Using macronutrients to achieve fitness and health goals

Counting macros can provide a path to success with fitness and health goals.

When it comes to meeting fitness goals, many people end up falling short. There are a number of reasons for this, but research has shown that poor nutrition can really impede reaching and maintaining fitness goals. Further, a good exercise program is only as good as the nutrition provided to fuel it, and there are many ways to assure you are eating to facilitate your goals. One way to do this is by counting macronutrients. Macronutrients, or macros for short, consist of carbohydrates, protein and fat.

Carbohydrates

We can think of carbohydrates as our energy powerhouses that fuel us for physical activity (Harvard School of Public Health). Carbs come from a variety of sources and can be both “good” and “bad.” The best sources of carbs (whole grain bread, legumes, fruits and vegetables), contain fiber and nutrients, and provide us with the energy we need to power through a tough workout. “Bad” carbs, on the other hand, provide a quick burst of energy but do not contain many nutrients and will not sustain for a long period of physical activity.

Protein

Protein is found in every bodily tissue. It helps us to feel full longer, maintain muscle mass and assists in recovery after exercise (Westerterp-Plantenga, 2009). There are many great healthy sources of protein, including eggs, dairy products (like Greek yogurt), lentils, beans, poultry and fatty fish. Red meat, while a great source of protein, is also high in saturated fat and should therefore be consumed infrequently.

Fats

Fats have gotten a bad reputation, especially in the U.S. due to the rise in overweight and obese Americans over the last few decades. However, fats are actually an important part of healthy weight maintenance and provide a source of energy, as well as storage of energy, along with many cell and hormonal functions within the body (Eat Balanced). As with carbohydrates, there are “good” and “bad” sources of fat. The good (unsaturated) sources of fat include vegetable oils (such as olive), as well as nuts, seeds and fish. Consuming these types of good fats can have great effects in exercise programs and body composition. The bad (trans and saturated) sources increase risk for various diseases and include items such as processed foods, butter, red meat, cookies and cakes (Harvard School of Public Health (2)).

Using Macros to Hit Fitness Goals

Tracking macros can be a great way to make sure you are getting the proper nutrients and energy balance to smash your workouts. Here is how to do it:

  1. Set a macronutrient goal. This can be done via a meeting with a nutritionist/dietician, who will help you decipher how much of each macro to eat each day. There are also various online tools where you can input your age, weight, sex, average daily physical activity, fitness goals and get a caloric and macro goal. These obviously won’t be as accurate as meeting with a nutritionist, but will definitely give you good ballpark numbers to get started. A great resource for getting started is the USDA’s Supertracker.
  2. Start planning your meals. If you know for example that you want to try to get 100 grams of protein per day, start planning your meals around that. For a person who eats 5 meals per day, they would need to make sure to get 20 grams of protein per meal. The same would apply for carbs and fats.
  3. Get your tools together. In order to correctly gauge how much protein/carbs/fats you are eating, you will need to know how much is in your food. Checking food labels will be helpful here, as well as utilizing an inexpensive food scale and measuring cups/spoons to make sure you are getting the correct portion off of which you will base your intake. For example, ½ cup of whole grain oats contain 27 grams of carbs, 5 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fat. If you don’t properly measure the serving size, your macro counts will be incorrect.
  4. Track! Using your tools will get you the amounts of macros you need, but tracking them assures you are staying within your goals. There are a couple ways to do this. One of them is by writing down (or inputting into your phone) what you eat and including the macro counts of your portion. As you go through your day, add up each macro and eat what you need to hit your macro goals. There are also countless smartphone apps and websites (including the MyPlate/USDA Supertracker) that will track this for you; you would simply input the food name and amount (in cups or grams), and the app will track and add up your macros for you.
  5. Be flexible! The great part about counting macros is that it gives you some flexibility to treat yourself every now and then. For example, if you know that later in the evening you will be going out to eat pizza, you can lower your fat and carbs from other sources and meals earlier in the day to save “room” in your fat/carb intake for the pizza. Obviously, this isn’t a way to just go overboard on unhealthy foods, because we would then miss out on important nutrients, but it is a way to keep yourself from being restrictive and then binging on bad foods in large quantities. The flexibility is a key part of a successful macro counting program.

With moderation and keen tracking, counting macros can help people stay on track with their eating and continue to meet and exceed fitness goals - all while leaving room for treats and family celebrations.

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