Cover photo by Blair Speed
I don’t remember when the word “macros” began creeping into my awareness, but now it’s an everyday word in my household. That’s partly because my husband and I are both experimenting with our diets for athletic performance. With the beginning of fall climbing season, I’m stoked on honing my body for days spent on rock and recovering in-between.
Food is a large source of pleasure, comfort, and creative expression in my life. I’ve been weary in the past of overcomplicating my relationship to food, especially since being a Celiac already limits my diet. When my husband first decided to calculate the percent of fat, protein, and carbohydrates (aka macros) in his daily diet, I frankly thought it was stupid and annoying.
I would roll my eyes and make my meal separate. Food shouldn’t be a math equation, I’d say.
He persisted with his tracking despite my overt irritation. Eventually I tolerated the scale on our kitchen counter. I eyed it with suspicion, but I no longer dreamed of taking it out back and having some fun with a hammer.
Overtime the tolerance morphed into curiosity. Maybe there was something to this idea of refining food choices for a body’s particular needs.
I decided to also keep track of my macros for a month as a learning experience. I’m three weeks in. To follow is a summary of what I’ve learned about macros, how refining my diet has affected my body, and a contrast and comparison of the two apps I’ve used thus far.
As stated above, macros include protein, carbohydrates, and fat. I’ve been using the Avatar Nutrition app, which simplifies the food journal into a focus on totaling your macros with a goal for each one depending on the program you’re on. I chose the “lean muscle” option, with protein being the focus.
Since tracking my food I’ve learned a ton about how much protein, carbs, and fat is in my staple food choices. For this reason alone I feel like using a food app, even just for a week or two, is hugely beneficial to anyone. It’s empowering to learn the nutritional content of regular meals and how adding more protein or fat may help the body recover faster from physical activity.
Macros are often talked about in percentages in articles I’ve read about nutrition for athletes. I often come across the recommendation of 55-65 percent of caloric consumption to be carbohydrates, 15-25 percent protein, and the rest fat.
I had NO IDEA what this meant in theory, much less practice. Since tracking my macros, I’ve learned how percentages are calculated based on grams. From there I’ve learned how to meet my macro goals through food.
Here’s the breakdown: carbohydrates and proteins contain about four calories per gram, while fat has nine calories per gram. Depending on your fitness and health goals, you can figure out the percentage of each macro based on the number of calories you’re aiming to eat a day.
(If you’re rolling your eyes, stick with me here. I, too, felt annoyed with breaking down food into numbers. But once I got over the initial pushback, and actually committed to learning more about what my body needs, I’ve been making food choices that have truly left me nourished and feeling pretty f’in awesome in my body.)
I’ll use my diet as an example. Given my height, weight, and average physical exertion, I eat around 2,200 calories a day. The recommended amount of protein for an athlete is 1.5 to two grams of per kilograms of weight. I weigh 63 kilograms. Since I’m going for muscle, I aim for the larger amount of protein per day, coming to about 130 grams. One-hundred and thirty times four comes to 520 calories a day, or about 25 percent of my caloric consumption.
So I’ve got protein figured out. From there I tried the recommended amount of carbohydrates for athletes, about 60 percent. This came to 330 grams of carbs, (sixty percent of 2,200 times four). This left me with only 40 grams of fat a day.
If you eat nuts, olive oil, or avocados, then those 40 grams will add up real quick-like. Fat-free diets were a trend of the 80’s and 90’s. Now we know how vital fat is for energy, brain power, and overall vibrancy. So f 40 grams.
After tracking my food for a few days, I’ve settled into about 110 grams of fat a day, which equals 900 calories, or about 45 percent of my diet. Forty grams versus 45 percent—the latter feels way better for my body.
To figure out what kind of percentages of macros will work for your body, using an app is the best way I’ve found to first familiarize myself with the concept of macros and how a certain percentage of macros make my body feel. A carb-heavy diet doesn’t work well for me, but I wouldn’t do well with the ketogentic diet either, where carbs are limited to five percent of caloric consumption. A middle ground has proven best.
For athletes, figuring out the goal total of protein a day is a good place to start, with maybe 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight being a launching point.
For a 125 pound female athlete, this would be about 85 grams of protein a day. If she were to eat 1,800 calories a day, the percent of protein would be about 15 percent (85 times 4, divided by 1,800). From there I found it best to start with the recommended amount of carbohydrates, (about 60 percent, or 270 grams), keep a diary on how eating that many carbs versus fat felt, and modify as needed, increasing fat until the ideal macro percentage is discovered.
This will fluctuate, of course, especially for female athletes where hormonal changes demand a fluidity in food choices. For some people this approach to food will feel like too much. I totally respect and understand this sentiment. The use of an app is ultimately a short-term tool in my relationship to food, one I can return to when I feel like I need a little guidance in making sure I’m getting enough of what my body needs.
In the last three weeks I’ve witnessed some positive changes. My recovery has improved substantially. I’m intentional with when I eat and what. Before, when I was hungry, I’d eat some chips or a handful of nuts. With protein being the focus now, I aim for 20-30 grams every three hours, and thus skip the chips and go for some sliced turkey or an Epic bar.
Overall I’d say I’m consuming higher-quality foods, largely because my basic understanding of the nutritional content of food has increased through my use of two apps. I’ve so far tried My Fitness Pal and Avatar Nutrition.
My Fitness Pal is free and adds up your macros and well as “micro” nutrients, like calcium and magnesium. You can scan barcodes and it will bring up the product’s nutritional quality from its database. You can also search and find nearly any food item. It has the option to add exercise, which will adjust your calorie “allowance” based on your expenditure. You can pay extra to look at total macros per meal.
Avatar Nutrition also offers a robust database and scan option. It costs $10 a month and focuses on macros rather than calories. When you sign up, you can choose fat loss, muscle gain, “reverse dieting,” and maintenance settings. The program then creates target macro amounts based on your goal and body composition. You can choose “high” expenditure days and “low” ones, and the app will adjust your totals to reflect those variations.
Overall I think My Fitness Pal is the better option of the two. Avatar makes things simple, but I like how My Fitness Pal organizes food by meals. Avatar just puts it all into one running column. This makes it harder to get a log of how individual meals affected energy levels and overall wellbeing.
Seeing micro-nutrients is useful as well, especially if the app reveals you’re not getting enough iron or calcium in whole foods alone. This information is useful in choosing which supplements may be necessary, and which supplements are only money down the toilet.
Either way, as I wrote earlier, apps are a great tool for short-term education. Some people love the data and guidance and continue tracking macros for months, while others find it maddening and drop it within days. I’m committing to a month of cataloguing and going from there.
Food will always be pleasure, comfort, and creative expression. Adding intentional nutrition to the list has thus far helped me feel stronger and healthier in my life and climbing. I recommend learning what percentage of macros work best for your body. It’s a tedious process to begin, but the knowledge can be empowering.
Bullet Points of What I’ve Learned:
- Protein and carbs have four calories per gram
- Fat has nine calories per gram
- Nutritionists recommend 1.5-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for athletes
- They also recommend 55-65% of calories to be carbohydrates
- Healthy fats add up fast; a higher percentage of fat and lower percentage of carbs than what is recommended may be better for your body
- Nutrition apps help familiarize you with the nutritional content of food and how macros add up across the meals
- My Fitness Pal offers more information than Avatar Nutrition, while Avatar keeps things simple and offers target macro-goals