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Counting Macros: What Are They, and Why Should I Care?

lap with bowl of fruit and nuts
By balancing the ratio of fats, carbs and proteins you eat, you may be able to improve your health.

by Mary Lambkin

Reps and sets aren't the only things gym-goers are counting these days. You may have heard some of your workout buddies discuss "counting macros." Say what?

If you're feeling confused by all the talk about macros, let us condense the phenomenon into a few simple statements. First of all, the term "macros" is an abbreviation for the far less sexy-sounding "macronutrients." Macronutrients consist of the basic food groups that give you energy: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. When you go to the gym and start working up a sweat, these macronutrients help your body find the strength and endurance it needs to push through each mile or repetition.

What Do Macros Do, Exactly?

"Each macro plays its own role," explains Women's Health magazine. Carbs are digested and stored to help fuel your workouts. Proteins help build muscle and transport oxygen through the body, and fat "makes up cell membranes, promotes nerve and brain health, and increases the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K." The source also notes that fat takes time to digest, which helps stabilize blood sugar levels and keep cravings at bay.

What Macros Don't Tell You

Macros aren't as straightforward as they may seem. Each macro has variants to consider and counting macros alone doesn't take these variations into consideration. There are simple and complex carbs, several different types of fat, and complete and incomplete proteins. The way in which your body responds to each of these food sources is different.

Simple carbohydrates (candy, white bread, white rice, etc.) will quickly release large amounts of added sugar into your bloodstream. This may provide you with a "sugar high" that gives you a burst of energy, but it might also contribute to a short-term crash and a number of long-term health complications. According to the FDA, added sugars "tend to be high in calories and provide few or no important nutrients or dietary fiber." Whereas, complex carbs, like brown rice or potatoes, will provide you with the energy you need — sans the sugar crash.

Saturated fat and trans fat have been "identified as potentially harmful to your heart" explains Healthline. These fats can be found in fried foods, shortening, and some processed snack foods. Healthy fats (monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat) are better for your heart and can be found in fatty fishes like salmon or trout, as well as avocado and some nuts.

"Complete proteins are those that have all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot naturally make, whereas incomplete protein sources may have a few of the nine, but not all of them," Isabel Smith, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., tells SELF magazine. Complete proteins include beef, chicken, fish, turkey, pork, soy, quinoa, seitan, buckwheat, and dairy. Incomplete proteins include nuts, seeds, rice, beans, and grains.

Many of the health differences in macros are fairly common sense — it's easy to understand why broccoli is healthier than brownies. For the nitty-gritty details on how macros differ from each other, you can dive into the FDA's full report. It's a real page-turner!

What Does "Counting Macros" Mean?

Because different macronutrients are associated with different health and fitness outcomes, many gym-goers have started paying extra attention to their diets by calculating the amount of macronutrients in everything they eat. By counting macros, they're able to measure their progress toward consuming the right balance of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates every day.

As noted by a study published in the Annual Review of Nutrition, what constitutes an "optimal balance" of fats, proteins, and carbs is still up for debate. However, recent recommendations from health and nutrition experts suggest reducing intake of added sugars and simple carbohydrates (such as soda and white bread) in favor of natural sugars and complex carbohydrates (such as whole fruits and wheat bread) as well as healthy fats and lean proteins.

To put it simply, the goal of counting macros is to optimize your diet and fitness results by getting the right ratio of macros.

How Can I Count Macros?

If you want to get in on the macro trend and begin counting yourself, it's easy to get started. First, you need to define your ultimate goal (such as increased strength or heightened energy) and consider meeting with a dietitian to clearly pinpoint the right "balance" of macros that your specific body needs. The macro diet is highly individualized, which is why you might hear people say they'll only eat something "if it fits" their macros.

Once you have your goal macro counts defined, start counting with an app or online tool to quickly log and analyze your macronutrient intake. You can also go old school and manually count up the grams of proteins, fats, and carbs you consume every day. Then calculate the ratios of those grams to get a clearer picture of your macro balance.

In addition to logging your meals and keeping track of your macros, try jotting down a few notes about how the foods made you feel and what your workout was like each day. Over time, you should be able to identify trends and make changes to your diet to help ensure you're reaching your health goals.

Why Should I Care About Macros?

Good question. Counting macros is just one tool that can be used to help you stay within your calorie goals and make sure you're getting the nutrients your body needs to perform well. But it doesn't necessarily provide you with the full picture. For example, you could meet your macro count by eating nothing but fast food and soda. Just because you're meeting your ratio, doesn't mean you're necessarily making the healthiest choices.

Also, remember that for most of us, there's a range — not just one set number — that can be considered healthy. So, you may choose to count macros, follow the food pyramid, or do whatever it is you're doing now, but ultimately you should choose what works for you. As long as you're taking steps toward your goals, you're heading in the right direction.