If you’ve read our post on macronutrients, you know that these nutrients are present in almost every food you eat and can be essential for a healthy diet. However, what may be even more important than simply consuming them is consuming the right amount of them.
Everyone’s body is unique, and not everyone will need to eat the same variations of each macronutrient. Some thrive off a higher carbohydrate diet while others feel healthier on a low carb, high fat or keto diet.
In this post, we’ll take you through “Macronutrients 101,” from learning the basics to setting macro targets based on different health goals. Plus, our dietitian Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD will share insight into her macro counting process so you can set yourself up for success.
Read to explore our beginner’s guide to macro setting.
An Introduction to Macros
There are three types of macronutrients. At least one of these nutrients will be present in every meal you eat, and general nutrition advice from the CDC or the Mayo Clinic advise that you should be consuming a balanced amount of each group for optimal overall health.
Made up of different amino acids, protein is used by the body to build muscle while also providing structure for other tissues and organs and helping carry oxygen through the blood. This macronutrient comes from sources like meat, chicken, fish, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and dairy products.
Carbohydrates are the primary (and preferred) source of energy for the body. Made up of simple carbs (sugars), complex carbs, and non digestible carbs (like fiber), these nutrients are found in things like legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
This group of foods is important for brain function, helps with inflammation, and can also be an energy source. Fats provide the body with essential fatty acids and help the body absorb certain vitamins. Fats come from sources like fatty meats, butter, oils, avocados, cheese, and nuts.
Understanding Macro Ratios and Macro Counting
Counting macros, or macro tracking, refers to keeping a log of how much of each macronutrient you eat. To track your macronutrient intake, many people use apps like My Fitness Pal (or the Nutrisense app), or even log their foods in a journal. Apps are a great option as they can easily calculate the exact breakdowns of the foods you eat.
When setting macro goals for your diet, you’ll likely be advised to create a macro ratio to break down how much of each type of nutrient you’re aiming to consume. Your macronutrient ratios will influence the food choices you make to a certain extent.
For example, if your goal is to eat a strict keto diet, then your macros will likely be something like this: 60 to 80 percent of calories from fats, 10 to 30 percent from protein, and five to 10 percent from carbs.
While a keto macronutrient breakdown will lead you to eat less carbs, it doesn’t necessarily encourage (or discourage) you to eat specific types of fats. You can do keto by sticking to fat sources like bacon and processed oils (called “dirty keto”) or you can focus on more nutritious fat sources like fiber-rich avocado or heart healthy olive oil.
These more detailed food choices will be determined by your current health goals, and your macronutrient ratio is set up to reach your health goal.
Using Macronutrients for Your Health Goals
Our expert dietitian Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD, has worked with people to set macronutrient goals for a variety of different health goals.
She explains, “Depending on someone's health goals, macro breakdowns can look really different. There's not one that's "better" or more "correct" than the other,, but rather, every ratio is correlated with a particular person's needs.
“For example, if an athlete is actively competing in a higher intensity sport, they may require a higher percentage of carbs to make up their caloric intake.”
So, as Amanda mentioned, if you’re an athlete, you may have a higher carbohydrate intake. If you’re trying to optimize blood sugar levels, you may take the completely opposite approach and consume fewer carbs, instead focusing on how many grams of fat you’re consuming. Using a CGM for athletes can also be helpful in making sure that you are fueling your body optimally.
“On the other hand,” says Amanda, “If someone is experiencing decreased insulin sensitivity or has been diagnosed with insulin resistance, lowering carb consumption and implementing a diet higher in fat (along with many other tactics!) could help to improve insulin sensitivity over time too.”
If your fitness goal is to build muscle, you may keep a close eye on how many grams of protein you consume and monitor how that affects your body weight, body fat, and muscle growth.If your health goals are centered around weight loss, keep in mind that macro setting does not replace calorie counting.
You may still want to set a caloric target for your diet, and use that number to determine how much to eat based on your preferred macro ratio.
Macronutrients in Different Diets
Macronutrient ratios will look different for different diets (keto diets, low-fat diets) and different health goals such as gaining muscle or improving workout performance.
Our dietitian Amanda adds, ”Ratios can vary quite a bit as well since nutrition is so individualized and there really isn't a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
“Initially, your macros have to do with personal preference of dietary pattern. For those following a lower carb or keto diet, we’ve seen that their carb percentages will be much lower and fat percentages will be much higher than someone following a traditional diet.”
A standard American diet generally advises that 20 to 30 percent of the calories you consume should come from fats, 30 percent from protein, and 40 to 50 percent from carbohydrates. For a higher carb diet, for example, your macronutrient ratios could look something like this: 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates, 10 to 35 percent protein, and 30 to 40 percent of calories from fat.
How to Start Macronutrient Tracking
To determine the best macro ratio for you, you may consider working with a dietitian for guidance on meal planning, figuring out your protein intake, and helping with macro calculation.If you’ve already been tracking your daily calorie intake, you can use this number to break down your target consumption of each nutrient as well.
Amanda shares her experience of how her guidance has helped those using macronutrient tracking for their health, stating, “Dietitians can help with this process by providing more guidance after full evaluation of your background, what you've tried in the past, explaining the ins and outs of how macros are helpful.
Tracking macros is very numbers-based and can get tedious, so it may not be for everyone. If your goal is weight loss, macro tracking isn’t the only method that can help. We want to be able to provide the tools and knowledge one needs in order to make sustainable, healthy progress towards achieving set goals!”
Here are her top tips for beginners looking to start tracking macronutrients:
- Start by calculating the overall caloric intake that works for you, as this is the starting point for developing macro percentages for your goals. These percentages will add up to equate your daily energy allotment.
- Begin by determining your protein needs, then move on to your carb or fat allowance depending on your preferred energy source to meet your unique needs.
- Give yourself some time to allow for trial and error and experiment with what amounts work best for you to help you feel your best. This could take some time to figure out!
A Visual Guide to Setting Macro Goals
Setting your macro targets is easy with the help of a diet tracking app such as Nutrisense. Simply log in, set your targets, and add your foods eaten throughout the day to track and analyze how your targets are making you feel.
Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense
Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.
With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.
Ready to take the first step? Start with our quiz to see how Nutrisense can support your health.
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Jordyn has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a graduate degree in Human Nutrition and completed a dietetic internship at the Memphis VA. She has experience working as a clinical dietitian at a VA medical center specializing in oncology and at the Mayo Clinic, working with a wide range of patients ranging from neonates in the NICU to adult ICU.