“Macro counting” is all the rage right now, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard of it. Like most things in the fitness business, it’s not anything new, but rather just a renaming of a tool that’s been around for quite some time. But what is macro tracking, and how is it different from calorie counting? Those are exactly the two questions we are going to answer today. But don’t worry, this article isn’t going to be saturated in heavy science and lots of additional links. We’re all about keeping it simple, to make getting results as easy as possible.
Macro is short for macronutrients
There are two basic categories of nutrients that our body needs: Macro and Micro. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals such as:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
Macronutrients are the substances that make up calories. They are as follows:
- Protein (contains 4 calories per gram)
- Carbohydrates (contains 4 calories per gram)
- Fats (contains 9 calories per gram)
There is some gray area as well with things like alcohol, and also water (considered to be a macronutrient), but let’s not worry about either of those right now. It’s also worth noting that sugar is a carbohydrate, so we don’t really count those separately, they are counted as carb intake if you’re tracking your food.
Calories are energy
As you can see, macronutrients contain calories, and calories are a basic unit of measurement for energy. Calories are fuel for your body, and macros are simply different types of fuel. So if you eat a meal that has 10g of protein, 10g of carbs, and 10g of fat, you’ve consumed 170 total calories. You’ve probably heard that if you consume less calories than you burn, that you’ll lose weight. While technically this statement is correct, that doesn’t guarantee what type of weight you’ll lose (body fat, muscle, water weight, etc…). Assuming you’re a normal human being, you want to lose body fat, and not muscle, or water weight. This is the biggest difference between regular calorie counting, and macro tracking. Calorie counting just looks at the total number of calories, and macro counting looks at the calories and the macronutrients. We give all of our clients a recommended amount of calories to eat, as well as a recommended amount of each macro, but you don’t have to track the calories specifically because if you eat the recommended amount of macros, you’ll hit the recommended amount of calories by default. Remember, macros contain calories, so they are just a more detailed unit of measurement.
Why Macros Matter
Your body uses each macro differently. Remember, each macro is a different type of fuel:
- Protein is used for:
- Building new muscle tissue and repairing damaged tissue
- Producing enzymes
- Carbohydrates are used for
- Fuel for your muscle when they contract
- Fuel for you brain
- Storing energy in your muscles, and liver for later
- Fat is used for
- Hormone production
- Fuel for your brain
- Protecting organs
Please note this is a very simplified list. The functions of each macronutrient are quite extensive, but you get the point: Macros matter! If you were to eat all of your calories from a single macronutrient, your body wouldn’t have the proper fuel to function optimally. This could lead to problems like:
- Feeling tired constantly
- losing muscle tissue, but not much if any body fat
- brain fog and trouble concentrating
- trouble sleeping
Again, this is just a brief list of problems that can occur if you don’t provide your body with the proper nutrients.
Macro Tracking vs. Other Diets
You want to “diet” while eating as much food as possible. There are a few reasons to do this, but the primary one is it will make your life a lot easier, because you’ll feel a whole heck of a lot better. Not eating enough triggers a whole host of processes in the body, some of which may not be favorable for your body composition goals. Through science, we’ve learned there are certain guidelines we can use to determine how many grams of protein, carbs and fats we need to eat each day. That doesn’t mean tracking your macros cannot be done in conjunction with other types of diets. Although we do not typically recommend vegetarian diets, one could be a vegetarian and still track their macros, and aim to hit their daily requirements of proteins, carbs, and fats.
It’s very typical in the fitness industry for products and services to be based around a single factor. Using a vegetarian diet as an example, proponents argue that meat is the problem with your health, and thus removing it will fix those problems. Hence they are focusing on one single element of nutrition, in this case, the type of food that you eat. The same could be said for the “Atkins” diet, which recommends removing carbohydrates from your diet. Again the focus is on one single element of nutrition, in that case, carbohydrates.
Too Many Acronyms
If you’ve done a bit of your own research on how to calculate what your macros should be, you may have stumbled upon a diet referred to as “IIFYM,” which stands for “If it fits your macros.” This is also known as “flexible dieting.” Bodybuilders, gym rats, and athletes have been tracking their calorie and macronutrient intake for decades with great success, that’s nothing new, but IIFYM is a slightly different take on that traditional strategy. IIFYM claims that it doesn’t matter where your macros come from, and that it’s all the same to your body. For example 30g of carbs via twizzlers will have the same effect on your body composition as 30g of carbs from an apple. That leaves us with the question: Is that true? From a purely aesthetic perspective, yes that is true. However there is a lot more to a healthy diet than just hitting your macros. Highly processed foods are typically devoid of micronutrients, and fiber, two things that may not play as big of a role in your body fat, but will definitely effect your general health and well being. If you’re feeling like crap all the time, it’s difficult to push yourself in your workouts, and difficult to recover between workouts and if your workouts suffer, and your recovery suffers, your results suffer. That means it’s important to still have a diet largely based on whole, unprocessed foods, but IIFYM and flexible dieting allow people to still enjoy “bad foods” that they like without having a major guilt trip, or totally ruining their results.
In the end, there are dozens of nutrition variables that you can manipulate to create changes in your body, and long lasting “diets” focus on the bigger picture, and don’t vilify one single element. That’s why tracking your macros is so effective, because it can be used in a wide variety of lifestyles and preferences. There is a long list of reasons why macro tracking works, and of course, like any eating strategy, it can have its drawbacks too, but that is a post for another day.
Hopefully you’ve learned something today, if not, at least now you know that people are talking about macronutrients and not macaroni and cheese when they say they’re following the “macro diet!”