The keto diet. Whole30. Dukan. It feels like there's a diet fad for us to keep up with every other week, making it difficult to know what's trendy and what actually works when it comes to healthy eating. And the macro diet — AKA counting your macros — is another phrase that's popping up amongst athletes and dietitians. But what are macros?
To put it simply, macronutrients are the big, main nutrients — protein, fat, and carbohydrates — that are essential to keeping our bodies moving. They're the nutrients that provide energy, or calories, and are necessary to support basic bodily functions, says Mascha Davis, R.D., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So no matter what diet plan you're on, you're technically already eating a macro diet. You wouldn't survive otherwise. But when people say they're "counting their macros," it means that, instead of a caloric goal — saying they can only eat 1,800 calories a day, for example — they're setting a macronutrient goal. "[This] can help a person get the specific ratio of nutrients a dietitian determines they need, and encourages greater balance in eating," Davis says. People who tend to see major changes from counting macros include those who have athletic performance goals, those who are healing from being critically ill, and anyone who needs help managing diabetes, she adds.
Here’s everything else you need to know about macronutrients, and how you can balance them for an energized day.
Macronutrient #1: Protein
Protein has long been the darling of active folks who are trying to build muscle and dieters who don't want to feel like they're starving all the time. But protein serves a lot of other important purposes, like being the building blocks for muscles and organs, forming enzymes that support basic life functions, and building and repairing tissue, Davis says.
The first sign that you're not getting enough protein? Muscle loss and fatigue. “If we don’t eat enough protein to support daily activities or if we are very sick, our bodies will compromise muscle protein to keep other organs working,” Davis says.
That said, getting too little protein is unlikely in the typical modern diet since people tend to immediately recognize that macronutrient as healthy and reach for it first. (Foods that are high in protein include dairy products, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and legumes.) But Davis says there can be too much of a good thing, and going overboard on protein can cause uncomfortable symptoms, like constipation and cramping, to pop up. That's why counting macros can be helpful with keeping your body in balance.
Macronutrient #2: Carbohydrates
“Carbohydrates serve as the most basic source of energy,” Davis says. Essentially, the digestive process breaks most types of carbohydrates down into glucose, the most efficient form of energy, and our tissues then use glucose to power themselves on a daily basis.
The biggest processor of glucose and, in turn, carbs, is the brain. “Our brains need a minimum of about 150 grams of carbohydrate per day to function at full capacity,” Davis says. Starchy vegetables like potatoes, beans, and corn have carbohydrates, as do some dairy products, including milk and yogurt. Of course, there are also the foods you automatically associate with carbs, like bread, pasta, rice, and sugar.
When you're trying to figure out a carb balance, look for signs of bloating or thirst, as both could indicate that you've had too much. Feeling like you're fatigued or constipated, are craving carbs, or have difficulty concentrating could mean you're not eating enough.
Macronutrient #3: Fat
Interest in the keto diet has gone bonkers over the last year because its main requirement is eating a high amount of fat and a low amount of carbs. The intrigue toward high-fat foods — so long as they're healthy fats — may not be a bad idea. “Fat is necessary in our diets to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K,” Davis says. It's also an essential part of our cell membrane structures, and is used to make other molecules, like hormones, that our bodies need to function, she adds.
The most immediate impact we notice from fats comes in the form of energy. Fat is the most energy-dense of all the macronutrients, so our bodies often turn to it as a source of fuel if there aren't enough carbs (or glucose) available. Cooking oils, butter, and lard are the most common sources of fat in modern diets, Davis says, but you'll also find it in meats, poultry, fish, avocado, eggs, and nuts and seeds.
If you’re not feeling satiated after meals, it could be because there isn’t enough fat in your diet. Indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation, on the other hand, can all be signs that you’re eating too much.
How to Count Your Macros
Everybody is different, so a diet that focuses on macros isn’t going to be a one-size-fits-all approach. Genetics, health status, and activity level all play a big role in finding happy averages for you, Davis says. Some, for example, may feel better with fewer carbs and more fat, while others function best when more than half of their calories come from carbs.
If you're experimenting with counting your macros for the first time though, Davis says that, on average, humans tend to thrive on about 40-50 percent of calories coming from carbohydrates, 15-20 percent from protein, and 30-35 percent from fat. Use that as your starting point, then experiment with percentages and keep track of how you feel either with an app or by creating a food log. Noting what you ate, how much of it, and how it made you feel within the next few hours can all be helpful in painting a clearer picture. Talking with a dietitian can also be helpful, as they can help evaluate your overall health and fitness goals and create a tailored eating plan that's specific to your needs.
But if you’re not into making pie charts of your meals, there is good news: “For the average person, listening to your body and your cravings will allow you to find the macronutrient balance that is best for you on any given day,” Davis says. Our bodies are smarter than we give them credit for, so taking the time to tune in may be all you need to strike a healthy balance.
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