Healthy meal plans used to be a thing of the past. The accepted wisdom for decades was that to become leaner, get abs over 40, or hit any other weight-loss related fitness goal, all you needed to do was simply eat fewer calories and burn more off using a gym workout plan. That process of burning off more than was being consumed was called creating a calorie deficit.
But to eat less than 2000 calories a day (the rough amount that equates to a mild calorie deficit for men over 40) there was limited additional guidance. For example, you could get to 2000 calories by eating three smaller home-cooked meals, or by having takeout twice in a day. Or, if you really felt like it, you could hit it by simply eating a bag of chips and a pack of chocolate biscuits and nothing else.
While the example is a bit exaggerated, the point is clear. Aiming for a simple calorie deficit doesn’t answer the questions of “what should I actually eat, and how much of it should I eat?”. That’s where macros come in. Macro is the shortened form of the word “macronutrient”. There are just three of these macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats, and the proper amounts of macro’s make up healthy meal plans. The reason for this very short list of categories is that all foods can be divided into these three categories.
However, unlike “food groups”, macros include combinations of foods. For example, oats primarily contain carbohydrates, but also contain some protein, while full cream milk is a good example of a food that contains all three macros of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. For completeness, there are also “micronutrients” which include minerals and vitamins like B12, iron, and calcium that you might get from your food or supplements.
The Benefits of Macros
There are numerous benefits of knowing about, understanding, and counting your macros as part of your diet. The first is that knowing macros allows for those who are undertaking training regimens to better target their food choices to their goals. For example, a dad who is looking to get leaner and targeting getting back his abs after 40 is likely to want to increase his protein intake as a proportion of his macros, while limiting his carbohydrate intake and maintaining a slight caloric deficit.
In comparison, a dad looking to put on some healthy weight and muscle because his body mass has fallen due to illness or lack of exercise is likely to be better suited to increasing his carbohydrate and protein intake while aiming for a moderate caloric surplus.
The other major benefit to macros rather than other types of counting calories, points or food groups is the enhanced flexibility. For example, if a person was to go to an Italian restaurant for a work lunch and order a pasta dish, it is likely they would consume a higher number of carbohydrates than a typical meal.
This could then be offset later in the day with a dinner that was lower in carbs and higher in protein and healthy fats.
In this way, the macronutrient totals for the day are like three separate bank accounts that can be “spent” across the day in different meals and snacks, while aiming for no single account to be “overspent” by eating too much of one macro at the expense of others. A basic macro split is to aim for 50% of the daily calorie intake to come from carbohydrates, 20% – 35% from protein and 20% – 35% from fats (i.e., 50:20:30 or 50:25:25).
Can Macros be Split According To Goals?
In short, yes, and varied macro calculations are well suited to differing goals.
A weight loss macro split would typically have lower carbs of around 40% with correspondingly higher protein. The weight loss goals would also require the person to be in a calorie deficit. The average male, to maintain his weight, would target about 2200 calories in a day, so to lose weight, the target would be to consume around 5%-10% less than this amount (total) with the appropriate macro splits. If a person was shorter or less physically active, then the energy requirements would be lower again, and the totals would be correspondingly lower.
A weight gain macro split for someone looking to put on lean muscle would have a slightly higher carb ratio of around 55% while maintaining a high ratio of protein and increasing overall food consumption to support the muscle building and weight gain goals.
So now that the benefits are understood, let’s look at each macro in a little more detail, and why it’s important.
As almost any person who has even a passing interest in fitness may have heard, protein is one of the major building blocks of muscle. But as evidenced by the trend toward “protein fortified” food, it also has other major benefits. Food manufacturers of yoghurts, snack bars, and even milk are now touting the protein content of their products. This is directly related to the increased awareness of the role that protein plays not just in muscle gain, but in weight loss.
At face value, those two statements might appear contradictory. However, to gain muscle, the person working out first needs to consume adequate amounts of protein, and also be consuming a calorie surplus. On the other hand, to lose weight, a person should consume all three macros according to the values above but aim for a calorie deficit or shortfall.
The role of protein in weight loss is to do with satiety. This is simply a fancy term for the feeling of “fullness” that comes after a satisfying meal. It turns out that protein, more than carbohydrates, contributes to an increased feeling of fullness after a meal. What’s more, it also helps those who consume it to have that same feeling of satisfaction for longer. That’s why a breakfast of protein-rich eggs and toast will keep a person feeling fuller for longer than a breakfast of carb-heavy breakfast cereal, even if the total calorie intakes of those two breakfasts are identical.
For many years the conventional wisdom argued that “fats make you fat” and never stood a chance as a contributer to healthy meal plans. That led to decades of “low fat”, “no fat”, “skim” and “fat reduced” products.
Unfortunately, the side effect of these efforts was that artificial sweeteners, flavors, and sugar were pumped back into the food that had the fat removed in order to compensate for the loss of flavor.
The truth about fat is far more subtle than the convention wisdom suggests. There are indeed bad forms of fat. In fact, some are so toxic that they have been banned in various countries around the world from being added to food. These toxic fats are known as “trans fats” and were once common in fast foods, bakery goods, and some snacks.
A less harmful variety of fat, but one that can still cause health problems if consumed excessively, is saturated fat. Saturated fats are found naturally occurring in milk products like butter and cream, as well as red meat. These fats are useful in the body to help fuel many biological processes and as a source of energy. However, diets that have too many saturated fats increase risk factors for heart diseases.
The final category of fats has gotten strong interest lately as a source of “good” or “healthy” fats. This category is unsaturated fats. These are found in health promoting foods such as olive oil, avocados, sesame seeds, almonds, cashews and nuts more generally. These fats are from plant sources and aid in lowered cholesterol levels, lower rates of heart disease, and better nutrient absorption when combined with other macros, so should form part of your healthy meal plans.
Carbohydrates are probably the most easily misunderstood macro. While a lot of the carbs consumed come from whole grains and therefore bread and cereal products, simply avoiding these will not result in a carb-free diet. That’s because carbs are also present in fruits and vegetables – in the sugars in pears for example, or the starches in potato and sweet potato.
Far from being avoided, carbs should be accepted as the major energy source for the body to obtain the energy it needs to perform its day to day tasks and should earn it’s appropriate spot in everyone’s healthy meal plans.
In addition, some carbs are indigestible but play an important role in digestive health. For example, cellulose, while is a carbohydrate found in the cell walls of plants that we eat, has high levels of fiber, which helps maintain a healthy gut.
If you are looking to take the information in this article and apply it to your own healthy diet plan, then we encourage you to take a look at our No Gym! Guide that can help you put it into action. We’ve broken down the key information in a way that is simple, easy to understand and actionable.