Breaking Down Macro Nutrients

What are macro nutrients, why they matter, and how to track them.

Most people are pretty comfortable with the idea of calories by now. We know how to track them, how to burn them, and why that balance is important. Calorie count information is increasingly accessible, often posted next to menu items, or easily found online or in apps.  But is counting calories really the best way of meeting your nutrition and health goals? Is a calorie really just a calorie? Let’s discuss!

Is a calorie just a calorie?

Yes and no. Calorie balance is important for all health goals. If you are looking to lose weight, you need to ingest fewer calories than you burn, putting you in a calorie deficit. If you want to gain weight, you need to ingest more calories than you burn, to be in calorie surplus. That part is simple. But consider for a minute someone who gets all their calories from Twinkies. You could stay under a 2,000-calorie goal and still eat 11 Twinkies in a day, if you were on an all Twinkie diet! But how would you feel? How would you perform? Would you still be hungry? You would probably feel pretty bad, and pretty hungry! But, you might still lose weight, if that’s your goal. Now consider someone who has just 1 Twinkie a day, and uses the rest of their calories on veggies, fruit, whole grains and lean protein. Who do you think will feel and perform better? The difference between these examples comes down to the macro nutrient content of these foods.

So, what’s a macro nutrient?

The main macros are fat, carbohydrates, and protein. They are the building blocks of our nutrition and despite some bad raps, they are all important to our health and well being. The key is finding a balance that works for you. If you only eat Twinkies, you only get 1 gram of protein per Twinkie, compared to almost 40 grams of protein in a cup of tuna, both of which have about 180 calories. Protein will help keep you full longer and helps rebuild muscles and power workouts. Twinkies probably won’t get you through a tough sweat session! Similarly, proper ratios of healthy fats and carbs will help keep you full and fueled for your day and your workout!

What you need to know about macro tracking:

While the focus of macro tracking should be on hitting your macro nutrient goals, getting enough protein, fats and carbs per day, it is important to keep the overall number of calories in check as well. Protein and carbs both have 4 calories per gram, while fat has 9 calories per gram. Many programs will assign you a daily percentage of calories per macro, for example 50% of your calories should come from carbs, 30% from protein and 20% from fat. This can be tracked in an app but can make it a little hard to plan for the whole day since most of us don’t think in percentages. Another method is to have a certain number of grams of each macro as your goal. For example, 120 grams of protein, 160 grams of carbs, and 20 grams of fat for a total of 1,300 calories. This can be a little easier to manage since nutrition information is presented to you in grams on the packaging. Either method allows you to be flexible in your dieting and never involves strict restrictions on food. At 26 grams of carbs, 5 grams of fat and 1 gram of protein, you can definitely fit a Twinkie into your macros if you choose to!

How much do I need?

This is where opinions start to differ. A basic, well rounded diet is suggested to include 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight, 3-5 grams of carbs per pound body weight and the remaining calories from fat, about 20-30% of total calories. These will differ depending on your goals and workouts. Endurance athletes, runners, triathletes, etc, will likely need more carbs than those who only train for strength. If you are cutting calories to lose weight, it is recommended that you increase protein intake. Finally, every body is different, some people may require lower carbs and higher fat to see the results they want, some may do great on a high carb, low fat diet. It takes some patience and some tweaking to find what works best for you!

The takeaway:

Focusing on getting your macro nutrients in tends to lead to overall better food choices. Not all calories are created equal, and while we are huge proponents of balance, it is important to get most of your calories from nutrient dense sources. Try tracking your macros for just a day and see what happens, you may be surprised by how little protein and how much fat you are eating! If you have more questions or would like to try our Virtuagym macro tracking app, ask a trainer! We are happy to make recommendations on high quality foods, tracking apps, or nutritional supplements.

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