a micro, read more about micros (or micronutrients) here. The macros are what are going to be the star of the show today. Know that ALL THREE macros are important and there is not one that is better than the other, all 3 are needed for you to function properly.
As I mentioned, there are 3 macronutrients. Macro meaning “large-scale” so it means that it is a large part of what provides you with nutrients. All 3 work together to help you function and help perform essential processes in the body.
These 3 macronutrients are: Carbohydrates, Protein, & Fats. I will break each down below in no particular order, just what came to mind first.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. They are the sugars, fibers, starches, etc. found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk products. Carbohydrates are NECESSARY for your health and to fuel your activity. If anyone tells you you don’t need carbs, run for the hills.
That being said, you can get in trouble with carbs when you over do processed refined carbs (i.e. cakes, cookies, breads, etc.) and under do fibrous carbs (i.e. fruit, veggies, whole grains, etc.). I’ll write a post soon about how many carbs you need, stay tuned.
However, carbohydrates aka “carbs” are constantly in the media for being good, then bad, then good again. It can be incredibly confusing, but know everyone needs carbs, we all just need them in a different capacity. I usually have my clients at about 40-60% of calories from carbs, just a baseline and not gospel. Let’s see why you NEED carbs…
What do you need carbs for?
- Hormonal function
- Fueling performance & recovery
- Brain function
- Thyroid function
- Digestion (hello fiber!)
- Source of Energy
Where do you find carbs?
- Grains (quinoa, rice, oats, etc.)
- Vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, etc.)
- Starchy vegetables (potatoes, root veggies, etc.)
- Legumes (aka beans)
- Milk & milk products
- Refined sugars (i.e. cakes, cookies)
Protein provides structure and support for your cells. Aka super important for your overall health. While more is not always better, I really do hate the debate in the health world of how much protein we need because frankly it depends on the person and there is no ONE right answer. I generally start my clients out around 20% of daily calories and then taper up or down based on goals, ability to eat/digest protein, and overall health.
Most of the calculators you find online spit out a HIGH number for protein. I’ve seen some that say you need more protein than carbs which is just not usually the case. While, it’s not “dangerous” per se to over do protein (unless you are eating a HUGE excess) it doesn’t provide value after awhile and you’ll process out/store what you don’t need.
I also see a ton of macro coaches telling people to rely on protein powders & supplements to hit their protein goal. There is a time and a place for powders & supplements but it’s NOT for everyone. You should get the MAJORITY of your protein from food, and then beyond that you should be working with a professional who can tell you IF protein powders & supplements are right for you.
I wrote a whole post on it, so go check that out.
What do you need protein for?
- Growth & maintenance
- Cell & body structure
- Transportation & storage of energy
- Hair, nail, skin health
- Source of energy
Where do you find protein?
- Soy products
And finally the 3rd macronutrient is fat. Fat, like carbs, has been demonized and praised in the media on and off for years. The major thing to focus on with fat is the quality. Fat is what helps our body digest & absorb vitamins and is also the way in which we store energy.
Fats, if consumed in the right quantity FOR YOU, are incredibly powerful at regulating hormones, satiating hunger, and so much more. I generally start my clients out around 30% of daily calories but it will depend on their overall health & goals and how they respond to fat vs. carbs.
What do you need fat for?!
- Hormonal health & sex hormone production
- Vitamin absorption
- Insulation & temperature regulation
- Source of energy
Where do you find fat?
- Nuts/nut butters
- Seeds/seed butters
Now that you know what macros are, know that one macro is not more important than the other. They are all important in their own right. They all WORK TOGETHER and have this sort of macro synergy. I recommend my clients strive for ALL 3 macros at meals and at least 2 macros at snacks. This synergy allows nutrients to be absorbed & digested better AND tend to keep you more satiated. If you are new to macros, just focus on the FOODS you see above.
If you find you are hitting a plateau AND have a healthy relationship with food, then and only then may it be worth starting to track and count macros. This is a big IF because some people do really well with the accountability while others become too obsessed and it defeats the purpose of tracking/counting. If you are in this boat and find yourself feeling OBSESSED over macro numbers, it’s time to stop. Hire a professional and get your relationship with food managed, that is far more important than any macro number, I promise.
How Many Macros?!
It depends! This is a BIG one. It really depends on the person, their lifestyle, their health status and SO. MUCH.MORE. The other thing is that while you want to remain semi-consistent, you don’t want to be so locked into the numbers that you forget to account for variations in activity, stress, hormones, etc. Your hunger
A lot of you asked how to calculate your macronutrient needs, but this post was getting too long as it was, so I’m going to do a whole other post on it next week! Stay tuned 🙂
While, I applaud people for trying to help others, you cannot claim you are a macro expert based on the fact that you know how to work an online macro calculator. Sorry, not sorry. When in school (and in practice) to become a dietitian, you learn all the different ways to calculate macros as well as what affects them and what could cause them to need to be updated.
So if someone is claiming to be a macro expert or macro coach with no OTHER nutrition education, be very wary. You can get what they provide you for free online and it doesn’t paint the whole picture. While there are always exceptions, you’ve been warned.
I am neither pro or anti macros. They are important (as a dietitian) in determining how much a client needs to eat. They are also incredibly helpful for athletes looking to gain that 1%. They are not helpful for those struggling with their relationship with food and who no longer see food as food but only numbers. So, there is a time and a place for macros and it really depends on the individual! I wrote about if you should track or not here, check it out!
Okay, that’s it for now! If you have any other questions about macros, please leave them below and I’ll answer them either in a new post or as a comment!