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What does "counting macros" really mean?

Introduction

Macronutrients are an important part of our foods and our health. There are four types: protein, fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol. Alcohol counts because it gives us energy, but it does not have any beneficial nutrients. Eating a variety of foods, including protein, fat, and carbohydrates, will help give your body better balance because too much or too little of any one thing can lead to a nutrient imbalance. Macronutrients also contain the micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. This is why it is important that you don’t exclude a macronutrient, because you will be missing out and creating imbalance.

You may have heard people talking about "counting macronutrients" or "counting macros." What does this really mean?


What are macronutrients are and why they're important

Macronutrients are important for your health and provide us with energy. Since they provide us with energy it means that they contain calories. Not all macronutrients contain the same amount of calories per gram.

  • 1 gram of protein = 4 calories

  • 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories

  • 1 gram of fat = 9 calories

  • 1 gram of alcohol = 7 calories

These numbers are important to know for the calculations below. Now you can see that counting your macros will also mean you are tracking calories.


Our bodies use protein to build and repair tissues, make enzymes, hormones, and for transportation. Protein breaks down into amino acids necessary to perform many functions of our body.

Carbohydrates come from plants and they are our major source of energy. Carbohydrates break down to glucose, which is our brain's preferred source of energy. They are the main fuel for our muscles and choosing the right type of carbohydrates can be beneficial for gut health, heart health, and help you feel full for longer.


Fat from foods are important for absorbing the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and phytochemicals. Fat also helps regulate hormones. It is important to choose the type of fat that is better for our health such as mono- and polyunsaturated fat.


How to calculate macronutrient ratios

The general advice for healthy people is to split your daily calorie intake somewhere into these ranges :

  • Protein: 15 - 35%

  • Carbohydrates: 40 - 60%

  • Fat: 20 - 40%

To understand what this means we need to do some math. I know, sorry, but there is no way around it. It is not very complicated though.


Let's break it down:

  1. First we need to understand how many calories you are aiming to eat per day. For this example we will say that you aim for 1800 calories per day.

  2. Then we need to decide the percentage of each macronutrient that you want to eat. In this example you decide to eat 25% protein, 50% carbohydrates, and 25% fat. This must of course total to 100%: 25+50+25 = 100.

  3. Protein: 25% of 1800 calories is 450 calories (1800x0.25=450). 450 calories of protein = 112.5 grams of protein (450/4=112.5). This means that if your protein intake is 25% of your total food it is 112.5 grams per day. Some people like to know how many grams per kilo this is. If you weigh 70 kilo (154 pounds) this is 1.6 grams per kilo.

  4. Carbohydrates: 50% of 1800 calories is 900 calories (1800x0.5=900). 900 calories of carbohydrates = 225 grams of carbohydrates (900/4=225). This means that if your carbohydrate intake is 50% of your total food it is 225 grams per day.

  5. Fat: 25% of 1800 calories is 450 calories (1800x0.25=450). 450 calories of fat = 50 grams of fat (450/9=50). This means that if your fat intake is 25% of your total food it is 50 grams per day.

So if you eat 1800 calories per day with a macronutrient split of 25% protein, 50% carbohydrates, and 25% fat it will look like this:


112.5 grams of protein, 225 grams of carbohydrates, and 50 grams of fat.

This totals up to 1800 calories per day. Now, if you have two glasses of wine for dinner, this was not included in this calculation, and will add on to your 1800 calories. It is easy to forget calories that you drink.


What macronutrient split is best for me?

Unfortunately there is no easy straight forward answer to this. It depends on things like your weight, height, age, fitness level, medical history, goal, and more. It is a good idea to start tracking your macros to better understand how the food you eat affects you. What are your goals? Are you trying to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain weight? By starting tracking your macronutrients you will learn about the things that work and don't work for you and can change things when needed.

You can also work with a registered dietitian to help assess your situation, your medical history, your lifestyle, and help setting appropriate goals for you.


How can you keep track of your macros during the day?

Many people use an app to track this. In some apps you can put in your desired macronutrient split and the app will tell you how well you meet the percentage goals.

So how are you going to measure the food? What is the best method? Using a scale and measure grams is the easiest and most reliable here. If you use measuring cups the food can sometimes be hard packed or loosely packed in the cup and it will not be the same every time. However, being exact to the extreme may not be necessary. What is important is that you do measure, at least in the beginning. When we eyeball things and try to estimate amounts by just looking, we tend to either over- or underestimate. Once you have measured your food for a while, you will get a better sense of this and be better at estimating.


Conclusion

Getting the right macronutrient split for you is something that can take a bit of time to work out. When you make a change, you have to stick to it for a while in order to see the effects. Now you know what counting macros mean and how to do the calculations. Here are some additional tips:

  1. Use an app like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt! or other. (At the time of writing I have no affiliate connection with these apps).

  2. In the beginning, track grams by weighing food with a scale. The more you do this, the better you will become at estimating in the long run.

  3. Get your macro nutrients from unprocessed food as much as possible.

  4. Start off with a split within the general recommendations and work your way up to what works best for you. You can also work with a registered dietitian to get personalized advice.

I hope this blog post has helped you understand what “counting macros” means.


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