Macros 101: What Are They and Why Do I Need Them?


Have you ever spoken to someone about nutrition or dieting and the topic of macros has popped up? But hang on, what on earth are macronutrients and why is everyone counting them?

In today’s day and age, we are inundated with health blogs, Facebook posts, and Instagram ads that all throw around the word ‘macros’ like it’s going out of fashion. Thankfully, for any fitness buffs or health enthusiasts who live and breathe macros, there is some great truth and benefits behind the philosophy of counting macros. Gone are the days of counting calories and having little focus on the quality of the nutrients we’re actually consuming. With the rise of the ‘macro’ phenomenon, we now have a much healthier, safer and more effective way of reaching our goals faster. 

In this article, we’ll explore all the important questions surrounding macros, including: 

  • What macros are
  • What macros do
  • Healthy sources of macros
  • How to find the right balance
  • How to track and count macros


What are Macros?

To understand macros and how to use them to your benefit, it’s important to first understand exactly what they are. Essential nutrients are compounds that your body can’t produce on its own, or cannot produce an adequate amount of. As such, these nutrients must be sourced from food. Essential nutrients can be broken down into two categories:

  • Macronutrients
  • Micronutrients

Macronutrients, also known as macros, are the three essential nutritional components that make up the caloric content of the foods we consume. These essential nutritional components are also known as fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Simply put, our body uses these components as a fuel source to give us the energy required to go about our daily tasks - from work and chores to exercise… but that’s not all they have to offer! 


What do Macros do?

As the name suggests, macronutrients are nutrients, and nutrients are substances required for growth, tissue repair, energy provision, body temperature regulation, workout fuel, and various other functions. Energy comes from foods rich in carbohydrates, protein and fats, however, the amount of energy provided depends on the type of macronutrient. 

For example - According to Healthline, both carbohydrates and proteins contain 4 calories per 1g, whereas fats contain 9 calories per gram. Let’s take a closer look at each macronutrient… 


Carbohydrates 

Ever turned a meal away purely because it was rich in carbs? Don’t worry, you’re certainly not alone. Many people fear that eating carbohydrate-rich foods will make them gain weight, however, this isn’t necessarily the case. Believe it or not, carbs are your body’s primary energy source, and without them, your body won’t have the fuel required to go about your daily tasks and fitness regime. Carbohydrates assist with:

  • Fluid balance

  • Maintaining concentration

  • Muscle recovery and growth 

  • Energy production

  • Fuelling your central nervous system and brain 

The food’s chemical structure and how quickly the body can digest and utilise the glucose will determine whether it is a simple carbohydrate or a complex carbohydrate. 

Ever wondered why you can eat a whole packet of lollies and still feel hungry, and eat a small bowl of oats and feel completely satiated? It all depends on the type of carbs you’re consuming, and here’s why: 

  • Simple carbohydrates: This form of carbs is quickly digested and sends instant bursts of energy (glucose) into the bloodstream. For example, when you’re eating a bag of lollies, you’ll likely feel that quick rush of energy, which is then followed by an energy crash once the energy has been depleted. Simply put, simple carbs refer to sugars and starches that have been refined and subsequently stripped of their natural fibre and nutrient content. 

  • Complex carbohydrates: On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are digested at a slower rate, which allows for a steady and prolonged release of glucose into the bloodstream. They’re higher in fibre and digest slower than simple carbs, which means they are more filling and can be beneficial for weight control. To summarise, this refers to carbs found in whole, unprocessed foods - such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. 

Take home message: Before you even think about filling your trolley with white bread and gummy bears, it’s worth noting that not all carbs are created equal and that the types of carbs you eat do matter as some are healthier than others. Instead, choose healthy carbs, such as whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits over refined grains and sugar-filled products. 


Fats

Much like carbs, fats are also known to wrongfully get a bad rap due to their high calories. However, fats are also extremely important for energy production and various other bodily functions, including:

  • Hormone support

  • Nutrient absorption (particularly vitamins A, D, E and K) 

  • Body temperature maintenance 

  • Nerve insulation

  • Healthy skin and hair 

  • To supply fatty acids that the body cannot produce on its own (ie omega-3)

What are fats? Fats are stored as an energy reserve. While your body can only store small amounts of glucose for energy (in the form of glycogen), you can, however, store an unlimited amount of energy as fat tissue. This stored source of energy will be used during periods of low energy intake, such as when you sleep, or during exercise. There are four primary dietary fats found in foods: 

  • Saturated fats

  • Trans fats

  • Monounsaturated fats

  • Polyunsaturated fats

So, what’s the difference? The different types of fats each have unique chemical structures. Saturated and trans fats are the ‘bad fats’, which are generally more solid at room temperature (eg butter). On the other hand, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are ‘good fats’, tend to be liquid at room temperature (eg vegetable oil). 

According to The Heart Foundation, saturated fats should make up less than 7% of your total daily energy intake and trans fats should make up less than 1%, as consuming high amounts may increase your risk of heart disease. Saturated fats can be found in a variety of foods, including bacon, sausages, coconut oil, cheese, butter, milk, crackers, chips, cookies, pastries and more. Most of your daily fat intake should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The following foods are high in unsaturated fats: nuts, canola oil, vegetable oil, plant oil, salmon, tuna, anchovies, olives and avocados. 

Take home message: Of the three macronutrients, fats are the most concentrated form of energy, providing the body with nine calories per one gram, with protein and carbs only containing four calories per one gram. Fat can be stored in the body’s fat tissue and used as an energy source when needed. Your body needs fats for energy and to support cell growth. Fats play an important role in protecting your organs, keeping your body warm, helping your body absorb certain nutrients and produce important hormones. 

Protein

If you’re familiar with the supplement scene, you’ve no doubt heard about the benefits of protein powder. However, contrary to popular belief, protein isn’t just important for gym buffs wanting to grow and repair muscle, it’s vital for everyone! 

Protein is one of the three macronutrients, but unlike its counterparts, proteins primary role isn’t just to provide you with energy. Proteins are the primary building blocks of our body’s cells, organs and tissues, making it an essential part of your diet. Upon consumption, protein is broken down into amino acids, which play an extremely important role in building and repairing muscle, supporting cellular function, and acting as an energy source. Your body requires protein to:

  • Support organ function

  • Power enzyme reactions

  • Grow and repair hair, nail and muscle tissue

  • To produce new proteins required to make essential hormones and enzymes 

  • To support immune function

How much should I consume? Your daily protein intake requirements will vary drastically based on gender, size, goals, and current activity level. However, as a general rule of thumb, the Dietary Reference Intake recommends that the minimum amount of protein that should be consumed per day is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram. This amounts to:

  • 56 grams per day for the average sedentary man

  • 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman

Note: However, please keep in mind, this is a recommended minimum amount to avoid deficiency. For optimal health and functionality, more protein is required.

What are the best sources of protein? Protein can be found in various food sources, however, the amount of protein can vary drastically. Some healthy sources of protein include whole eggs, oats, cottage cheese, greek yoghurt, broccoli, lean beef, tuna, quinoa, lentils, pumpkin seeds, turkey breast, fish, brussels sprouts, and let’s not forget Whey Protein powders. 


So, what should your breakup of macros be?

Having a good balance of the three macronutrients is important as they each play a different role in providing your body with nutrients and energy. 

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and The New Zealand Ministry of Health have developed Nutrient Reference Values (NRVs) to provide recommended intakes for energy, protein, carbs, fibre, fats, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients based on age, sex and life stages. 

As such, based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines, the percentage of energy in your diet should come from the following macronutrients: 

  • Protein: 15-25%

  • Carbohydrates: 45-65%

  • Fats: 20-35% 

    • With less than 10% coming from saturated fats

However, your ideal macro ratio will depend on your goals and unique requirements, which is why it’s important to seek assistance from a qualified professional, including a Dietitian or Personal Trainer, to find the right breakdown for you. Likewise, goal-based macro ratio breakdowns may vary from source to source. For example, here is an example goal-specific macronutrient breakdown written by nutritionist Sarah Wilkins, for bodybuilding.com: 

For fat loss, aim for lower carbs:

Protein: 40-50%

Fat: 30-40%

Carbs: 10-30%

For maintenance mode, aim for moderate carbs:

Carbs: 30-50%

Protein 25-35%

Fats: 25-35%

For muscle gain, aim for higher carbs:

Carbs: 40-60%

Protein: 25-35%

Fats: 15-25% 

Take home message: There is no one size fits all approach to macro breakdowns, as they are entirely dependent on your unique goals and requirements, and will also vary from source to source. As such, it’s beneficial to use these examples as a general guide and an educational tool to understand what macros are and how they can be used to reach your goals. However, you are urged to seek professional advice, should you wish to determine the right macro breakdown for you. 


What’s the easiest way to track macros?

Before the days of technology, tracking macros required a lot of manual work. Now, tracking your macros is as easy as clicking a button. With apps such as MyFitnessPal and MyMacros+ doing the calculations for you, all you need to do is scan the barcode on the package, weigh the amount you’ve had, and all the calculations are done for you.


References:

  1. Dietitians Association of Australia 2013, What are the current Nutrient Reference Values (NRVs)?, Dietitians Association of Australia, viewed 5 September 2019
  2. Heart Foundation 2009, Dietary fats, dietary cholesterol and heart health, Heart Foundation, viewed 5 September 2019
  3. Kubala, J 2018, How to Count Macros: A Step-by-Step Guide, Healthline, viewed 3 September 2019
  4. Sarah Wilkins 2019, 3 Keys to Dialing in Your Macronutrient Ratios, Bodybuilding.com, viewed 5 September 2019

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