Have you ever found yourself in the grocery aisle staring at a nutrition label wondering what all of those numbers actually mean versus what society wants us to think they mean? I hear you! It can be confusing and in a world where we’re constantly bombarded with so many different sources of information. It can be hard to know what to do.
The role of these nutrients goes beyond just what you see on the label. When it comes to fitness and overall well being, food is fuel so it’s important to know which you should eat more or less of, in order to achieve your goals. Take protein, carbohydrates and fats for example. These three macronutrients (aka macros) not only fuel your daily activities, but go the extra mile by powering up your immune system, keeping your heart healthy as you age, and supporting a healthy metabolism.
Protein, carbs, and fats make up a percentage of almost every food that we eat, so it’s important to understand the roles they play in reaching our individual goals. For example, someone looking to maintain her current weight but change their body composition would eat a different amount of each macro than someone who is in the middle of prepping for a fitness competition or someone on a build. That intake is also impacted by individual lifestyle factors and health markers so it’s important to get the advice of a professional who understands how your unique goals and lifestyle may impact your macronutrient needs.
Whether your goals are strength, overall wellness, or aesthetics, understanding your nutrition has the ability to move you forward on a path to improved health and lifelong wellness, no matter your age. Once you know how your macronutrient intake affects your body, regularly keeping track of your macros can be a super helpful tool that can fine-tune your energy, help build muscle, and foster more mindful eating habits.
When it comes to nourishing your body, think of carbs, proteins, and fats as allies that work together to give your body what it needs. The ratios needed will vary from person to person based on individual goals, but their role in your body’s health is the same across the board.
Protein is the one macronutrient that everyone knows is important, but most people don’t get nearly enough of. Protein is a powerhouse that serves multiple roles, from strengthening your immune system to supporting hormone and enzyme production to fueling your body after a workout and repairing muscle fibers.
Carbs are often seen as something to stay away from, but in actuality, they are really important. They are your immediate energy suppliers and are crucial when your brain or muscles require a quick lift. Rethink carbs as fuel, not something to fear.
Fats are equally important, especially for women. They offer sustained energy, help balance hormones, and aid the absorption of vital vitamins like E, D, and A.
Most foods are actually combinations of these 3 macronutrients as well as micronutrients (aka vitamins and minerals).
Take salmon, for example. Not only is it rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, but it’s also packed with quality protein.
Quinoa, a carbohydrate stronghold, also contains meaningful amounts of fat and protein, which makes it a popular choice among plant-based eaters because it is one of the only plant-based options that is a complete protein source, meaning it has all 9 essential amino acids.
So we know what the role of each macronutrient is, but what is the difference between counting macros and counting calories?
And more importantly, what are they?
Calories are units of thermal energy while macros are what a food is composed of. Think of counting calories as the umbrella. The overall number of calories you consume on a daily basis is a snapshot of your day, but doesn’t give the whole picture. By counting macros, we can take control over what we put in our bodies and understand what the foods we eat are made up of and how that relates to our health and fitness goals.
Although there are different ways to measure intake, both macros and calories are deeply intertwined and equally important when it comes to health and fitness goals. After all, protein, carbs, and fat each have calories.
Here is a quick breakdown of how many calories are in each of the key macronutrients.
1g Protein = 4 Calories
1g Carbohydrates = 4 Calories
1g Fat = 9 Calories
Benefits of Counting Macros
From boosting your energy levels to building muscle, managing weight, and eating mindfully, tracking your macros can help you make better food choices for your everyday life.
Boosting Energy Levels
Keeping track of your macros combines structure with flexibility by allowing you to understand how your energy is affected by your meals and giving you the power to adjust how and when you eat your energy for various tasks and goals throughout the day.
For example, if you have work meetings or brainstorming sessions that require sustained focus, you can tweak your macro ratio for the day to include a higher percentage of complex carbs in your lunch which would ensure a steadier release of energy to stay engaged for longer and be more productive during your workday.
Counting Macros for Muscle Gain
Keeping tabs on your macros can be a powerful tool for muscle building. In fact, some research shows that a macro diet consisting of 15-20% fats, 25-30% protein, and 55-60% carbs may be optimal for muscle gain. Tracking these percentages enables you to finetune your diet to make your workouts more effective. Eating a larger amount of carbs (than what you eat during other meals) shortly before a weight training session as well as the meal right after, can support lifting heavier weights during the session and fuel muscle growth through repair after the session.
Maintaining Healthy Weight
Various studies suggest that you should aim for about 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein daily for each kilogram you weigh. Including 25 to 30 grams of protein in each meal (and eating five meals a day) not only helps to manage hunger more effectively, but may also lead to better heart and metabolic health.
Improved Food Quality
Tracking macros can encourage mindful eating by making you more aware of the nutritional value of the foods you eat. This understanding can help you make more intentional choices and foster a healthier relationship with food. As a result, you will be more inclined to choose nutrient-dense foods and less tempted to grab processed snacks filled with sugar as those will not help you meet your macro goals. Further, there is something “real” about making the commitment to write down what you eat. That action alone often makes you think long and hard about whether you really want the food you’re considering putting in your body that you know does not support your health and fitness goals.
If you have specific fitness goals, counting macros can steer you toward healthier food options. For example, if your goal is muscle-building, which often demands a higher protein intake, consider healthy macro foods like beans, fish, or chicken over processed protein bars that may be full of additives.
Similarly, if a higher carbohydrate intake aligns with your goals, nutrient-dense foods such as quinoa and sweet potatoes are preferable to simpler carbohydrates found in pasta or white bread.
Counting Macros for Healthy Aging
With age can come a number of potential health challenges, but aging does not mean that we have to give up on the goal of wanting to look and feel our best. Your perspective on the aging process makes all the difference. If you look at healthy aging as something to celebrate, any new decade (especially 50, 60 or more!) can kick off some of the most exciting years of your life. At the same time, certain age-related challenges can be a reality, which require more attention to our food and fitness choices. We can navigate these challenges effectively through mindful nutrition choices, keeping physically active, and keeping track of nutrition through counting macros.
Regardless of age, health goals can vary greatly from person to person. While one person may want to focus on maintaining or increasing physical strength, another may want to focus on body composition. Adjusting the proportions of the macronutrients you consume is one way that you can effectively address these goals. For example, if you’re looking to achieve healthy weight loss after 50, understanding how to calculate and track your macros can be an extremely helpful tool to ensure you are maintaining the appropriate macronutrient targets based on the advice of your coach. There are also other benefits that go beyond weight loss that factor into other areas of health which could become concerns as you age.
Bone health, especially for women during the menopausal transition, deserves special attention, especially if you do any type of weight training. While calcium and vitamin D are not macronutrients, the balance of your proteins, fats, and carbs helps in optimizing their absorption. For example, when supplementing with vitamin D, because it is a fat-soluble vitamin, taking it with something like avocado or another heart healthy source of fat can potentially increase its absorption which can benefit calcium uptake and overall bone health.
Each of the macronutrients plays a key role in our ability to maintain overall physical health. They are also extremely important for brain health as we age. In addition to your diet, you can help support brain health and cognitive function by regularly getting physical activity. One of the best activities for your body as you age is weight training, which supports strong bones and maintaining or building muscle to allow you to continue to move, be active and live independently as you age. It’s also extremely important to get enough good quality sleep. Complex carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables act as the brain’s primary fuel and by maintaining a balanced intake of these carbs, you ensure a steady energy source for the brain, vital for memory, focus, and overall cognitive health.
Why Calorie & Macro Calculators Aren’t Effective
As we’ve covered, a large part of counting macros is understanding your caloric needs based on your height, weight, activity level, age, and other important health markers that vary on a bio-individual basis. While there are many calorie and macro calculators available online, something they do not take into account are the unique factors about your lifestyle and goals, which likely impact what your body requires o a daily caloric basis.
These calculators do not have a consistent calculation method across the board so your results can drastically vary from source to source. Due to these factors, these calculators are often inaccurate and can potentially do more harm than good. Because there are so many factors that come into play here, it is best to work with an experienced coach who has intimate knowledge of macro based nutrition and can help you identify macro and calorie targets for your goals, both now and in the future as they evolve.
Far from being a diet trend, counting macros is a practical way to look after your health, no matter your age. Whether your focus is on feeling more energetic, getting stronger, keeping your weight balanced, or cultivating a more mindful relationship with food, tracking macros gives you the tools to make smarter choices. By aligning your food choices with your personal goals, working with a coach who understands macro based nutrition can help set you up for success on the path to lasting health and wellness.