Counting macronutrients (or macros) has been a dieting tactic used by bodybuilders for decades, but it’s made its way into the mainstream thanks to the rise of popular diets such as If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) and the ketogenic diet. Like counting calories, this method is a way to track your food intake, but it can be a bit confusing with all of the conflicting information out there. To help you cut through the macro clutter, we spoke with top nutritionists and dietitians to decode everything you should know about how to count macros and why you should consider it.
What Are Macros?
Macronutrients are the three essential dietary elements that you need in relatively large amounts to live. “We call them macros because we need them in larger quantities, versus micronutrients like vitamins and minerals,” explains Cynthia Sass, RD, CSSD, a dietician, author, and virtual sports and performance nutritionist based in Los Angeles, CA. “Every food on the planet is made up of one, a combo of two, or all three macronutrients.”
The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat, and each macro plays a different, unique, and important role in the body.
“Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for the brain and exercising muscles, and are important for fluid balance in the body” explains Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, co-author of Bike Your Butt Off!, and nutrition consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs based in Pittsburgh, PA. “Some forms of carbohydrates provide fiber to help regulate the digestive tract, and carbs can be sources of phyto- or plant nutrients to help to decrease inflammation, regulate blood glucose, and support an overall healthy microbiome.”
Every gram of carbohydrate provides the body with 4 calories, and when you’re on your bike, your body will turn to carbs first for a fast source of energy in the form of glucose and stored glycogen. Carbohydrate sources include fruits, vegetables, grains and breads, some dairy products, sweets, and fiber.
The second macronutrient is protein. “Protein is important for muscle building and repair, bone remodeling, structure and function of cells, as a component of antibodies, for glucose regulation, and for the maintenance and regulation of fluid balance,” explains Bonci.
Like carbs, every one gram of protein provides the body with 4 calories, but you cannot store protein like you do carbs so it’s important to eat it every day. Protein is a key building block of the body, and cyclists need it specifically to recover properly after hard workouts and to maintain the muscle mass they build during those sessions. Some good sources of protein are meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and beans.
The last but equally important macro is fat. “Fats can be used for fuel during a lower activity state, but they also serve as building blocks to make cell membranes, skin, and other tissues in the body that are constructed from fatty acids,” explains Sass. Certain fats like omega-3 fatty acids can decrease inflammation and risk of heart disease, too. “Fat can also insulate the body and protect the organs,” adds Bonci.
Every one gram of fat provides 9 calories. All three macros help fuel the body in some combination, but fat is key for those long, slow steady-state rides. Some good sources of fat includes avocados, nuts, fatty fish, and oils like olive oil.
Why Should You Count Your Macros?
Counting macros ensures that you’re getting adequate amounts of each. “Each macro is a type of calorie, but since the macros perform different and unique functions, they aren’t interchangeable,” explains Sass. “Tracking allows you to see if you’re achieving the right balance of the three.” The balance of each macros is vital for optimizing mental and physical performance and overall health, too.
When it comes to cycling, knowing what you eat can be a performance enhancer, explains Bonci. For example, if you feel sluggish on the bike, your carbs may be too low. If you’re getting too hungry during longer rides, you may need to pump up your fat intake. If you get ill more often or find you’re taking longer than normal to recover from injuries, your protein intake may be insufficient.
Counting macros can also help you lose weight if that’s your goal. First, you need to figure out your caloric needs, and then you can pick your macronutrient composition, explains Bonci. “As long as you’re eating an appropriate calorie level for weight loss, you should be fine, but the goal should be body fat loss, not lean mass loss, so it’s important to make sure that you’re still consuming enough protein as part of your macronutrient distribution,” she says. Protein allows you to maintain healthy muscles and bones and supports a healthy immune system. “It shouldn’t be less than 20 percent of your daily calories,” says Bonci.
Bonci points out that you still need to make sure your carb choices include fruits and veggies, as well as high fiber foods, and that your protein foods are not high in saturated fat. “The composition of each of the macros is as important as the percentage,” she says.
Is There Anyone Who Shouldn’t Count Macros?
Counting macros isn’t for everyone and there are some people who should avoid it. Weight loss is a worthy goal if approached with a healthy mindset and healthy habits. If you have a history with disordered eating or an unhealthy relationship with food, counting macros might not be the best choice for you. “Those who get obsessive with their intake should not do macros,” says Bonci.
“It’s also not a good idea for individuals who may have underlying diseases, which require more than the macros but specific recommendations on what they are eating.” Counting macros also isn’t recommended for pregnant or lactating women, who may need to better customize their eating more than what macros provide.
What Is the Ideal Macro Breakdown?
How much of each macronutrient you need is personal for everyone. “There isn’t one ideal macronutrient distribution for all,” explains Bonci. Your macro breakdown depends on your weight goals, your overall goals, and how regularly active you are each day.
“Endurance athletes generally need a higher percentage of calories from carbohydrates, whereas a strength athlete may need a slightly higher percentage from protein,” says Sass.
As a starting point, Bonci suggests a macro breakdown of 50 percent of overall intake is carbs, 20 percent is protein, and 30 percent is fat, dividing the intake equally across all your meals. Sass agrees saying that most of the athletes she works with have macro breakdowns of 40 to 50 percent of total from carbs, 20 to 30 percent from protein, and 25 to 35 percent from fat.
While each macronutrient has been vilified by at least one fad diet at some point (fat is bad! carbs are forbidden!), most sports nutritionists recommend avoiding those extremes and shooting for moderate ranges like the ones suggested above. But remember, that is just a starting point range, and the ratios may need to be adjusted especially as your training cycles ramp up or down.
It’s also important to remember that micronutrients, phytonutrients, and hydros are important as well, explains Bonci. “The best way to adjust is to work with a sports dietitian to ensure you find the right fit for you,” she says.
In addition to the ratio of macros you’re consuming, the quality matters as well, because while Sass mentioned that each macro is a type of calorie, all types of calories are not created equally. “It’s more than just the macronutrients themselves, but the type of food you’re consuming to meet your macro need,” explains Bonci.
Aim to fill your plate and your jersey pockets with high-quality, fresh whole foods to hit all your macro and micro needs over low-quality, nutrient-deficient packaged foods. “For example, you want to get higher fiber carbohydrates with adequate produce, leaner protein sources or plant-based sources to ensure you are getting all the essential amino acids, and more omega fatty acid, and monounsaturated fatty acid sources which can improve blood cholesterol levels.” Here’s exactly how to maximize your macronutrients according to how much you ride.
How To Track Your Macros
Sure, you can go old school and keep a food journal, but there are numerous apps that make it easier than ever to track your macros. Some of the most popular include My Fitness Pal, Lose It, or MyMacros+. “You should do this initially to make sure you meet your goals,” says Bonci. “But do realize that percentages of macros are rather vague on an app, and that in apps, you will see macros expressed in grams and also a percentage.”
To optimize exercise performance and recovery, the goal isn’t just to eat the right macro ratio, but also to optimize the quality of the food you eat and be strategic about timing, reminds Sass. “For example, choosing whole foods over processed foods is crucial for quality,” she says. “For timing, there are several key strategies: eating easily-digestible, nutrient-rich carbs pre-exercise to fuel training, eating a balanced macro meal post-training to maximize recovery, and spreading protein evenly through the day to optimize its ability to maintain and build muscle tissue.”
If you aren’t sure what your ideal macro ratio should be, how to up the quality of each macro, and how to best time your macros in relation to your training program, consult with a sports dietitian who can create a personalized plan of action.
What Happens If You Don’t Get In Your Macros?
Because each of the three macros have specific roles to play, if you deprive yourself of one (or two), or if you don’t get enough of all, the jobs that the respective missing macro plays cannot be done, and that can wreak havoc on the body. “This can trigger a number of unwanted side effects, from fatigue, to weakened immune function, to hormone imbalances—depending on the macro,” says Sass. “Ideally the right amount of each macro should show up for work each day in order to keep the body in balance.”
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