Updated: Nov 30, 2022
"Hitting those macros" is such a common expression in gym culture it seems criminal to ask, "excuse me, what are macros?" Here, I'll simplify the macros for you and tell you how to ensure you're getting these three food groups into your diet without going to the extra effort of using a macronutrient counter and weighing your food each meal.
The last thing you want to do before you've established solid habits is to obsess over the tiny details that don't matter (yet). So, I'm going to keep this super simple. Macros or macronutrients are three sources of energy that your body burns to do everything from digesting your food to helping you get through a long run. They are:
And your body breaks them down in that order. You never want to burn your protein because that means you're breaking down your muscle. To keep your body weight within healthy guidelines, it's best practice to minimize fat and build muscle. For this to happen, we need enough carbs and fats in our bellies to ensure we aren't breaking down proteins and losing muscle. I'm going to break down each macronutrient for you briefly, then explain how to ensure you're getting just the right amount of each food group without using complex apps and weighing your food.
Carbs are the first macronutrient to be utilized by the body. They break down into glycogen, then glucose, and are the brain's preferred energy source. If you're getting hangry or brain fog, it could be because your body needs carbs! Unfortunately, carbohydrates aren't loved by the weight loss industry, with many popular diets cutting them out almost completely.
Carbohydrates are high in calories and are often overeaten in a western diet, but that's not to say they're terrible. The Mediterranean and South Asian diets enjoy carbs with almost every meal. The lesson that we can take as westerners is to keep our carbs as natural as possible. First, let's understand the basic science of why processed sources aren't doing us any good.
Low Vs. High GI
You've likely heard advertisements with the phrase "low in GI." This is the glycaemic index scale. Foods higher in GI provide you with immediate access to energy, whereas lower GI foods give you a sustained energy release. High GI foods are addictive and will give you that sugar spike. But it'll also give you the 3 pm crash. Here's what it looks like.
If you want to get out of addictive food cycles, focus on getting more lower GI carbohydrates into your diet. Low GI carbs include green veggies, carrots, many legumes, sweet potatoes, and surprisingly basmati rice makes it into the medium GI range. High GI foods include most rice varieties, pasta, white bread, and potatoes. Here's some more reading material on GI ranges.
In the 90s and 2000s, fats were the enemy. The thinking was, "if I eat fat, then I'll get fat." It's a myth that's been debunked (thank goodness), but you still need to know which fats to eat and leave. There are four fat types; monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and transfats.
Generally, we need more of unsaturated fats and less saturated fats. Transfats should be eliminated from your diet completely. Fats are high in calories, so you don't want to go overboard. If you've decided a carbohydrate limiting diet like the ketogenic or Atkins diets are fo you, then you'll definitely need to increase your fat intake.
Mono- and polyunsaturated fats
Your monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are where it's at (health-wise). We can model the Mediterranean diet here. Italians lather olive oil over almost anything, but they still stay healthy for the most part. Mono and polyunsaturated fats and jam-packed with nutrients, including Omega 3 and 6.
Omega 3 is under-consumed. On average, we have a 16:1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio, but the ideal ratio is 4:1 or under. Consulting a nutritionist is best, but if you're not in a position to do that, most people need more omega 3.
You can source these healthy fats from nuts and seeds, plant-based oils such as soybean, walnut, flaxseed, and many wild, sustainably-sourced fish. Remember, even healthy fats are high in calories, so don't go overboard in the name of omega-3.
Saturated and transfats
Saturated fats are alright, but it's best to eat them in moderation. Transfats are to be avoided at all costs. These two types of fats can be found in animal products, fast food, fried food, bakery goods, and sweet, sweet ice-cream. Unfortunately, it's all the things that we love that aren't good for our health.
Saturated fats aren't ideal because they take a LONG time to break down in the body. They also increase your cardiovascular disease risk. They're the plaque-building fat that causes your arteries to narrow and makes it more difficult to be active and healthy. Transfats are artificial. They add hydrogen to the long fatty acid chain to make them more solid (hello, margarine). Transfats increase bad LDL cholesterol, and inflammation, and there's a link to their role in cancer. Just watch ants avoid margarine like the plague. You should avoid them too.
Side note: Yes, coconut oil is a saturated fat. However, it's a medium-chain triglyceride 🤯 (wtf, does that mean!?) Without getting too nerdy on you, that means that it breaks down quicker in the body. It's also thermogenic, meaning it's heat-producing, which gives your metabolism a little boost. I could write a whole article on coconut oil, but the bottom line is to continue enjoying coconut oil in moderation, although it's saturated fat.
If the question "what are macros" came up for you in a gym-environment, it's likely the crowd of gym-junkies that you overheard were chatting about hitting their protein goals. You probably don't need to be as obsessed with your protein intake as much as you think. The fitness industry uses "high-protein" as a slogan. We don't need nearly as much protein as we thinkg in western culture. Yes, even the vegans (vegans and vegetarians need to be concerned about their B12).
You must know these things about protein. Proteins are made up of amino acids. We have 21 different forms of amino acids. Most are non-essential, meaning our body makes them from other molecules and structures within the body. 9 are essential, meaning that we must get them from food. If something we consume has all 9 essential amino acids, it's known as a complete protein. This is what you must eat with each meal or as a snack after workouts.
All animal-based products are complete proteins. So if you eat meat, eggs, or dairy, you won't have to worry about ensuring that you're getting protein from other sources. Whey or plant-based protein drinks are also complete proteins. If they're not, stop buying them.
Unless you follow the carnivore diet, it's unlikely that you'll consume animal proteins with every meal. Like a rainforest, our body needs diversity so switching it up with plant-based meals is important. Soy products are a complete protein, but I don't recommend only eating tofu and edamame. Quinoa is a complete protein, and basmati rice has eight out of the nine essential amino acids. If you don't eat any of those options, then combine your protein sources. Here are a few pairs that create a complete protein:
Nuts and whole grains (peanut butter on toast)
Wholegrains and beans (hummus and pita)
Beans and nuts/seeds (chickpea salad with pumpkin seeds)
Beans and rice (Mexican!)
Protein in your diet is essential because it maintains your muscle, which boosts your metabolism. They also increase your satiety level. So if you're the kind of person who loses control when you're hungry, it's great to snack on nuts or hummus and wholegrain crackers. You likely get enough protein in your diet but make sure you're eating this macronutrient in every meal.
How to avoid counting macros
The hard way is to do a body scan, figure out your skeletal muscle mass, calculate your macros, then weigh all your food to ensure your portion sizes are exact. The easy way? Use your anatomy to ensure that you don't go overboard with your macros.
For most people, this all you need each meal:
A palm size of carbohydrates
A palm size of protein
A thumb-size of fats
And DOUBLE the veggies!
If you ensure that you're sticking to these portion sizes with your macros, you'll likely be in good health. If you're a bodybuilder, morbidly obese, or have certain medical requirements, your ratios will look slightly different.
Counting macros for weight loss
For weight loss, remove the carbohydrates of an evening. Your diet will look like this:
The best time to eat carbohydrates or "treat" meals are earlier in the day or immediately after a high energy output training session. After massive hikes, I usually treat myself to beer and pizza. You've got to keep it sustainable to your lifestyle.
The bottom line
You do not need to complicate your eating. It really is as simple as those last two images. I see many fail before they start because they overcomplicate it with counting macros, pre-workout drinks, and meal-prepping tasteless food before they learn how to cook healthy. If you've been overcomplicating your health journey, Holistic Fitness is the balanced and sustainable way to be your best self. Read more about fitness on the go or try out the community for free here.