If you’re into you nutrition, the likelihood is that you’ve heard of the concept of tracking macros, or at least you’ve probably heard of the terms macronutrients.
Whereas micronutrients are nutrients that are found in small amounts in the food we eat (hence ‘micro’), macronutrients are nutrients that are found in larger quantities in our food.
Specifically, these are protein, fat and carbohydrate. (alcohol is a fourth macronutrient, but this usually isn’t a big focus, since most people, especially those who are into their health and fitness, aren’t consuming alcohol on a daily basis.)
The macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrate) make up our caloric intake for the day. 1g of protein provides about 4 kcal, 1 g of fat provides about 9 kcal, and 1g of carbohydrate provides about 4 kcal.
As you may know by now, what determines weight-loss or weight-gain is the difference between the energy (measured in calories) that you consume through food, and the energy you output through daily activity, exercise and bodily processes. Given the previous information about the macronutrients providing our daily caloric intake, we can see how our macronutrient intake will contribute to weight-loss of weight-gain.
Now, to get a bit more specific about the role of each macronutrient.
Protein has become the poster-boy for macronutrients, especially when it comes to people who get themselves to the gym regularly, and are interested in muscle building and recovery. And with good reason!
What we really want from protein is the amino acids that protein comprises of. Amino acids are essentially the building blocks for various tissues in the body including connective tissue, hair, nails and most importantly for those of interested in making some muscle and strength gains, as well as recovery from tough exercise, they are the building blocks for muscle tissue.
When we undertake strenuous exercise, we tend to cause micro-damage to the muscles, and in some ways this is desirable, and is part of the processes of signalling the muscle to grow, and become stronger. However, if these muscles remain damage, we don’t get these adaptations, so we sell ourselves short in terms of the benefits we could be getting from our training, but we also increase the chance of regressing or even injury.
In order to optimise these processes, we need to ensure we are supplying the body with sufficient amino acids to repair the muscle tissue and build some new tissue. Now, we don’t need expensive amino acid supplements in order to do this. Instead, we need to make sure we are taking in enough protein in general from food, from sources like chicken, turkey, beef, eggs, soy products and perhaps protein supplements.
A general recommendation for people who are engaging in regular strenuous exercise is to aim to consume about 2 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight daily, meaning that someone who weighs 75kg should be eating about 150g (2 x 75) of protein per day.
In the eye of the media, fat has gone from something that has to be avoided completely in order to stave off disease and weight-gain, right through to being known as a superfood in some circles, with the paleo diet and ketogenic diets becoming popular. As always, the answer seems to be somewhere in the middle.
We need fat in the body. For one thing, it is a good energy source, particularly in low-intensity activity. It is also needed to in the absorption of certain vitamins including vitamins A, D, E, K, the fat-soluble vitamins. It is also essential in the production of hormones, as well as cell regeneration. Also, eliminating fat from our diet is likely to lead to lead to poor dietary adherence, due to lack of enjoyability.
On the other hand, we know that there are certain types of fats that are beneficial to the body and other that aren’t so much. We could get deep into the nitty-gritty of fats, but suffice to say, you probably know the good guys and bad guys for the most part. The generally accepted ‘healthy’ fats tend to be contained in foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, eggs, salmon etc. The less healthy ones tend to be those contained in foods like pastries, fast-food, biscuits, etc. In between these two are animal fats, which should be eaten in a controlled manner, but shouldn’t be eliminated completely.
Also, it’s worth remembering, as mentioned earlier, that fat contains over twice the amount of calories per each gram that protein or carbohydrates do, so the calories can add up quickly if there is a lot of fat in the diet, which may or may not be a concern, depending on whether you are struggling to stick to your caloric recommendations or not.
As a rough recommendation, we should aim to have 20–30% of our total calories coming from fat. This means you will need to first know how many calories you are consuming in accordance with your goals.
For example, someone who is consuming 2500 kcal per day could calculate their recommended fat intake by taking 20% of 2500 which equals 500 kcal. Given that fat contains 9 kcal per gram, dividing 500 by 9 will give you your recommended fat intake in grams. In this case, that is 55g of fat.
This can move up or down depending on a few factors, including whether the diet is sustainable at that intake, how that intake suits a persons feeling of well-being, and whether or not that intake allows for adequate carbohydrate intake. Which leads into the next macronutrient, which is carbohydrate.
At a very basic level, when we eat foods that contain carbohydrates, (things like rice, potatoes, oats, pasta, fruit), they are broken down into glucose. Certain foods, known as complex carbohydrates, take more energy and time to be broken down than more simple carbohydrates like sugary foods, which are already close in molecular structure to the glucose that all of the carbohydrates will inevitably be broken down into.
Once the carbohydrates have been broken down into glucose, that glucose is then transported around the body, via the blood. It can be then stored in the muscles and the liver, as glycogen (the name given to carbohydrates in their stored form in the body) for when they’re needed. The glycogen in the liver is mainly used for functions in the body like regulating blood sugar levels and fuelling the brain for example. The carbohydrates in the muscles are used in exercise, increasingly as exercise intensity increases.
This flies in the face of the all-too-common notion that carbohydrates that aren’t used immediately will be stored as fat. However, if too many calories are consumed in general, and a lot of those calories come from carbohydrates, then there is a mechanism in the body for converting excess carbohydrate into fat, known as De Novo Lipogenesis, for the geeks out there. However, this isn’t the first port of call. The first port of call is to store carbohydrates in the liver and muscles as glycogen.
It is important to get sufficient carbohydrates in, especially if performance is a priority. It is worth remembering that performance shouldn’t just be a priority for athletes. For those who are interested in fat-loss, whilst maintaining muscle, it is important that your gym sessions are well-fuelled, so that you can get the muscle-building stimulus from progressively overloading the muscle.
In terms of numbers, the remainder of your calories after fat and protein have been taken into account should be made up from carbohydrates. This may mean adjusting your fat and protein intake in order to hit your calories target, whilst appropriately fuelling your current activity and training.
As an example, let’s say after protein and fat have been calculated, you have 1200 kcal remaining for carbohydrates. Because carbohydrates have 4 kcal per gram, we can divide 1200 by for to get the daily recommendation for carbohydrates in grams, which in this case would be 300g.
So, Why Should You Track?
Given that the science shows that there are optimal ranges to be aiming for in terms of protein, fats and carbohydrates, it is very difficult to hit these without tracking, at least for a period of time.
Most people have no idea of what 150g of protein looks like in a day. Hence, in order to get a handle on this side of your nutrition, it is important to get specific, and some form of tracking is going to be useful for this. I recommend the free phone app, Myfitnesspal. It has a full food database with almost every food you can imagine. However, it is important to make sure you are being accurate with the weights you are using, and because Myfitnesspal uses user-generated data, it can be useful to check the entries against a label on a packet or the food’s nutrition information on google.
In my opinion, tracking your macronutrient intake has been the biggest factor in the short-term AND the long-term progress of my clients, due to not only the ability to make sure their hitting their target ranges, but also because over time, you begin to build up an accurate idea of what amounts and type of food you should be eating.
Of course, macronutrients aren’t the only thing to be thinking about when it comes to optimising your nutrition. We obviously want to be eating a diet comprised of mostly whole foods, as well as looking at the timing of food intake, and perhaps adding in supplements, but in my experience, getting your macronutrient intake on point is the thing that most people are missing, that will give them the most benefit.
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