Nutrition

Macronutrients: What They Are and How to Count Them

With the summer holidays sadly over and kids getting back into school, it is time to bring the focus back to you and your wellbeing in this new year!

I don’t know about you, but I am in need of some diet adjustments after the hectic eating and drinking spree over the holiday period.  

One way to get back on the horse, so to speak, is to start counting the macronutrients (macros) you are consuming each day.

What are macronutrients? Simply put, they are the building blocks of nutrition: carbohydrates (carbs), fat, and protein. These three nutrients can give insight into how we are tracking with our general health goals – be that weight loss or muscle weight gain.

Counting macros has been linked to more success in sticking to a diet plan and to overall success in weight loss!

So let’s dive into a brief overview of the three macros and then how to count them.

 

MACROS: THE BUILDING BLOCKS

Carbohydrates

Carbs, that dreaded word for most, refers to dietary sugars, starches, and fibre.

Our body digests dietary carbohydrates (big) into simple sugars (small) for easy absorption from the small intestines into the bloodstream. Glucose is one of these absorbed sugars, and it is the body’s preferred form of sugar. Glucose is incredibly important for the brain, central nervous system, and red blood cells, as they are totally reliant on glucose as their main energy source.

It is quite challenging to fully escape the consumption of carbs, as they are found in a wide variety of foods that we eat on a daily basis – veggies, fruits, grains, dairy, and of course lollies.

The Institute of Medicine recommends that 130 grams per day of carbs be consumed by adults and children (over 1 year old) to ensure the brain receives a sufficient quantity of glucose.

Carbs should make up about 45% to 65% of your total caloric intake. Carbohydrates contribute about 4 calories per gram of sugar and starch, and about 2 calories per gram of fibre.

Whether we like it or not, carbs are an important factor in our diet, as evidenced by needing this significant portion of the total calorie intake!

It is important to note that not all carbs are equal, and many carbohydrate-containing foods can also contribute fibre and other important nutrients. A high fibre diet has been associated with reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and chronic diseases.

Knowing this, we can make educated choices on the types and quality of carbs we are consuming. We can do this using the Glycemic Index (GI) to score carbs from 0 (low GI) to 100 (high GI); and this score reflects how quickly a carbohydrate is digested and how quickly it causes a rise in our blood sugar (blood glucose).

The lower the Glycemic Index value the better, and the fuller we will feel after eating.

Glycemic Index Score Breakdown:

  • 70 to 100 (high GI):  potatoes, white bread, short grain rice
  • 55 to 70 (medium GI):  fruit juice, honey, basmati rice, wholemeal bread
  • Less than 55 (low GI):  soy, beans, fruit, milk, pasta, grainy bread, porridge, lentils.

Fat   

Fat is the nutrient that packs a punch – 9 calories per gram – over 2 times as many calories as carbs or proteins.

The Institute of Medicine recommends fats comprise approximately 20% to 35% of the total caloric intake.

Even with the denseness of the nutrient, the body does require some fat in the diet. We know fat is a great source of energy and is the primary storage form of energy in the body (which we sadly all know). Additionally, fat aids in hormone production and absorption of other nutrients, protects our vital organs, and helps control body temperature.

We can tease fat apart into Good versus Bad fat.

“Bad” fat constitutes Saturated and Trans fats which are more solid at room temperature and can raise the bad cholesterol levels (LDL) in the blood.

“Good” fats [Monounsaturated (MUFA) and Polyunsaturated (PUFA) fats] are more liquid at room temperature (often oils) and can help to lower the bad cholesterol (LDL) when consumed appropriately.

The fat breakdown:

Healthy fats can be found in a variety of tasty foods that we already consume: avocados, cheese, dark chocolate, whole eggs (yolk in particular), fatty fish, nuts , chia seeds, and extra virgin olive oil.

  • MUFA can be found in: avocados, almonds, cashews, and peanuts, cooking oils (ex. canola, olive, soybean)
  • PUFA can be found in fish, tahini, linseed, soybean sunflower, safflower and canola oil, margarine spreads, pine nuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts.
  • OMEGA 3 are healthy PUFA that can reduce your risk of heart disease, can be found in:
  • Oily fish (tuna, salmon, sardines, blue mackerel) 2-3 serves/week
  • Nuts and Spreads:  walnuts, linseed, chia seeds, oils and spreads from canola/soybeans (1 g of plant source per day)
  • Animal sources: eggs, chicken, beef

It’s a balancing act with fats:

1)   Eat more nuts: as little as 30 g (a handful) per day! (unsalted, dry roasted, or raw)

2)   Seafood options:  try 2 to 3 serves of fish per week

3)   Cook with healthier oils: olive or canola, and margarine

4)   Reduced fat dairy:  reduce the amount of saturated fat consumed – switching to low fat dairy options can remove approximately 4 kg of saturated fat from your diet over a year!

Protein

Proteins are incredibly important component for our body, aiding in cell-to-cell communication, immune cell function, and the building of muscle, hormones, and enzymes.

The adult Recommended Dietary Allowance is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, with the range spanning from 10% to 35% of the total caloric intake.

It is important to note that, due to the wide range of uses for protein in the body, the recommendations for protein intake vary based on age, body composition, health status etc.

Dietary protein can be found in a variety of animal and plant products, including the obvious meat (ideally lean red meat, poultry, and fish), eggs, dairy products, seeds and nuts, beans and legumes, and soy products (tofu).

The Heart Foundation recommends a variety of protein sources is best, with the diversity ensuring other key components to the diet, such as vitamins and minerals, are being consumed as well.

Now, LET’S GET DOWN TO IT – Counting those macronutrients

Now that you have a basic understanding of the building blocks of nutrition, we can focus on manipulating the percentages of these three nutrients to meet your specific needs and goals.  

Firstly, we need to identify WHAT IS YOUR DAILY CALORIC NEED?

Caloric need is made up of two parts: Rest Mode and Active Mode.

Rest Mode (or Resting Energy Expenditure and Basal Metabolic Rate) is the percentage of your calories are going to your body’s every day maintenance, which is approximately 60% to 75% of calories eaten per day.

Active Mode (or Non-Resting Energy Expenditure) is the energy required for exercise and the digestion of food, or about 30% of calories eaten per day.

How to determine your Basal Metabolic Rate (or Rest Mode) calorie need:  

BMR can be determined using the calculation below, with the inputs of sex, body weight, height, and age.

Males:  10 x body weight (kg) + 6.25* height (cm) – (5*age (year) + 5

Females:  10 x body weight (kg) + (6.25* height (cm) – (5*age (year) – 161

For example:

To calculate my BMR: (10*54.5 kg) + (6.25*170 cm) – (5*31) – 161 = 1292 calories per day

BMR + Activity Level = Total Caloric Need  

The other half of the equation is the Active Mode calorie need, and activity accounting for 30% of our total need.

Below are 5 levels of activity. Choose which one best describes your level to finish determining  the total calorie intake you need for each day.

Activity Level Multiplier

Sedentary = BMR x 1.2 (little to no exercise, desk job)

Light Activity = BMR x 1.375 (light exercise, 1-3 days per week)

Moderate Activity = BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise, 6-7 days per week)

Very Active = BMR x 1.725 (hard exercise, 2 times per day)

Extra Active = BMR x 1.9 (hard exercise 2+ times per day, marathon training, etc.)  

Example of my Activity Multiplier: I am relatively active with Studio Pilates classes, attending between 4 and 6 classes per week. Using the slightly ambitious 1.55 multiplier, my total calorie requirement for the day is 2000.

My BMR:  1292 calories per day then becomes 1292*1.55 = 2000 calories per day

What’s NEXT – Deciding what is your ideal macronutrient breakdown?

This step will depend on what goals you have in relation to fitness (eg weight loss or muscle gain) and health wise (eg diabetic or other nutrient health concerns), as these factors will affect the ratios. *Consider consulting your GP or nutritionist if in doubt.* Assessing your weight goals and total caloric intake will help you to decide which ratio works best for you!

Recommendations listed above provide a generous range (total calorie intake):

          Carbs:  45% to 65%

          Fats:  20% to 35%

          Protein: 10% to 35%

Example for myself: I have a selection of 45% carbs, 30% fat, & 25% protein at 2000 calories/day (from calculation above):

Carbs:  provide 4 calories/gram of carbs

45% of 2000 = 900 calories allowed

                         900/4 = 225 g of carbs allowed per day

          Fat: provide 9 calories/gram of fat

                         30% of 2000 = 600 calories

                         600/9 = 67 g of fat per day

          Protein: provide 4 calories/gram of protein

                         25% of 2000 = 500 calories

                         500/4 = 125 g of protein per day

FINALLY:  START TRACKING

After all the numbers are crunched and ratios determined, it is finally time to start recording what you are consuming on a daily basis. Tracking macronutrients can be as simple as logging your daily eats into a Fitness app (MyFitnessPal, MyPlate, Lose It, MyMacros+), a website, or good ol’ food journaling.

Apps and websites generally allow for easier tracking and searching for food options, graphical representation, and tracking daily progression of calories and macronutrient intakes.

Personally, I use the FitBit app that is connected to my FitBit Ionic. It provides nice graphical outputs of my intake and macronutrient percentages to keep me on track throughout the day.

BENEFITS

Tracking macronutrients may help you to focus on what exactly you are eating on a daily basis, aiding with a better selection of nutritious foods to meet the ratio of macronutrients you are seeking, rather than just meeting calorie intake each day.

Seeing what you are eating each day and sticking to the ratio of macronutrients you have set will help you to stick with a more effective diet scheme, providing variety of what you are consuming but keeping within the limits.

Counting macronutrients has been linked to more success in sticking to a diet plan and successful weight loss!

Happy tracking!

About the Author –

Danielle Schulz has a PhD in Nutrition from Iowa State University. She has worked as an animal nutritionist for 3.5 years throughout rural Australia and loves sharing her knowledge of nutrition! She is currently on sabbatical while her husband finishes his medical training and she has been a Studio Pilates instructor since July 2018.