I get asked all the time by friends outside of my CrossFit group what is macro cooking and what are macronutrients?
In a nutshell, macronutrients are the essential nutrients that your body needs to exist. Fats, carbohydrates, and proteins are the primary, but you also want to be aware of your fiber, sugar, and water intake as well.
Most individuals, especially Americans, take in WAY too many carbohydrates and fats than what they really need per day. When I first started tracking my numbers, I was eating around 300-400 grams of carbohydrates a day (some days it was 500+ Yikes!). To give you an idea of how high that is, my body only really needs 150-170 grams per day. The biggest culprit of carbohydrates after wheat (I love bread and pasta)? Sugar (but that is another blog post for another day).
Fats were never an issue for me, but for a lot of people, fats get them as well. Think about all the fried and butter covered yummy foods out there. I grew up in Iowa where the State Fair known for its fried things on a stick (fried stick of butter anyone? Although I have heard that if you drain out the butter, it tastes like a cinnamon roll. I just may have to try it sometime…maybe just one bite). Now think about how many grams of fat are in just one french fry or onion ring!!! I know, I know. There is all this data out there about good and bad fats and good fats are what you should be consuming: olive and coconut oils, real butter (none of this margarine stuff), avocados, etc. but you can easily be over-consuming those. Just because they are good fats doesn’t mean you should eat as much of them as you possibly can.
In the opposite direction, most people consume way too little protein. I thought I ate a lot of protein (again, I grew up in America’s Heartland where meats are king and the protein covers at least 1/2 of your plate–Google “Iowa Pork Tenderloin” for images if you don’t believe me!), but when I first started tracking, I was only eating about 60-70 grams per day (sounds like a lot right?). I now eat 135 grams per day every day. When people first start counting their macros, they usually get extremely worried when they see how low their carbohydrate numbers are compared to what they are used to eating, but when you start eating about double the protein you are used to, you will be surprised how full you feel and how long it takes before you get hungry.
Additionally, fiber is extremely important to a healthy diet. Most individuals should aim to get around 30 grams of fiber per day (some people will be a little more, it all depends on your body and needs). You will be surprised how far off that number you can be eating what is advertised as a “healthy meal.” Until I started eating a lot more vegetables and fruits, I was usually only getting about 12-15 grams per day and I thought I was eating really healthy.
Water is also extremely important, even if you are not counting your macros. Most individuals know the 8 x 8 rule: you should drink eight, 8 oz glasses of water per day. Well that is just a starting point. If you exercise regularly, if it is hot or humid, if you drink a lot of coffee (guilty!), alcohol, or other dehydrating beverages, you need to increase your intake. There is no magic number, but listen to your body. If you are thirsty, definitely drink water!!! If you aren’t thirsty, drink water. I keep a glass of water (16 oz) handy on my desk throughout the day and other than coffee and milk, that is all I drink 99% of the time. I aim to refill the glass at least 5-6 times per day (keep in mind I exercise 5-6 days per week and often outside in the humidity/sun so I need lots of water to stay hydrated). For every alcoholic beverage you consume, drink a glass of water with it. If you are hungry, but you shouldn’t be, consider that you might just be thirsty. We have trained our minds to interpret thirst as hunger.
How can I find out what my macro numbers should be?
Depending on what your goals are, you will have different daily intake levels of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins than anyone else. To find out what your levels should be, you can either search for a free macro calculator online (if all you want to know your general numbers) or you can find a coach ($$$$) to set your numbers for you.
I only recommend going to the coach route if you have specific goals connected fat loss, toning, or strength conditioning since these coaches can cost upwards of $150+/month. Coaches are great for meeting very specific goals because they will calculate your numbers for you, provide you with advice and encouragement, and adjust your numbers as necessary to get you to where you want to be. If you do go for a coach, ask around to those who have the build you are looking to achieve. Do they use a coach? Also do your research. A good coach will get a lot of information from you in the beginning and will listen to you throughout the entire process. They will make adjustments to your numbers, give you re-feed days, etc. A bad coach will give you some numbers at the beginning and sit back to watch. They won’t make any changes without you prompting them.
Okay. I get what macronutrients and macro counting is, but how do I track and eat/cook based upon that?
The easiest way to track your macros is to use a food diary either online or through an app on your phone. One of the most popular apps is MyFitnessPal (I am in no way affiliated to or paid by the makers of the app). I use this app and have found it to be very easy to use, read, and figure out how to put in recipes. You will enter in your food intake for the day (either in weight or volume measurements) and the diary will calculate how many grams of fats, carbs, proteins, sugars, fiber, and a lot of other nutrients are in those food items. Unless the food item is brand new to the store shelves, you will certainly find it in the diary and some apps have even worked with some of the major restaurants to add their menu items so there is no guessing/estimating when you are eating out.
Hitting Your Numbers
When you first start attempting to “hit your numbers,” don’t worry if you are over or under your target numbers. Try to get as close to them as possible (usually within 5 grams over or under). As you get used to tracking, you will get better at knowing what 3 oz of chicken looks like and approximately how many grams of carbohydrates are in a sweet potato. My suggestion for those first starting out is consider entering in your entire day’s food the night before. This way you won’t end up at 9pm at night with 30 grams of fat left and no carbs (spoonfuls of coconut oil for dinner is not ideal). I still do this and it allows me to adjust all my meals so that I can make sure I am getting enough to eat. This also makes it easier for me to pack my lunch bag in the morning because I can pre-pack the night before and just grab and go!
When it comes to tracking your numbers, if you are very serious about hitting them exactly and are going for very strict goals (not most people), you need to be entering your foods in by weight (ounces, grams, etc.) and not by volume (tsp, cup, etc.). Invest in a food scale (you can find one online or in most stores for relatively cheap) and measure everything out exactly. If you just want to be close to your numbers, you do not have to weigh everything out. Using measuring cups/spoons is perfectly fine and you will still meet your goals. I do a combination of both and have had hit all of my goals just fine.
Eating and Cooking with Macros
Most individuals who count macros subscribe to the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) plan. What this means is you can eat whatever you want, as long as you fit it within your numbers. You want a cupcake? You can have it, just keep in mind that you will lose a lot of carbohydrates and fats for the rest of your meals, but sometimes an indulgence is perfectly fine. I sometimes plan to eat a super cheesy chicken quesadilla (Mexican Thursday!) and have to cut carbohydrates and fats from the rest of the day, but I can do it because I make it fit in my numbers.
Lean meats (chicken, some seafood, shellfish) and green vegetables are almost always safe bets when eating and cooking with macros in mind. Lean meats are pretty much pure protein and green vegetables are super low in carbohydrates, so you can eat a huge plateful of them and barely make a dent in your numbers (for example, 2 cups of raw baby spinach leaves has only 2 grams of carbohydrates and 1.8 grams of protein. That’s it!). The rest of it is just playing around and trial and error to figure out what works for you. For me, I have to eat a huge breakfast, otherwise I will be ready to eat my arm by 10am, so I eat a lot of protein, fats, and carbohydrates for this one meal and my dinner is usually very small and mostly protein with some carbs. For some people 3 meals works, where others need to have 4-5 meals and snacks. It is what works for you.
What about protein powders? Protein powders are great, but you can certainly get all the protein you need through food if you are intentional. I use protein powders for some recipes, but otherwise, I try to get all my protein from meat and plant-based foods. If you decide to go with protein powders, do not get sucked into a fancy bottle or what the “top athletes” are using. A lot of companies will offer sample packs of their powders. Test them out to figure out what you like– for example: just because you like the taste of chocolate does not mean you will like all chocolate protein powder (trust me!). Protein comes in many different forms–pure protein (usually the more expensive types) vs. protein mixes, animal vs. plant-based, etc. Pure protein is exactly how it sounds: pretty much all protein and maybe 1-2 grams of carbohydrates from each scoop. Protein mixes have other ingredients mixed in with them to make them taste and/or cook better. These will come with a higher number of carbohydrates per scoop. Animal based proteins can be whey, casein, etc. while plant proteins can be from various types of plants including soy, hemp, etc. None of these are better than the others. It is all about personal preference. Some people also have adverse reactions to whey based proteins or protein mixes. Again, trial and error is the best way to figure out what works for you.
When it comes to cooking with macros, there are a lot of recipes out there for IIFYM. Most of the time you are going to find “low-carb” recipes because that is the biggest trip up for most individuals. Just be careful as you are looking for low-carb recipes. A lot of them are made for the Paleo or Keto plans that are low-carb, high-fat. Most macro plans are not low-carb and high-fat. Both are usually lower than the typical diet when macro counting. Most of my recipes will be low-carb and low-fat unless they are one of the indulgent recipes, then all bets are off.
If you want to find out more about macronutrients, the USDA has a great starting point found here.