When you start paying attention to what you are eating, you will likely hear about macros. Macro is short for macronutrient. Macronutrients are most of what you eat so they are important. The question most of my clients have is “Do you need to track macros to lose weight?”
There are three types of macronutrients
The three types of macros are carbohydrates (or carbs) fats and protein. All are necessary in your diet. How much of each you need depends on many things and varies for each individual.
Carbs have become the bad boy of macronutrients in the last while. But carbs are a group that gets demonized because they are associated with some poor food choices like cookies, sugar and soda. Many people do eat too many carbs, but many also eat the wrong types of carbs.
Carbohydrates are sugars, starches and fibres. They provide fuel for muscles and for the brain. Carbohydrate are important for brain function and they are an important source of energy especially when exercising. They are found in grains, fruits, vegetables and milk products.
You have probably heard of simple and complex carbohydrates (or good and bad carbs). Simple carbohydrates are digested quickly and are found in sugars of all kinds, fruits, and soft drinks. Because they are digested quickly they can cause blood sugar spikes. That doesn’t mean fruit is bad for you. Fruit also contains vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Complex carbohydrates are slower to digest. These include grains, legumes and starchy vegetables. But complex carbohydrates also includes refined grains. These have been processed and have fibre and vitamins removed. Foods made with refined grains often have sugar or other unhealthy ingredients added. This is where carbs get a bad name.
Until recently we thought that you needed to reduce fat in your diet to lose fat and to prevent many diseases. One of the reasons we eat fat is that it makes food taste good. Fats include fat found in meats, oils used in cooking and fats added to foods.
Like carbohydrates all fats are not created equally. And nutrition experts don’t seem to agree on which fats are the healthiest. There are three main types of fat – saturated, found in meat and oils which are solid at room temperature, monounsaturated fats like olive oil and polyunsaturated fats like canola oil. All fats have a place in the diet (with the exception of trans fats, which should be avoided).
One type of fat you should be sure to include is omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty fish contains omega-3 fatty acids which are polyunsaturated fats. Omega 3 fatty acids are important for brain and heart health.
Fats have other important functions including providing a source of energy, allowing fat soluble vitamins to be digested and helps to keep hormones in balance.
Protein comes from both animal and plant based sources. Animal sources include meat, poultry, eggs, fish and dairy products. Plant based sources include legumes, seeds, nuts, whole grains and green vegetables.
Animal protein is considered to be complete because it contains all essential amino acids. Most plant based sources are short on at least one of the amino acids. Animal sources are also usually higher in protein, but plant based sources also include fibre, vitamins and minerals, and complex carbohydrates.
The difficulty with counting macros
The main difficulty with counting macros is that many foods do not fall into one neat category. Non starchy vegetables and legumes are a combination of carbohydrates and protein. Meat is a combination of protein and fats. You can use a tracker like MyFitnessPal, but entering everything you eat can get tedious. You are also forced to measure and weigh everything you eat. If you are not using an to track everything then the calculations can be very time consuming.
Another issue with tracking macros is that it doesn’t really tell you the quality of the macros you are eating. Are you eating a processed carbohydrate breakfast cereal or steel cut oatmeal? Likely the same macro count, but they differ in nutritional value.
As I mentioned earlier macronutrient requirements are individual. Some people do quite well on a high protein diet, others need a certain amount of carbohydrates to feel good.
Macronutrients are important to energy balance, but by worrying about macros alone you may miss out on important micronutrients like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
What to do instead
In this article I talked about using your hand for portion control. This is definitely a good place to start. Spend your time trying to prepare and eat foods which are less processed rather than tracking your macros. You will be more likely to make your diet healthier this way and you will likely save your sanity as well.
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