One of the most popular means of nutrition management in the fitness and training space right now is to track macros. But what does that mean? What are macros? Macros, short for macronutrients, are three main categories of nutrients that provide most of the calories in our diet. These three categories are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Every whole food source delivers calories in these three forms. Some processed foods deliver calories using other nutrients, such as alcohol. Typically those contributions are so low that we tend to exclude them from the macronutrient group.
While macronutrient composition of a diet is important, it should only be considered once the caloric component of the diet is controlled for. Regardless of your goal, calories matter more than anything else. Once those are in check, then we can start “tracking macros”. And with these two things in check, you’ll be able to get most of the work done towards your goal. All other factors (meal timing, food choices, etc) have very little to do with pushing the needle on the scale. If you want to wring everything out of a diet, yes they are important. But if you’re looking to simply make some change tracking macros within an appropriate caloric load will get the job done.
The first, and most important macro, that you’ll want to get in line is protein. Protein, which is made up of smaller molecules called amino acids, is the building block of life. With a statement like that, it should be clear that they are important when talking about health. But protein’s importance stretches into the world of performance as well. Specifically, protein matters most when it comes to muscle mass. Adequate dietary protein ensures that, regardless of the diet we are on, we are able to supply the muscle with the necessary components to repair any damage seen from training. With weight loss, we look to limit muscle loss. We call this the “anti-catabolic” effects of protein. If muscle gain is the name of the game, we are looking for the “anabolic” effects of protein, or the effects of protein that allow us to build new tissue.
In addition to maintaining muscle mass, the amino acids that make up proteins serve some important roles in our function. Your body is actually able to produce many of the amino acids we need, counterintuitively termed “non-essential amino acids”. But there are some amino acids that can only be attained through high-quality protein sources, termed “essential amino acids”. Although red meat, such as beef, has an almost perfect match in the amino acids that we need we understand that you may want to eat a little more varied diet than that. By sticking primarily to high-quality animal proteins (beef, fish, foul, pork, and eggs) you will be able to get all the amino acids necessary. No fruity powdered supplements required. And yes, there are plant-derived protein sources available, but the caloric content per gram of protein is nearly half of what the average animal source is. Typically, we assume animal protein will have about 4 calories per gram. Pea protein, for example, has closer to 2 calories per gram. That means to meet your daily requirement you’ll need to eat twice as much pea, or other plant-based, protein to reach your target.
Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in recent years because their street name, sugars, oversimplifies their role in nutrition. Yes, carbohydrates are types of sugars (or saccharides), but not all sugar is created equal. Monosaccharides consist of a single molecule of either glucose, fructose, or galactose. Disaccharides (sucrose, lactose, maltose) and polysaccharides (starch, cellulose, glycogen) are longer chains of monosaccharides linked together. All of these carbohydrates, except for the polysaccharide cellulose (fiber), can be digested down into glucose. Once digested, they will be sent off to one of several areas with the purpose of either immediately fueling or being stored for future fueling of muscle contractions.
Previously you may have heard carbohydrates referred to as “simple” or “complex” carbohydrates. While well intended, that line of thought was not completely accurate and vilified certain sources over others. Fructose, for example, was deemed a simple carbohydrate but actually has one of the more complex paths of digestion. Regardless of the path that the molecule takes, carbs are the preferred source of energy for most cells in your body. If we think of protein as the building materials for new tissues, carbohydrates are power tools that put it together. This is why we tend to “book-end” our carbs around our training. We want to supply as much energy as possible at times when your body needs it the most. So while counting macros, don’t worry too much about the simplicity or complexity of the source because every gram of carbohydrate ultimately contains the same 4 calories of energy. Rather, focus on getting carbohydrates from whole food sources: fruits, rice, roots, and tubers. There is a decent source of carbohydrates in dairy as well, but we wouldn’t suggest it as a primary source of carbs.
Before carbs were “bad” for us, fats were even worse. If you’re a 90s kid like me, you were probably raised in a low-fat household. Skim milk, fat-free “cheese”, woof. While fat isn’t necessarily bad, the recent buzz around “going keto” has made it seem like you can’t get enough fat. Unfortunately, that is untrue as well. And with fats containing a whopping 9 calories per gram, you can easily consume a hefty amount of calories with fat-laden foods. But fats are critical components of hormonal regulation as well as a necessity for the absorption of some nutrients. However, like the carbohydrate, not every fat is created equal. Monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats are the three main categories we find in whole food sources. Trans fats are unique combinations of unsaturated fats that are present in some natural forms but largely found in processed foods.
In addition to the categories listed above, you may have heard of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Much like what amino acids are to proteins, fatty acids are to dietary fats. And these two, Omega-3 and Omega-6, are essential fatty acids found in polyunsaturated fats meaning you must get them from food sources. Amino acids are responsible for a lot of enzymatic activities in the body, but Omega-3 and Omega-6 are responsible primarily for the control of inflammation in the body. When this is controlled, we’re all good. But when it’s out of whack we can see issues with recovery or, more seriously, issues with cardiovascular health and disease. Typically, we have no problem finding Omega-6’s in our food sources, but Omega-3s are a little harder to come by which is why supplementation is so common. Swapping out vegetable and seed oils for olive oil, avocados, and consuming nuts and fatty fish throughout the week will help ensure you get a healthy balance of your polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
Knowing is Half the Battle
So now you know a little bit more about macros. But how much of each one do you need? Well, it depends. We have some general rules of thumb, like getting 1g of protein per pound of body weight. But there are a lot of factors that go into figuring out each individual’s ideal macronutrient composition. What’s your current body composition? What are your body composition goals? What is your training/life schedule? Those are a few of the important questions that we chat about in our initial onboarding calls with our clients. As we walk through nutrition journeys with our clients, we don’t simply help them towards their goals. We educate along the way, empowering them to continue making progress. Helping the student become the master. Take the first step in mastering your personal nutrition by contacting us below.
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Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.
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