Macros, Macros, Macros… all anyone talks about these days is macros.
In case you aren’t hip with fitness jargon, “macros” is short for macronutrients. Macronutrients are your ‘big’ nutrients – the ones with calories – protein, carbs, and fat. When people talk about “hitting their macros”, they’re referring to a specific ratio (or range of ratios) of proteins, carbs, and fat.
In this article, I’ll talk about the drawbacks of fixating too much on your “macros”, where focusing on them can be beneficial, and the basics of how to calculate them (for free even – imagine that!).
It’s possible that being PRECISE with your macros is of benefit to a small percentage of the population such as figure competitors or other athletes. I’m still skeptical – but that’s not in my wheelhouse so I’ll reserve judgment. What I do know is that for MOST people, fixating on a specific magical formula of macronutrients is likely to give more headache than benefits.
For the average person, there’s a reasonable range of macronutrient intake. And it’s a pretty damn big range. It’s not like (assuming appropriate calories) that 200 grams of carbs will support your goals and 190 or 210 will sabotage you. That’s absurd. Individuals respond differently to different macronutrient ratios. Some people feel like death on a specific range – like high carb/low fat – whereas other people feel great on pretty much any type of macro breakdown. To use an exact target based on a calculator is not only unnecessary stress, but it can even be damaging based on an individual response. If your “macros” call for 125 grams of carbs and you feel like shit with less than 200, that’s probably not going to benefit you in any way.
Okay… that’s a bit about the drawbacks and the absurdity. Where can there be VALUE?
If approached in a reasonable fashion, being mindful of your macros can help you have a balanced diet and support your goals.
Let’s think about calories and macros this way. Calories dictate the general direction your body goes – more calories in than out = weight gain. Fewer calories in than out = weight loss.
From there, protein dictates to some degree what those calories do. In a calorie deficit, you need more protein to preserve muscle mass and therefore burn a higher percentage of fat. An appropriate amount of protein intake in a calorie surplus also will support muscle growth.
If there is any ‘magic’ to macros, 95 percent of it is in the protein. From there, what about carbs and fat? Assuming you’re in a reasonable range, the role of your carbs and fat are largely just to optimize how good you feel. If I were to tell you that you needed to eat 125 grams of carbs (or 20 percent dietary fat) but you felt HORRIBLE on that, how would you bring your best to the gym? How would you have an active lifestyle that supports your health and fitness goals?
The main benefit – protein target aside – of balancing the macros for the average person is to eat in a healthy range that makes *you* feel good so you can be active and put in the work you need for your goals. And no one-time calculation is going to figure that out for you.
How do we get started on a ballpark idea of where we should be for our macros?
*Giving credit where credit is due, my approach to calculating macro targets is based mostly if not entirely on Lyle McDonald’s approach (BodyRecomosition.com)
- First, you need to know your total calorie needs. Let’s say for simplicity’s sake that you need 2,000 calories.
- From there, we determine a protein target. Keeping things simple again, let’s say that you want to aim for 125 grams of protein. You could go as high as around a gram per lb of lean bodyweight, but ,generally people need to aim for *practical* protein targets before they worry about *optimal* protein targets.
- Converting that 125 grams of protein into calories, we have 500 calories already spoken for. 25 percent.
- Next, we calculate a fat target. This, in general, is going to be between 20 and 30 percent – maybe as low as 15 or as high as 35.
We then set the remainder as carbs. Two things:
1) Obviously, if you follow this formula only once, you come to an “exact” number and I suggested above a range of fat values. So it would be wise to calculate the formula a few times if you want exact numbers – or just pick a fairly conservative fat target so that you have wiggle room.
2) Since carbs are determined last, I like to double check to see if they are reasonable. I am VERY cautious when it comes to dropping carbs less than 200 grams per day. I try to avoid that unless I know *for sure* that the individual will tolerate that well. If the carb target is NOT reasonable, lowering protein and/or fat may be wise. Or this can be an instance where a carb cycling approach can be beneficial – incorporating higher carb days into the week.
Let’s continue with the example above and work out a reasonable range for carbs and fats.
For demonstration purposes, we’ll stick with 20 percent fat and 30 percent fat. If you know you feel better on high carb, you would want to do the math for 20-25 percent fat or, if you prefer lower carb, maybe 30-35 percent fat.
Example A: 20 percent fat
125 grams protein = 500 calories
Fat: 2,000 x .2 = 400 calories. Divided by 9 calories per gram = 44.4 grams (let’s call it 44)
Remainder in carbs = 1,100 calories = 275 grams
Example B: 30 percent fat
125 grams protein = 500 calories
Fat: 2,000 x 0.3 = 600. Divided by 9 calories per gram = 66.66 grams (let’s call it 67)
Remainder in carbs = 900 calories = 225 grams
For this ‘Average Joe/Jane’ pursuing their goals whose needs are 2,000 calories per day, they have a range of 44 to 67 grams of fat and 225 and 275 grams. And that’s keeping protein precise for illustrative purposes. Realistically there’s some wiggle room there too, which can make the range even bigger for the carbs and fat.
And that’s why when I hear about someone being told they have a range of plus or minus 2.5 grams of carbs, I want to puke…
Hopefully seeing the simple formula for choosing macro targets and seeing the wide range is helpful to you.
Wait a second…do we even need to do all this math in the first place?
I wanted to show how straightforward it can be to balance your macronutrients. But considering how there’s so much wiggle room, do we really need to bust out calculators and start counting calories and grams?
While I will calculate ranges for calories and macronutrients for some coaching clients, the fact is that I rarely have to do this.
If you’re trying to get from 110 lbs to 105 lbs, then yeah, maybe you’re going to have to be super precise and do things by the numbers. But if you’re above a healthy weight right now, the chances that you need to become so analytical with your diet is very slim.
In fact, it can counterproductive. When you outsource your decision making to what a calculator says rather than listening to your own body, you relinquish the most powerful tool you have for controlling your weight.
If you want to be successful with managing your weight for the long-term, you need to be able to closely listen to your body’s hunger and fullness signals, and eat appropriately in response to those signals. Yeah I know, easier said than done. It takes a lot of practice, but the payoffs are worth it. Plus, weighing and measuring everything you eat for the rest of your life is really lame.
You might also enjoy this article: “Are You Overthinking Your Calories?”
Sick of confusing and restrictive diet programs?
Rather than removing food groups or getting super focused on numbers, I guide my clients on creating behaviors that are sustainable (and even enjoyable) while guiding your calorie and macronutrient intake to where it should be to best support your goals. For example:
- Getting enough lean protein (this alone often gets fat and carbs pretty much right where we want them)
- Being more mindful of your eating experience (more experience of the flavor AND fewer calories taken in)
- Eating the right amount of meals and the right sizes to help you take in fewer calories but still feel legitimately satisfied from your meals.
- Getting enough sleep so your hunger doesn’t go through the roof and you have sufficient energy to be active.
- Planning and prepping for the day/week ahead.
- Etc etc.
If you want more ideas on how to use my habit-based approach towards fitness and weight loss, click HERE to get a free copy of my 21 Habits for Lasting Fat Loss guide (or click or tap the image below).