Macros: Eating by the Numbers

If you spend any time around people who lift weights, whether they are body builders, gym bros, or CrossFitters, chances are you hear them talk about macros. Some are obsessed with hitting their macros. They obsesses over getting every tiny particle of every meticulously planned meal. Some aren’t as strict, but they do strive to “hit their macros” for the day.

So, what the heck are macros? Are they only for gym rats? Are they safe? Legal? Where do you get them?

Okay, so maybe those last few questions are a little over the top, but if you’re new to fitness and don’t really know the vernacular or have things down, it may sound like pretty serious stuff. It’s really quite simple.

Macros, or macronutrients, refer to the three main nutrients from food our bodies need to function properly. These are carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

See? It’s not so scary after all. We’ve all heard of these. The question is which of these do we need more of? Like popular fad diets, should one be completely eliminated from our diet?

Nope! You just need a good balance of all three!

Now, we all have different goals, and when it comes to fitness and a balanced diet, you need to eat according to your goals. As I’ve said several times before, I’m not a nutritionist, dietitian, or anything like that. All of what’s in here is what I’ve learned through research and personal experience. I’ll start off talking about each one first and why our bodies need each of these nutrients.

Carbohydrates

The past couple of decades haven’t been kind to carbs. From popular diets like Atkins to the gluten free craze, people seem to think the key to weight-loss is to cut out most, if not all, carbs from their diet. If they supposedly cause weight gain, they must be bad for our bodies!

False. Carbs are our body’s primary source of energy. Whenever we exercise, the body uses carbs to keep you going. Even if you live a sedentary lifestyle, our bodies prefer to use carbs. If you don’t have enough carbs, your body will turn to protein. What does that mean? Our muscles get broken down. If you’re trying to build muscle or do an endurance sport, you definitely don’t want your muscles to break down. Carbs are also good for the bacteria in the gut. A good gut is an indicator of good health.

Protein

    Generally when we think of protein, we think of our muscles. Yes, protein is vital to building and maintaining our muscles, but it does so much more for our body!

Protein is found in our bones, hair, and nails. Want nice shiny hair and strong nails? Protein! (Of course, I’ve notices with an increased intake of protein, the hair on the rest of my body grows faster, which means more shaving. Trade offs, right?) Along with iron, protein helps carry oxygen throughout our body. Protein also helps regulate hormones and form antibodies. Pretty important stuff, right?

Fat

    Fat is another nutrient that has been villainized over the years. It seems everything in the store has a low-fat option. You would think it makes sense that fat makes you fat. Of course, there are bad fats, which makes this a little tricky. With research, you can find the “good” fats to include in your diet.

Like carbs, fat is used as an energy source. Whatever doesn’t get used up gets stored away for later. I think this has something to do with our ancestors needing fat stores for lean times. Essential fatty acids are essential for our cells to function and for our bodies to grow, but our bodies can’t do this naturally, so we need to get these through the food we eat. Fats are a part of myelin. This is the tissue that surrounds our nerves so they can send messages throughout our body, so fats are especially important for the brain. Fat also helps transport many vitamins throughout the body and help regulate hormones.

 

This is all pretty important stuff, right? I’m no expert, but it does make me upset that some companies have made billions of dollars getting people to believe that these vital nutrients are bad for us. While there are some sources of carbs and fat that aren’t as healthy, it’s still super important we get what our bodies need. So then there’s the question of how much of these macros we need a day.

A lot of this depends on your body’s needs; how active you are, what type of workout you’re doing, what your goals are, if you have health problems that might interfere. Most of what’s coming up is assuming you’re moderately active (you workout a few days a week but have a more sedentary job) and no health problems that would need adjusting the numbers.

If eating to fit your macros is something you’re considering, keep reading! If it’s not something you’re interested in, you can skip on down. I won’t mind.

Figuring out your macros

    Really, it’s a numbers game. You can use apps or online calculators to help you figure all of this out, but those don’t always allow you to make adjustments.

The first thing you do is figure out how many calories a day you need to consume. Again, there are apps and calculators out there that can help you figure all of this out. If you’re doing it by hand, there are also a few formulas you can use. (More on that later). If you want to just maintain the weight you have, it will tell you how many calories you need to just keep your weight there. If you want to add weight, it will tell you how much you need. Same if you want to lose weight.

Once you figure out how many calories a day you need, you need to figure out your macro ratio. This ratio refers to how you’re going to divide your calories between the three macros. A basic standard ratio is 40-30-30. This means that you will get 40% of your calories from carbs, 30% from protein, and 30% from fat. This ratio can be adjusted according to your needs. For example, if you’re training for an endurance sport like a marathon, you may want to up your carb intake and lower your protein so your body has more fuel. Of if you’re into bodybuilding and you’re in a cutting phase, you might need less carbs. This is one of those areas where you see a lot of diets argue. Really, if you’re new to all of this and you don’t know what your needs are, I would go 40-30-30. You can always adjust later if you need to.

Okay, say you determined you need 2000 calories a day and for now you just want to maintain your weight. I chose this number because it’s a nice round number and easy to work with. For a 2000 calorie diet, you would then need 800 calories from carbs, 600 from protein, and 600 from fat. When you look at a nutrition label, it usually gives you grams of each nutrient rather than calories. To make things easier, you take the amount of calories and figure out how many grams you need, which is more math, but it’s simple.

Carbs have 4 calories for each gram, protein has 4 calories, and fat has 9, so you would take your calories and divide them by 4:

Converting calories to grams (example)

 

A couple months ago my husband and I decided we were going to up our fitness. We had both been working out for a while and while we were overall eating healthier, we just weren’t seeing the results we wanted. So we (meaning mostly my husband because he’s better at this sort of thing) spent hours one Saturday coming up with a meal plan for the week. We wanted to follow a macro-based diet, even for a little bit, just to see if anything changed. We did a ton of research, found the formulas we needed, and using spreadsheets, we determined our macros.

To make things easier since we were just starting out with this, we decided we were just going to eat the same thing every day. This way, we didn’t have to look up all the information for a bunch of different meals. We both had the samebreakfast and dinner, but we had different lunches. I’m going to share my stuff to kind of help you see what we did and how we did it, plus the weekly meal plan.

My macro plan

The formula we used is called the Mifflin St. Jeor Equation, which uses your weight, height, age, and gender to calculate how many calories your body uses. Again, there are calculators out there, but if you want to do it by hand, you need to convert your weight and height to kilograms and centimeters.

mifflin st jeor
Source: https://www.freedieting.com/calorie_needs.html

 

In this example I used my numbers. This tells me that supposedly my body burns about 1433 calories each day just with normal every day processes. There’s one more step that needs to be made now. There’s a multiplier. Depending on your level of activity, you multiply that number by a multiplier.

activity multiplier

For this multiplier, you need to think about your average day and be a bit honest with yourself. If you live a pretty sedentary life and you don’t work out much, you would use the 1.2. If you workout regularly but are pretty sedentary most of the day (like you have a desk job) then you would use 1.3. If you have a very active job (athlete, construction, warehouse, etc.) and you work out a lot throughout the week, you would use 1.4.

I used 1.3. I workout regularly but as a stay at home mom I don’t have a very active job. (some days it sure seems like it though!) So, if I take the calories the formula says I burn each day just by being alive and multiply it by the multiplier, I get 1433*1.3=1862.9. This means that to maintain the weight I have at the level of activity I do each day, I need to eat about 1863 calories.

To some people that may seem like a big number, to some, it doesn’t seem like much at all. Keep in mind, this is just to maintain my weight. If I want to lose weight, I need to eat less that that. If I want to gain weight, I eat more.

When we did this super strict planned out week, we decided we were just going to go with the maintenance level, just to see how we do. Once we got a system down, we would adjust our numbers. So, going with 1863 calories a day, we figured out how much of each macro I needed each day. Using the 40-30-30 ratio, I need 745.2 calories from carbs, 558.9 calories from protein, and 558.9 calories from fat. Using those numbers from earlier to convert these to grams, I get 186.3 grams carbs, 139.7 grams protein, and 62.1 grams of fat.

 

My Meal Plan

When I first saw how many calories I was supposed to get today, I had a small sense of “That’s it? I’m going to starve!” As we planned out the meals and closely looked at serving sizes on labels, I got a little more worried. It didn’t seem like I was going to get much food. How hungry was I going to be? How tired and lethargic (and grumpy) was I going to feel?

It turned out to be just fine. In fact, that first day we followed the plan, it seemed like I was getting way more food than I thought I could eat in a day. (My husband had to eat more and he was even more worried about that!) We quickly learned that just because we had some things planned at certain meals didn’t necessarily mean we had to eat them at that time. If we were full from breakfast but still had an apple to eat, we could just save the apple for later in the day. As long as we ate our planned foods some time during the day, it was alright.

So, I eat that week?

 

As you can see, at the end of the day the totals don’t add up to 100%. I can’t remember where that was messed up, but we found where the numbers were off. It might have had to do with rounding.

We got these numbers from nutritional labels where we could get them and the Internet for things that didn’t have labels, like the produce.

Usually I like to roast the sweet potato but that meant adding oil, which put me way over my fat count for the day. Some of these might seem like huge amounts, but we had to adjust to meet my needs. For example, a serving of Fairlife chocolate milk is 8 oz, but that didn’t quite put me where I needed to be for protein. Plus the protein powder I had at the time was a bit funny tasting so adding more milk helped. Those extra 4 oz helped put me where I needed to be for the day. 6 oz of chicken is a lot for one meal, but again, it got me where I needed to be for the day.

We were really strict this week. We measured out everything that could be measured. We bought a food scale so we could weigh our meat. We’re not really into meal prepping where we cook everything at once and then put it in containers for the week, so we did most of our cooking each day. Sometimes I could cook more, like I would cook extra rice or more chicken for the next day just to help things along. With a tip from a co-worker, we would soak the steel cut oats overnight so in the morning we basically just had to warm them up, saving us a lot of time.

Now, this seems like a lot of work, and it was a ton of work, so the big question: was it worth it?

Well, between following the strict diet and upping out workouts, both of us saw results…fast. I think I lost a few pounds that week, and my muscles were becoming more defined.

So, yes, I think it was worth it.

We’re not quite as strict now, but we are much more conscious about what we eat and the balance we try to achieve in our daily diet. I think a big reason we saw results so fast was because we weren’t eating as much processed stuff. I know for me that’s where a lot of my calories were coming from. Even though I was eating better before then, I would still rely on things like cereal and the kids’ snacks to get me through the day. With these meals, I was more full so I didn’t feel the need for as many snacks. I thought after a couple days I would be dying for junk food, but I wasn’t. I was satisfied. I felt a little more energized. I felt better over-all.

 

Obviously this plan isn’t for everyone. It requires a lot of planning and a lot of work up front, and most of us don’t need something that strict. However, if you’re needing to change things up, or you hit a plateau, I would suggest looking into this. As you can see, the meals I had weren’t that hard to make. They were very simple. They can easily be adjusted to fit your needs. Need more protein? Throw some more chicken in there. Need less? Cut out the protein drink. Want a different type of bean? Go for it. Want to add a veggie? Be my guest!

It’s super easy to customize and make how you want. The important thing is getting that good balance.Does this mean every single meal needs to hit that 40-30-30 ratio? Eh, I don’t think so. Some trainers might say yes, but I think as long as you have things planned out, eat according to how you feel. Breakfast was huge, so I would save the apple and protein drink for later in the day. Sometimes I would eat half of my chicken-bean-rice meal and then eat the other half a couple hours later. That’s okay.

This is just something that has worked for me. Since I’m not as strict with it now, I have sort of hit a plateau, but I now know what I need to do to get back on track. I love seeing how my body has changed. Every week when I look in the mirror, I notice something new. It’s an incredible feeling, and it keeps me motivated to keep trying.

Unless you have a reason not to, make sure you get a good balance of carbs, protein, and fat. If you go to extremes limiting one of these nutrients, your body isn’t going to function properly. Balance things out, and your body will thank you!

 

Additional sources:
http://www.eatbalanced.com/why-eat-balanced/why-eat-carbs/
http://www.eatbalanced.com/why-eat-balanced/why-do-we-need-protein/
http://www.eatbalanced.com/why-eat-balanced/why-do-we-need-fat/

 

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