What the heck is a Macro?


By now most people who have an interest in health and fitness have heard the term macro, but what does it actually mean?

Macros = Calories!  Macro is short for macronutrient, and it is a way to categorize the building blocks of the calories in all the food we eat.  There are three macronutrients found in food: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.  Alcohol is argued to be a macro as well, but it’s actually a carbohydrate because its base is a sugar, albeit one that acts a little differently than other carbs when digested.  Each gram of a particular macro has a caloric value.

1 gram protein = 4 calories

1 gram carbohydrate = 4 calories

1 gram fat = 9 calories

Why are macros important?  Tracking macros is a powerful tool in learning about the food we eat.  Most people who have tried dieting in the past are accustomed to counting calories, fat grams, and possibly fibre but that strategy is missing a few pieces of the puzzle.  While the calorie content for a 100 calorie snack of cookies (carbohydrates and fat) is the same as the 100 calorie snack of veggies and hummus (carbohydrates, fat, and protein), they act and are treated very differently in your digestive tract and then body.  If you enjoy both snacks you should fit them into your meal plan, but being strategic about when you consume them may help you get closer to your goals.

(*pro tip: eat the cookies after you use your muscles for 20 or more minutes, when they are most hungry for those carbohydrates!)

Is there a perfect breakdown of macros?  As with most things health and fitness related, optimum calorie intake and macro ratios are a bit of a moving target.  As your body changes, so do your abilities and needs.  And we all have different bodies, histories, genetics, stressors, and circumstances that may influence things one way or another.  Body type (ectomorphic, mesomorphic, and endomorphic, and combinations of the three), age, and daily activity levels also influence the way our bodies process nutrition.  The best strategy is to just practice awareness at first, maybe keeping a three day diary of the things you eat and trying figure out what macros are present in your choices.  When looking at those three days together be mindful of imbalances that may show up, maybe you seem to eat foods with more carbs in the evenings?  Maybe you crave fats in the AM?  Maybe you seem to be missing a protein source in most of your entries?  Generally speaking, most people should be striving for a fairly even balance of the three macros, meaning 35% of calories coming from one, 35% from another and 30% of the final macro each day.  The ideal balance really depends on your goals and your physiology.

How does one calculate the macro values of the food they are eating?  There are a few ways to do this, depending on the food.  If it has a nutrition label, it is easy to find the macros by reading the fat, carbohydrate, and protein values on the label.  If it doesn’t have a label, there are many nutritional info resources online.  My personal go to has been myfitnesspal.com in the past.  Just keep in mind that (fallible) human beings are making the food entries on the other end and to take things with a grain of salt (and maybe check a few other entries for the same ingredient if something seems off).

Can macro tracking turn unhealthy?  While learning about macronutrients is certainly a helpful way to understand the food we eat, it is labour intensive to track food and the tracking itself can lead to a disordered focus on one’s diet.  I teach all my new clients about macros and what they mean, but advise them to stop tracking as soon as I see the signs that they have a good understanding of them.  You can always go back and track for a few days if you feel like it will help, but ultimately the goal is to be able to use the information to make choices that support your goals, without being a slave to recording every bite.

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