What the Heck is a Macronutrient (and why do they matter)?

Written by Sue Mosebar

what is a macronutrient

Believe it or not, most of us are pretty familiar with macronutrients, whether we realize it or not. So, what is a macronutrient? Macronutrients are defined as nutrients which provide energy, namely fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Technically alcohol (ethanol) is a macronutrient, but that’s a topic for another article.

What is a Macronutrient?

Macronutrients are found in everything you eat, so understanding what a macronutrient is can be quite important to your overall health. That being said, we won’t be focusing on the different types of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins; instead, this article is about identifying how many fats, carbohydrates, and proteins are recommended and why.

From my experience, there are two camps of people: Folks who track macronutrient/calories consumed, and folks who don’t. From what we know about nutrition coaching and behavioral psychology, a majority of folks would prefer to fall into the latter group. That is, most of us would like to be able to consume food without having to worry about counting calories. Because of this, we’ve seen the following take place in the health and fitness community:

  • A shift toward nutrient-based eating, or to put it another way, eating nutrient-dense foods without necessarily focusing on quantity of food(s) consumed. The paleo approach is a good example of this.
  • A similar shift toward portion-controlled eating. For example, rather than have “X” amount of protein grams per meal, consume a fist-sized portion of protein per meal instead.
  • An emergence of exchange system diet programs (e.g., Weight Watchers®).

While most of us don’t think so “technically,” the overarching goal is to consume foods based on hunger expectancy hormones (e.g., ghrelin) and actual hunger cues (e.g., empty/hollow sensation in the gut), and focus on eating whole foods made up of lean proteins, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes—the rest should take care of itself.

Is that how macronutrients work?

Not necessarily. Many of us are better suited to work on the habits that govern these tactics, rather than the tactics themselves. Meaning, if one were to focus on mindfulness and eating slowly, then perhaps one could eat whatever/whenever they feel like rather than worrying about what a macronutrient is and how many grams we’re eating).

Do I need to count calories AND macronutrients?

Again, not necessarily. As mentioned, most of us would prefer not to spend any more time on our diets than we have to. However, having a rough idea about what a macronutrient is and how many macronutrients/calories one should consume is beneficial, and it should help provide a solid foundation for healthful eating habits.

How much should I be eating and why?

Now we’re talking. There are more macronutrient and calorie calculators found on the internet now than ever before, so trying to figure out where to start can be difficult. But hey, that’s what we’re here for.

First, it’s important we have a clear, defined path toward a specific goal. Simply put, what are you trying to accomplish and why? Are you trying to lose body fat; are you looking to gain muscle; or are trying to tackle both at the same time (i.e., body recomposition)? It’s important to distinguish this because most macronutrient recommendations fall somewhere on a continuum. For example, active folks will require more protein and carbohydrates compared to sedentary individuals who require much less. I’m oversimplifying that a bit, but you catch my drift.

Now that we have that out the way, we can get into the nitty-gritty of the calorie and macronutrient guidelines. Let’s get to it.

What are macronutrients? And how do you calculate them?

Since a lot of folks do not know their body composition (i.e., their fat mass relative to their fat-free mass), we’ll simplify this equation a bit. I like Precision Nutrition’s calorie calculator, so I’m going to start with their guidelines.

  • Fat Loss: Body weight x (10 + the amount of hours of intense exercise performed per week)
  • Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: Body weight x (12 + the amount of hours of intense exercise performed per week)

First, start by adding the number in parentheses to the number of hours per week you work out intensely. Then multiply that number by your body weight. Let’s use a 175-pound individual who exercises intensely 2 hours per week (or about 30 minutes 4 times per week) as an example for all three scenarios.

• Fat Loss: 175 x (10+2) = 2,100 calories consumed
• Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: 175 x (12+2) = 2,450 calories consumed

If you are sedentary, or do not perform resistance training/higher-intensity sports/activities, do not add anything to the equation. Simply multiply your body weight by the numbers provided.

And now, let’s take a look at what macronutrients make up those calories…

Protein and Macronutrients

Protein Consumption (4 calories per gram of protein)

A multitude of studies illustrate the importance of consuming ample protein. In fact, a high-protein diet boosts metabolic rate, increases overall satiety, yields greater fat loss, and preserves lean mass in the face of a caloric deficit. Thus, attaining adequate protein is crucial in reaching one’s body composition goals.

Again, because a lot of folks do not know their body composition, we’re going to base protein consumption off of total body weight.

• Fat Loss/Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
• Fat Loss/Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition for the Athlete/Exerciser: 1.0 gram of protein per pound of body weight.

Let’s use the same 175-pound individual again.

• Fat Loss/Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: 0.8 x 175 = 140 grams of protein
• Fat Loss/Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition for the Athlete/Exerciser: 1.0 x 175 = 175 grams of protein

Brown Rice vs White Rice

Carbohydrate Consumption (4 calories per gram of carbohydrate)

Regardless of your goals, carbohydrate intake should match activity levels. Most people will do better by reducing carbohydrate intake, but it doesn’t mean that a low-carb diet is necessary. Rather, a controlled-carbohydrate diet seems to work well.

First, start by adding the number in parentheses to the number of hours per week you work out intensely.

• Fat Loss: 0.8 + 0.1 per hour of intense exercise performed per week x body weight
• Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: 1.0 + 0.1 per hour of intense exercise performed per week x body weight

Let’s use the same 175-pound individual who exercises intensely 2 hours per week as an example.

• Fat Loss: (0.8 + 0.2) = 1 x 175 = 175 grams of carbohydrates
• Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: (1.0 + 0.2) = 1.2 x 175 = 210 grams of carbohydrates

Healthy Fats

Fat Consumption (9 calories per gram of fat)

There’s a lot to discuss when it comes to the types of fats one should be eating, but that’s another topic for another day. If you’re interested in talking shop on polyunsaturated fats (e.g., omega-3 fatty acids), saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, or anything related to fat consumption in general, please let us know in the comment section below.

This part is quite simple because you’re going to calculate your fat grams based on how many calories you have left over. Not to beat a dead horse here, but let’s use the same 175-pound individual as an example.

• Fat Loss: 315 total grams of carbohydrates and proteins = 1260 calories
• Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: 385 total grams of carbohydrates and proteins = 1540 calories

Now let’s subtract these totals from the total calories allotted (see above) and divide them by 9, giving us the total fat grams.

• Fat Loss: 2100 – 1260 = 840/9 = 93 grams of fat
• Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: 2450 – 1540 = 910/9 = 101 grams of fat

What is a Macronutrient? A wrap Up

Counting calories and understanding what is a macronutrient isn’t for everyone, and depending on your diet plan, these numbers could change drastically. Yet having a general sense of your calorie/macronutrient intake can be useful. These calculations are not set in concrete, but they can provide a solid baseline to work from. Like any successful plan, you’ll want to be measuring and assessing your progress on a weekly/biweekly basis. Thus, these numbers are subject to change, especially if your progress isn’t reflective of your goals or if these macros don’t fit in with the diet that best fits your lifestyle. But at the end of the day, I do hope this helps with your understanding of counting calories and what a macronutrient is.

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