By Zach Columbia B.S. NASM. FPT
Tracking macro nutrients has become the new norm in the health and fitness industry. Everyone from your Registered Dietician to your Instagram Trainer is promoting Macro Meal Plans. For a few hundred dollars, someone will ask you a few questions about yourself and then determine how many grams of each macro category you should eat in a day based on your health and fitness goals. All you have to do is follow the plan that they give you and bam, incredible results, right? Wrong!
Tracking macros used to be something only bodybuilders and physique competitors did. As personal training, bodybuilding, and apps like my fitness pal and Instagram have become more and more popular, so has the practice of macro-based nutrition. Now, anyone interested in fitness is familiar with macros.
If you do a simple internet search about macro nutrients, you’ll undoubtedly come across the macro nutrient calculator. It will ask you something like: Gender, Age, Weight, Height, Activity Level, and Goals (i.e. lose weight, gain muscle, maintain). When you enter all that information, magically out pops your total caloric needs and a breakdown of how many grams of protein, carbs, and fats, you should eat respectively. Now you have the freedom to eat whatever you want, as long as your grams and percentages match up. Odd’s are, if you’ve paid an Instagram trainer for a meal plan, they collected your information, then went to the same website you could have searched for yourself, got the macro numbers, emailed them to you, and then charged you a hundred bucks. Outside of the fact that you wasted your money, there’s a lot wrong with this approach.
So what steps should you follow to get a solid macro plan? Here are my three rules to macro planning.
Rule #1 Get an accurate macro nutrient plan based off metabolic testing.
Rule #2 The quality of the macro nutrients is equally as important as the amount.
Rule #3 You have to Micro your Macros
First off, macro nutrient needs are incredibly difficult to calculate. If you want to get more than just a ballpark, metabolic tests requiring special equipment is necessary. Your VO2 Max, resting metabolic rate, and hormones all determine your macro nutrient needs. A simple internet calculator is not going to cut it, and neither is the online trainer asking you a few questions about your perceived activity level. If you get in the ballpark, you’ll definitely see some initial results, but investing in an accurate plan that is specific to you is going to be much more effective.
Second, a calorie is not a calorie. Your body does not digest and process 1 gram of carbs from bread the same way it digests 1 gram of carbs from broccoli. A plan that tells you to eat 200 grams of carbs and 120 grams of protein and 30 grams of fat a day is not much to go off of. The quality of food you eat is actually way more important than the amount. A macro plan, without healthy menu options will leave you lost.
Third, you have to Micro your Macros! Let’s say you get metabolic testing done and you have a pretty accurate TDEE. TDEE stands for Total Daily Energy Expenditure and is the number of calories you are expected to burn in a day based off your Basal Metabolic Rate and activity level. To make things simple, we’ll assume that it’s determined you need 2000 calories a day to maintain your weight. Your nutrition coach decides to give you a macro plan that is made up of 50% carbs, 35% protein and 15% fat. That means you need 285 grams of carbs, 200 grams of protein, and 33 grams of fat. (Note: this is just example, don’t eat that!) And let’s say your nutrition coach isn’t half bad and they even give you a list of healthy foods to eat and categorize them by macros. Perfect! Well not perfect, here’s why…
How do you determine when to eat those 285 grams of carbs? Do you eat five meals a day and divide them equally. What happens if you eat breakfast and skip lunch, or miss a snack? At the end of the day are you looking at my fitness pal and wondering how you’re going to consumer 120 grams of carbs with dinner? Should you really eat that many carbs, when you’re going to sit on the couch for 2 hours and then go to bed? Does the type of carb matter? I mean there are 6 grams of carbs in a cup of broccoli vs. 45grams in a cup of brown rice. How are you going to cram down 20 cups of broccoli to hit your daily carbs if you shouldn’t eat a grain when you’re body doesn’t need it? What about the time of day you workout? Should two people who have the exact same TDEE but work out at different times of the day eat the same amount at the same times? Obviously, when answering these questions, you realize it’s not as simple as just having the numbers.
Why are we looking at a 24hour period anyway? There are simply too many variables when it comes to TDEE. That’s why you have to Micro your Macros. When I develop a macro-based meal plan for someone, I start with their Basal Metabolic Rate. Then, I have them wear a heart rate monitor that tracks their calories. Now, I have a general idea of how many calories they’re burning in a day, but more importantly, the heart rate monitor tracks their effort, so I can see what time of day they’re working the hardest and burning the most. Now I know when they need to most fuel, and when they need specific nutrients for recovery. Once I have this information, along with their goals, I can create a completely custom and specific Micro-Based Macro Meal Plan that determines how many grams of carbs, protein, fat they should be eating at each point in the day.
In other words, timing is everything when it comes to the effectiveness of your macro plan. Always Micro your Macros!