Macronutrients: What They Are & How To Track Them

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April 9, 2020

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Macronutrients are a key component of your overall diet. Whether you’re already a conscious eater, or you’re learning how to eat healthy, understanding macronutrients can help you recognise how food functions in the body, and which foods will make you feel your best. 

Find out what macronutrients are, why you need them, and how you can use them to fuel your body in the right ways.

What are macronutrients?

Macronutrients — or “macros” — are the nutrients your body needs on a daily basis to function properly. They can be broken down into three main types: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Whilst they are all vital in providing your body with energy, they each play a different role. 

What does each macronutrient do?

three macronutrients play an important role in your diet and contribute to the functions of your body in different ways:

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy in your body, namely helping with brain and muscle function.

Fats: Fats add flavour and texture to the food you eat, whilst also supporting your body in absorbing nutrients, providing the building blocks for important hormones, and acting as an almost inexhaustible source of energy.

Protein: Proteins are made up of amino acids, and play a vital role in repairing and building bodily tissues, including skin, muscles and bones. They also provide a secondary source of energy when there is an absence of carbohydrates and fats.

Macronutrients vs micronutrients

Both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential for bodily function and physical health, but there are some key differences between them. 

Micronutrients are only needed in small amounts as they exist within macronutrients as vitamins and minerals. This means if you eat the recommended amount of each macronutrient, you will likely fulfil your necessary micronutrient intake in the process. 

How much of each macronutrient do I need?

There are general guidelines you can follow to ensure you’re eating the correct portions. The daily amounts recommended by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council recommended daily amounts are: 

  • 45-65% of your daily calorie intake should include complex carbohydrates

  • 10-25% should include protein

  • 20-35% should include fats

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Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates — or “carbs” — often get a bad rap when it comes to healthy eating, but without them, your body can’t function the way it should.

Understanding what carbohydrates are, how they work, and which carbohydrate-rich foods are healthy options will help you make more informed choices while supporting your overall health.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are the main energy source for the body and the macronutrient your body needs in the highest amounts. They provide your body with glucose (also known as blood sugar) — maintaining glucose levels is important for optimum bodily function and ensuring you have the energy you need on a daily basis. 

Carbohydrates fall into two different categories: complex carbs and simple carbs — both are important in different ways. 

Your carbohydrate intake should focus on complex carbs — typically whole-grain or unprocessed foods — as they keep you fuller for longer, and are generally higher in fibre than simple carbs. Complex carbs also won’t spike your blood sugar in the way simple carbs can.

How much carbohydrate do you need?

Carbs should make up about 45-65% of your calorie intake for the day — most coming from complex carbs. 

Which foods are high in complex carbohydrates?

Complex carbs are present in many foods, including:

  • Fruits and vegetables, such as sweet potatoes or bananas

  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, wholewheat bread, rolled oats

  • Legumes, such as beans, peas and lentils

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Protein

If you’re familiar with macronutrients, you might already know that protein is essential for building muscle. But that’s not the only thing it can do, with protein playing many other important roles to help you thrive.

What is protein?

Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids in total, including nine your body can’t produce itself that must be received from food. 

Protein helps build and repair tissues in the body, and is vital in helping produce important hormones and enzymes that support your immune system.

How much protein do you need?

How much protein you need depends on several factors, including your age, gender and activity level. 

For women over the age of 18, the recommended daily intake is 0.75g of protein per kg (0.3 oz per 2.2 pounds) of body weight. However, if you are very active, you may need 1.2-2 times more. 

The more strength training you do, the more protein you should include in your diet if one of your goals is to build muscle — as a guide, 10-25% of your daily calorie intake should include protein.

What foods are high in protein?

Here are some foods that are high in protein:

  • Meat

  • Eggs

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Legumes

  • Soy products such as tofu

  • Dairy products including cheese, milk and yoghurt

  • Seafood

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Fats

Fats play an integral role in many different functions of the body, allowing you to thrive.

What are fats?

Fats can be categorised into several different types: saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats — a sub-type of unsaturated fats that act like saturated fat. 

How much fat do you need?

Fats should make up 20-35% of your daily calorie intake and ideally, most will come from unsaturated fats, with saturated fats taking up no more than 10%. 

Regularly consuming more than the recommended daily amount of saturated fat can raise bad cholesterol levels in our blood and increases our risk of developing heart disease, while eating unsaturated fats helps the body absorb vitamins and minerals, build important hormones and supports muscle movement. 

It’s important to prioritise unsaturated fats over saturated and trans fats, as too much of the latter can produce unhealthy amounts of cholesterol, and eventually increase the risk of heart disease. 

Which foods are high in fats?

Unsaturated fats are found in:

  • Vegetable oils including flaxseed oil and canola oil

  • Olives and olive oil

  • Avocado and avocado oil

  • Fatty fish like salmon

  • Nuts and seeds, including nut butters

Saturated fats are found in:

  • Meat (particularly red meat)

  • Coconut and coconut-derived products like coconut oil and milk

  • Dairy products

  • Pastries and other sweet snack foods

  • Deep-fried foods

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How to track macronutrients in your food

If you’re following a strength training program, you may be interested in tracking your macronutrient intake to ensure you’re building muscle while still eating enough to fuel your workouts. 

Using the guide mentioned earlier, it is recommended you divide your daily calories into a macronutrient split of fats (20-35%), carbs (45-65%) and proteins (10-25%).

Then, you’ll need to work out how many grams of each macronutrient to eat. Carbs and protein have four calories per gram and fats have nine calories per gram. 

To calculate how many grams of each macro you get for each calorie, divide your total daily calories by the number of calories per gram of each macro.

For example, if you eat 2,000 calories each day and 50% are carbs, multiply 2000 (calories) by 0.5 (% of carbs) to give you 1000. Divide this number by four (the number of calories per gram in carbs), giving you a total of 250g of carbs per day.

If you’re unsure how many calories, or macronutrients, you require for your goals we would highly recommend seeking the advice of your healthcare professional or accredited dietitian, who can provide tailored and suitable advice for you.

Should you track macros?

Tracking macros isn’t essential for developing healthy eating habits or leading a healthy lifestyle, but it can be beneficial for people who are on a vegan diet, have specific fitness goals or other dietary requirements to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need.

The pros of tracking macros

  • May help with weight management 

  • May help muscle growth and endurance

  • You may be able to perform better in the gym and recover faster 

The cons of tracking macros

  • Can be time-consuming

  • Those with a history of disordered eating may find it triggering as it requires a level of tracking that can lead to obsessive behaviours

  • Can have a social impact when eating out with friends or family

Macros vs calories

The key difference between calories and macronutrients is that while calories are a measurement of energy going into the body, macronutrients are the key nutrients that your body needs to survive. 

Macronutrients tell a more detailed story about where these calories come from and what they do in the body once you’ve consumed them. For example, both a handful of almonds and a handful of candy might have the same number of calories — but if you were just counting calories, then both have the same impact or results for your body. 

When measuring the macronutrients each snack includes, you’ll find almonds provide healthy unsaturated fats, protein, and complex carbs, while candy has large amounts of simple carbs. This is where the difference between calories and macronutrients lies.

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Remember: food is fuel

If it’s not a behaviour you find triggering or harmful, tracking your macros might be  a tool that can help you understand how many nutrients you need to support your health and fitness goals – but it shouldn’t be used to restrict the foods your body needs and take away from the joy of eating! 

Understanding macros better is just one way to help develop healthy habits, allowing you to lead a healthy life and support your fitness goals.

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* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.

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