If you’ve always wondered what the heck are macros and how do I track them, this all-inclusive guide is for you! Learn the basics about macros and how to determine your macro ratio.
If you’ve ever been brave enough to venture into the weight room without headphones, you’ve likely overheard people talking about crushing their “macros”. Although it may sound like a scary, the word “macro” is an abbreviation for something simple—macronutrients. Yup, those beefy guys and cut girls that are constantly chatting about their macro breakdown are just referring to the ratio of carbs, protein and fat in their diet. Now that that mystery is solved, here are the basics about macros and whether or not you should be tracking them.
Counting calories is out, and counting macros is in. But following a macro eating plan requires a good grasp on, well, the macronutrients. Did you know that each macronutrient contains a specific number of calories per gram? Protein and carbohydrates both have 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram. Before you decide if you want to count macros, you should have a basic understanding of each one.
Carbs get a really bad rap (because they are essentially sugar), but they actually serve a purpose as the main energy source for the body.
[Learn more about the importance of carbs for runners in The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner.]
You may be picturing desserts, snacks, soda and white starches—aka the foods that we love that don’t love us back. But carbs also make up the super healthy food groups too, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy. The Dietary Guidelines suggest that most Americans consume 45-65% of their calories from carbs.
Besides serving as the building block for muscles, protein is necessary for organ and tissue function. Protein is made up of amino acids, and it comes from many food sources, like meat, eggs, beans, legumes, whole grains, dairy, nuts, seeds, fish and soy products. Although many like to load up on protein, the standard recommendations are much smaller than you may think.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is only 0.8 grams per kilograms (about 54 grams for a 150-pound person), but the International Society of Sports Nutrition says 1.4-2.0 grams per kilogram is a more adequate range for active individuals (about 105 grams for a 150-pound person).
Although it was feared in the 90’s, fat is making a comeback. It actually plays a role in energy production, body insulation and protection of organs. Fat comes in two kinds—saturated from animal products and fried foods and unsaturated from fish, oils, nuts, seeds and avocados. The jury is still out on how detrimental sat fats are, but most professionals agree that they should be limited.
Determining your macro ratio
Now that you’ve been through macro 101, it’s time to move past the standard recommendations and figure out what ratio is right for you. Like almost everything in the nutrition world, there’s no one-size-fits-all equation for determining your macro range. The best way to come up with a macro range is to meet with a Registered Dietitian who will assess your height, age, weight, body fat percentage, training intensity, lifestyle factors and sleep and stress levels.
Many macro plans are built around protein levels and are a bit higher than the standard recommendations. Based on your activity level, you may start with 1.2-2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight for active individuals. Then you can adjust the carbs and fat to fit into this ratio.
Let’s be honest, trying to figure this out on your own may make your head explode. Instead, try a macro calculator, such as this one on the IIFYM website. But I still recommend seeking professional nutrition help, if this type of diet sounds appealing to you.
Tracking your macros
Once you’ve figured out the right ratio for you, you’ve got to put your plan into action. Before diving in, you should know that this style of eating is really suited for people who like to read labels and monitor what they eat. Tracking macros means using a tracking tool, like MyFitnessPal, to log your food and assess your daily nutrients. It’s quite simple when eating foods that have a scannable barcode, but fresh items get a bit more complicated. You will likely need to weigh and measure your food to know how many grams of each macronutrient you are taking in.
Should you try it?
There are some pros to tracking macros, such as:
- It requires an understanding of macronutrients and food labels, and more education about nutrition is never a bad thing!
- You have to be aware of what you’re putting in your body, which can create healthy eating tendencies
- You have the freedom to pick the foods you enjoy without worrying about calories (as long as they fit into your macros).
And here are the cons:
- Junk food, like pizza, donuts, ice cream, fries, etc. are allowed as long as they fit your macros. One could essentially eat protein powder for breakfast just to be able to have a slice of pizza later in the day, which isn’t necessarily a healthy style of eating.
- It requires diligent planning and tracking of meals, which isn’t for everyone!
- It’s absolutely not advised for anyone with a history of an eating disorder or someone who has the tendency to get hyper focused on their det, as the need to track food can become quite obsessive.