As an athlete, no matter what your level of fitness or competition is, you’re likely focusing on your nutrition. As a result, you’re likely familiar with the term “macros” or “counting macros”. “Macros”, short for macronutrients, include the three primary building blocks of your diet and understanding how they work and how to manipulate them is an important tool for overall nutrition, weight gain or loss, and reaching your health and fitness goals. While it can seem confusing, we’re going to demystify some of the complexities and show you how to understand the basics of these foundational building blocks of nutrition.
What are macros?
Put simply, macronutrients are the “fuel” (aka calories) that your body uses for energy to power every system, function and activity; from internal functions like your metabolism to exercise and muscle recovery. The three macro categories are: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Understanding how they work together to fuel your body is an important part of developing the optimal nutrition plan to help you achieve your goals. Furthermore, tracking your intake of macros and calories is an important part of many diet and nutrition programs. We did a deep-dive on macro tracking, and some of the best tracking apps out there in a previous article, which you can check out here.
The building block of muscle, tissue, and other cells, protein is also a vital component of cell processes and signaling. Getting the right amount of protein is critical for athletes at every level. Primary sources include meats, nuts, legumes, eggs, and protein supplements like protein powder and others.
Once maligned, fat is now understood to be a critical component of balanced nutrition. In addition to being a primary source of energy, fat plays an important role in supporting brain health, body functions like hormone production, nutrient absorption, and maintenance of body temperature. Primary sources include butter, oils, avocados, meat, and fish.
Carbohydrates include a mix of sugars, starches, and fiber. Carbs are broken down into two general categories: simple carbs (made of just one or two sugar molecules) or complex carbs (made up of sugar molecules strung together into a starch). Complex carbs generally have more fiber, helping to slow the rise in blood sugar and support healthy digestion. While the amounts of carbs we should consume are a heavily debated subject these days, it’s a fact that they are critical for energy, brain function, and activity. Primary sources of carbohydrates include grains, pasta, fruits, vegetables, and breads.
The proper macro ratio - the percentage of protein, carbs, and fats in your daily diet - is highly personal and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone. Furthermore, the optimal breakdown between the three macro categories is highly dependent on factors like your individual fitness/health goals, body type, activity level, and weight. For example: a powerlifter looking to build muscle will want to focus on a different ratio of marcos than an endurance athlete training for a distance event. Using a few very rough guidelines, if you want to build endurance and are training for an hour or more daily, you should aim for about 15-20% of your calories from protein, 50-60% of your calories from carbs, and 20-35% of your calories from fats. For strength building, you should aim for no less than 20% of your calories from protein, 45-50% of your calories from carbs, and 25-30% from fat. If you’re trying to lose weight, you might find that no more than 25% of your calories from fat is best, with 20% coming from protein and 55% from carbs. That said, for those specifically targeting weight loss, total calories in and out are more important factors than targeting a very specific macro breakdown.