What the F**k is a Macro, Anyway?

beach-hat-cactus-plant-delicious-1034940As I started investigating how to better get on top of my health, and especially my eating habits, I kept running across this term. “Macro”. #Macros #MacrosCoach #IfItFitsYourMacros #MacroShot  It was everywhere. Clearly macros were important to people, but I did not understand what a macro was.

“Macro” is short for macro-nutrient. When measuring the nutrients we put in our body, there is a macro- and micro-nutrient component; macro meaning large and micro meaning small.  Together these are all the bits and pieces that the human body needs to perform; macros being the large measurables of carbohydrates, protein, and fats, and micro-nutrients being little things like vitamins and minerals.  So that’s the punchline, you can stop reading right there…but if you want more info, keep going!

It may be my age, but I was never aware of a focus on “macros” in anyway until the Atkins diet craze of the 1990s.  Then it was all about more protein, and no carbohydrates (carbs). But I had no idea what that really meant.  Of course, I was not following Atkins and so had no vested interest in learning. What I did know was that to lose weight you were to eat less and exercise more – but I was clueless on what was good to eat, bad to eat, the concept of using food as fuel, or what sort of ratio anything was to be at. And there was never discussion around feeding your body to function – it was only ever about weight.

As stated, macros are the large nutrient components that make up everything we eat.  There are only three: carbs, fat, and protein.  In trying to educate my kids to recognize each one I use a rule of thumb: carbs come from plants, protein comes from animals, and fats are anything that can be made into an “oil” (olive oil, butter, etc).  It’s not perfect…but it works to get the basics.  There have been many marketing schemes around these terms from “red meat is bad” to “carbs are evil” and so on.  Lately the big craze has been the Keto diet, which really feels like a refined Atkins plan that has less pre-paid protein bars for sale.  But when you take the time to really understand the science in food and understand what our bodies need and how they work, you learn that all of these macros are necessary for a different reason.

Carbs are the hottest topic around.  Seems that everything is about carbs; which is understandable because carbs are really easy to find…they are in EVERYTHING. Bread, vegetables, fruits, and sugar are all carbs; in fact, when you look at a nutrition label you will see that there are two sub-entries under Total Carbohydrates (Dietary Fiber and Sugar) because they are so prolific and come in many forms.  These are fast energy components that we need for fuel in our bodies.  The trick is that they need to be used very soon after consumption, or they get converted to fat and stored in the body for later use.

Protein is the latest darling in the “nutrition” world…and by “nutrition” I mean fad diet, nutritionist, social media blitz, mosh pit of things involving actual nutrition.  Proteins are the building blocks of substance and longer lasting energy.  This is harder to find, and is typically in animal products (meat, eggs, etc) but can certainly be found via alternatives such as nuts, derived protein such as pea protein powder, and soy. Atkins, Keto, and many diet plans of the last 30 years have focused on protein, even though a body needs all of the macros to perform well.  Protein is needed for anything in our bodies to grow, regenerate, or heal.

Fat is a tricky one; instinctively you want to say “fat is bad”.  This is a terrific example of needing to take everything in moderation.  Fats are primarily two types: saturated and unsaturated.  These can be easily distinguished by their consistency; saturated fats keep solid at room temperature (butter, coconut oil, etc) and unsaturated fats are oils (olive oil, canola oil).  Both are necessary, but different, and unsaturated fats are recommended to be the higher quantity of the two.  But WHY? Fats help you absorb certain vitamins such as A, D, E, and K.  From experience I can tell you that you do NOT want to cheat the absorption of Vitamin D. Fats also help provide structure for our cells and assist with brain and nerve function. NOTE: trans fats are NEVER your friend…these are an artificial fat found in partially hydrogenated oils (you’ll see that on an ingredients label) and will never do you right.

Depending on what you do and what your goals are, your macro needs will be different from the next person.  Someone running every day will require more carbs for the energy to move right away.  If your focus is on building muscle, then an increase in protein is needed so your body has the tools it needs. If you are vitamin deficient, you may cook with more or different fats to help absorption of supplements.  They all work together to make your machine work. Because every person is different, it’s important to speak to a professional and put together a good plan.  As a guide to help, you can also take a look at a macro calculator that will help determine how much of each you can/should consume to meet your goals – these calculators can seem overwhelming, but if you think of them as guides and targets, you’ll be ok.

The real takeaway here is that

  1. Macros are the term for carbohydrates, fats, and protein
  2. You need all of them no matter what
  3. Your ratio of macros is specific to you, your goals, and your activities
  4. Focus should be on using these to best tune your body machine, and not follow a fad diet
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