Many people use apps or other tools to count their calories. In a previous post, I talked about metabolism and explained total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), that is the number of calories you need to exist as well as cover your needs to function, work and exercise over a 24-hour period.
While calories are important, they don’t represent the whole picture. How those calories are further broken down is very important because they behave differently in your body. In other words, it is also important to understand the macronutrient breakdown of those calories.
Wait, what? What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients (macros for short) describe the three food groups our bodies need in large quantities (hence the prefix “macro”) to function:
Protein– Help to build and repair the structure of the body and for internal communication
Carbohydrates (“carbs”)– The primary fuel for the brain, cellular genetic material, muscles and for your microbiome (aka the “healthy bugs” in your gut)
Fats- The fuel important for cell structure, as well as the nervous and reproductive systems
The body primarily uses carbohydrates as a fuel source, but it also can utilize fats and proteins. Each macronutrient contains a specific number of calories per gram of food:
The recommended percentages of calories from each macronutrient are as follows:
How is the counting of macronutrients relevant?
Each day you eat a variety of foods which are comprised of different types of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. For instance, you could eat 2,000 calories in a day and of those calories, a certain number would come from each of the macronutrient categories:
|Calories from||Percentage of
Or you could consume the same number of calories in a day, but with different foods having a different macronutrient breakdown:
|Calories from||Percentage of
As you can see, the number of calories is the same in both scenarios, but the breakdowns of macronutrients are very different.
Each meal, or a day of meals, should have a good balance of all three macronutrients. For instance, if you aren’t consuming enough protein, you could end up losing muscle mass. Or if you aren’t having enough healthy fats, you could feel hungry more often and negatively impact your hormonal balance. If carbohydrates are too low, you might feel more tired, and if they are too high, you may negatively impact blood sugar levels and make losing weight more difficult.
When you understand and start to monitor macronutrients, you also indirectly start to control your calories as well. But more importantly, you become aware of what is or is not a quality macronutrient. For instance, say you consume a snack of a medium apple and two tablespoons of almond butter. You’d have consumed 270 calories broken down into 144 calories from fat and 126 calories from carbohydrates and protein. You would have also consumed 8 grams fiber. On the other hand, you could also consume 270 calories from potato chips. But these calories would primarily be from carbohydrates and fat, you’d have minimal fiber and you’d also have a minimal amount of nutrition coming from the potato chips themselves. If you are only counting calories, to you it doesn’t matter- a calorie is a calorie. But if you are counting macros too, you begin to also evaluate to quality of the calories consumed.
Also, no matter what your goals are, understanding your macronutrients will help better position you to reach your health goals whether it is to lose or gain weight or to achieve a certain level of physical performance. It is especially helpful if you are trying to maintain an overall lower daily intake of carbohydrates.
You may be thinking… I just don’t know if I can do this…..
To begin, you need to establish your caloric needs given your body’s needs and activity level. Next, you need to begin to define a macronutrient breakdown of these calories. Assuming good health, you can begin by estimating your body weight in kilograms and multiplying this by .8. This will give you the minimum protein you need to consume per day. From that, you can estimate out the number of calories you need to consume to achieve the target in grams. This will typically fall into the lower end percentage targets for protein. From there you can determine what you want your targeted ratios to be for fats and carbs given your unique physical needs and goals.
If this is too overwhelming, you can also just use my calculator here to map out your needs. For instance, if you are looking to lose weight or are more sedentary, you may want to set your carbohydrate intake at the lower end of the spectrum at 45%. However, if you exercise an hour or more a day, you may need to have a higher ratio of closer to 50%, and you may also want to increase your protein intake slightly as well.
There is no clear-cut formula, and this may take a bit of trial an error before you find ranges for each which work best for you.
You’ve defined your ranges, now what?
The next step is tracking your intake. I’ve found that this is most easily accomplished with an app like My Fitness Pal. Within the app, you can outline your macronutrient and caloric goals. Then for each meal or snack, you record what you’ve eaten, and the app will show where you are relative to your caloric and macronutrient targets. If you are also active, you can begin to see if the macronutrient ranges you’ve defined for yourself are meeting the energy or performance goals you are trying to achieve. Regardless, I highly recommend keeping notes of how you feel in the notes section so that you can come back and see how you and your body are reacting to the food you are eating.
Sometimes it is hard to know where to begin, or how to make this work within your life and with your lifestyle and your goals. In these situations, you may want to work with a professional to guide you. If this sounds like you, feel free to set up a free 15-minute informational session through the schedule an appoint button.