Our individual daily macronutrient needs vary depending on our age, training routine, and goals. By optimizing our daily ratio of macronutrients to a specific goal, we can stay more consistent and on track to achieve the results we want. There are three main macronutrients that form the building blocks of our diet: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Not all calories are considered equal, which is why it’s important to have a general understanding of your goal-specific macro breakdown before starting a nutrition or training program.
The macronutrient distribution of protein, carbs, and fats, along with the quality of these foods, has a large impact on how our body utilizes these calories. The breakdown of food can affect our energy levels, mood, metabolic rate, and hormonal response depending on how nutrient-dense they are. For example, 200 calories of potato chips will have a very different effect on our body than 200 calories of quinoa or broccoli. Understanding the difference between quality macronutrients and empty calories will not only allow us to make healthier choices but will ensure we stay on track with our goals.
Know your maintenance calories and macronutrients
The right macronutrient ratio can either enhance weight loss or help you build lean muscle. If your primary goal is to build lean muscle, then you will likely have a greater protein macronutrient requirement than someone who is focused more on general fat loss. Our total daily energy expenditure is the amount of calories we burn when exercise is taken into consideration. While it’s important to understand what our total daily calorie intake should be, it’s even more important to understand the breakdown of what these calories consist of. One of the biggest differences between counting calories and tracking macros is that calories focus more on quantity, while macros focus more on the quality. If your recommended daily caloric intake is about 1,700 calories, but these calories consist of mainly refined sugar and processed foods, then you aren’t actually gaining any nutritional benefit. The key to overall health is to have an idea of what your total daily caloric consumption should be in order to optimize the breakdown of macronutrients that will help you reach your goals.
Macros for lean muscle versus fat loss
The three macronutrients vary in energy contribution. Understanding macronutrients doesn’t mean you have to track every calorie. Having a general idea of your daily breakdown in grams for protein, carbohydrates, and fats will allow you to make adjustments depending on your goal of building muscle, maintenance, or fat loss. For example, both protein and carbohydrates contribute 4 calories per gram, while fat contributes 9 calories per gram. Depending on what your goal is or what phase of training you may be in, the percentage of your daily macronutrient breakdown will vary. Macronutrient distributions follow the Food and Nutrition Board’s Institute of Medicine via the acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR). For overall health, the AMDR consists of 45-65% carbohydrates, 20-35% fat, and 10-35% protein. The general rule for fat burning is to increase protein and fat while decreasing carbohydrate intake.
For example, if your macronutrient breakdown consists of around 2,100 calories and you’re consuming about 30% protein (180g), 40% carbs (220g), and about 25% fat (60g) but are still not gaining lean muscle, you will likely need to not only increase calorie consumption but also adjust the ratio of macronutrients. Effective lean muscle development largely depends on macronutrient breakdown. It’s not just about how much you eat to gain muscle, but more so about what these calories consist of.
We’ll avoid ‘empty calories’
Understanding our macros also ensures we avoid ‘empty calories’ with no real nutritional value, such as chips, cookies, and other highly-processed foods. Many of these highly-processed foods are loaded with refined sugar and trans fats, which contribute to inflammation within the body. Food is meant to be nutrient-dense to supply our body with quality nutrients. By becoming more aware of our daily macronutrient intake, we can focus more on food quality rather than overall calorie content. We can eliminate these forms of empty calories and instead focus on those that provide quality fuel to train and support our health goals.
We become more aware of our eating pattern
When we become more conscious of the macronutrients we consume on a daily basis, we are more likely to develop a consistent healthy eating routine versus dieting for a week and then binging for a few days. Consistency with nutrition is key for physiological adaptation to occur over time. Understanding the macronutrients that pertain to our goals means we can make healthy eating a part of our daily life and avoid the “cheat day” mentality. By understanding quality sources of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, we can become more effective with consistently staying on track with healthy eating and eliminate the need to overeat certain foods. You don’t have to look forward to cheat days; instead, you just have to aim to hit the daily recommended macronutrient intake that best fits your goals. Being mindful of the calories we consume each day means we become more aware of achieving a healthy energy balance of all three macronutrients.
Examples of quality macronutrients:
- Egg whites
- Organic chicken
- Beans and legumes
- Whole grains (oats, brown rice, quinoa)
- Ezekiel bread
- Starchy vegetables (yams/sweet potatoes, winter squash)
- Cruciferous vegetables (kale, broccoli, cauliflower)
- Olive, coconut, and avocado oil
- Nut butters
- Flaxseeds, chia Seeds