Daily %, grams of protein, simple carbs, complex carbs, macros, timings... Ahhh! When I first started to try to keep track of all of this stuff I thought my brain was going to explode.
FIRST OF ALL - let's talk about the relationship between calories and macronutrients.
Calories you eat come from food - more specifically from the macronutrients in that food.
Fat has 9 calories/gram, carbs and proteins are 4 calories/gram (most of the time) - and if you occasionally throw in alcohol, alcohol is 7 calories/gram (though there is some debate about this. We will discuss this in a separate post).
SO the calories you eat are a SUM of all the calories that come from the macronutrients.
For example, you can say "I eat 120g protein + 200g carb + 50g fat / day".
This CAN be converted into
"I eat (120x4=480 calories) + (200x4=800 calories) + (50x9=450calories) = 1730 calories/day."
One is a function of the other. When you tweak your macros your calories will change with that. SO if you want to (as in the example before), increase the protein from 120g to 150g... the 30g increase will be (30x=120) a 120 calorie increase of your daily calories. If you want to keep the calories the same, you will need to reduce the fat and/or carbohydrate to accommodate for that increase.
"AHA WAIT! LIES!!! You say. I looked at my favourite food's nutrition label and I did the multiplication and the addition and the calories DID NOT MATCH. Calories are garbage boooooo to you and to all." This is true. A lot of times the calories on a label DO NOT match the macros. There is usually some leeway with labeling guidelines but it is not that much.The biggest culprit is the carbohydrate. For once carbohydrate DID do something wrong haha. Not ALL carbohydrate is 4 cal/gram - fiber is extremely important and is 2 cal/gram, sugar alcohols vary significantly based on the actual type of sugar alcohol used. THIS is where the inconsistency comes from. So what do you do?
You CAN go by calories OR by macros - whichever makes you more comfortable, but if you go by macros only... you WILL tend to eat a little less because you will just assume ALL carbs you eat are 4 calories/gram even if some are less.
With me so far? I tend to complicate basic concepts sometimes...
Now in terms of the actual macronutrients... when it comes to tracking macronutrients I find that people fall into 2
1. The people that think counting calories is enough of a pain in the butt and refuse to look at macros...
2. Those who figure if they count calories they must count everything! And watch their macros like a hawk! If you fall into this category and want to know a good way to figure out your grams/percentages there is an excellent calculator available here:
I fall somewhere between the two. Based on personal experience I absolutely believe calories are king... AND that macros are VERY important. Especially protein. So I just count calories and protein. That's it. Before the low carb/high carb police comes after me, the research is there. The ratio of carb and fat is clinically insignificant as long as calories and protein are accounted for. The only thing they influence is adherence. Some people do BETTER on high carb, some people are HAPPIER on high fat. it is what about works for YOU. I have days when I want more carbs and other days I want more fats - so I don't stress about that and go by feel as long as protein and calories are met.
But eating fat makes me fat... eating carbs spikes my insulin and I pull fat cells from the air and put them on my thighs!! Understanding the function of each macronutrient is a good way to understand how to partition it properly into your diet... and the silliness of demonizing the "what's a trendy scapegoat today" macronutrient.
I know this is a very dumbed down version of what actually happens on a biochemical level, but I like keeping it basic - reduces the stress levels and focuses more on using common sense to guide your eating patterns.
So *drumroll* I give you the macronutrients:
What's it for? You've probably heard this a million times but protein is the "building blocks" of your body. All cells have protein components and it is absolutely essential for building and repair. Protein is needed to build/retain lean muscle mass. Go on an ultra low, protein deficient diet, it is much more difficult to do it. What else is special about it: protein has a high "thermic effect" (TEF), which means it is petty energy costly to break it down. It takes some extra calories to make sure protein is broken down properly - now this is NOT a reason to eat more calories, and negative calories do NOT exist, but it is a nice bonus nonetheless.
How much of it do I need? Researchers from McMaster (woot woot GO MAC!! Alma Mater pride) - have recently concluded a study which talked about minimal protein requirements. A good guideline is 1g protein/1lb lean body mass/day. Some people go by just "gram/pound" but in the heavier, overweight individuals this does not work - there is no need to consume 300g protein/day if you are 300lbs aiming to drop weight to 180lbs.
Great you say! So eat ALL the protein? The study showed that after 3.5g/lb/day there is no further benefit AND that protein supplementation was less effective with age. This means that after 40 people need to eat MORE protein to achieve the same effect (yay BBQs). The danger of making your diet too protein dominant is that other macros are VERY important and since your total calorie number is limited... if you want to keep calories consistent, raising a macro happens at the expense of dropping another macro.
When to eat it: the body is growing and adapting constantly, so really, any time is good protein time. The anabolic window is a LIE. Pre-workout... post work-out... all of those things are clever marketing gimmicks to buy a dozen supplements you don't need. There are multiple studies showing strength gains are the same as long as DAILY requirement for protein is met. The nitty gritty timing is POINTLESS.
Protein sources I eat: meat and egg products mostly. I incorporate some dairy and protein powders on lazy days. Always check labels, many products say "great source of protein" as a marketing trick only for you to check the grams per serving and find out that it's 4g protein 18 grams sugar.
What it's for: your PRIMARY, long-term source of energy, stockpile of fat-soluble nutrients, building blocks of cellular membranes and of course insulation and protection of vital organs. With keto being very popular these days I will not go into the discussion of "fat doesn't make you fat" as that doesn't seem to be the general fear anymore. In case you were wondering, it is for the same reason as "carbs don't make you fat" - eat fat within your calorie limits and you are FINE. Not to mention fat is filling and satiating so enjoy the skin of your rotisserie chicken with a big smile on your face.
When to eat it? Whenever you want. Have an avocado in bed. It makes no difference.
How much do I need? Fat has multiple crucial functions in the body. Most dietary guidelines advise to aim for a minimum of 20-25% of your daily calories. Once you figure out your protein minimum and your fat minimum, carbs make up "the rest" of your macro calculation, so some math is required which is why the online macro calculator I mentioned is convenient to do this for you.
Fats I eat: I will confess, hitting my fat macro is a big challenge for me. I PREFER lean proteins - I PREFER chicken over pork... I LIKE Greek Yogurts vs. the regular stuff. I have despised creamy foods since childhood. We all have a macro we struggle to hit. In the recipe section I tag recipes by macros so if you are short on one you can see which recipes include it. I get my fat from coconut... and guacamole and the skin of my chicken. It isn't perfect or heavily varied but it works.
What they're for: QUICK boosts of energy. Simple carbohydrates are fairly basic molecules (mono/disaccharides) that your body can break apart fast and use up fast. They give a sudden burst of energy. YES and also cause a spike in insulin. That is OK. If you do not have any underlying medical conditions your insulin spiking as you eat is OKAY. That is how the body functions. If you do not go in excess of your calories, thus overall eating a reasonable amount of carbohydrate, nothing will happen in terms of weight gain. The laws of thermodynamics will not be broken because of a macronutrient you eat. However, if you are quite overweight and are consuming tons of simple processed carbohydrate, it IS an issue that could be causing damage to your overall health, now not overall weight (that is because there is a calorie excess), but overall health.
When to eat them: these can be very effective before a high-intensity workout that will get your heart-rate way up! Or as a little boost before a heavy lifting session. I used to eat them before lifting... but now I train fasted and it honestly feels like it makes no difference. But some people love them some carb before training. And if it makes you feel good and gives you gas in the tank to train harder? DO IT.
Simple carbs I eat: FRUIT. Fruit will not make you fat! If someone tells you this just raise your eyebrows and walk away from that conversation. I LOVE fruit. LOVE LOVE LOVE. Just account for it in your calories and enjoy it. I am a fiend for mango, banana, papaya, guava.... all the vacation stuff. These ARE more calorie dense than your strawberries and apples... so just count them, eat them and be jolly.
What they're for: Slightly less sudden burst of energy. Complex carbohydrates are composed of longer chains of sugars than simple carbohydrates. They take longer to break apart and don't cause such a sudden spike in your energy levels.
When to eat them: Complex carbohydrates are what you want along with protein for optimal training recovery. They are satiating and make great sides for your meals.
Complex carbs I eat: oatmeal, rice, sweet potato, all the delish sides to my protein.
Extremely important for your digestive health and helps your food "move along" your system. In a nutshell there are 2 types of fiber:
Insoluble fiber is roughage that pushes things along, soluble fiber is the gelling agent that pulls things together.
How much of it do I need? If you are tracking fiber, 10g/1000 calories eaten is a popular standard (my keyboard twice put in popular as poopular, which is fantastic for a fiber description... yes I am an actual 5 year old)
Messing with your fiber can cause some dramatic weight fluctuations: if you don't eat enough and things aren't "moving out" you WILL be heavier as your intestine is filled with more food. If you eat TOO MUCH - you can clog yourself up with fiber causing the same issue. So you can either track your fiber or just go by your overall gut feel.
Xylitol... mannitol....sorbatol... etc... artificial sweeteners. More about these in a separate post but in terms of calories - they VARY. Look at a few packs of sugar-free gum, some are 10cal/piece, some are 5... there is rounding involved but it is also the actual type of sugar alcohol used. Sugar alcohols cause a negligible effect on insulin levels. So if anyone tells you that having xylitol will give you diabetes... again raise your eyebrows and move on. Not to mention xylitol is great for your dental health (bonus item).
Now before you run off and eat a bag of xylitol candy, be careful. Sugar alcohols DO tend to cause some gastrointestinal distress when consumed in large quantities. "What is a large quantity" you might ask? I would go by personal feel and start with 1 serving of it... and go from there. Sensitivity to this stuff is different from person to person. Also if you have a dog, don't buy xylitol - it is highly toxic to your canine bestie.
So what does all of this come down to on a day-to-day basis?
This does not need to be overly complicated! Just think about your plans during the day and what your body will need to work effectively! Training hard today? Have some sweet potatoes! Having trouble hitting your protein? Track it and put in a little extra effort. Make life a little easier for your body - give it the macronutrients it
will need and appreciate that each one has a purpose.
And of course: Use. Common. Sense.