Should you be counting your macros as part of a healthy diet?

The term “macros” refers to carbohydrates, protein and fat — the three main types of macronutrients.

SHARE Should you be counting your macros as part of a healthy diet?
One way to track your macros is a food journal.

One way to track the macronutrients in your diet is a food journal.

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Macros is short for macronutrients, the nutrients the body needs in large amounts for energy and all of the body’s structures and systems to function optimally.

The term “macros” refers to carbohydrates, protein and fat — the three main types of macronutrients. So counting macros means keeping track of the amount of each of these you get from the foods you eat.

Carbohydrates

This macro includes sugars, starches and fibers. They are an energy source. They help control blood glucose and insulin metabolism. And they play a role in cholesterol and triglyceride metabolism.

Carbs provide four calories per gram. They are broken down into glucose to be used for energy during digestion.

Healthy vs. less healthy:
  • Healthy carbs: unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans.
  • Less healthy carbs: highly processed or refined foods, like white bread, cookies, chips, pastries and pop.

Proteins

Animal-based foods — such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy foods — tend to be sources of complete proteins. Plant-based foods — such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds — often fall short of being complete proteins.

Proteins provide four calories per gram. They are the workhorses of all cells and the body’s function and regulation.

Protein is made from building blocks called amino acids that can’t be stored, so the body must make them. Nine of those amino acids, known as the essential amino acids, must come from the diet.

Healthy vs. less healthy:
  • Healthy proteins: whole, minimally processed animal- and plant-based foods like salmon, lean meats, chicken, eggs, plain, nonfat dairy, lentils, beans, peas, seeds, nuts and whole grains.
  • Less healthy proteins: highly processed meats, chicken nuggets and fish sticks.

Fats

This macro is found in foods like oils, butter, nuts, seeds, meat, fatty fish and avocado.

Fats provide 9 calories per gram.

Fat provides energy, keeps the body’s organs healthy, helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K and helps keep the body warm.

Healthy vs. less healthy:
  • Healthy fats: avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, eggs and extra virgin olive oil.
  • Less healthy fats: highly processed foods such as bacon, shortening, margarine and some fried foods. like chips and donuts.

What should your macro count be?

Your ideal macro count depends on your goal, which determines your caloric and macronutrient needs.

Goals often include losing weight, gaining muscle, maintaining weight and improving overall health.

Even with a goal in place, one’s caloric needs must take into account things like gender, size and activity level.

There are many calorie calculators, such as MyFitnessPal, to help determine your current daily calorie expenditure. Once you have this estimation, it’s simple to add or remove calories from the diet to gain or lose weight.

Breaking calories into specific macronutrients can help you better align the types of food you eat with your goal. Someone who wants to gain muscle might want to increase protein intake. Someone following a specific diet, such as a keto diet, might need to increase protein and fat intake while decreasing carbs. A long-distance runner or other endurance athlete in training might want to eat more carbs.

There are several recommended macro ratios, such as this one from the Institutes of Medicine:

  • 45% to 65% calories from carbs.
  • 20% to 35% calories from fats.
  • 10 to 35 calories from protein.

Finding the sweet spot in the ratio might take some experimentation. The best macro ratio is one you can stick with and that helps you meet your goals.

How to count, track macros

If you’re counting macros for the first time, it might make sense to start by tracking your present diet for a week. This will give you a good idea of how your macros are right now. Then, you’ll be able to see what you want to change.

To calculate macros, you’ll need to log (try using an app or written food journal) all foods and caloric beverages consumed by the number of calories and grams each of carbs, fats, and proteins. If using a food journal, you’ll need to look up each food, enter data and then add to see your daily totals in each category. If using an app or website, it will compute this for you.

Once you see your current trend of macro intake, you can align your diet with your goals.

Speaking with a registered dietitian or nutritionist can help determine what’s right for you as well as help you choose the healthiest food choices — and the ones that will help you thrive — within each type of macro.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by nutrition experts.

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