Okay, if you use a website or app to track your food, or you hang out with low-carbers or weight lifters, like you do, you’ve probably heard the word “macros” tossed around once or twice. (As you play this weight-loss game/journey to health you’ll find your vocabulary changes. I suddenly know the names of a lot more body parts than I used to. Now I need to figure out how to use “clavicle” in a game of Scrabble!) So what the *BLEEP* are MACROS, anyway?!
Macronutrients, or Macros for short, are nutrients that provide calories or energy for the body to burn. Depending on the source, there are either 3 or 4 types of macronutrients: protein, fat, carbohydrates and, occasionally, alcohol. For the purpose of diet (and I mean diet as in the food you need to survive, not a diet, as in cutting calories), I’m going to skip alcohol, as it isn’t necessary for the human body to live. Protein, fat and carbohydrates are all vital to the normal, everyday functioning of the human body.
Protein might be the only of the three macronutrients that doesn’t get a lot of negative press. I mean, they sell giant jars of PROTEIN POWDER. (One has been sitting on top of my fridge for almost a year now.) People are encouraged to increase protein intake on a regular basis. Protein is the “cool” macronutrient. Protein is essential for growth: our bodies convert protein to amino acids which (if you recall from high school biology) are the building blocks of life.
Protein also helps our bodies produce hormones, repair tissue (really important for strength training), bolster the immune system, and preserve lean muscle mass. Animal sources of protein are complete proteins, containing all the required amino acids, while vegetarian sources of protein are incomplete proteins, so vegans and vegetarians usually require additional supplements to account for the missing amino acids. The USDA recommends 10-35% of daily calorie intake should come from protein, and protein is 4 calories per gram.
Fat is by far the most maligned of the macronutrient family, but it’s only specific fats that are considered detrimental to our health. Saturated and Trans Fats (perhaps you’ve heard of this scamp being removed from foods around the United States) increase your risk for heart disease, but unsaturated fats can help reduce your risk of heart disease. Fat is the most dense source of energy, contributes to satiety, helps maintain cell membranes, provides cushioning to internal organs, and helps the body absorb certain vitamins. Plus, as chefs say, fat is flavor! The USDA recommends 20-35% of daily calorie intake
should come from fat, and fat is 9 calories per gram.
Carbohydrates often get a bad rep, like fat. There are a lot of buzz words floating around lately: low-carb, slow-carb, net carbs. Despite what proponents of low carb dieting might want you to believe, carbohydrates are the macronutrients the body requires most. According to the USDA, 45-65% of daily calorie intake should come from carbs. Carbs are easily converted to glucose by the body, which is the main source of fuel. Without carbs, our kidneys, brain, muscles (heart included) and the central nervous system would all cease to function. Carbs are important for a whole host of other reasons, but the long and short of it is that we need them. Carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram.
So now that we know what macros are, what do we DO with them? Well, how you tweak your macro ratios is highly individual. I personally have been using 20/30/50 protein/fat/carb ratio. Why? Well, to be totally honest, it’s what’s recommended on SparkPeople.com and that’s where I track my food. I don’t do low carb, and it seems to work for me. It assures me that I’m getting enough protein to support my weight training, and that I’m keeping my carbs and
fat in check. The quality of your carbs and fat is, ultimately, up to you. If you’re low-carb, you’re going to be eating more fat and protein compared to carbs. Human beings are pretty flexible, so as long as you stay within the numbers recommended by the USDA, you should get all the vital nutrients you need for good health, barring any medical conditions that might inhibit nutrient absorption.
Just as always, you need to do what works for you. If you prefer low-carb or paleo, do that. If you prefer to just eat real food and not worry about excluding things, do that. Pick a set of ratios and try it out, but feel free to tweak slightly. The truth is, there is no one answer. (Sorry!) I personally try to cook from scratch several nights per week, but I don’t cut out processed food for snacks if that’s what I want. I generally eat homemade food 80% of the time and other foods 20% of the time, and so far, it’s worked for me, because life isn’t perfection. Nobody’s perfect, and you shouldn’t try to *be* perfect, because this sets you up for failure.
Go out there, be good, and do what works for you!
Want more info? Check out the USDA and McKinley Health Center.
5 thoughts on “What the *BLEEP* Are MACROS?!”
Nice blog Andrea. Love and completely agree with the main point of it. However, I do think some of it is not entirely accurate. I am by no means anti-carbohydrate. But carbohydrates are not technically an essential food source. Your body can produce a small amount of glucose—all that is necessary for human survival—without ingesting carbohydrates.
There is a process known as gluconeogenesis through which humans (pretty sure all mammals actually) can produce glucose from non-carbohydrate sources such as protein and the glycerol component of fatty acids. Without gluconeogenesis the central nervous system couldn’t function if someone didn’t eat for more than 30 hours.
The currently understood essential human nutrients are:
3. Amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine);
4. Essential fatty acids (linoleic and α-linolenic acids), vitamins (ascorbic acid, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6, pantothenic acid, folic acid, biotin, and vitamin B-12);
5. Minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron);
6. Trace minerals (zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, selenium, molybdenum, and chromium);
7. Electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and chloride); and
8. Ultratrace minerals (such as boron and chromium…however there is still a lot of question about which ones and how much are needed). (Source: Harper AE. Defining the essentiality of nutrients. In: Shils MD, Olson JA, Shihe M, Ross AC, eds. Modern nutrition in health and disease. 9th ed. Boston: William and Wilkins, 1999:3–10.)
You can get all of these things without ever eating a carb. It’s not easy (as fruits, veggies and whole grains certainly are super abundant sources of essential vitamins and minerals) and I certainly wouldn’t do it, but technically it can be done.
In fact, there are cultures that eat virtually no carbohydrates and survive (the Innuit, for example). What is really strange to me is that people who eat no carbs whatsoever for a long period of time do not get scurvy. (If you notice on that list above, vitamin C is absent. Vitamin C becomes essential if you eat a carb-rich diet.) Scientists haven’t figured out why yet, but it is interesting. I certainly don’t advocate such a diet, but people can live long lives without ever ingesting carbs.
While I don’t disagree that people *can* survive on virtually no carbs, it’s certainly not recommended, and as my message is moderation and middle ground, I absolutely do not suggest it. I’d love to read more about it though, if you have source links. Thanks!
Take that back. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is on the list of essential fatty acids. However, there have been studies of people who eat not plant matter for 2 years under laboratory conditions and they didn’t get scurvy, which surprised the people doing the study. Anyway, once again, absolutely love these blogs.
Wow…you did a great job explaining what can be a very confusing subject. Personally, I’m not a big meat eater but I am diligent about my protein. My general rule about food is to eat REAL food no matter what. It works for me. 😉
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I am definitely into eating “real food”, but I can’t resist some processed crap every now and then!