December 22·8 min read

Macronutrients 101: How to make your meals count

Build the right diet with the building blocks your body needs.

What does it take to lose weight? There’s no universal consensus or 100% foolproof plan, but any competent personal trainer can tell you that shedding pounds sustainably isn’t about spending endless hours on a treadmill to nowhere. In fact, exercise itself is only part of the solution. Why? Because no matter how much you show up at the gym and how hard you’re pushing it, you can’t out-train a bad diet. 

So how do you follow a healthy approach to nutrition that facilitates weight loss? It isn’t about social media’s newest favorite fad diet, fasting, or going on a juice cleanse. None of those approaches are really sustainable — let alone enjoyable. However, finding your way to eating right starts with figuring out the right combination of macronutrients (aka macros) for you and your goals. 

Macro 101 is now in session. Today, we’ll cover the basics of what macronutrients do, why they’re important, and how you can start to plan your meals with them in mind. Once you’ve learned about these dietary building blocks, you’ll have the knowledge you need to eat healthier on your own terms.

A macro-level look at macros

If you remember the difference between macro and microeconomics from your freshman year of college, you can start to understand what the “macro” label means with respect to nutrition. While there are all sorts of vitamin and mineral “micronutrients” you’ll find in the foods you eat or the supplements you take, macronutrients are the three broader categories of nutrients that your body needs in the greatest quantity. They are: protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

While each serves a unique purpose, all three play a role in a balanced diet. You may already have a general sense of the foods that are associated with a given macro (i.e. meat = protein). But it’s certainly not the case that every food is limited to one macro category, and a balanced meal will usually contain a certain serving of all three. 

What’s the relationship between macros and calories?

While macros have calories, the two are not the same thing. However, macros help you get an understanding of what your calories are made of. Essentially, every gram of macronutrients is correlated with a certain number of calories. Here’s how that breaks down across the three categories: 

  • One gram of protein = four calories 

  • One gram of carbohydrates = four calories 

  • One gram of fat = nine calories 

No matter your goal, it is important to understand the roles different macros will play in your day to day nutrition. If you’re trying to lose weight through diet and exercise, understanding how to count macros or identify where certain foods are categorized can help you determine how to create a caloric deficit, which doesn’t only happen while you’re exercising. At the same time, having this knowledge of your macros makes it easier to confirm that you are providing your body what it needs for muscle repair, energy, and other key functions.

How to count your macros

Balancing your macro equation comes down to knowing two things: how much you’re eating, and the macronutrient content of a given serving. Start by getting a basic food scale, ideally one that can measure various units. Then, it’s mostly a matter of weighing what you want to eat, and cross-referencing your serving with each food’s nutrition labels. You’ll see the grams of fat, carbs, and protein right on most labels, and the macro info for non-packaged foods can be found online. If you’re working with a personal trainer, there’s a good chance they’ll have a go-to source you can both use to track macros. This doesn’t mean that you will be weighing your food forever, that would be both unrealistic and unenjoyable. This is just an opportunity to educate yourself on portion sizes and truly understand how much you are consuming.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at each of the three major macros, plus one “bonus” category. By understanding each macro’s value, as well as some important distinctions within each category, you can start to understand the ins and outs of fueling up the right way. 

Protein: the building blocks of a healthy body

If you’ve spent any time in a gym before, you’re probably familiar with protein’s importance. That’s because this macro is associated with building and maintaining healthy muscle mass. But these various combinations of amino acids do a whole lot more, giving you your body the building blocks needed for everything from strong bones to healthy skin and even lush hair. 

While there are more than 20 amino acids that go into forming protein, nine are considered particularly essential, and food is how you’ll get them. That’s why you’ll hear “protein” used as a shorthand for the meaty main course of a meal. Consuming the right amount of protein not only gives your body what it needs to repair muscles after a workout, but it can help you feel satiated for longer as well. 

Efficient sources of protein

Meat is loaded with protein. Opting for lean poultry (turkey or chicken) can deliver that protein most effectively, and fish is also a great source if you’re trying to limit your intake of red meat. But you don’t need to be a voracious carnivore to get protein. Vegetarians and even vegans can get plenty of proteins thanks to dairy, legumes, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Chickpeas, almonds, quinoa, and tofu can check all the right boxes. And yes, protein shakes can help you hit your macro target. But unless you’ve just had some wisdom teeth removed, it’s important to do your best to get protein from real, whole foods on a consistent basis and only supplement when needed. 

Carbohydrates: keep it complex

If you remember the Atkins diet of the aughts or you’ve followed along with today’s keto craze, you might assume that carbs are just crap your body doesn’t need — especially if your aim is to lose weight. The truth is, to put it simply, it’s a lot more complex than that and cutting out whole food groups is rarely the answer. 

The thing about carbs is that not all of them are created equal. They can be broken up into two categories, roughly defined by how much time and effort it takes your body to digest them: simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs can include natural sugars that you’d find in fruit, but they’re also often associated with junk foods like doughnuts, chips, candy, and soda. Simply put: if you wouldn’t find it in nature and it has a strongly sweet or salty taste, there’s a good chance that simple carbohydrates are involved. 

Complex carbohydrates are where carb-avoidant diets miss out on the good stuff. Their value comes from the fact that they take longer for your body to digest, which spreads out the release of glucose into your bloodstream over a longer period of time. Whereas simple carbs can spike your glucose and leave you feeling a crash not long thereafter, complex carbs provide a more sustainable source of energy. Subsequently a diet containing complex carbs also gets you more fiber, and can keep you feeling fuller for longer. That alone can make these unsung heroes an important dietary ally for anyone looking to lose weight. 

Efficient sources of (complex) carbohydrates

When it comes to good carb sources, seek out starch. Sweet potatoes, brown rice, and anything whole grain are all great examples. Certain fruits and vegetables also fit the bill, like broccoli, bananas, carrots, strawberries, and leafy greens like spinach. The benefits of chickpeas, soybeans, and other legumes aren’t limited to the realm of protein, as they also serve as a good source of the complex carbs your body needs to prepare for peak performance. 

Fat: friend, not foe

Fat is a bit more frowned upon than it should be. Yes, a gram of fat does translate to more than twice the calories of the same amount of protein or carbs. But once you realize all of the things fat can do, you’ll understand why that tradeoff is more than worth it. Fats are a key component in maintaining balanced hormone, important brain functions as well as the absorption of key vitamins and minerals. Needless to say, we need fat in our diet.  

Just like carbs, not every type of fat is created equal. You may already know about trans fats (aka trans-fatty acids), which can be found in things like chips, cookies, pastries, or fried foods, and provide little to no nutritional value. Seeing hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) oil listed as an ingredient is a good warning sign to limit these food items. When you’re looking for healthy forms of dietary fat, it’s important to incorporate a wide variety of fats. If you hone in on mono or polyunsaturated fat, in foods like nuts, avocados, and whole eggs you will be setting yourself up for success. However, getting some saturated fat in your diet from foods like coconut oil, dairy, and thicker cut animal meat will also help you with fulfilling your needs.  

Alcohol: the fourth macro? 

Depending on who you ask, alcohol can be considered the fourth macro. The only difference is that it doesn’t provide any nutritional value. What’s worth knowing is that alcohol features seven calories per gram. And while booze won’t provide the benefits of fat and carbs, they would count towards your macros in those categories for a given day. So don’t feel that you have to go completely dry to hit your weight loss goals, but do keep in mind that you should factor in any alcoholic beverages you are consuming into your nutritional planning.

It’s really a matter of personal preference, but some drinks will be lower in calories than others. For example, think about replacing your regular flavored soda mixer with tonic or plain soda water, or opt for a light beer or hard seltzer instead of that heavy craft brew. But don’t force down something you won’t enjoy just for the sake of it. The main thing is to just remember that alcohol does count towards your daily intake — one more reason to space out your drinking with proper hydration.

So, what is the perfect macro ratio for you? 

That’s the billion dollar question. While weight loss is about creating a caloric deficit, balancing the macro equation is going to be a little bit different for everyone. Not only will honing in on the right macro profile depend on your goals, it’s also determined by your body’s unique nutritional needs. 

The solution? Trial and error. Since we need to eat every day, there are plenty of opportunities to experiment with macro ratios and gather data quickly. In general, a diet that emphasizes higher protein while incorporating a variety of complex carbs and fats is a good starting point. 

So take another look at some of the foods mentioned above, and make a note of the ones you already like. Record the macros of what you’re eating for a few days, and monitor how those foods make you feel. If you’re feeling good and performing well in your workouts, you’re on the right track. If not, no worries! Just keep mixing it up mindfully, and you’ll find yourself moving in the right direction soon enough. 

Of course, working with a Future coach can provide an easier way to match your macros to your weight loss goals. With Future, you can connect to personal training that pairs a customized fitness plan with personalized nutritional advice that can create the consistent, healthy habits that help you thrive. And because your time with your Future coach isn’t limited to a one-hour session a week, they’ll be standing by whenever you want to check in to answer your nutrition questions you might have.

Ready to ditch the fad diets for a more flexible approach to eating and exercise that gets results? Get going with a great deal on your first month of personal training with Future here

If you’re looking for even more advice on mobility and exercise, teaming up with a Future coach is definitely the right move. Whether you want to break records or just bounce back from a nagging injury, they’ll help you move with purpose and without pain. Future coaches are all about truly personal training, which starts with understanding your body, your goals, and your schedule, so they can create a customized, flexible workout plan that fits who you are and what you want to do. On top of that, they’re always just a message away to offer the accountability and motivation that moves you out of your comfort zone and stretches your notion of what your body and mind can handle.

Ready for personal training that moves you with purpose? Give your budget some extra flexibility when you save big on your first month of training with Future. Sign up here and start moving toward what matters to you.

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