What Are They, Why Should I Care, and Where Do I Find Them?
I understand that some of the folks reading this may already have an understanding of, or may have even previously tried, tracking macros. However, I’m also well aware that for every one of those folks, there are dozens more who are taken back to Econ class when they hear the word – food is nowhere on their radar. I have no way of knowing which camp YOU fall into, but whether this ends up being a refresher or brand new information, I’m taking it back to the start and want to dive into what the hell macros are, why we need them, and where we can find them.
Macronutrients are nutrients that are bodies need in large amounts (apologies if that was a bit Captain Obvious for you…).
There are three macronutrients – Protein, Fat, Carbohydrate – and they are found in the foods (and some drinks) we consume. Macronutrients provide our bodies with energy (calories), but each have their own caloric value, role in the body, and play their own unique part in overall health.
Protein is an ESSENTIAL nutrient to the body and has 4 calories/gram.
When you consume protein, your body breaks it down into its constituents called amino acids (AKA ‘building blocks’), which are then arranged together to form new proteins within the body. The body can only build the necessary proteins if the appropriate variety of amino acids are available, so for this reason, it is important to make sure you are taking in protein through a variety of sources, as they each have their own amino acid profile.
Where should you get your protein from?
- Poultry (Chicken, Turkey)
- Seafood (Wild Caught)
- High-Quality Deli Meat
- Dairy (Greek Yogurt, Milk)
- Beans & Lentils – Vegetarian
- Tofu & Tempeh – Vegetarian
- Protein Powders & Bars (only around workouts and for convenience)
I do want to point out that this list is by no means exhaustive, nor in order of how you should prioritize your protein intake. It is largely going to depend on personal preference and lifestyle, but in general, you should try to opt for whole food options versus supplements, when possible.
If you are someone that is lifting weights, you NEED protein. You are breaking down muscle in order to build it back bigger and stronger – this only occurs with adequate protein intake (.82-1.2g/lb per day). While it’s the most important macronutrient for building muscle, it also is very helpful for losing weight. It is incredibly satiating (it’ll keep you fuller, longer) and has the highest thermic effect of the three (20-35% of the calories consumed through protein are burned during digestion).
Fat is the other ESSENTIAL macronutrient to the body and has 9 calories/gram.
There are four different kinds of fat:
- Trans Fat – BAD; think ‘junk food’ – doughnuts, cakes, pizza, cookies, etc.
- Saturated Fat – found in animal products; solid at room temperature
- Monounsaturated Fat – GOOD; plant-based liquid oils, nuts (& nut butters), and avocado
- Polyunsaturated Fat – GOOD; some nuts, some oils, fish
While fats are varied in their types, they’re just as varied in their functions in the diet:
- Energy Source
- Hormonal Production
- Formation of Cell Membrane
- Nervous System Support
- Provides Essential Fatty Acids (Can’t Be Made in the Body)
Even if you know nothing about nutrition, I’d be hard pressed to believe that you haven’t heard the phrases ‘Omega-3’ and ‘Omega-6’ thrown around. They are a hot topic and for good reason! Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids and have an anti-inflammatory effect – VERY GOOD! On the other hand, Omega-6 fatty acids, while also polyunsaturated fatty acids, have pro-inflammatory effects – SORT OF BAD! We do still need some amount of Omega-6 fatty acids to be able to recover from training & injuries.
When you’re thinking of your daily fat intake, you want to shoot for a 1:1 Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio, which is no small feat – the typical North American diet is closer to a 10:1 ratio! In terms of grams of fat per day, this is really going to be dependent on things such as your lifestyle, exercise type and frequency, food preferences, and training age, but in most cases it should fall somewhere in the ballpark of 25-45% of total calories.
Last, but certainly not least (in terms of deliciousness), carbohydrates – the only NON-ESSENTIAL macronutrient and like protein, also containing 4 calories/gram.
While carbohydrates are not an essential macronutrient, meaning we can live without them (hence the Ketogenic Diet), if you are at all into working out (especially if you do CrossFit, Orange Theory, or some other high-intensity training modality) and care about your performance during your training sessions, you NEED carbohydrates. They will be incredibly valuable as a fuel source during your workouts and a recovery tool after your workouts.
Contrary to popular belief, carbs are NOT the devil. They do affect our blood glucose levels and create an insulin response, but this too is NOT bad – nor does it equate to fat storage. Another myth you’re probably curious about is the notion that carbs at night will make you fat. While not only is this NOT true, carbs at night are actually very beneficial, as the blood sugar spike and then crash will cause a physiological response that will lead to some damn good sleep. Get those carbs in at night : )
When you’re thinking of where you should be getting your carbohydrates from, you should prioritize vegetables, fruits, and starchy carbs, but the sources are nearly endless:
- Whole Grain Breads
- Sprouted Grains
- And yes, those delicious carb sources you probably haven’t let yourself touch in years for fear of getting fat!
Because of their non-essential nature, there really is no carbohydrate intake recommendation, which is also why it is the last macronutrient I chose to touch on. When it comes to setting your macros, after you’ve set protein and fat, any calories left get allotted to carbohydrates – if protein and fat are set appropriately, carbohydrate prescription will take care of itself.
I hope this served as an informative exposure to the world of macronutrients. The other, less talked about, component of food is ‘micros’ (micronutrients’). While they don’t have caloric value, they are incredibly important to overall health and I will cover them in next week’s blog post!