One of the most common trends I see when helping people with nutritional choices is a general lack of understanding about macronutrients. What are they? How many of each should I eat? How and why do we “count” them? Do all macros have the same amount of calories? Do I need to consume all types of macros to be healthy and have energy? And when it comes specifically to a keto and low carb way of of eating, there are questions, advice (and various opinions) about how much carbs (mostly sugar), fat and protein should be consumed. In this article, I will provide a basic understanding of macronutrients and the method behind “counting your macros.” This is Part 1 of a 5 part series on Understanding Macronutrients. Check out my other articles for a more detailed look into each of the four different macros and their applicability to the keto lifestyle.
Macronutrients, often referred to as “macros”, are energy-providing chemical substances found in food. They are considered essential for proper body functioning and the body requires large amounts of them since they are the main ways energy is obtained. There are four principal classes of macros that provide food energy to humans and they are:
Calories are a measurement of this energy found in foods. Each of these four principal macros contain a specific amount of energy, or calories. These amounts are:
- Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram
- Proteins = 4 calories per gram
- Fats (lipids) = 9 calories per gram
- Alcohol = 7 calories per gram
BREAKING DOWN MACRO NUMBERS
Now that you know how many calories are in a gram of each type of macro you can better understand how a nutrition label determines the total amount of calories. I will use the Aidell Chicken Sausage nutrition label below as an example:
In this example, the nutrition label has a serving size of 1 link (85 grams). Each serving contains:
- 11 grams of fat which is 99 calories (11 grams x 9 fat calories per gram = 99 calories)
- 2 grams of carbohydrates which is 8 calories (2 grams x 4 carb calories per gram = 8 calories)
- 14 grams of protein which is 56 calories (14 grams x 4 protein calories per gram = 56 calories)
If you add those macro calorie numbers (99 + 8 + 56) you get a total of 163. The package displays 160 calories per serving and when you consider rounding and other slight variables 160 is an accurate total of calories per serving in this example. It is easy to see why foods high in fat tend to have more calories since one gram of fat has double the amount of calories found in one gram of carbohydrates or protein.
When people tell you to count or track your macros they simply mean count the number of calories you eat from each of the macronutrient categories. Different “diets” and nutritional plans are based upon how much of each of these macronutrients you consume. Although alcohol is not recommended to be a significant part of your macro daily intake and is not included in dietary plans it is officially considered a macronutrient and should be accounted for (all calories matter). Remember that all macros are not created equal and the amount of calories contained in each differ. A diet high in fat actually means eating smaller serving sizes and less often because of the higher amount of calories per serving (per gram). This way of eating is typically easy to control because of the powerful satiating effect of foods that are high in both fat and protein. Although there are variations depending on personal goals, activity levels, total calories consumed, macro food sources, and meal frequency, a ketogenic way of eating typically involves a macro breakdown of 65-80% fat, 20-30% protein, and 5-10% net carbs. This baseline also assumes that a person is in a calorie balance meaning they are consuming as many calories as are being expended. Net carbs are determined by subtracting fiber (a type of carb) from all other carbs (sugars). Because fat is almost double the amount of calories per gram as discussed above, often times total grams of fat and protein consumed daily are fairly close when living a keto lifestyle. With a basic understanding of the macro numbers, it will be much easier to figure out how to adjust your eating habits and change your nutritional lifestyle. Check out my detailed articles about each macronutrient for more specifics on their importance, recommended allowance and how to apply them to the keto lifestyle.