Macronutrients 101: Should you be tracking your macros?


If you’ve ever watched old Arnold Schwarzenegger interviews abut body-building, you’ll hear him talk abut “hitting your macros.” Arnold didn’t obsess about if you should eat before or after a workout or if you worked out at 7am or at midnight; as long as you were getting the macros you needed, you were good.

But we aren’t all training to be Mr. (or Ms.) Olympia. Do we need to be thinking about macros too?

Think of macronutrients as the main things we eat: fats, carbohydrates and proteins, while micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals in those foods.

The amount of “macros” that a person needs depends on their body type and weight, activity level, and fitness goals. Someone looking to build muscle (like Arnie) will eat a very different combination of macronutrients than someone trying to lose weight, or someone trying to simply maintain a certain body type.

Even if we’re just hoping to eat healthier with no major fitness goals in mind, learning how to consciously choose which macros you eat, and aiming for the range of calories that’s best for you, will help keep you healthy and feeling your best.

According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine, the suggested breakdown of macronutrients is 45-65% carbs, 10-35% protein, and 20-35% fats (and limiting saturated and trans fats). This varies depending on individual needs.

Someone trying to lose body fat and bulk up might consume 50% carbs, 30% protein, and 20% fat, giving them enough energy to power through heavy lifting, and enough protein to repair and build muscle tissue. If you’re looking to lose weight, this might shift to 30% carbs, 30% fat and 40% protein.

Macros come in all varieties, meaning they can be healthy or unhealthy. We can get the amount of food and calories we need by eating fat from butter and mayo, carbs like doughnuts, white bread and chips, and protein from a takeout cheeseburger. Or, we can get healthy fats from things like olive oil and nuts, protein from fish and eggs, and complex carbs from whole grains. So, while a calorie is a calorie (or, the amount of energy a food contains), it matters where the calories come from. Tracking macros can help shift the emphasis to the quality of calories you get, instead of simply the quantity.

“Food and its macronutrient composition can influence how hungry or full you feel, your metabolic rate, brain activity and hormonal response,” according to a study in The Lancet and reported on healthline.com.

Keeping Track

Tracking your macros is one way to determine how much you’re eating, what your ratios should be, and the quality of your food. First, let’s look at the number of calories in each macro group. Carbs and proteins both contain four calories/gram, while fats have nine calories/gram.

To see that how that plays out, take popcorn vs potato chips. Three cups (or one serving) of popcorn has about 90 calories, with 19 grams of carbs, 1 gram of fat, and 3 grams of protein. One serving of plain chips (which is only one cup, by the way) has 137 calories, 9 grams of fat, 13 grams of carbs, and 1 gram of protein. Generally speaking, healthier foods mean you get to eat more for fewer calories. Jackpot!

But calculating exactly what your macronutrient ratio should be is a tad complicated, involving your resting and non-resting energy expenditures. (Check out this story for instructions on how to do the calculations yourself.) That said, online apps are the way to go. You may also like keeping an old-school food journal, as you learn to become more aware of what you’re eating. Our Dara Smart Body BMI Scale will also help you out, as it measures and tracks 17 different body metrics, including resting metabolic rate which is important for determining your ideal caloric intake.

While tracking can be helpful, some people find ratios and formulas and all the numbers too time-consuming. Many people use it as a good way to start as they learn about calories and healthy food choices, and easing up and their comfort level increases. It’s also important to note that tracking macros can be a risk for people with disordered eating habits. Interestingly, a study reported in JAMA Internal Medicine found that if weight loss is your goal, it’s the number of calories you eat each day that matters more than percentages of macros.

Some good options for healthy fat options are olive and coconut oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, salmon, eggs, and full-fat dairy products. Good protein options include fish and poultry, tofu, milk, yogurt, eggs, and lean red meat. And what about carbs? Go for whole grains like oats, brown rice and quinoa, bean and lentils, fruit, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and whole wheat pasta.

A word about micronutrients

Despite being small (hence the “micro”), these vitamins and minerals are incredibly important. Think bone health, immune function, blood clotting, and normal growth and development. They basically enable our body to function the way it should, supporting our organs and cells. And we have to get them from food (or supplements), making micronutrients essential to our wellbeing.

Healthy, nutrient dense macronutrient choices will contain more micros, as well as more fibre – all very good things. Studies show that getting enough micronutrients can help reduce cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s, and simply increases overall wellness. 

Some common deficiencies to look out for: Vitamin D (for most people!); B12 for vegans and vegetarians; iron for vegans and menstruating women; and calcium for men and women over 50. 

Whether you’re looking to be the next Schwarzenegger or just wanting to lose a few pounds, eating a balanced diet consisting mostly of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats and complex carbs will give you the macro- and micronutrients you need. And while counting your macros can be helpful, there are drawbacks, so do what feels right for you.