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wooden abacus used for counting

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 445 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

You often hear health enthusiasts say that they're counting their macros. What does that mean and how does it differ from counting calories?

I want to start by saying: don’t confuse this topic with the macrobiotic diet. That’s something different.

What are Macros?

The term “macros” is actually just an abbreviation for the word macronutrients. Don’t let these big, scientific-sounding words fool you. We like to sound smart sometimes; health professionals like to use these fancy terms.

If we break the word down, “macro” or “macros” is a Greek word and simply means “large.” So the term, “macronutrients” means “large nutrients,” or basically nutrients we need in large amounts.

It turns out that the nutrients we need in large amounts are the ones you are probably really familiar with:

  • carbohydrates
  • proteins
  • fats

These 3 nutrients are the ones we need to consume in large amounts each day. In fact, most health agencies recommend that about 50% of your calories each day should come from carbohydrates, about 25% from protein and about 25% from healthy fats.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, there is such a thing as micronutrients. The prefix “micro” means small, so these are nutrients we need in small amounts each day. These include vitamins and minerals (those that really want to sound fancy may also call them “electrolytes”).

When someone says, “I’m counting my macros” that means that they are tracking what percentage of their calories comes from the 3 macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

If you were to track your macros, is that the same as tracking your calories?

Here’s why, to me, it’s essentially the same thing. Let’s use carbohydrates as an example:

When we look at how many calories come from most carbohydrate-rich foods, we find that on average, they contain about 4 calories per gram. Imagine you had a slice of bread sitting in front of you (high in carbohydrate) and you pulled off a piece that measured 1 gram exactly. It would be a small corner off that slice of bread.

In that 1 gram that you just tore off from your slice of bread, we say that contains about 4 calories. If you were to imagine that whole slice of bread, we could estimate that the slice of bread contains about 90-100 calories. You could use this same rule for any carbohydrate-rich food. Let’s use potatoes as an example:

If you had 1 gram of mashed potatoes sitting in front of you, we could estimate that there are 4 calories in that 1 gram mound of mashed potatoes.

We can use this same rule for the other macronutrients. Protein-rich foods, for example, also contain about 4 calories per gram.

Let’s say you had 1 gram of steak on your plate in front of you. That 1 gram of steak would contain about 4 calories.

Fat, like oils, are calorie-rich so the rule with fats is they have 9 calories per gram. If you have 1 gram of oil, we could estimate that it contains 9 calories per gram.

Let me give you a real-life example to help explain why, to me, counting macros is similar to counting calories. Remember how I said fat contains 9 calories per gram on average? It contains more than twice as many calories as carbs and protein! It was for this very reason that, in the 1980s, low-fat diets were all the rage. Why? The thinking was that if you cut back on the most calorie-laden nutrient–fat–you would automatically cut your total calorie intake for the day.

Each time you avoided fat, you would save yourself 9 calories per gram! That adds up fast! If you avoid 10 grams of fat today, you would easily save yourself… did you already do the math in your head? You guessed it, 90 calories! Saving yourself 90 calories per day by just skipping the oil-based salad dressing would add up fast and could lead to weight loss if followed consistently over time. By simply going on a low-fat diet, folks were basically watching how much of one macronutrient (fat) they were consuming.

To put it another way, there were counting macros. They just focused their attention on one macro: fat. By counting all of your macros, not just fat but carbs and protein as well, you basically end up counting calories.

P.S. The low-fat diet craze of the 1980s didn’t work so well. Avoiding fat left people hungry and many ended up substituting carbohydrates for fat in their diet.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 445 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") has a Doctorate in Public Health with emphases in disease prevention and nutrition. He is also a Registered Dietitian and Certified Health Education Specialist. He is currently an assistant professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Dr. Neal has published peer-reviewed scientific research and been featured as a nutrition and wellness expert in over 70 media outlets including Parade and The L.A. Times. Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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