THE MACRONUTRIENT OBSESSION
By Jamie Foster
Everybody is hash-tagging about them. Everybody is posting pictures about them. Everybody seems to be obsessed with them: macronutrients. But what are they? Why are they important? And, why do we care so much about them?
First off, lets discuss what macronutrients are. Macronutrients are nutrients required in large amounts in the body that are responsible for physiological functions such as metabolism, energy and growth. The three primary macronutrients (and the ones we commonly count) are protein, carbohydrates and fat. Each of these provide energy in the form of calories. There are 4 calories per gram of protein, 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, and 9 calories per gram of fat.
Why are each of these macronutrients important?
Protein: This macronutrient is obviously necessary for building muscle, but it has more than just one purpose. The body breaks it down into amino acids, which are utilized for many body functions. It serves as digestive enzymes, provides elasticity for connective tissue, promotes endocrine function and the cardiovascular system, provides amino acids for neurotransmitters in your nervous system as well as support oxygen-based energy production inside our cells. Most bodybuilders (if not all) consume the largest ratio of protein to any other macronutrient.
“Most bodybuilders, with regard to counting macronutrients, consume only complex carbs due to their many health benefits and ability to not cause severe fluctuations in blood sugar.”
Carbohydrates: The body uses this macronutrient as its main energy source because it is easily metabolized. Basically, the body’s digestive system breaks down and changes carbohydrates into glucose which is then converted to energy. Carbohydrates also help to synthesize certain amino acids and is absolutely necessary for the brain, heart, muscles and kidneys to function properly. Carbohydrates come in the form of complex carbs like sweet potatoes and brown rice, to simple sugars such as grapes and fruit juice. Most bodybuilders, with regard to counting macronutrients, consume only complex carbs due to their many health benefits and ability to not cause severe fluctuations in blood sugar.
Fats: This macronutrient is exceedingly important and should not be cut out of any diet. However, not all fats are created equal! Fats provide energy, maintain cellular membranes, cushion organs and assist with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, K and carotenoids. Most competitors limit their amounts of saturated fats and trans fats while focusing on consuming “healthier” dietary fats such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and Omega 3 fatty acids. These healthier fats can be found in foods such as nuts, avocados and fish. Fats are used in the body to support hormone and immune function among others and Omega 3’s (DHA and EPA) are necessary for proper brain development.
How and why do people “count” them?
Most competitors will weigh and log the type, quantity or weight of each of these macronutrients in an effort to follow a strict diet and specific ratio. Although there are different methods for counting macronutrients, the following is the most common.
For example, a medium size banana has approximately 23 grams of carbs, 1 gram of protein and (for the sake of math simplicity although it has 0.3 grams fat), we will say 0 grams fat. Because there are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, we multiply 4 by 23 and get 92 calories. Add that to the protein calories (1 x (4 cal/gram)) and we end up with a total of 96 calories for the banana.
“Fiber, sugar alcohols and rounding numbers impacts your math slightly but does not impact the main focus, which is to count macronutrients.”
If you are consuming a 2,000 calorie diet with a 40/30/30 ratio (protein/carbohydrates/fat) your goal is to obtain approximately 200g protein, 150g carbs and 67g fat.
Now do this with all of your food, including condiments, for 6 meals a day for 12 weeks in the proper ratios and you have yourself a competitors diet. The calculated calories though don’t always add up to what you see on the label. Fiber, sugar alcohols and rounding numbers impacts your math slightly but does not impact the main focus, which is to count macronutrients.
What is the proper ratio?
Each body is different, but what works best for me is a 40/30/30 (protein, carbohydrates, fat). Keep in mind that it’s up to your trainer, dietician or MD to determine what’s right for you.
“You can see how easy it is to be consumed with diet when you are constantly counting every single gram and calorie you put into your body. Is this healthy or does counting macronutrients contribute to food obsession?”
You can see how easy it is to be consumed with diet when you are constantly counting every single gram and calorie you put into your body. Is this healthy or does counting macronutrients contribute to food obsession?
I know many people that spend hours cooking and weighing and counting in an attempt to organize their diet when in contest prep. I would say that I keep an eye on my macros, but I don’t obsess over them. I don’t do it to limit my food, I do it to make sure I am getting enough. I surprise myself when I look at a piece of chicken and think it “looks” like about 5 oz., then to only find out when I weigh it, it’s only 4! That may not seem like a big deal, but if I make that mistake 6 times a day, I’d be missing out on almost 30 grams of protein. That is a considerable amount for my frame, when I am trying to build muscle.
Two lovely natural athletes and figure competitors, Tracy Falkenthal and Victoria Feil, share similar views about counting macronutrients, yet each with her own variation to building and maintaining lean muscle mass. Tracy Falkenthal, a successful masters figure competitor, is very strict with her diet and counts every single ingredient. Her approach is a 40/30/30 ratio with a main focus on consistency and simplicity. Tracy’s physique tends to be “carb sensitive” so she consumes only complex carbs and has a protein source with every meal. Her diet consists of only natural, unprocessed ingredients which makes her feel, as well as look amazing.
Victoria Feil focuses on a 45/30/25 ratio with intermittent carb cycling, and increases her carbohydrates and calories when she requires additional assistance with muscle recovery. She trains daily and feels that her ratio of macronutrients along with her intensity of training contribute to adding muscle and curves to her beautiful physique. Both diets are great examples of how counting macronutrients in either a strict or flexible fashion can work efficiently, depending on the individual physique and its specific needs.
“Experimenting with various amounts and ratios of macronutrients is truly the only way to figure out what works best for you!”
Most bodybuilders, fitness, figure and bikini competitors count macronutrients for a reason. It is important to have an idea of the quantity and amount of critical macronutrients you are consuming if you intend to build muscle and maximize your fat loss. Regardless of if you need assistance with portion and calorie control or just to determine if you are consuming enough calories to build, try keeping track of your diet. You don’t have to go overboard, but it is a great tool to keep you organized. Not every diet works with every body. Experimenting with various amounts and ratios of macronutrients is truly the only way to figure out what works best for you! GAINZ
Jamie Foster | Contributing Editor
Jamie has been involved in the fitness industry for nearly 20 years and is accredited in Sports Nutrition and Personal Training. She is a Pro bikini and Pro Sportsmodel Competitor as well as a World Cup Champion. She has a passion for self improvement and progress, and her future goals include competing in the IPL (International Physique League) and continuing to motivate others to live healthy lifestyles and strive for fitness success. Jamie is a Fire Captain and a Paramedic, has a four year old daughter and enjoys spending time with her family, boxer dogs and horses.