by Team Snapbac
From professional athletes to weekend warriors, the health and fitness world has been buzzing about counting macronutrients for some time now. It’s unlikely that you are not familiar with the idea and perhaps you even utilize it in your own athletic diet and lifestyle. With all of the food fads, extreme diets and nutritional manipulation for performance enhancement, it feels really good to look at something as science based, personalized and health driven as calculating your macronutrient ratio. The only drawback to following this way of eating is that it requires more than the average knowledge of food and health, and if you’re not interested in learning beyond the fundamentals, this program could do more harm than good. There are no restrictions when you count your nutrients. You can have whatever you want, whenever you want as long as the numbers equal out at the end of the day. While this dietary lifestyle has the potential to be the healthiest and purest form of eating, it is entirely conditional on your knowledge of good and bad foods. You also must determine your health goals, body type, food preferences and the numbers you need to make it all happen. We want to break it down and take a deeper look at the specific macronutrients to help you format your own food for life program and possibly figure out why what you’ve been eating just isn’t working for you.
We’ve all fallen head over heels for this macro gem. Our cabinets are filled with tubs of powders, ready to drink shakes, bars, snacks and protein-based cookbooks. We have protein for every food walk vegan, vegetarian, carnivore and other, and its popularity is not slowing down. But how much protein do we really need? What are its exact functions in the body? Do we all need to supplement or is it just for bodybuilding?
Protein may be the key building block to muscles, but it is in charge of a lot more than bulk and bulge. Proteins are chains of amino acids that work in the body to regulate and produce numerous hormones, enzymes and cellular communications. It is responsible for the majority of tissue development, not just muscles. Nine of the twenty amino acids in protein must be consumed in our diets because we do not make them in our bodies. This means you need to eat your protein, athlete or not.
If you are an athlete, the amount of protein you consume will be determined by your physical goals. Protein is fundamental in muscle protein synthesis, and plays a key role in muscle repair, recovery speed, lean body mass composition, bulk and strength. This anabolic effect is not present in carbs or fats. So, if you are building mass or simply unsure, protein as your primary macro is a healthy and safe choice.
To simply prevent deficiency, you need .08 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. High protein fad diets come in at 4.4 grams per kilo leaving quite a large disparity on the protein intake dilemma. From this, 2.2 grams per kilogram or 1 gram per pound has become the preferred balance for athletes and fit individuals. You can increase from there up to 4.4 based on desired effects in your body, but do consider that amounts over 2.8 have not been studied for safety and may affect kidney and liver health.
Carbohydrates have gotten a bad reputation since the upswing of fat-based diets, and the predominant carb source in the standard American diet deserves the bad press. Cookies, cakes, processed and packaged foods have no place on the athlete’s plate or that of any health conscious human. So, what carbs should you be eating and how much? This requires us to break carbs down into their subcategories because not all carbohydrates are created equal.
Carbs are sugars, and while glucose is necessary in our bodies for energy and healthy brain function, it is not essential. Your liver can make what you need to survive which is around 100-120 grams of glucose a day. As an athlete, you need carbohydrates to fuel your muscles as the conversion of ATP is not fast enough to sustain high-energy activities. So the amount of carbs you choose to consume is entirely based on your energy needs. It is better to focus on the types of carbohydrates you eat.
Carbs are broken down into monosaccharides like glucose and fructose, disaccharides like sucrose and polysaccharides like complex carbs and starches. When we eat these carbs, our bodies break them down into the various saccharides and convert them into monosaccharides so they can enter the bloodstream and get to work. This means that monosaccharides are the easiest to digest and most readily bioavailable of the carbs, but it doesn’t make them the healthiest.
For the sake of fat control on the body, it is better to consume more carbs than fats as they do not directly increase adipose tissue. They are easier to burn off during your day, and you can eat more of them as they account for fewer calories per gram than fat. Whether you choose high fat, low carb or high carb, low fat is entirely based on your body’s constitution and your athletic needs. It is recommended however that your body will operate best if you make a choice and stick to it.
Here is the newest contestant in the fad diet industry as we look to eliminate carbs from our diets and throw our bodies into ketosis for a completely, life-long sustainable eating plan that is fully nutritious. Or not. Who’s to say, but what we can determine is what fats are good for us and the role they play in keeping our bodies functioning properly. Unlike carbs, fats are essential as your body cannot produce them on its own and needs them to survive. For health and fitness, it comes down to choosing the right fats or lipids when meal planning. Fats get stored and are used for various purposes including making up the cellular membranes and controlling permeability, assisting with fat-soluble micronutrients and acting as an alternative energy source when we deplete our glycogen levels.
The most important thing to remember about fats is that there are solids at room temperature categorized as saturated fats, and these are not good for your health. Then there are fats that are liquid at room temperature called unsaturated fats, and these are better for your health. Unsaturated fats break down into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Finally, there are man-made trans-fats which should be avoided all together. Think margarine. For the best cardiac protection, choose your fats from the polyunsaturated list as often as possible. Do consider this has no impact on weight control as a gram of any fat is still nine calories.
Fiber is not a macronutrient, but it is an incredibly valuable part of our macros and should be considered when choosing the food on your plate. It is said that fiber is the scrub brush of the digestive system, but it plays a few more roles in keeping us healthy and fit. Fiber keeps things moving in our intestines and stimulates elimination. It also increases bulk, keeps you fuller for longer and has been shown to aid in lowering cholesterol and maintaining normal blood sugar levels. When choosing your carbs, take into account the fiber content. If you’re choosing high fiber, whole, unprocessed foods, you can be sure your proteins, fats and carbs are doing the most for your body.
How much do you need? Those numbers are not as precise, but a good rule of thumb is 10-15 grams per 1,000 calories that you consume. Don’t be too concerned about weight gain as high-fiber content produces a nearly equal thermogenic effect to protein and can burn many of its own calories during digestion. But you still need to count it in your daily total!
Liquids Count Too
The most overlooked food in our daily consumption are liquids. We forget that what we drink can play into our total caloric value and the ingredients in our beverages can thwart the best dietary plan. The easiest solution is to drink more water! Water should be the fourth macronutrient as it is essential in large amounts to our overall performance and fitness levels. Try to avoid high-sugar content beverages like sports drinks, high caffeine drinks and of course, alcohol. This means cutting back on your morning caramel latte with extra foam and choosing soda water during happy hour. On days that you opt for these things, be sure to count them in your caloric intake.
Now that you know the role of each macronutrient in your body, you need to take a look at your fitness goals and types of activity. For example, if you are working to bulk up, put on lean mass or build and repair tissue, then you want to put an emphasis on protein in your diet. If you are an endurance athlete, competitive runner, or play sports that keep you active for more than 90 minutes, you may want to focus your macronutrients more toward a carbohydrate-heavy intake, particularly the week before your event. Also keep in mind your specific health needs such as diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol and base your numbers accordingly.
Begin by understanding that each macro has its own caloric value: carbohydrates and protein have four calories per gram while fat has nine. Once you’ve determined your daily calorie needs and your daily protein needs, that only leaves carbs and fats. When counting macros, they are usually lumped together as each of their numbers are based on the other every day. Deduct your daily protein calories from your total and the remaining amount is left to carbs and fats. You need both, and you can split them equally, at 4 and 9 calories per gram respectively, amongst the remaining calories, or you can opt for higher carbs based on performance needs which will reduce your fats. You may choose higher fats based on satiation, flavor and diet preferences and this will decrease your carbs. Either way, these totals can remain flexible.
That only leaves determining your total calorie needs. You can take a deeper look in our article on the specific energy foods needed in your diet as an athlete, but for right now, we will try to keep this simple. We need to consider your baseline, or the calories you need to function in a given day, and then determine if you need a deficit or a surplus depending on your weight goals and athletic training. There are several formulas for estimating your caloric needs, but the most straightforward estimates with your weight, height, age to determine your basal metabolic rate and then a numerical equivalent for your activity level.
1.2 Sedentary - Little to no exercise
1.375 Light exercise (1 to 3 days/week)
1.55 Moderate exercise (3 to 5 days/week)
1.7 Very Active (6 to 7 days/week)
1.9 Extremely Active (daily exercise and/or physical job)
Male BMR = 88.362 + (13.397 × body weight/kg) + (4.799 × height/cm) - (5.677 × age)
Female BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 × body weight/kg) + (3.098 × height/cm) - (4.330 × age)
Maintenance Calories = BMR x Activity Level
Now you know what each macro does, and you can evaluate which one you need the most based on your specific physical goals and performance needs. You have the formulas for determining your individual numbers and some basic guidelines around which foods are best to meet your requirements. The last key to this puzzle is understanding that your needs will change. Age, weight, season, training, injuries, and numerous other external factors will require you to reevaluate your macros and adjust them accordingly. Don’t let this deter you. Like all things, it will take practice, patience and eventually become second nature. The beauty is in the balance. Counting macros eliminates extremes, increases freedom and focuses on giving your body exactly what it needs.