Macros is short for macronutrients. We have three essential macronutrients and one that is non-essential. The essential three are fats, proteins and carbohydrates, while the non-essential is alcohol.
Most foods are a mixture of macros, for example bread contains most carbs but also a small amount of protein and fat, which is why all of these are listed on the nutritional panel. Other foods may contain just one nutrient, for example fruit which only contains carbohydrate. Each of these nutrients contains a different amount of calories per gram:
- Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
- Alcohol = 7 calories per gram
What can macros tell us?
Generally speaking, the average diet tends to be relatively high in carbs, or >50% carbs at the expense of good quality protein and the right fats. Knowing your macros can help steer you to a higher protein diet which in turn will support weight control. If your goal is specifically weight loss, keeping your carb intake to just 30-40% of your overall intake will support losses of ½ -1 kg a week or if you are trying to achieve and maintain ketosis, monitoring your macros and keeping your carbs below 10% of intake will support your keto goals.
Which diets = which macros?
The different proportion of macros in your diet determines your overall macronutrient profile. A typical diet that contains a few serves of breads, cereals and fruit will contain 50-60% carbohydrates while a low carb or ketogenic diet can contain as little as 10% carbohydrates as protein and fat rich foods take up most of the diet. The different proportions of macronutrients will also largely determine if you are likely to burn extra body fat. Diets that are relatively high in carbohydrates or 50-60% of overall intake are unlikely to see fat stores being burnt unless coupled with a number of hours of physical activity each day. On the other hand, a moderate carbohydrate diet or 30-40% of total energy coming from carbohydrates will generally see a 1-2kg loss of fat each month. Extremely low carb diets, in which just 10-20% of calories come from fat are likely to induce ketosis, in which fat stores are preferentially burnt.
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How do you calculate macros?
1. Calculate your TDEE
To accurately calculate your macros, you firstly need to figure out your calorie needs.
To do this you need to determine your resting energy expenditure (REE) and non-resting energy expenditure (NREE).
REE refers to the calories you burn at rest, while NREE refers to the calories burned during activity and digestion. Adding the two together gives you the number of calories burned in a day or your total daily expenditure (TDEE).
The Mifflin-St. Jeor equation is the most popular form of calculating this:
- Men: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
- Women: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161
Once you get your result, you need to multiply it by an activity factor:
- Sedentary: x 1.2 (limited exercise)
- Lightly active: x 1.375 (light exercise less than three days per week)
- Moderately active: x 1.55 (moderate exercise most days of the week)
- Very active: x 1.725 (hard exercise every day)
- Extra active: x 1.9 (strenuous exercise two or more times per day)
Your end result is your TDEE.
Those trying to lose weight will need to eat less than their TDEE (approximately 15-25%) and increase protein intake to preserve lean muscle mass while losing body fat, while those trying to gain muscle mass should increase their calorie intake (approximately 5-15%).
2. Determine your macros
Typical macronutrient recommendations are:
Carbohydrates: 45-65% of total calories
Fats: 20-35% of total calories
Proteins: 10-35% of total calories
However, these are simply recommendations and differ from each individual depending on dietary preferences, weight loss goals and other factors.
3. Start monitoring your macros
The best way to get started is to invest in a reputable online monitoring program such as ‘myfitnesspal’ – here you can simply enter your food intake for a few days and you will get an idea of your average calorie intake and the macronutrients making it up. Or if that doesn’t sound appealing, a visit to a dietitian will mean you have someone who can tell your exactly what your macronutrient ratios are and most importantly how you can adjust them to reach the targets you have for your diet and your body.
Do you really need to know your macros?
Macro counting may provide benefits including weight loss, diet quality and assist with specific goals such as building muscle mass. However, it should be noted the often unspoken issue associated with macro monitoring is that it can also fuel an unhealthy obsession with food diet. For this reason those who have a tendency to become obsessed with food and diets, or those who have a history of eating disorders are best not to monitor their macros to avoid fuelling this obsession. It is also important to know that the measures of macros is not all that accurate and as such should always be used as a general guide due to inconsistency in reporting along with inaccuracies on food labels and within monitoring programs.
Macros in popular foods
Depending on your goal, you may need to add or reduce foods rich on carbohydrates, fats or proteins.
These are examples of healthy foods for each macronutrient.
- Whole-grain bread
- Whole-wheat pasta
- Brown rice
- Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes
- Fruit such as apples, bananas and strawberries
- Low-fat milk and yoghurt
- Olive and avocado oils
- Egg yolks
- Nuts and seeds
- Fatty fish like salmon and sardines
- Full-fat dairy
- Egg whites
- Lean meat
- Poultry such as chicken thigh
- Protein powders