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Macros 101: Part one – definitions
“You’re still counting calories? That’s SO 1990’s….. Don’t you know that counting macros is more important?”
In all seriousness, now that the internet has become such a prevalent part of our daily lives, we live in a period of information overload. Particularly in the world of health and fitness, there is so much information out there that sometimes it’s difficult to determine what is accurate or helpful. To make the situation worse, we as a society are drawn to instant gratification and quick fixes, so we are susceptible to the latest fitness trend or celebrity diet. Fads with some marketable catch phrases gather lots of followers, but these followers don’t always understand what exactly they’re being led into.
This article is an attempt to clear up some common confusion about something we hear a lot about in the fitness industry: macros.
WHAT ARE MACROS?
“Macro” is a shortening of the term macronutrient. Broadly speaking, the nutritional needs of the body can be divided into two categories: macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). The three sub-categories of macronutrients all have their specific roles in the body, and they all provide the body with calories, or energy. Therefore, the term “macros” refers to carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
While foods can be broadly categorized into a protein, carbohydrate, or fat based food, most foods do not consist of only one macronutrient. For example, most meats contain both protein and fat, and most vegetables contain (to a greater or lesser extent) all 3 macronutrients.
What is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrates are the main energy source for the body. Carbohydrates consist of chains of sugar that are metabolized (broken down) into glucose. These chains exist in varying levels of complexity, which require more or less time to metabolize – thus the terms simple carbohydrates, which metabolize relatively quickly, and complex carbohydrates, which are slower to metabolize. Glucose, the absolute simplest form of sugar, is the fastest source of energy for the body’s cells.
Carbohydrates are mainly found in starchy foods such as grains (including rice) and potatoes, as well as fruits and dairy products. Vegetables and nuts also contain carbohydrates, but in lesser amounts.
What are proteins?
Protein is what makes up most cells. Proteins are used to build new tissues for growth and tissue repair, and they play a role in most body functions. Protein can also be metabolized and used for energy when carbohydrates are not present.
Proteins are found primarily in meat, fish, poultry, and dairy. Proteins are also found in plant-based foods such as nuts and beans, and to a lesser extent, in most vegetables. Proteins from plant-based foods are said to be incomplete because they do not contain all nine “essential amino acids.” (For more information about Essential Amino Acids, please refer to this blog post)
What are fats?
While we have largely been conditioned to believe that fats are to be avoided, fats are actually extremely important to include in a healthy diet. Fats are essential for many body functions, including brain function, hormone production, cell regeneration, and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K.
Fats are present in many foods, both animal- and plant-based. Not all fats are bad, but not all are healthy. In general, plant-based fats should be preferred, and common sources of healthy fats are avocados, almonds, olive oil, and coconut oil.
Fats can also be used for energy, both the fat we consume in our diets and the fat that is stored in our bodies. Gram for gram, fats are actually the most efficient source energy, with each gram of fat containing more the twice the calories than carbohydrates or proteins.
What are calories?
The term calorie is a unit of measurement of energy. Simply stated, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins can all be used for energy. Carbohydrates may be the easiest macronutrient for the body to use for energy, but fats provide more energy per gram.
Calories per gram of macronutrient:
Carbohydrates – 4
Protein – 4
Fats – 9
Consuming an adequate number of calories is essential for meeting our nutritional needs and achieving our fitness goals. Defining such a number is dependent upon several factors including age, gender, current weight, activity level, and genetics. Broadly stated, if we consistently consume a surplus of calories, we will gain weight, whereas if we are consistently in a caloric deficit, we will lose weight. However, gaining or losing weight is not always quite that simple, which will be discussed in future articles.
Why should I count macros?
Counting macros can be helpful in planning for consistency in both your caloric intake and your macronutrient intake. Of course, eating the exact same amounts of the same foods every day would ensure consistency, but not everyone is willing to do that. Part 2 of this article will discuss ways that one can plan for some variety in one’s nutrition, while still maintaining a level of consistency in terms of calories, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.