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Friday
Jan132017

A Beginner's Guide to Macros (Fat, Carbs and Protein)

The appeal of a fresh start this January has New Year’s resolutions running hot, with many of us ready to buckle down and re-prioritize our health after an eventful holiday season. With the cookies and cocktails long gone, our energy and determination can now shift to launch us full throttle into a year that will be the year: the year to lose body fat, to keep it off, to gain strength, to reclaim energy, to increase vitality and, most important, to find the approach that works for your unique metabolism.

We also know that, in the quest for optimal health, you are subjected to an onslaught of social media nutrition opinions, empty promises from the next so-called miracle weight loss pill, and often-uninvited locker room diet experts. Through the hype, you’re sure to run into one of the most well-known of all weight loss concepts: macros. With some hailing macro counting as the be-all, end-all to health (it doesn’t matter what you eat if your macros are right) and others ignoring the concept altogether, (providing only real, whole foods are being consumed) it turns out that the truth about macros and fat loss lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

Macros, Defined

“Macros” is short for the term “macronutrients,” which refers to nutrients that provide calories for energy; primarily proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (alcohol could be discussed here as well, but it’s not a primary focus for today’s article). Proteins and carbohydrates each provide four calories per gram and fats provide nine calories per gram (for those itching to know, alcohol provides seven calories per gram). In essence, think of macronutrients as fuel. When talking about macros, most people are either referring to the percent breakdown of their total calorie intake that comes from each of three main categories (protein, fat and carbohydrate) or the number of grams of each of those nutrients they are aiming to consume in a day.

Macronutrients are not to be confused with micro-nutrients, often referred to as vitamins and minerals, which are critical for health but do not directly provide calories. It might be easy to think of macronutrients as fuel and micronutrients as engine parts; you need both to function well.

Macros and Weight Loss

No bones about it. Macros do matter for fat loss, but they are far from being the sole dictator of your results.

Using the Standard American Diet (appropriately abbreviated SAD) as a starting place, most people who are embarking on a health and wellness journey usually need to increase protein intake, ideally consumed from quality meat, fish, eggs and poultry, and increased healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and seeds. Along with these changes, most people initially do need to decrease starchy carbohydrate intake from bread, pasta, and cereal to get better control over blood sugar regulation.

A lack of protein and healthy fats, along with consumption of excess carbohydrates can cause blood sugar levels to roller-coaster throughout the day, contributing to sporadic energy levels, mood swings and excess body fat stores, even with a calorie deficit.1 Yikes! Assessing your macronutrient intake and addressing imbalances are important to nudge your metabolism into a more fat-burning state while helping you avoid feelings of deprivation. And it starts with the numbers.

The Numbers Game

As mentioned above, macros are often counted in percentages of total intake or in grams. For example, someone might be following a 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, 30% fat diet. Or, they may be approaching it from a gram count, i.e., following a diet that aims to include 200 grams of carbohydrate per day, 150 grams of protein and 67 grams of fat, for example.

Being that most of us in the States are more used to ounces and pounds as units of measure, reading food labels and using online diet calculators can provide insight to the number of grams of each macronutrient you are consuming in a given meal or day.

If you’re new to this, it may already seem like a complicated foreign language. However, I promise it’s doable and can change your outlook on food. First, start by using measuring cups and a food scale for a week or so to gain objective insight into how much you are currently eating. Is the chicken breast on your lunch salad three ounces? Five? Six? Use a food scale in the short term to learn to better eyeball it in the long term. To be clear: the goal from a general fat loss and wellness perspective is not to get fanatical in weighing and measuring every bit of food for life (please don’t). It’s to establish your baseline.

Once you get the hang of estimating how much you’re eating in units of measure that you’re used to, input what you’re consuming into an online food tracker (i.e., a lunch salad would be entered as two cups of lettuce, ½ cup sliced cucumber, 4.5 ounces of grilled chicken breast, 2 Tbsp vinaigrette) that can automatically calculate how many grams of protein, fat and carbohydrate you’re eating in that given meal. Speaking from my clients’ experiences, just a few days of tracking this way can be a huge eye opener. The macronutrient counts of certain restaurant portions can be particularly jaw-dropping. It will only take one time of accurately logging those restaurant chips and salsa or that alfredo pasta dish to realize the magnitude of the gargantuan portions of food we are being served.

Over time, you’ll notice trends to help you better watch and adjust your intake. For instance, you’ll notice that animal proteins tend to average around seven grams of protein per ounce. In time, you’ll be able to more easily eyeball the 4 ounces of chicken on your salad, knowing it’s likely in the ballpark of 28 grams of protein or so. Piece of cake. No pun intended.

What Should My Macros Be?

Your personal macros should be just that — personalized. A Resting Metabolic Assessment and Stress & Resilience assessment are both great tools that work synergistically to guide your unique macronutrient needs. If you don’t have those available, you’ll likely need a little more trial and error. Either way, it’s best for macro newbies to start by tracking protein.

For most people with a goal of fat loss, aiming for 30% of your calories from protein would be a good start.2 For a 2,000-calorie diet, that would be 600 calories from protein, or 150 grams of protein (since there are four calories per gram of protein). If you’re not sure how many calories you should be eating and haven’t yet had the opportunity to connect with a nutrition coach, research suggests that anywhere from 1.5 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight (much higher than the current RDA of 0.8 grams per kilogram) may be prudent.3,4

For context, a 175-pound person would be aiming for approximately 120-160 grams of protein daily under those guidelines. Other research suggests that a gram of protein per pound of target weight daily may be even better.5 Anecdotally, several clients of trainers and nutrition coaches report improvement in body fat losses and blood work trends with several of these strategies. However, when you’re getting this precise, it’s highly encouraged that you connect with a nutrition professional to customize your personal plan.

Please note that there are a lot of myths out there about the so-called “dangers” of protein that are misguided and may not apply to you, unless you have a pre-existing kidney issue (often caused by uncontrolled high blood pressure or blood sugar).

While protein needs are generally consistent from day-to-day for the average gym goer, (changing primarily as body composition changes) carbohydrate and fat intake fill in the rest of one’s calorie needs. Carbohydrate intake should be based on activity level, with more active days helping you “earn” more carbohydrate. But note, if your goal is weight loss, it’s likely that lower carb living may be better for you. The good news that most people see is an organic drop in carbohydrate intake, without trying and without deprivation, when they increase protein intake. As for fat, healthy fat choices such as nuts, seeds and avocados should fill in the rest of your calorie needs after protein and carbs are accounted for. For those that are worried about saturated fat from natural sources and heart disease, literature has shown that it is not as much of a concern as once thought.6

To Count or Not to Count

With the exception of a personal history of disordered eating, counting macronutrients strategically and for intermittent intervals of time is recommended for anyone looking to lose body fat. It not only educates you about the balance of nutrients that you are putting in your body, but also, when pairing macronutrient counting with body fat assessments and weigh-ins over time, it can reveal a whole lot about what works well for you and what does not.

That being said, nutrition is about quality, balance and individualization. Counting and adjusting macros will only help move you toward a state of optimal health when done under the assumption that real, unprocessed foods are making up the bulk of those macronutrients. Subsisting on low carb ice cream and protein bars loaded with artificial sweeteners will not do your metabolism any favors, even if your macros are spot on. Another thing to note is that counting your macros is best done when making changes to your nutrition program. If you’ve been counting macros incessantly for months or years on end, it’s important to evaluate your personal relationship with food to make sure you’re channeling the importance of intuition and satiety cues as well. Counting macros is a great and highly recommended tool, but it should be used like training wheels, ideally when aspects of your nutrition program are changing to help you adapt, not as a perpetual food-logging prison. At the end of the day, awareness catalyzes change. And macro counting is one of many aspects to a successful nutrition approach this New Year.

Are you ready to engage in a personalized nutrition program? Have questions about your personal macros? Email weightloss@lifetimefitness.com to get connected with a nutrition coach today.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16469983
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16002798
  3. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07315724.2004.10719435
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17908291
  5. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-9-42
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2824152/

 

In health, Samantha McKinney – Life Time Lab Testing Program Manager

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

 

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