Today, we’re going to keep it somewhat relatively simple and go back to the basics.
Are they really that special? Do they really work? Are they magic? Can’t you just stick with calories and be fine? Aren’t they just another fad diet? Do you have to track them to see results?
All of these questions and more are completely valid...and almost always asked with people new to the macro game.
So for today’s blog, I’m going to break down macros and teach you just WHY they’re important and why you likely should start incorporating some macro-tracking in your nutrition plan.
First what is a macro?
Well, technically it’s short for “macronutrient.” Your macros are a combination of the 3 major components that make up your calories. These are protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
Protein helps with muscle growth, strength, and also just general bodily processes. Literally everything in your body is made from protein. I’m sure you’ve heard of DNA (basically your individual “code” that makes you YOU...your hair color, eye color, even skin color, your height, etc.), but what you probably didn’t know is that your DNA is basically just like the alphabet scrambled up into incoherent pieces...only until your DNA, or genetic code, is translated into functional pieces of protein will it actually mean something. Your skin, organs, immune system, brain, hair, nails, you name it are all made up of protein. Protein is essential for survival. Unfortunately, we can’t make it ourselves, so we need to acquire it from outside sources...from food specifically. Most common sources of protein are animal products (chicken, beef, pork, turkey), fish/shellfish, dairy, eggs, beans, and legumes.
Fats help with inflammation, hormones, and homeostasis. They line all the membranes of our cells and help our cells communicate and keep good stuff in and bad stuff out. Fats help protect our organs (ex. visceral fat) and keep our body temperature regulated. They also produce and regulate hormones, which are essential for survival and reproduction. Fat sources include fats from animal and seafood products, oils, nuts, avocados, and seeds.
Lastly carbohydrates function by providing us fuel. They fuel your brain, activity, and most physical demanding sports by requiring glycogen (which comes from the glucose found in carbohydrates). Some will argue that carbohydrates aren’t as important because they aren’t “essential” meaning they’re not needed for survival...this is 100% true. But I then ask the question... “are you here just to survive...or to thrive?” If you want to do the bare minimum for your body, then by all means avoid carbs, but if you want to feel good and be able to support your body’s incredible capabilities...then eat some carbs. Carb sources include all fruits and veggies, grains (rice, quinoa, barley, etc.), breads, pastas, bagels, and sweet and regular potatoes.
When you count your macros, you’re measuring a composition of all three of these. This allows you to have a bit more structure to your nutrition to optimize your diet more effectively. It optimizes your health, ability to build muscle, and ability to see body recomp.
Macros v. Calories? What’s better?
The big debate...which is more important?
In the hierarchy of importance, calories come first, without a doubt. This is often why you’ll never see me give someone a macro split or percentage...because it doesn’t factor in calories.
Calories ensures your quantity is in check...meaning you’re eating enough or not eating too much. If you’re eating 1000 calories, it doesn’t matter how many grams of protein you’re eating, it simply isn’t enough food to support your body to see significant results. On the flip side, if you’re eating 3000 calories, it still doesn’t matter how perfect your macro split is because you’re eating in a surplus and as a result will keep gaining weight and not seeing desired results.
Now hold on a sec...how come you never hear me talking about calorie prescription and instead only hear me discuss macros???
Because calories ensure quantity...while macros tie in quality.
What do you think is going to get you to your results better?
A 2000-calorie day of egg/spinach omelet for breakfast, chicken/rice/zucchini for lunch, grass-fed beef/sweet potatoes/beets for dinner, and some Greek yogurt/fruit for dessert?
A 2000-calorie day of bacon/pancakes for breakfast, McDonald’s for lunch, pizza for dinner, and twinkies or ice cream for dessert?
I’m guessing you chose option A, and you would be correct.
YES. You will 100% without a doubt get “results” with just calories in check. If calories in < calories out, you will see weight loss. If calories in = calories out, you will maintain your weight. If calories in > calories out, you will see weight gain. It ultimately does come down to energy balance. In fact, when I calculate out someone’s macros, I start first with calories THEN bring in macros. Sometimes, we don’t even need to track macros, or all three macros. In many cases, as long as calories and protein are in check, it doesn’t matter what your intake of fats and carbs is, just as long as calories are met.
But macros provide the basis for body recomposition. Many people want to look lean and “toned”...and that comes from building muscle and losing fat...something that is significantly more difficult to achieve by just tracking calories...for a number of reasons which I’ll discuss below.
WHY MACROS WORK
Think of it this way...
Protein helps muscle growth/composition. Carbs help us fuel and recover. Fats help us live longer. Without a macro-based nutrition plan, you can’t ensure that all three are optimized.
This is because macros provide a couple of benefits:
Macros are one of THE best education tools out there because it teaches you HOW to structure your diet and nutrition. It teaches you what realistic portions are for you. It teaches you the importance of and how to structure pre- and post-workout meals. It teaches you what foods are best for when and what foods compose each macro. Before I learned macros, I couldn’t tell you the real difference between eating chicken or rice. Food groups meant nothing to me. I didn’t know how to factor in exercise, hunger, alcohol, and sweets. Through macros, I was able to teach myself just that and more.
Macros also allow room for experimentation...because it’s all in the numbers. I can use macros to teach people how they feel when they eat each macro. When they eat protein, they see that they are fuller longer, experience less cravings, build muscle more effectively, and perform better at the gym. When they consume carbohydrates, clients find that they sleep better, have more energy throughout the day, recover better, and perform better at the gym. When they consume fats (and enough and not too much fats), they find inflammation goes down, their hormones are regulated better, breakouts improve, PMS/period symptoms improve, and a sex drive returns/improves. Simply tracking calories doesn’t provide this benefit because you don’t know what action is causing each benefit.
Tying in with the education piece (and how they become an education tool to begin with), macros provide awareness...
Awareness into your body, intuitive eating, portion sizes, and more. Knowing that it all comes down to energy balance, calories in compared to calories out, to get any desired result you should probably know where you stand on the energy balance spectrum. Tracking macros [and calories] allows you to see where you’re at. One of the most common comments I get is “I thought I was eating WAY more” after I have an incoming client track their food for a week. They simply didn’t know...it’d be pretty difficult to make changes to one’s diets to see results (and results that LAST) if they don’t know what they were doing in the first place.
Another common piece of awareness is night-time eating and weekend binging. A lot aren’t aware of how detrimental realistically is. Most people think they’re eating clean enough until about 5-6pm or M-F, which buys them a little wiggle room for snacking at night or weekend excursions. Once I get a week of tracking in them, they realize that 3000-4000 calorie weekend splurge or 1000 calorie nighttime binge is likely the reason for their lack of results. Additionally, they then become aware of WHY they’re binging in the first place. Their “clean eating” was eating <1200 calories when they should be eating more like 2000 calories at a minimum. Gaining the awareness of how little they were eating and how that is playing a role into these binge-eating behaviors teaches them the importance of ensuring their getting enough food (and enough of the right stuff – carbs, protein, veggies and some fats) during the day and week.
Above, I threw out two extremes when it comes to meals (basically option 1 was clean eating and option 2 was fast food and garbage). The unfortunate reality is that many people treat their nutrition to those extremes...an all-or-nothing mentality. They can either have to eat “clean” and create all of the restriction in the world OR they have to just say “fuck it” and go off the deep end.
The beauty of macros, and the reason I encourage them so passionately, is because they intentionally give you room for flexibility. Flexible dieting is one of the greatest things to enter the nutrition field, especially when tracking calories in macros.
Macros allow you the flexibility to include NON-NEGOTIABLES, be it a glass of wine, sweets, date night, occasional pizza, etc.
Macro-tracking just focuses on daily totals. You could technically play the IIFYM card and fit twinkies and fast food into a macro-prescription and get shredded.
That, however, will likely lead to poor overall health and biofeedback, so it’s not my preferred way of using a macro prescription.
Instead, I use macros to intentionally include some of your non-negotiables 10-15% of the time.
This flexibility allows you to include alcohol, chocolate, ice cream, pizza, etc. in your diet plan AND STILL SEE RESULTS. It doesn’t have to be only on “cheat days”. You don’t have to feel like a failure when including things you like. You get to be a real human being eating real human being food. Don’t believe me? Check out this amazing story where a guy in the fitness industry ate a Big Mac every single day for 30 days and still lost weight.
You’re not going to fall of the wagon if you’ve got a set of numbers to reach. Yes, I do recommend the accountability of a COACH who is a professional in the industry...but the macros themselves do offer a benefit of holding you accountable. Those numbers don’t lie...you hit them or you didn’t...and you KNOW that you didn’t hit them and you know WHY as well. If you don’t see results, you have a pretty decent log of where you went wrong. The problem with many “diets” is there’s nothing keeping you accountable. You can gain weight on the Keto/paleo/carnivore/etc. diet if you’re eating in a surplus. The ACT of removing carbs or processed food isn’t a guarantee if you’re still eating TOO MUCH. Unless you’re tracking your calories and macros on these diets, you don’t know how much you’re eating and are in the dark...you also don’t have any external cue holding you to the set plan.
Numbers don’t lie. It’s not a guessing game. Going off of those diets from above...you don’t know how accurate you are and therefore are in the dark of where you lie calorie/macro wise. Maybe you’re significantly undereating and as a result, breaking down muscle and performing like garbage at the gym. Maybe you’re still eating too much. Who knows? The accuracy of macro and calorie tracking ensures that you’re going to see results if you trust the process and let it work long enough.
MACROS TEACH INTUITIVE EATING
The biggest reason we see people avoid macro-tracking is because they prefer “intuitive eating” or because macros are too triggering and too diet-esque. NOW 100% they could be and I’ve seen them be triggering for certain individuals. They aren’t for everyone...although I will say that they’re only “diet-esque” if you treat them like a diet. I don’t. I treat them as an awareness, accuracy, flexibility, accountability, and education tool to improving health and sometimes seeing results. They’re not a diet...they’re a tool. It’s like if a carpenter refused to use electric tools because he feared lack of results if he didn’t use manual saws, screwdrivers, etc. That’s kinda absurd...he’s going to save time, be more efficient, and will see better results using tools that were developed to improve the field of carpentry. Same goes for macros.
Surprisingly enough, macro tracking is how you begin the process of intuitive eating.
My issue with intuitive eating is this...
If you have never tracked a piece of food in your life, you do not have the intuition needed to fuel your body properly.
Intuitive eating is eating in a way that supports your body’s health, performance, aesthetics, and function without tracking. It’s listening to cues such as hunger, stress, sleep, recovery, energy, etc. and adjusting your nutrition accordingly to be your best self.
How in the hell are you going to do that if you have NO clue how to fuel your body to begin with? If you’ve never eaten a carb? If you’ve never even had a normal hunger response? If you have no clue how much you’re even eating or should be eating?
Intuitive eating is not eating “just for fun” with no regard to anything else. It isn’t just going through the day grabbing whatever is in sight.
To intuitively eat correctly, you need to first PRACTICE real, healthy, sustainable eating...through an approach that will teach you awareness...education...accuracy...flexibility...and accountability. Sound familiar?? It should. It starts with tracking calories and macros to learn about your body and biofeedback. It continues with using these tools to get results...then maintaining those results... THEN once you’ve reached this point will you be actually on track and ready for intuitive eating.
Macros, by no means, are the secret to dieting and seeing results.
But they’re a highly effective tool at doing just that. They’re not special. They’re not magic. They simply provide you with the means to learn about your body and nutrition and how to support your body’s health, activity, and longevity all while loving what you see in the mirror. In my experience, they are a great tool at freeing people from restrictive eating habits and healing broken relationships with food.
But I will say that this all comes when you use macros correctly. If you treat them as just another restrictive fad diet, they won’t bring you the results you’re looking for and they won’t be a sustainable approach. This is why working with a coach at least for just 6 months to learn about allllllll of these benefits macros can provide is highly recommended. If you work with the right coach, you only need 6 months and you’re well on your way to never needing a coach again.
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.
Recipe & Macro Guide here.