Macros 101: The Basics of Flexible Dieting for Beginners
As a beginner to tracking macros, I know the whole process can seem super complex. So let’s go ahead and break down the absolute basics of macros.
Even if you don’t track them, everybody consumes macros. Macros, or macronutrients, are nutrients your body needs each day in order to have energy, stay healthy, and sustain normal daily processes. Macros are what provide your body with calories - your body’s unit of energy. So: Macros = Calories = Energy.
The 3 macros we track are:
They all serve a different purpose in your body, and all are extremely important. So what do they do?
Protein’s main purpose is to help you build and retain muscle tissue. If you have any goals related to building muscle or, as the girls like to say, getting “muscle tone” (which by the way, means you need to build muscle,) your protein intake is important! It’s the only macro that creates new muscle tissue.
This is a very simplified description of what happens but, when you perform a weight lifting workout, you actually tear the muscles down. The building of bigger, stronger muscles doesn’t happen until afterwards.
Your body uses protein to recover and rebuild the muscle to be bigger so that it can handle the new work you’re requiring it to do.
Carbs get a really bad rep but your body needs them! Guess what this means? You don’t need to do Keto! Seriously, stop giving up carbs if you love them.
Carbs are your body’s main source of energy. Your muscles, central nervous system, brain, and kidneys all need carbs to function properly. They promote muscle glycogen, which gives your muscles that full, toned look. They up regulate your thyroid and increase weight loss hormones.
Fats also provide energy, and they help regulate your hormones. Fats help your body absorb vitamins, cushion your organs, assist in growth and development, and help you feel full.
So as you can see all the macros serve a very important purpose. Tracking your macros helps you ensure your body gets everything it needs, in proper quantities, for optimal function.
So how does macro tracking work in regards to meeting fitness goals?
Each gram of these macros provides calories. Carbs and protein provides 4 calories per gram. Fats provide 9 calories per gram. So the total calories in any given food is simply the total of calories coming from your grams of each macro.
Let’s say you have a food with 3g of protein, 5g of carbs, and 2g of fat. FYI, I’m totally making this food up and keeping the numbers simple for the sake of an easy to follow example.
3g of protein = 3g x 4 calories = 12 calories from protein
2g of carbs = 2g x 4 calories = 8 calories from carbs
2g of fats = 2g x 9 calories = 18 calories from fats
Total them all up: 12+8+18 = 38 calories total
FYI, you might notice that the label reflects 35 calories or 40 calories. This is because companies are legally allowed to round the calories shown on the label. But, overall, you get the point. The calories you’re seeing are coming from the macronutrient composition of your food.
Using Macros to Meet Your Goals
If your goals are mainly related to weight loss or fat loss, you will want to create a calorie deficit. Meaning, your calories consumed are less than your calories burned.
If your goals are mainly related to muscle building, you will want to set your calories to be your maintenance calories (the calories you eat day to day to maintain current weight) or create a calorie surplus. Meaning, your calories consumed are greater than your calories burned.
Now that you understand how the macro math works, you have a foundation for setting your macros (and calories) to meet your goals.
Why Should I Track Macros Instead of Just Tracking Calories?
As we’ve shown above, each of the macronutrients serves a special purpose in your body. Could you eat a diet rich in just one or two of the three macronutrients and lose weight? Sure. If you’re in a calorie deficit, you will lose weight regardless of the quality of the food.
However, this wouldn’t be responsible weight loss. Tracking macros ensures that we’re not only putting our body in the deficit (or surplus) it needs to see changes, but we are also giving it the nutrients it needs to function well. If you’re losing weight eating just chocolate bars, you may be seeing the scale drop, but you’re probably feeling sluggish and having major digestion issues.
Tracking macros ensures that the majority of our weight loss is coming from fat loss rather than muscle loss.
Additionally, if you’re counting on weight training and/or cardio to help with burning calories, your exercise routine is probably majorly suffering from a lack of energy.
Food quantity directly creates results in the scale. But food quality is still important.
So How Do I Get Started with Tracking Macros?
First thing you should do is download My Fitness Pal. This app will make the food tracking process a breeze for you. The app will let you know throughout the day as you log food how many macros you have remaining so you can keep tabs on your daily progress.
The My Fitness Pal app itself can set macro goals for you based on your fitness goals. Just be aware, the goals set by the app are not very accurate. The app only uses your weight and what you perceive to be your current activity level to create your macro goals.
It often groups people of very different heights, ages, and weights to hit the same number of daily calories. This can not only hinder results, but also slow down your metabolism much quicker, leading to faster plateaus.
I highly suggest seeking professional help from a coach who can set your macros for you based on your metabolism, height, age, weight, activity level, and dieting history.
A coach will also know how to adjust them properly over time to fit your body's response each week, lifestyle changes, preferences, and personal tendencies (i.e. eating more on weekends, habitual under eating, etc.)
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