You took the first step and joined a gym. Your workouts are going great and you’re losing weight, your muscles are starting to tone up, and you’re feeling like a million bucks. But now you want to get to that next stage in your fitness journey. You know that your diet needs an overhaul (perhaps a radical one), and you keep hearing this “macro” buzzword floating around. But what is it? What does it mean? And how in the heck do I mind it?
When you hear macros, you probably think of a tan meat-head in a tiny tank top, flexing his muscles and promoting protein products. Pretty accurate? Well erase that from your mind! Yes, those guys do exist but macros are not just for body builders. Anyone who is looking to increase their lean muscle mass should be paying attention to the food they put into their body.
Macros refer to macronutrients, which are the molecules that our bodies need to create energy. Energy is good! It’s what powers us through out workouts and what helps us to build muscle mass. It’s also what powers my arm to lift the wine glass to my lips each evening after a stressful day. Sadly however, alcohol is not a macronutrient, and unfortunately not all macronutrients are created equal. The proportion of each that you eat each day does matter (if it didn’t, believe me, I would be swapping my morning protein bars for donuts. Every. Single. Day).
Exercise and clean eating are the two (and ONLY two) surefire ways to help you achieve the body you want. If you aren’t already, start by monitoring your caloric intake. If you have a number that is working for you, keep it! You can tweak your macronutrients to fit your current diet. If you are not yet tracking your daily caloric intake, you will need to figure out how many calories you need to eat each day to achieve your desired results. With some light math required, this site will do the trick.
Now onto the fun part… macro tracking! Learn to love these three nutrients, which are essential to building a strong and healthy body.
When trying to build muscle mass, you need to take in the proper nutrients to fuel this growth. You may be thinking; isn’t a calorie, a calorie? Well… it's a little more complicated than that. Think of it this way: 100 calories of a chocolate glazed donut is very different than 100 calories of lean chicken breast. One is filled with sugar and carbs, while the other is rich in protein. So while 100 calories is still 100 calories, the make-up of the calories is completely different and that's what ultimately matters.
So what macro ratios are best for you? I know this answer will be frustrating, but there really is no one-size fits all guideline. Depending on your gender, age, body type, and fitness goals, macros will vary from person to person. Use the guide to the right as a starting point, but remember to be flexible with this in the beginning as you find what’s best for you.
Most people will vary their macro ratios throughout the year. For example, some women try to put on additional muscle mass in the winter, and thus increase their carb intake. Consequently, this means trying to lean out in the summer by decreasing carbs and increasing protein. And as is true with ALL things in life, moderation is key. A cheat day here and there will not harm your fitness journey, and may actually help (complete deprivation rarely gets people anywhere). Be sure to balance these ratios with caloric intake. This calculator will help you determine the grams of each that you need per day, based on your chosen ratio.
To understand these macronutrients a little better, here’s a breakdown of each:
You need protein to grow muscle. If you are working on gaining lean muscle mass, anywhere from 0.8 grams – 1.2 grams per body weight (i.e. a 120 pound person should eat 96 grams to 144 grams). Those who are new to adding additional protein to their diet will want to start at the lower end and work their way up. Your body can only digest so much protein at a time; excess will leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable. Keep this in mind and eat smaller increments of protein, spaced throughout the day.
Eating 100 grams of protein a day can be difficult for some. You may find that investing in whey protein powder and making your own shakes, smoothies, and protein recipes is helpful in hitting your goals. Otherwise, be sure to eat protein rich foods at every meal. Again, I am no cook, so I will direct you to Pinterest. Type in “protein recipes” and find everything you could possibly imagine. And remember to snack every three hours or so to keep your metabolism going strong and to keep yourself from getting overly hungry.
“Abs are made in the kitchen.” Are you familiar with this common saying? While food is not solely responsible for washboard abs, there is a lot of truth to the statement. No matter how amazing your six-(or four, or two) pack is, if it’s buried under a layer of fat, no one will ever see it. Cutting out the junk in your diet clears the way for healthy fats and healthy abs. Good fats, such as omega-3s, play a role in helping you manage your moods, maintaining a better mental state, controlling your weight, and fighting fatigue. And do not strive for unrealistic expectations. Just because your favorite female triathlete has rock solid abs doesn't mean they are ideal for everybody.
To increase your healthy fat intake, try adding these foods to your diet: avocados, olives, nuts, natural peanut butter, and fatty fish (like salmon and tuna).
Who doesn’t love carbs? Pasta, and French fries and cinnamon rolls, oh my! Wouldn’t we all love a diet composed mainly of carbs? No! Because our jeans wouldn’t fit! Like fats, carbs come in good and bad forms. As a general rule, try to avoid the bad carbs (like those you find in donuts and cakes) and fuel up on healthy carbs, like those found in whole wheat pasta, sweet potatoes, bananas and whole grain cereal. Eating carbs helps to fill our tummies and gives us that satisfied feeling. The next time you’re craving a salty snack like potato chips, reach for popcorn instead and get your fill of healthy carbs with a fraction of the fat. Turns out, carbs can do a body good.
Proper eating is all about being intentional and planning ahead. If you fail to plan your next week’s meals (or at the very least, the next day’s), you are setting yourself up for failure. When time is of the essence, it becomes all too easy to dine out and make unhealthy choices on a whim.
Remember that nobody is perfect! You will not hit your macros each and every day. Unless you are training for a competition, use them as a G-U-I-D-E for how you should be eating. And most importantly, do not cut your diet down, or make it so rigorous that you have trouble ever reaching your goals. Goal setting should be realistic and achievable.
Celebrate small wins along the way and work on making fitness and conscious eating a lifestyle change, rather than a temporary fix.
If you have macro tips and tricks, please share them below!