What are macros and how do I count them?Nutrition
When it comes to dieting, you’re bound to encounter the term macros. And if you’re using the Carbon app, you’ve likely noticed an emphasis on macro targets and macro tracking. That’s because understanding macros and learning to count them is a fundamental step toward improving your diet and health.
However, for those just starting their fitness journey, macros might be a foreign word, and macro calculations may sound overwhelming. Luckily, by the end of this article you’ll learn the ins and outs of macros: what they are, how to track them, and how to hit your targets.
What are Macronutrients?
Macros is short for the word macronutrients, which refers to nutrients that the body needs in large amounts to supply energy. There are three primary macronutrients - protein, carbs, and fat - each of which contains a certain number of calories and supports various physiological processes.
By tracking protein, carbs, and fat, we can control our energy balance to change both our weight and body composition.
Protein, like fat, is an essential macronutrient: it provides us with the building blocks of all bodily proteins. Specifically, protein supports the growth and repair of all tissues, including muscle; enables the synthesis of chemical messengers like hormones, neurotransmitters, and peptides; and facilitates the transport of various compounds throughout the body. Additionally, protein can supply energy when fat and carb intake is inadequate.
When it comes to exercise, dieting, and physique goals, protein is considered king(1) - and for good reason. Most fundamentally, protein is required both to build muscle and to preserve muscle; and having a high protein intake while in a calorie deficit helps protect against muscle loss (consequently optimizing fat loss). Moreover, because protein is more satiating than the other macronutrients, consuming sufficient protein while dieting can help prevent overeating. Lastly, of all the macronutrients, protein requires the most energy to digest and absorb (it exerts a high thermic effect) - so eating more protein can further promote fat loss by modestly boosting your metabolism.
The body breaks down proteins into smaller units called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids - 9 of which are essential and must be consumed in our diet, and 11 of which are considered nonessential because the body can produce them using the essential amino acids and other substrates.
Foods can be classified as complete or incomplete protein based on their amino acid profiles: complete protein sources contain each of the essential amino acids, unlike incomplete protein sources. While most animal protein sources are considered complete protein, most plant sources are not. However, multiple incomplete but complementary plant protein can be combined in a meal to provide a complete amino acid profile.
If you’re looking to optimize body composition, in addition to emphasizing complete protein, you should also…
- Consume adequate leucine, since leucine is the main trigger of muscle protein synthesis(2,3).
- Prioritize protein that is easily digested and more bioavailable, to get the most out of your dietary protein. Many plant proteins are less easily assimilated due to several factors, such as their high fiber content and presence of antinutrients(4,5).
- Spread out your protein intake evenly throughout the day, to ensure that you’re maximally stimulating muscle protein synthesis(6). Beyond a certain point (~30-50 grams of total protein, or 2-3 grams of leucine), eating more protein in one sitting won’t trigger a stronger muscle building response. To optimally stimulate muscle protein synthesis, consume 20-40 grams of protein for 3-4 meals evenly distributed across the day.
Because most plant proteins are lower in leucine and less easily digested, vegan dieters should strive to consume slightly higher protein than their omnivorous counterparts, incorporating a variety of plant sources to ensure a complete amino acid profile. Those struggling to eat sufficient quantities of quality plant protein may want to supplement with essential amino acids (EAAs) or a well-formulated plant protein powder.
Overall, protein needs increase with age, activity level, and amount of lean body mass. Moreover, individuals aiming to preserve muscle while in a caloric deficit should increase their protein intake. A general rule-of-thumb is ~1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (or target bodyweight for those considered obese).
Each gram of protein, like carbs, contributes 4 calories to your daily energy intake.
While carbohydrates aren’t technically needed to survive, the body breaks carbs down into its preferred energy source, glucose. This glucose is either used immediately or stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle to supply energy at a later time. Glycogen and glucose also help fuel intense exercise and thus are important for athletic performance(7).
Carbohydrates can be classified as simple or complex. Simple carbs are digested and absorbed more quickly than complex carbs, which can cause a faster rise in blood sugar when eaten alone.
The fiber found in complex carbs is vital to our overall health and longevity: specifically it:
- Helps support satiety, promotes digestive health
- Reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease
- Can lower cholesterol(8)
The USDA advises 14 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories consumed.
Each gram of carbohydrate contributes 4 calories toward your daily energy intake.
Fat is considered an essential macronutrient, as the body needs fat not only for energy but also to support cell and nervous system function, produce hormones, and enable absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Although glucose is preferably used for energy, fat can serve as fuel when exercise intensity is sufficiently light or when other energy sources aren’t available.
There are three main types of dietary fat…
- Trans fat is found in partially hydrogenated oils added to processed foods but also exists naturally in animal fat and dairy. Artificial sources of trans fat have detrimental effects on cardiometabolic health - increasing inflammation, LDL cholesterol, and risk of heart disease(9). As a result, it’s recommended to avoid artificial trans fat as much as possible.
- Saturated fat is found in animal products (i.e. meat, eggs, dairy) and coconut oil. Pure saturated fat is solid at room temperature: for example, butter and ghee (versus olive or grapeseed oil, which are unsaturated fat). Though some debate the dangers of saturated fat, there’s a general consensus that too much may impair heart health(10) - so it’s recommended to eat no more than 10% of your total daily calories from saturated fat.
- Unsaturated fat is found in fatty fish, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and green vegetables. While unsaturated fat is often considered “heart healthy,” not all unsaturated fat are created equal…
- Monounsaturated fat includes foods like nuts, olives, olive oil, and avocado. The Mediterranean diet is notably high in this type of fat, and research supports the role of monounsaturated fats in cardiometabolic health(11).
- Polyunsaturated fat (PUFAs) are considered essential fatty acids, consisting of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids…
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds and are needed for normal growth and development. However, too much omega-6’s may be pro-inflammatory when left unbalanced by omega-3’s, although present research cannot definitively support this claim(12). The general consensus nonetheless remains that reducing the omega-6/omega-3 ratio confers health benefits. The Western diet, in particular, has a high amount of omega-6’s and too little omega-3’s.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish, seaweed, walnuts, flax, and chia seeds. They provide a wide array of benefits, such as reduced inflammation, improved heart and brain health, and better cognition and mood(13,14). Many of these benefits are attributed to EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, seaweed, and kelp. Walnuts, flax, and chia seeds contain omega-3’s in the form of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), which the body can convert to DHA and EPA, albeit very inefficiently(15). Consequently, those unable to eat sufficient dietary sources of EPA and DHA may want to supplement with ~2 grams of quality fish oil daily.
Each gram of fat contributes 9 calories toward your daily energy intake.
To ensure you’re consuming enough to support your body’s needs, you should get at least 15% of your total daily calories from fat.
Although alcohol is more of a toxin than a nutrient, it contains calories independently of protein, carbs, and fat, - and thus is sometimes called the fourth macronutrient.
It’s no secret that chronic heavy drinking harms your health, increasing the risk of cancer, liver disease, and heart failure, among various other maladies. What’s more, studies have found that acute consumption of alcohol can:
- Inhibit muscle growth(16)
- Impair athletic performance and recovery(17)
- Disrupt sleep(18)
- Increase appetite(19)
- Decrease fat burning(20)
Nonetheless, these studies primarily examine conditions of high alcohol consumption (~6+ drinks). Low-to-moderate consumption of alcohol typically won’t interfere with your fitness and health goals(21).
Each gram of alcohol contributes 7 calories toward your daily energy intake.
To avoid most of alcohol’s detrimental effects, stop drinking upon feeling “buzzed” and overall limit your alcohol consumption to 1-2 drinks 2-3 times per week.
How Do I Count Macros?
Macro counting is a fairly straightforward process once you understand the different macronutrients and their calorie contributions. And, fortunately, the Carbon app further streamlines this process for you with its coaching and tracking interface.
Step 1: Get your macro & calorie targets
The Carbon app will use information you provide about your current weight, body fat percentage, and metabolism to determine the appropriate macro targets and calorie intake to reach your goals. If you prefer to follow a particular type of diet - for example, low-fat, keto, reduced-carb, or plant-based - you can choose the option under dietary preferences, and Carbon will update your macros accordingly. Moreover, because Carbon is a smart dieting coach, it will adjust your macro targets based on trends in body weight and ensure your macros are optimal for your goals. For example, minimize fat gain on a reverse diet or maximize fat loss (and muscle preservation) when losing weight.
Step 2: Get a food scale
To accurately track your food intake, you’ll need a food scale to determine the precise portion size. Most people naturally underestimate portion sizes and calorie intake(22, 23, 24), so it’s important to have an objective means of measurement.
Step 3: Measure your food
Whenever possible, use your food scale to measure your food intake. If you aren’t eating at home, do your best to estimate your portion sizes and plan ahead so you still hit your targets.
When eating out, you can actually use your hand to guide your portion estimations, since…
- Your palm is approximately one serving of protein (~3-5 oz of meat)
- Your fist is approximately a one-cup serving of carbs
- Your thumb size is approximately one tablespoon of nut butter or cheese
- Your fingertip is approximately one teaspoon of fats and oils
Step 4: Use a food tracker
Once you’ve measured your food, track it! The Carbon app offers an easy interface to find your foods in an established database; and on the rare occasion you can’t find your food, you have the option to create your own in the app.
Additionally, when using Carbon, you may notice there isn’t a macro for “alcohol” - so when you need to track it, you can either count it as calories from carbs, fat, or a combination of the two.
Step 5: Hit your targets
Keep tabs on your food intake throughout the day to guarantee you hit your targets, and find a strategy that works for you. Planning your meals ahead or meal prepping can make it easier to stick to your macros.
Additionally, if you’re struggling to hit your targets due to increased hunger, you can promote satiety by…
- Focusing on whole foods that are less calorically dense.
- Prioritizing protein and fiber, which keep you more satiated.
- Drinking adequate water, as dehydration can manifest as hunger.
- Eating mindfully and fully chewing (and savoring) your food.
- Having larger, less frequent meals.
On the other hand, if you’re struggling to eat enough, you can fit in more calories by…
- Incorporating more calorically dense and palatable foods, like nut butters, dried fruit, and full-fat dairy.
- Drinking some of your calories as milk, fruit juice, shakes, or smoothies.
- Adding healthy fats, like olive oil, during cooking or atop your veggies.
- Eating smaller, more frequent meals.
A final word on macros…
Understanding macronutrients is a fundamental step toward improving your diet, fitness, and health. Protein, carbs, and fat supply the body with the energy and resources needed both to survive and to thrive.
Whether you’re looking to lose weight, build muscle, or increase your metabolism, tracking your macros can help you achieve your goals - and it doesn’t have to be a hassle. Carbon Diet Coach provides individualized and optimized macro targets to help you efficiently and effectively attain your fitness goals: its easy-to-use tracking interface adjusts to your lifestyle and body while holding you accountable every step along the way.
- Paddon-Jones, D., Westman, E., Mattes, R. D., Wolfe, R. R., Astrup, A., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. (2008). Protein, weight management, and satiety. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 87(5), 1558S–1561S. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558S
- Norton, L. E., & Layman, D. K. (2006). Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise. The Journal of nutrition, 136(2), 533S-537S.
- Churchward-Venne, T. A., Breen, L., Di Donato, D. M., Hector, A. J., Mitchell, C. J., Moore, D. R., Stellingwerff, T., Breuille, D., Offord, E. A., Baker, S. K., & Phillips, S. M. (2014). Leucine supplementation of a low-protein mixed macronutrient beverage enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis in young men: a double-blind, randomized trial. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 99(2), 276–286. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.113.068775
- Berrazaga, I., Micard, V., Gueugneau, M., & Walrand, S. (2019). The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review. Nutrients, 11(8), 1825. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081825
- Sarwar G. (1997). The protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score method overestimates quality of proteins containing antinutritional factors and of poorly digestible proteins supplemented with limiting amino acids in rats. The Journal of nutrition, 127(5), 758–764. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/127.5.758
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