If you’ve been involved with fitness for any length of time, and done a little more than just lifting heavy things or running and either been curious enough to do a little research, or fortunate enough to have a good personal trainer, then you’ve likely heard of macronutrients. Macronutrients (or Macros) are one of the most important parts – if not the most important part of a successful outcome based diet. Whether that outcome is to lose weight, gain muscle mass or just increase general overall health, understanding macros are a big part of dietary success. But what exactly are they? How do they work, and why should you care? Today, I’m going to dive deep and see what we can learn about macronutrients.
O.K. so at their most basic level, the word Macro means “large” so macronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in large amounts. Specifically speaking though, macros refer to:
That’s it. By understanding these three powerhouses, and more importantly, how our bodies make use of them, we can better tweak our diets to achieve specific goals. Each macro provides a different amount of calories that our bodies use differently for different needs. The amount of calories is broken down like this:
- Proteins: 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates: 4 calories per gram
- Fats: 9 calories per gram
This knowledge helps you to read labels on food items a little more intelligently. For example, if you’re looking at a PowerBar label, you’ll notice that it has 8 grams of protein, 45 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fat. If you do the math, this tells you that about 32 calories in that bar come from protein, 180 come from carbs and 27 from fats. If you’re trying to tweak your diet to increase your calories from protein, then knowing this will help you determine if this is a good choice for your particular diet. These values aren’t always exact, but it shouldn’t be too far off. As some of the math inclined of you reading this may have already noted that the above values only add up to 239 of the PowerBar’s 240 calories.
As I mentioned, your body uses each of these nutrients for different purposes, so let’s take a closer look at each one to understand it a little better.
Proteins are an important part of a balanced diet, they help with growth, preserving lean muscle mass and ensuring a healthy immune system that functions properly. Proteins are found in meats, poultry, fish, cheese, milk and to a lesser amount in fruits and vegetables. When eaten, protein is broken down into amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). There are two types of amino acids – essential amino acids that must be supplied by our diets and non-essential amino acids, which our bodies can produce themselves. Below is a list of the essential amino acids and a general overview of what they do for your body (warning – we’re about to get a little chemistry-ish!):
- histidine – maintains the myelin sheaths which surround and insulate nerves. Histidine is required for the production of histamine, and is often used in the treatment of anemia, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory reactions.
- isoleucine – is important in hemoglobin synthesis and regulation of blood sugar and energy levels.
- leucine – stimulates protein synthesis and assists with muscle building.
- lysine – plays an important role in the production of enzymes and hormones, as well as the formation of bones and muscles.
- methionine – one of the major roles of methionine in the body is that it can be used to produce other important molecules critical for normal cell function. It is involved in the production of cysteine which is used to build proteins in the body.
- phenylalanine – plays a key role in the biosynthesis of other amino acids and is important in the structure and function of many proteins and enzymes. Phenylalanine is converted to tyrosine, used in the biosynthesis of dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters.
- threonine – this amino acid is vital in the folding and function of proteins. Protein folding is the process by which a protein structure assumes its functional shape. By coiling and folding into a specific three-dimensional shape they are able to perform their biological function.
- tryptophan – our bodies convert it to 5-HTP (5-hyrdoxytryptophan), and then to serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin B6 (nicotinamide). Serotonin is a hormone that transmits signals between nerve cells.
- valine – is important for smooth nervous system and cognitive functioning.
The best sources for these essential amino acids come from proteins found in animal sources because animal sources contain ALL essential amino acids, while proteins from most plant sources do not. That’s not to say that you should shy away from a vegetarian diet if that’s your thing, (Chia and Hemp seeds for example do contain ALL essential amino acids) but realize that it’s a lot easier to get the ESSENTIAL aminos from a diet that includes animal sources. If you choose to be a vegetarian on your fitness journey, that’s great, but do your homework and make sure you’re taking care of your body’s needs.
Carbohydrates (carbs) are used by your body as both fuel and as an energy source. However, not all carbs are the same, there are both simple (also called refined) and complex carbs.
Complex carbs are made up of a chain of sugar molecules, and take more time to digest than simple carbs. Some examples of complex carbs are whole-grain pastas and breads, brown rice, greens, whole grains, oats, starchy and non-starchy vegetables.
Simple carbs on the other hand, are made up of just one or two sugar molecules, easy for our bodies to digest and therefore are quick energy sources. Things like sugar, pasta, white bread, candy, honey and syrup are a few examples of simple carbohydrates. These are the carbs that are bad for you in large quantities. Because they’re digested and enter the bloodstream quickly, eating simple carbs can cause large swings in blood sugar levels. High blood sugar levels can cause all sorts of damage to your body, including damage to the nerves, blood vessels and organs. While low blood sugar levels can cause problems in your central nervous system including weakness, lightheadedness, dizziness and headaches. Also, because simple carbs are high on the glycemic index, they only make you feel full for a short time and as a result can lead to overeating.
The takeaway here is we want to make sure that we’re consuming carbs, but we want to make sure that we’re consuming the most nutrient dense varieties and only indulging in simple carbs on occasion.
Some examples of healthy carbs are:
- Non Starchy – These are carbs that come from vegetables. They are low in sugar and high in nutrition (broccoli, kale, spinach, asparagus, carrots etc.)
- Starchy Carbs – Starchy carbs are high in nutrition, but also high in sugar (whole-grain pasta and bread, brown rice, sweet potatoes, yams, jicama, starchy tubers, corn, squash, beans, lentils etc.)
- Fruits – fruits are a little more complex among the carbs and can be separated into two types:
- Low Sugar Fruits – Green apples, Berries, strawberries, raspberries, passionfruit, lemons, lime and grapefruit
- High Sugar Fruits – These are tropical fruits – papaya, mangoes, watermelon, pineapple, banana
While high sugar fruits can cause insulin resistance because of their high quantity of fructose (in spite of fructose not having a high glycemic index) the sources that I found still encourage eating them because they are sources of “real” food which is high in nutrients and fiber and are filling.
In spite of its reputation, fat is something our bodies need! In addition to being a great carrier of flavor, our bodies use it for growth, development, energy, maintaining our cell membranes and cushioning our internal organs.
Fat is found in meat, poultry, nuts, milk, oils, fish & grains.
There are 3 different types of fats, and the first two we’ll talk about are the ones that give fat such a bad reputation:
- Trans Fat – this is one that we SHOULD avoid completely! If you see this on a food label, it shouldn’t be a part of your regular diet – we’ll get to why in a minute, but as far as what to avoid, it can be tricky. Most trans fats are formed through the use hydrogenated oils in cooking. Think baked goods, snacks, fried foods, dough & margarine. Although some animal products contain naturally occurring trans fats, the protein benefits they can provide shouldn’t demonize them in your diet.
- Saturated Fat – this is our second “boogeyman” fat, although not as bad for you as trans fat, you should still limit your consumption of this if you see it on a label. Saturated fats can also be found in animal products, coconut oil & butter.
As noted, both trans and saturated fats are the bad ones you hear about that contribute to heart disease, high cholesterol and other health issues IF we consume too much.How? Well, saturated fat raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and may also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. Trans fat raises your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lowers your good (HDL) cholesterol levels (a nasty one-two punch)! Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke and it’s also associated with an even higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than saturated fats.
- Unsaturated Fat – finally a bright spot! Unsaturated fats are the “healthy fats” found in olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds etc. Unlike it’s evil twins, unsaturated fats have been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease and have other health benefits when they replace saturated fats in the diet.
There are 2 types of unsaturated fats:
- Mono-unsaturated fats – like avocado can help lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels which reduces your risk for heart disease. They can also help with weight loss and decrease inflammation.
- Poly-unsaturated fats – like fish oil, salmon and tuna contain omega-3 and omega-6 fats. These are essential fatty acids that the body needs for brain function and cell growth.
In addition to this bright spot for fat, it is also the most concentrated source of energy, vitamins and minerals which makes it home to many of our micronutrients as well. So the trick with fat is to make sure that you’re consuming the good fats, but avoiding – or at least limiting – the bad types.
So Why Should You Care?
By understanding macronutrients we can dial in our diets for specific performance needs. For instance, a marathoner or a crossfitter, might increase their starchy and non-starchy carbs to increase energy reserves for a race or event. A bodybuilder might increase their protein and carbohydrate intake to help their body build lean muscle mass, and give them sustained energy to get through tough workouts.
With a little bit of research for your specific needs, and a basic understanding of how these elements work together, you can take control of the effects that your diet is having on your body to achieve peak performance for your desired goals.
To give you an example of what your diet should look like, the United States Department of Agriculture recommends that your macronutrient intake should be in the following ranges:
Carbohydrates – 45 – 65%
Proteins – 10-35%
Fats – 20-35%
These are some fairly broad ranges because peoples bodies respond differently to the foods they’re fed. Since these are recommendations from people FAR more intelligent than I am, I’d stay within the recommended percentages if you decide to tweak your diet. In other words, a high protein diet may consist of 35% protein, 20% fats, and 45% carbohydrates. Just make sure that you’re considering the sources of these macronutrients to maximize the nutritional value of what you’re eating.
There are certainly other diets out there that break away from these recommendations (things like the Keto diet for example), but they’re extremely well researched, and balanced to make sure that your body is still getting the proper nutrients it needs to stay healthy. If you’re planning to go outside of these ranges, please talk to a doctor or nutritionist to make sure you’re doing things safely. If you take nothing else away from this post, remember that food is medicine. Playing with these percentages may not seem as dangerous as self prescribing medications, but as pointed out in the detailed sections about protein, carbs and fats, poor nutrition can result in some fairly serious health complications. Be safe!
So what are some of your goals? What does your ideal diet range look like based on what you’ve learned? Leave a comment below and let me know!
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As much as I’d love to claim that I’m brilliant enough to tell you all of the above information, as I point out in my “about me” page, I have no fancy letters after my name. The information I’ve shared above came from two primary sources and a lot of google searches to flesh out the details. If you’re interested in further reading – or watching, check out the following:
If you’re looking for a way to track your macros, there are a couple of apps that are available that will allow you to keep a food diary and automatically track your macros and calorie intakes. Two initially spring to mind, MyFitnessPal and Lifesum. Both are relatively simple to use, offer barcode scanning and have many restaurant items already in their databases to help you track what you’re eating in any situation. It just takes the formation of a habit to use them, and both provide good reporting of your macronutrient consumption.