By now, you’ve probably talked to a few people who have opted to go the route of calculating their macros rather than counting calories. With all sorts of diet and nutrition regimens out there, it can get hard to keep up — and the phrase “calculating macros” may sound like a foreign language.
So, let’s back up and focus on what macros are, starting with their name: “macros” is short for macronutrients.
What are macronutrients?
Nutrients are substances used by organisms for bodily functions, growth and energy, Dr. Luiza Petre, a board-certified cardiologist, tells SheKnows. As the term implies, macronutrients are needed in large amounts. For humans, there are three macronutrients necessary for survival: proteins, carbohydrates and fats (also known as lipids).
“In calorie form, each macronutrient provides energy that is needed for everything from maintaining circulation, growth and development to giving enough energy to the brain for cognitive function,” Petre explains.
Here’s a look at what each macronutrient means for your diet.
More: What Is a Macro Diet?
Protein foods are comprised of amino acids, which are sometimes called “the building blocks of the body.” Protein provides 4 calories per gram.
There’s a reason that protein is commonly associated with muscle building and fitness. Cory Sarrett, a consultant for All Inclusive Health in New Orleans, tells SheKnows that proteins are essential for building muscle mass. “Constructed of amino acids, protein helps you stay full and keep your immune system strong,” Sarrett says. “You can’t build muscle without sufficient protein intake.”
Kelly Krikhely, a registered dietician, tells SheKnows that it’s key to eat lean proteins like fish, low-fat yogurt, skinless chicken and eggs. She also encourages experimentation with plant proteins such as tofu, edamame, beans, nuts and seeds.
“These lean sources will provide you with the protein you need while limiting the saturated fat in your diet, ” Krikhely explains. “Steak, hamburgers and chicken wings will provide protein but aren’t the best choices for our diet because of their saturated fat content.”
Carbohydrates also provide 4 calories per gram, Sarrett explains, adding that carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy. Carbs are the macronutrients most easily broken down by the body, and Sarrett says you need them in the largest quantities out of the three macronutrients.
In addition, Krikhely says that, although they don’t deserve their reputation as the enemy, not all carbs are created equal. “We should limit added sugar but make sure to incorporate healthy carbohydrates, including fruits, yogurt, beans, starchy vegetables and whole grains,” she says. “Healthy carbohydrates provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including the B vitamins found in whole grains and calcium from yogurt.”
Contrary to what its stigma might lead you to believe, fat is actually essential to a healthy diet. Petre explains that fat plays key roles in controlling your appetite and in disease prevention.
“[Fat] regulates hormone production, protects vital organs, regulates temperature, fuels the brain and helps with anxiety and depression,” she says. Fat provides 9 calories per gram.
Similarly, Krikhely emphasizes that fat is essential in order for your body to function each day. What you’ll want to pay attention to is the type of fat you’re consuming. She adds that the most up-to-date recommendation is to consume mono and polyunsaturated fats, limit your saturated fat intake and avoid trans fat. Butter, cream, fatty meats and processed junk food are all sources of saturated fat.
“Avoid any foods that include partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list,” Krikhely says. “This is the red flag for trans fat. Instead, we should focus on eating healthy fat from avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, natural peanut butter or fatty fish like salmon.”
So, there you have it: macronutrients. If you find tracking your macros helpful for healthy eating, great. If not, at least you’ll know what you’re talking about the next time someone drops this buzzword in conversation.