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What Are Macros And Why Count Them? A Complete Guide

By Tami Smith

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Understanding macros can help you to make sure you are eating in a way that’s conducive to your body's goals. The right ratio of macronutrients will help you to achieve your physique goals in a safe, comfortable, and sustainable way.

But what are macros? Why should we count them? And how the heck does one get started tracking macros?

The purpose of this article is to break it all down for you, answer all your questions, and help you to get set up for macro tracking success, should you find that this is a good lifestyle for you.

What Macros Are in a Diet?

macro type foods in a diet

There are three types of macros; protein, fat, and carbohydrates. We’re all eating macros, whether we are aware of them or not. It’s the stuff that makes up the food we eat and they are necessary for our health and our normal daily bodily functions.

Each macro plays a role in our bodies. And, having an optimal macro ratio in our diets can allow us to create a custom plan that’s tailored to our unique bodies and goals.

Each macro contains a certain amount of calories per gram:

  • Protein = 4 cal per gram
  • Carbs = 4 cal per gram
  • Fats = 9 cal per gram

Protein

protein macro foods

Protein is essential for building muscle, bones, blood, and skin. There are two different types of protein that we find in foods; lean and fatty. Lean proteins, which are foods that contain high protein content and lower fat content are the preferred sources as they are most often the healthier choice.

Examples of lean protein sources include:

  • White chicken meat
  • White fish
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Egg whites
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Beans
  • Shrimp

While we should aim to consume mostly lean proteins, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eat fatty proteins, too. We also need fats in our diet, so a healthy dose of fat from a fatty protein like a whole egg or full-fat dairy has a place in a macro diet, too.

Fats

fats macro foods

Healthy fats play an important role in our diets, especially for women. Unfortunately, fats get a bad reputation due to their higher caloric value at 9 calories per gram, but they are essential, nonetheless and not all fat is created equally.

Trans fats

Trans fats are found in processed and fried foods. These have little to no health benefits associated with them and should be eaten in moderation.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are found in animal products like red meat, sausage, cheese, and dairy products. Small amounts of saturated fats are ok but should be limited to 10% or less of your daily intake.

Unsaturated fats

These are the healthy fats that are mostly found in plant foods like nuts and avocados. These foods contain things like omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are important for heart health.

Examples of healthy fats include the following:

  • Nuts and nut butter
  • Full-fat dairy products
  • Vegetable oils
  • Seeds
  • Fish (salmon, sardines, tuna)

Carbohydrates

carbs macro foods

Carbohydrates or carbs are our body's preferred fuel source. There are two kinds of carbs that we can find in foods; simple and complex. Both contain sugar molecules that are body breaks down to be used as energy. Simple carbs break down faster and provide a quick hit of energy, while complex carbs take longer to be broken down, giving you longer-lasting energy and no crash. We want to consume mainly complex carbs in our diets to prevent blood sugar spikes and to keep our bodies well-fueled.

Examples of complex carbs include:

  • Whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, and rice
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Lentils

We can break carbs down even further:

Fiber

Fiber is a complex carbohydrate that the body cannot digest. Fiber helps to fill you up , keep your blood sugar levels from rising sharply, and help to regulate digestion. It can be found in fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

Starches

Starches are complex carbohydrates that can be found in foods like grains, oats, corn, and potatoes. There are also refined starches like white rice or white flour that act in your body as a simple carb, causing your blood sugar to rise faster.

Sugar

Sugar is a simple carb that can be found naturally in fruits, veggies, and dairy products. Sugar can give the body a quick energy boost and will add sweetness to your diet.

How Do I Figure Out My Macros?

There is no one-size-fits-all macro ratio, your macro needs will depend on a number of factors like your activity level, current weight, goal weight, and physique goals. You can get a pretty solid starting target by calculating your own macros, but keep in mind that there’s a good chance you will need to make adjustments based on your biofeedback and results.

These recommendations give a wide range of variability and flexibility, which is why having a nutrition coach or a personalized macro coach work with you to set up your numbers can be highly valuable and efficient on your journey.

The Food and Nutrition Board of Institutes of Medicine’s recommendations are the following:

  • 10-35% of calories should come from protein
  • 20-35% of calories should come from fat
  • 45-65% of calories should come from carbohydrates

These recommendations give a wide range of variability and flexibility, which is why having a nutrition coach or a personalized macro coach work with you to set up your numbers can be highly valuable and efficient on your journey.

What Are “Good” Macros?

good macros image

Since every person will require different macros to achieve their goals, there’s no way to definitively declare what “good” macros areas will vary from person to person.

A good macro diet will have a ratio of protein, carbs, and fats that both supports your goals and is one that you can adhere to in the long term. 

What Does the Macro Diet Include?

I hesitate to say “macro diet” because the truth is that it’s not a diet. Macros are a tool that you can use to optimize your nutrition based on your goals. With a macronutrient distribution that’s customized to your goals, you will be able to eat any foods that you wish so long as they “fit” into your daily macro allotments. Counting macros is a form of flexible dieting that allows you to make healthy choices while also incorporating the foods that you love into your diet. There’s no restriction, and therefore less of a likelihood of binge eating.

Pros and Cons of Tracking Macros

Although the Fit Healthy Momma team are huge proponents of macros, we also know that there’s no such thing as a perfect diet plan.

Pros

  • Allows for nutrition optimization based on your unique goals
  • Offers flexibility in your diet (no restriction or elimination of food groups)
  • Helps you to better understand food as fuel and how it affects your body
  • Can be tailored to your specific goals i.e. muscle gain, fat loss, body recomposition 

Cons

  • Macros don’t account for quality, which means you could be eating less nutritious choices and still have them fit your macros (i.e. simple carbs over complex carbs)
  • It may cause an unhealthy relationship with food for some who obsess over weighing and tracking
  • There’s a learning curve for tracking and it will take some time to get in a groove

How Can Macro Tracking Help Me Lose Weight?

tracking macros lose weight

Macro tracking can help you lose weight when you are in an energy deficit (calorie deficit) and are choosing foods that best fuel your body and your goals. Contrary to popular belief, proper protein intake does not make you bulky, it can actually help you to lose weight and build muscle definition that will ultimately help you reach your physique goals.

With a solid understanding of how your nutrition affects your body through having personalized macro targets, you will be able to eat in a way that not only puts you in a caloric deficit and helps you lose weight, but in a way that fuels your body and feels sustainable. With macro counting, you get to choose which foods you eat each day, and when we diet without restriction, we’re far more likely to actually stick to the plan and lose weight.

Who Should Track Macros?

Tracking macros can be for anyone, but it’s a particularly useful tool for those who have specific physique goals i.e. lose body fat, gain muscle, or achieve body recomposition. Furthermore, macro tracking is a powerful tool for those who want to improve their relationship with food and gain a better understanding of how the foods they eat affect their bodies.

Macro tracking isn’t meant to be something that we do forever. For some, a few months or a couple of years of tracking macros gives them enough of a knowledge base to be able to transition to more flexible dieting and informed eating. For others, they will use macro tracking during certain periods of their lives and throughout their fitness journeys when the timing is right.

To have the tool of macro tracking in your toolbelt means that you always have it at your disposal should you need it. It’s like riding a bike, once you get it, it’s hard to forget it. You can take a break from tracking and then pick back up when the time is right.

What Do You Need to Track Macros?

The barrier to entry for macro tracking is low, you only need a few resources to hit the ground running:

Macro Tracking App

It’s no secret that I use and love the 1st Phorm App for macro tracking, but there are a few other options I recommend, too. I have personal experience with My Fitness Pal and MacroStax, too. Both are great options.

Food Scale

Weighing and measuring your food is a must if you want to track your macros accurately. Don’t worry, it gets easier the more you do it! You can grab a cheap scale from Amazon. I have this one!

Personalized Macro Targets

There are so many ways to get your starting macros, but please be sure you’re getting them from a reliable source! Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Calculate your own macros. Use my guide (see below this list)
  2. Hire a coach to calculate your macros.
  3. Use a free online calculator.
  4. Use an app like the 1st Phorm App (download it here) that does an amazing job of giving you accurate numbers.

Macro Grocery List

Make sure you’re set up for success on your macro journey by having a macro grocery list handy to make sure you’re getting the carbs, fats, and proteins you need to hit your goals.

That’s it! With just a couple of tools, you’re ready to start making progress towards your goals and getting to know macros and the food you’re eating.

Is it Better to Count Macros or Calories?

Counting macros takes into account the nutritional value of foods whereas counting calories does not, making macros inherently a better option nutritionally. Macros are calories, it’s just having an awareness of what the calories are (protein, carbs, fat).

That said, those looking for weight loss can definitely take a calorie counting approach and still see results. Here’s the deal; calories will drive your weight loss (calories in < calories out = weight loss) and macros will determine what you look like when you lose the weight (more muscle, less fat).

Wrapping Up: Should You Track Macros?

Tracking macros is an invaluable tool for anyone who wants to lose weight, build muscle, and simply gain a deeper understanding of how food can be used for fuel so that you can live your fittest, healthiest, and most sustainable life.

If you’re ready to ditch the dieting mentality and begin the process of eating in a way that’s conducive to your goals without being overly restrictive, then macros is a great place to start.

Need help with getting started? Come join our team inside the 1st Phorm App! We’ll help you get set up with the right macro targets for your goals, a solid workout plan, and the information and motivation you need to accomplish your goals.

About the author 

Tami Smith

Tami Smith is a certified Nutritionist and an ACE certified fitness trainer, specializing in pre and post-natal fitness. She studied business and earned her bachelor's degree in Business Economics. Tami is a mom of two and women's health advocate. Her passion is to help people live a fit, healthy life through proper nutrition and exercise!

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