Not all calories are created equal. In recent conversations about diet, one term has gained prominence: macros. Short for “macronutrients,” macros are the protein, fat and carbohydrate components that make up the foods we eat.
“We need to have a good balance between the three groups because they’re each filling different roles in our body,” says Jennifer Chronis, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Jefferson in Oceanside.
Carbohydrates, weighing in at four calories per gram, are essential, though sometimes they get a bad rap. Once ingested, carbs get broken down into glucose, which fuels your body and brain.
Proteins also have four calories per gram. They build and repair cells throughout the body.
Fats are the most calorie-dense, at nine per gram; they aid in the production of certain hormones, act as building blocks at the cellular level and also are used for energy.
Focusing on macros as opposed to strictly counting calories could shed light on any dietary deficiencies and help you get closer to your health goals.
Dr. Chronis says that a typical person in good health should aim to get about:
- 50 to 60 percent of their calories from carbs
- 20 to 30 percent from protein
- 20 to 30 percent from fats
Foods contain different combinations of macros, so certain apps can help you stay on track.
Those working to lose weight, manage diabetes or control another condition should work with their doctor to find a ratio that suits them best.
“It’s important to have a good balance of these within the diet, not just overall, but with each meal,” Dr. Chronis says. “A good ratio of these different groups helps us process foods better and helps us feel more satisfied when we’re eating.”
One caveat: Not all macros are created equal, either. Dr. Chronis says the quality of their source matters most.
Refined and processed carbs, found in foods like white bread, pasta, cookies, chips and crackers, have been stripped of their fiber and other nutrients and often have added sugars (ingredients ending in “-ose” or “-itol” are a telltale sign). Though these do provide a quick burst of energy, they have a negative effect on our insulin and cause us to put on body fat in the long run. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains are complex carbs, which the body breaks down slower and uses differently.
You’ve probably also heard about good fats and bad fats.
Trans fats are linked to heart disease and other chronic conditions and are banned in the U.S. but can still pop up on food labels as partially hydrogenated oils.
Saturated fats, which are often found in animal products and fats that are solid at room temperature, should be consumed in moderation as they have the potential to increase cholesterol.
Unsaturated fats, found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados, are considered healthier fats.
Some proteins are healthier than others, too. Plant-based proteins like tofu and beans are more nutrient dense than animal products and don’t bear the same cholesterol risk. That’s not to say that meats (and processed vegan meat substitutes) are necessarily bad but try to stick to those that are unprocessed. Two big indicators of processed food are unfamiliar ingredients and a sodium count that’s above a one-to-one ratio with the calorie content.