Macros! Such a trendy health buzzword these days. But what are macros? And should you count them? In today’s post I want to address everything you need to know about macros, and my thoughts on counting them from a physical and mental health prospective.
“Macro” is short for “macronutrient.” Macronutrient is defined as a component of the diet that provides energy, and includes protein, fats, and carbohydrates. The USDA also considers alcohol a macronutrient, which I agree with because alcohol provides calories, but also don’t really think of when I hear “macros” because I mainly think of the other 3 essential groups (fat, carbs, and protein).
Basically, macronutrients are sources of calories, which your body uses for fuel. This is different from micronutrients (also known as vitamins and minerals) which are also essential for maintaining healthy body function, but don’t provide energy (calories) to your diet.
Macronutrients provide your body with the following amounts of energy:
Protein: 4 calories/gram
Carbohydrates: 4 calories/gram
Fat: 9 calories/gram
Alcohol: 7 calories/gram
How Much of Each Macro Should I Eat?
The Institute of Medicine recommends 45-65% of total energy (calorie) intake comes from carbohydrates, 10-35% of energy intake to come from protein, and 20-35% of energy intake to come from fat. These values are known as the “acceptable macronutrient distribution range,” or AMDR.
The exact amounts of calories and therefore macronutrient you need depends on your age, weight, phase of life, activity level, and gender, among other things.
Do any of these ranges values surprise you?
Yes, that’s right! Carbs should be your top energy source! 35-65% of your calories should come from carbs. Contrary to a what a lot of trendy diets and health bloggers will tell you, I’m here to tell you that for most healthy people, low-carb diets are not what your brain and body thrive on. I’ve said it a million times but: glucose is your brain’s favorite source of fuel, so give your brain what it wants! It does a lot for you.
Now, I should acknowledge that “carbs” aren’t just white bread and pasta (not that there’s anything wrong with those). Carbohydrates come from many food groups – grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots.
Fiber is another form of carbohydrates. However, because you can’t digests nor absorb fiber, it’s consider a non-caloric source of carbs. Sugar is also pure carbohydrates.
Butter, however, is not a carb. It’s a fat. Fats should make up 20-35% of your caloric intake. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are the best for heart health when you replace other fats with them (found in foods like walnuts, salmon, and other foods), with monounsaturated fats (found in foods like olive oil and avocados) coming in second place.
There’s a lot of controversy over saturated fat (found in meat/dairy) in the nutrition world at the moment, but for now know that it’s pretty well agreed upon that trans fat is not good for heart health. Trans fat is found in fast food (unless you live in NYC), some restaurant foods (again, unless you live in NYC), and in many packaged foods found in other countries.
And lastly, there’s protein. Protein should make up 10-35% of your diet. Yes, even at the higher end of the range, it’s recommended protein make up a little over a third of your caloric intake That’s why all of these diets that advocate for “lean protein and veggies” only don’t make sense to me.
Yes, protein is important. I’m by no means saying it’s not. But I think there’s a strong over-emphasis on consuming “enough” in this country. Most Americans, in fact, consume more than double what they need.
Even as a vegan, I used to consume getting double my requirement, which I realized only after a diet assessment where I tracked all my food for 3 days for grad school. Since then, I’ve loosened my “MUST EAT PROTEIN AT EVERY MEAL” mentality and allow myself to eat more carbs, since many grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and even vegetables (kale has 3 grams/cup!) contain protein, and it all adds up.
Oh, and as for alcohol, that’s not considered necessary, hence why there is no AMDR for it. But if you like it, my advice is, obviously, enjoy in moderation.
Should I Count My Macros?
Oy. I’m not the biggest fan of counting anything when it comes to food, other the number of times it delights you in a day.
Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to count calories or macros to maintain a healthy lifestyle or weight. Every day is filled with different experiences, amounts of sleep, hormone fluctuations, activity levels, and physical and mental demands. All of this can impact the amount of food you need to function at your physical and mental prime.
Also, the human body and metabolism are dynamic entities. Your hunger may be insatiable one day, then barely present the next. To me, it makes little sense to try to manipulate your body to eat the same amounts of things in both days.
From what I’ve read, a lot of times these studies aren’t that strong because a lot of participants in experimental groups have a hard time adhering to their numerical ranges on a daily basis, and many of the studies acknowledge there may be other factors at work (like that paying more attention to your diet more may change how you eat – like selecting more fruits and veggies and less soda to stick within your ranges, which may in itself be where resulting benefits come from rather than the macronutrient ranges themselves).
Also, some of the studies use different ranges as guidelines, which makes it confusing for people to decide which one is best. Many agree that you can achieve a healthy weight and lower risk of chronic disease in a wide range of macronutrient intakes, which is reflected in the wide recommendation ranges given by the USDA and Institute of Medicine.
My advice? Before you start counting macros (or anything for that matter), ask yourself what you hope to achieve by doing so and if it will provide you with any value.
I think calculating and counting macros sounds stressful, unfun, unintuitive, and inflexible. And like eating out while counting macros? That just sounds like a foggy, confusing, and anxiety-inducing experience to me.
Stress from any source is pretty bad for your physical and mental health, and this whole macro calculating and counting thing sounds like a gateway to an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with food.
Does that bring any value to your life?
That’s for you to answer, not me. But my advice for good health, lowering your risk of chronic disease, maintaining a healthy weight, and having a healthy mental relationship with food, are always as follows: fill up on plant based foods you enjoy (like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, grains, breads, etc) most of the time, and don’t worry about the rest.
Eat what sounds good to you. Follow and honor your cravings. Don’t force yourself to eat foods just because they’re “healthy” or avoid foods to “stay within your macro ranges.” I’m not saying you should eat cookies and soda all day and think that’s a healthy diet, but I definitely think these things are fine in moderation and shouldn’t be stressed, as long as you fill up on plant-foods most of the time. Your body is smart, and can lead the way better than a bunch of numbers can. At least, that’s my opinion.
I hope this was helpful to anyone who was curious what macros are, and what the hype is about counting them. If you have any nutrition questions or topic you’d like addressed, feel free to drop them in the comments below, tweet me, and/or hit me up on Insta!