Every time I turn on my phone or social media I see another person or coach pushing macros. As a dietitian, I understand what they are (as I should) but I have recently come to the realisation that many people following or even pushing the macro approach don’t! While I get it, monitoring your macros (aka portion size and distribution of caloric intake) can help, it can do more harm than good when done out of context.
So as an expert in nutrition, it would only be right that I try and shed some light on the area!
What Are Macros?
Macros are your macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat). These are three large-scale nutrients that you need to function properly. ALL THREE macros are important, there is not one that is better than the other and cutting any of them out will result in nutritional deficiencies.
What does the MACROS approach involve?
It usually involves you being told a certain macro level that you need to hit daily. You need to hit said macro level throughout the day and if you don’t you must cram it all in before you go to bed. Aka the opposite of intuitive eating. Look, I’m not a macro hater, I can see how it may work for some people BUT it’s not as black and white as it may seem.
There are many “Macro calculators” on the internet…BUT it’s important to note that they do not tell you the whole story, they do not take your individual needs into account, nor should they be used without the guidance of a professional. Your diet is far more than just the quantity of food that you put in your body, you must also take into consideration quality, lifestyle factors, health status, medications, genetics, and so much more!
While some coaches have the education & experience to back it up, many others have no business telling you how many macros you need. I’ve heard of macro coaches giving ACTIVE females under 1,200 calories a day to meet their needs, with almost NO fat and minimal carbs. This is just disgraceful, damaging to peoples health and needs to stop.
When in college (and in practice) to become a dietitian, you learn all the different ways to calculate macros as well as what affects them and what could cause them to need to be updated. So if someone is claiming to be a macro expert or macro coach with no OTHER nutrition education, be very wary.
Should I track macros?
I am neither pro nor anti macros. They are important (as a dietitian) in determining how much a client needs to eat. They are also incredibly helpful for athletes looking to gain that 1%. They are not helpful for those struggling with their relationship with food and who no longer see food as food but only numbers. So, there is a time and a place for macros and it really depends on the individual!
If you find you are hitting a plateau, want to learn more about your nutrition etc. AND have a healthy relationship with food, then and only then may it be worth starting to look a little closer at your macros. This is a big IF because some people do really well with the accountability while others become too obsessed and it defeats the purpose of tracking/counting. If you are in this boat and find yourself feeling OBSESSED over macro numbers, it’s time to stop. Hire a professional and get your relationship with food managed, that is far more important than any macro number, I promise.
The other thing is that while you want to remain semi-consistent, you don’t want to be so locked into the numbers that you can’t allow any flexibility in your life. Macros don’t take into account how our hunger levels change EVERY DAY due to variations in activity, stress, hormones, etc. Also if you have a special occasion or an event, you shouldn't have to starve yourself during the day to save macros for that evening!
Also, macros really don't take into account diet quality. They don't look at whether you are choosing fibre-rich carbohydrate sources for optimal gut health or whether you are getting in essential fats from different dietary sources. This is another reason why the macro approach can be dangerous, particularly if done unsupervised without the support of a professional.
Knowledge is power so let's get educated - The three Macro- Nutrients
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of energy. They are the fibres, grains, sugars, starches, etc. found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk products. Carbohydrates are NECESSARY for your health and to fuel your activity. If anyone tells you you don’t need carbs, it’s a big red flag!
Unfortunately, carbohydrates are constantly in the media for being good, then bad, then good again. It can be incredibly confusing but know everyone needs carbs, we all just need them in a different capacity. At a baseline, we need about 40-60% of our calories from carbs.
That being said, it’s important to give some attention to the quality of the carbohydrates you consume (which tracking macros doesn't tell you). High-quality carbohydrates tend to come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes. The "wholeness" and fibre content of these foods are what makes them healthier. Lower-quality carbs tend to include refined grains such as white bread, white rice, pastries, confectionary and sweetened drinks. While it's ok to include these lower quality carbohydrates, ideally, you don't want them as your main source of carbohydrate.
What do you need carbohydrates for?
Source of energy
Source of B vitamins
Fueling performance & recovery
Gut health & digestion
Where do you find carbohydrates?
Grains (quinoa, rice, oats, etc.)
Vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, etc.)
Starchy vegetables (potatoes, root veggies, etc.)
Legumes (aka beans)
Milk & milk products
Refined sugars (i.e. cakes, cookies, pastries)
Protein-rich foods provide iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3. Protein is needed for growth and repair of body tissues and plays an important role in all functions of your body, aka super important for your health!
When it comes down to how much protein we need there is no ONE right answer. More is not always better. Our protein requirements can vary massively from person to person and change throughout our life cycle.
In general, a ball-park figure would be around 20% of our daily energy, however, this may need to be tapered up or down based on goals, ability to eat/digest protein, and overall health. This is where a registered dietitian can help!
A lot of people are led to believe nowadays that they need more and more protein. While, it’s not “dangerous” per se to overdo protein (unless you are eating a HUGE excess) it doesn’t provide value after a while and you’ll process out/store what you don’t need.
I also see a ton of macro coaches telling people to rely on protein powders & supplements to hit their protein goal. There is a time and a place for powders & supplements but it’s NOT for everyone. You should get the MAJORITY of your protein from food, and then beyond that, you should be working with a professional who can tell you IF protein powders & supplements are right for you.
What do you need protein for?
• Growth & maintenance of muscle
• Cell & body structure
• Hair, nail, skin health
• Source of energy, iron, zinc, B12,
Where do you find protein?
• Soy products
• Beans, peas
And finally, the 3rd macronutrient is fat. Fat, like carbs, has been demonized and praised in the media on and off for years. The major thing to focus on with fat is the quality. Fat helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (e.g. Vitamin A, D, E and K). If we don't have fat in our diet, then these vitamins aren't going to be absorbed easily or at all.
If consumed in the right quantity FOR YOU, Fats are incredibly powerful at regulating hormones, satiating hunger, and so much more.
What do you need fat for?
Hormonal health & sex hormone production
Insulation & temperature regulation
Source of energy
Where do you find fat?
Now that you know what each macro is I will repeat there is no one better than the other! They are all important in their own right. They all WORK TOGETHER and have this sort of macro synergy. I recommend my clients strive for ALL 3 macros at meals and at least 2 macros at snacks. This synergy allows nutrients to be absorbed & digested better AND tend to keep you more satiated.
Finally, we don’t eat individual nutrients, we eat foods. Nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. If the term macros or looking at varying amounts of protein, fats etc overwhelms you, not to worry. Instead, just focus on consuming a variety of different foods from all the food groups with a little bit of food for the soul thrown in now and again 😊 Or reach out to a registered dietitian for help!