Should I Be Tracking My Macros?

The three macronutrients are carbohydrate, protein and fat.

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A: “Macros” is short for macronutrients. The three macronutrients are carbohydrate, protein and fat. These nutrients are the ones that provide us with energy, which is measured in calories. In other words, macronutrients are the nutrients that contain calories. When compared to micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), we see that micronutrients do not contain calories or provide energy, or not directly anyhow. Micronutrients assist in the metabolic process, but we don’t ride for hours on end on just vitamin C. However, our bodies can run for 2 hours by turning the carbohydrates, proteins and fats we consume into energy.

Our fad diet culture is full of talk about low fat, high fat, high protein, running low, running fasted, carb restriction and many more approaches to eating. As a triathlon coach and triathlete myself, I don’t believe in counting calories. Therefore, I also don’t believe in counting macros. It’s not only boring and tedious, but it also distracts us from the mindset that “food is fuel.” If we focus on food that fuels our bodies, fuels our training and racing and fuels our health, then calories are obsolete. Our focus should shift toward healthy foods that provide us with the maximum amount of nutrients to sustain our activity level. Whole, nutrient-rich foods like bananas, quinoa, oats, potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash provide healthy carbohydrates and fiber which give our bodies easy-to-use fuel and absorb slowly into our blood stream. Foods such as Greek yogurt, chicken, fish, lean beef and beans provide our bodies with protein, which restores muscle tissue after training. And avocados, olive oil, nuts, nut butters and flax seeds provide healthy fats, which help control inflammation from exercise and help protect our very busy hearts. This is a mindful and balanced way to approach eating, and our body will pay us back by performing optimally.

That said, some athletes do in fact count macros, typically in a methodical way based on percentages. In our gadget-focused world of training and racing, we can now enter everything we eat into apps like MyFitnessPal and MyNetDiary and obtain a breakdown of what percentage of total calories came from protein, carbohydrate and fat. Some athletes believe they need a low-carb percentage to maintain weight; some believe they need a high-fat percentage to burn fat for long training sessions. The truth is that every athlete is different. We all have different metabolic rates, different body types, different training schedules and different training abilities. Nutritional intake needs to reflect your current training. So what you eat today when you had an easy run on the schedule versus what you will eat tomorrow on your long ride day should look quite different. “Tracking macros” is a trendy way of stating that you’re creating balance in your daily nutritional intake. Think of it as fueling your body properly for the tasks at hand so it will work the way you want it to.

Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D. is a board-certified sports dietitian and exercise physiologist with a dual master’s degree from Columbia University. She writes and speaks about all things sports, training and nutrition to youth, high school, collegiate and adult athletes. 

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