The Macro Diet 101: The Basic Science Behind Macronutrients

April 02, 2019

 macro diet
Aaron Yang

The macro diet and counting macros — short for macronutrients — sounds like high-level diet lingo reserved for bodybuilders and nutritionists, but it's actually a lot less complicated than it sounds. On a surface level, macro diets simply involve more deeply understanding the nutrients and calories that make up your food and how they affect your body, which helps you make informed decisions about your food. They may not even require any sweeping lifestyle changes, as they are customizable to any dietary preference, body type, or other goal, making them a great, easy way for anyone who's serious about their diet to bring it to the next level.

What are macros?

Macronutrients are the nutrients in our food that provide the most energy and are required in the largest amounts. The three categories of macronutrients are carbohydrates (carbs), protein, and fats; and they provide four, four, and nine calories per gram, respectively. Everything else in our food, like vitamins and minerals, are categorized as micronutrients, provide negligible energy, and are only required in small amounts. As its name would suggest, macro diets focus on the three macronutrients, and how to optimize them to the greatest effect.

Carbohydrates

Carbs are our bodies preferred source of energy, which also means they're easy to overdo. Combine that with all the hubbub surrounding cutting carbs and the popularity of low-carb diets like keto, and it's easy to assume that carbs are the enemy and should be avoided at all costs...right? Not so fast! Avoiding carbs may actually be bad for your heart; and while it's true that simple carbs like sugar, white bread, white pasta, and white rice are easy to break down (and therefore easy to go straight to your backside), complex carbs such as whole grains, vegetables, and legumes take much more effort to digest and convert into fat. Healthy carbs also contain lots of fiber, which can suppress appetite and help you lose weight. Carbs should make up 20 to 50 percent of your diet.

Protein

Protein: the most important nutrient in the world, according to your local gym rat. He has a point — proteins are essential for human growth, development, and tissue repair, which are all vital processes for building muscle. So vital, in fact, that many bodybuilding forums or protein supplement manufacturers will suggest an insane one to two grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. In reality, you don't need more than a little over half a gram per pound of body weight. And with serious health hazards linked to chronic high protein consumption, it's probably best to air on the side of caution. Protein should comprise 20 to 40 percent of your diet.

Fat

Because fats are so energy-dense, it's easy to think that the more fat you eat, the fatter you'll get — and indeed, a lot of the diet advice we grew up hearing focused on that idea. This is partially true; trans fats and saturated fats do increase harmful cholesterol and increase your risk of developing diabetes. However, fats get a worse reputation than they deserve. Certain fats, especially healthy unsaturated fats, can actually help your heart, rather than harm it. Fats are also vital for many bodily functions, including vitamin absorption, blood clotting, and muscle movement. Fats should account for 20 to 40 percent of your diet.

How does this apply to my diet?

Whereas traditional dieting focuses mainly on just calorie counting, macro diets emphasize the exact make-up of those calories — the aforementioned macronutrients — as not all calories are created equal. For example, a large orange might have the same amount of calories as an Oreo, but while the Oreo likely contains next to no nutritional value (also known as "empty calories"), the orange is packed full of healthy vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Healthier calories also tend to have more mass, which keeps you full longer, making you eat less.

Instead of blindly following a diet plan, counting macros revolves around creating a personalized macro ratio, which encourages you to personally think out and plan the foods you eat. For example, out of your daily caloric intake, 40 percent should come from carbohydrates, 30 from protein, and 30 from fats. These ratios can be changed on the fly, which allows for a great deal of versatility, since some people may respond better to a higher protein diet, while others may prefer more fat. Better yet, macro diets can fit into any diet plans you might already be on. On paleo? Get your protein from meat and fish. Going vegan? Substitute that protein with tofu, tempeh, and seitan instead. If you're looking to start planning your own macro ratios, plenty of macro counting guides and apps exist to get you on your feet.

If you feel like your diet isn't as effective as you'd like or you take what you eat seriously, you might want to try out a macro diet! Personally taking charge and actively trying to understand what goes into your body will help you make informed decisions about what you eat and ensure you stick to whatever diet you choose.

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