What the hell are macros?

I hear this a lot. Especially when I tell people I count them, then they get very confused.

Here’s the basics. I’ll get to some really good stuff later, like apps and strategies, but first here is some background information.

What They Are

A macro-nutrient is a protein, fat, carbohydrate or alcohol. These 4 types of nutrients are the only things you put in your body that contain calories (or energy). Water, vitamins or sugar, for example, don’t have a caloric value. You need calories to think and function, you can’t live without them. Calories tend to get a bad rap considering a consistent calorie surplus is associated with weight gain and obesity, but calories aren’t the enemy at all.

Macros and Calories

Most foods are made up of more than one macro. For example, an egg has 5 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein and 0.6 grams of carbs. When people say they’re “counting macros”, they’re keeping track of how many grams of protein, fats and carbs they eat each day. Protein and carbs are both equivalent to 4 calories per gram, while fat is 9 calories per gram and alcohol is 7.

Tracking macros is essentially a more specific approach to counting calories. Trying to stay below a specific calorie intake means you can eat whatever you want, as long as it all equals a certain number. The potential problems with this approach are: 1) you may be tempted to eat “low-calorie” foods that are often highly processed, low in nutrients (especially fiber) and don’t keep you full very long, 2) You may only eat one or two large meals to fill your calories, which doesn’t support optimal brain function or sustainable energy levels, or 3) you eat only “clean” foods (think chicken breast, rice cakes or fish), feeling hungry or deprived and unable to sustain that method of eating.

Macro dieting takes the concept that staying below or within a particular calorie range consistently will help you lose weight, and structures it with the building blocks that are macros. When you do this, you’re likely to eat enough and can factor in things like going out to eat or a craving for a particular food. Another perk is that if you’ve built your macro breakdown and you’re not seeing results, it’s a smarter approach to then modify your goal macro numbers, instead of just blindly cutting your caloric intake across the board. (For example, tailoring your carbohydrate or fat intake specifically based on how your body is responding).

How To Count Them

My Fitness Pal is the most popular app (according to the Apple App store) for tracking food intake. There are similar applications available for download as well, several of which are free. My Fit Pal includes a bar scanner that will input the nutrition facts for you when you scan a packaged item, which is handy.

Before You Go

A couple things. First, for the sake of understanding while you’re paroozing the internet, “IIFYM”, “flexible dieting” and “tracking macros” are all interchangeable terms and mean this same process that I just explained. Second, counting macros is not the answer for everyone, there is no miracle diet plan that works for every individual. Some people simply become too neurotic tracking grams each day, or their body responds better to a different way of eating, and that’s perfectly okay. Lastly, IIFYM among social media is frequently accompanied by those who brag that everyday they eat donuts and ice cream. Counting macros is a great way to avoid feeling deprived, because you absolutely can fit sweets into your daily allowance of food everyday if you so choose. But realize that then the rest of your day will be structured differently when including a calorie-dense or indulgent item and that can be hard on your appetite, metabolism or self-control.
As I mentioned, this is the basics. I think macro dieting is fascinating, and I’m looking forward to diving deeper into the subject with you!