Macros is short for macronutrients, which are the nutrients the body needs in large amounts for energy and for all of the body's structures and systems to function optimally. The term "macros" refers to carbohydrates, protein and fat, the three main types of macronutrients. So, counting macros means keeping track of the amount, in grams, of each of these contained in the foods you eat.
4 calories per gram
This macro includes sugars, starches and fibers. They are an energy source, they help control blood sugar and cholesterol. When we eat carbs, they are broken down into glucose to be used for energy during digestion.
Healthy carbs: unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans.
Less healthy carbs: highly processed or refined foods, like white bread, cookies, chips, pastries and soda.
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9 calories per gram
This macro is found in foods like oils, butter, nuts, seeds, meat, fatty fish and avocado. Fat provides energy, keeps the body's organs healthy, helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K, and helps keep the body warm.
Healthy fats: avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, eggs, extra virgin olive oil.
Less healthy fats: highly processed foods, such as bacon, shortening, margarine, some fried foods like chips and doughnuts.
4 calories per gram
Animal and plant-based foods both offer proteins, but animal-based foods tend to be sources of more complete proteins. Proteins a re important to the body's structure and function . Protein is made from building blocks called amino acids, which cannot be stored, so the body must make them. Nine of those amino acids, known as the essential amino acids, must come from what you eat.
Healthy proteins: whole, minimally processed animal and plant-based foods like salmon, lean meats, chicken, eggs, plain nonfat dairy, lentils, beans, peas, seeds, nuts, whole grains.
Less healthy proteins: highly processed meats, chicken nuggets, fish sticks.
What should your macros be?
Your ideal macro (and calorie) count depends on your goal, such as losing weight, gaining muscle and/or improving overall health.
Even with a goal in place, one's caloric needs are very individual, as they must take into account things like gender, size and activity level. Calorie calculators, such as MyFitnessPal, help determine your current daily calorie expenditure.
Once you have this estimation, it's simple to add or remove calories from the diet .
Breaking calories into specific macronutrients can help you better align the types of food you eat with your goal. Someone who wants to gain muscle may want to increase protein intake; or an endurance athlete in training may want to eat more carbs.
There are several recommended macro ratios, such as this one, from the Institutes of Medicine:
■ 45% to 65% calories from carbs
■ 20% to 35% calories from fat
■ 10% to 35% calories from protein
How to count and track macros
If you're counting macros for the first time, it may make sense to start by tracking your present diet for a week. This will give you a good idea of how your macros are right now. Then, you'll be able to see what you want to change.
There are three basic ways to track: a food journal, device-based apps or websites.
To calculate macros, you'll need to log all foods and caloric beverages consumed by the number of calories and grams each of carbs, fats and proteins. If using a food journal, you'll need to look up each food, enter data and then add to see your daily totals in each category; an app or website will compute this for you.
Once you see your current trend of macro intake, you can align your diet with your goals.
Speaking to a registered dietitian nutritionist can help determine what's right for you as well as help you choose the healthiest food choices — and the ones that will help you thrive — within each type of macro.