Calories and Macros, What are They Exactly?
Macros (short for macro nutrients) are proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Technically, alcohol is also a macro!
Calories: a measure of energy
Calories are stored in all foods, when we eat our macros, we bring in different amount of calories:
- 1 gram of protein has 4 calories
- 1 gram of carb has 4 calories
- 1 gram of fat has 9 calories
- 1 gram of alcohol has 7 calories
After you’ve chewed your food, what happens to it in your stomach? Where do the calories go? What happens if we eat too much of a certain macro (protein, carb, fat)?
Although I understood early on the role that macros play in performance, it took a while to understand what the journey from solid food to fuel looked liked like. Another issue that confused me was where do the calories go? For me calories were just a measure of potential energy and I was having a tough time understanding how eating something like that helped us lose or gain weight.
Let’s answer the calorie question first and then we can go to the macros. First of all, what is a calorie??? Why is it important to check how many calories we eat?
A calorie is simply the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water 1 degree Celsius. When we talk about food, we actually use kilocalories which means the amount of energy required to raise 1000g (a kilo) by 1 degree Celsius. But that's just a technicality...
Here’s the example that helped me understand this. You have 100g of oatmeal. After a quick search you notice that it has 68 calories. That means that if you were to take a lighter to those oats and burn all of them, they could heat up 68 kilos of water by 1 degree. Don’t use oats to heat your bathtub apparently.
The exact same thing happens in our body when we “burn” calories. We don't light them on fire with a lighter per se but we burn them through the chemical reactions that produce energy.
Your body needs a certain molecule called ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate) to produce energy. We only have a limited amount of ATP in our body and we are constantly making more of it and breaking it down. It’s in this process that calories are used. So if you have too many calories, and your body doesn't need it for this reaction, then the calories get stored for later use.
Woot woot! now that we have that down, it’s a little bit easier to understand why, when we eat a deluxe burrito with extra fries that brings in 1000 calories we need to hit fasted cardio the next morning. That would mean you would have to heat up 1,000,000 kilos of water by 1 degree (that’s like a small lake FYI).
On average, and that's a very very very broad average, we burn about 2000 calories (women) and 2500 calories (men) a day. We do have the power to heat up small lakes!!!
On to part two! What happens to the food that we eat when we eat it?
Once they go through your stomach and get digested, proteins are broken down into amino acids. You may have heard this term before if you take BCAA supplements (Branch Chain Amino Acid). Amino acids are the molecules that make up protein. Think of them as the building blocks of your body. They are used to make muscles, collagen (all your tendons and ligaments and other stuff like that), antibodies, enzymes and much more. When you digest a protein molecule, you form a bunch of these amino acids which are in turn rearranged by your body’s need and go about building whatever it is you need to build.
What happens when you eat too much of it?
If you eat too much protein, your body will either use the excess amino acids as part of the ATP reaction, or store them…as fat. If you are in a calorie deficiency diet that’s good since you will just burn them, but if you already had a ton of calories that day, your body will store the amino acid. Hence the importance of watching our portion sizes even with very healthy foods!
In the long term too much protein can have harmful side effects, especially to the kidneys.
When a carbohydrate molecule gets digested, whether it’s a healthy or non healthy carb, the end molecule is the same, it turns into glucose.
What’s important to differentiate between healthy and non healthy carbs is that healthy carbs will keep your blood sugar low and bring in other healthy minerals and vitamins.
Non healthy carbs don't have added healthy minerals and vitamins and on top of that spike your blood glucose. Why does it matter?
After being formed, the glucose goes into the blood stream, and is going to look for a purpose! One of the main functions of glucose is to be used in the chemical reaction that makes ATP. Your body can use all 3 macros for that reaction but carbs are the main one it uses.
What if your body already has enough glucose in it and now you have a bunch of it floating around your blood? It gets stored as fat my friend. Your body is very smart and will store all those extra molecule for future use.
Portion control is critical for this macro. Even more than protein and healthy fats. Nowadays glucose is in so many foods! Any type of processed foods basically has a tons of glucose in it.
Check this out for an amazing post on size control
Let’s get one thing right off the bat: fats are good for you. Yes, healthy, natural fats are very good for you. Fats play numerous roles in the body. Look at this list from https://draxe.com/low-fat-diet-risks/ just to get an idea.
The trick with fats is that they bring in more calories than proteins and carbs:
- Protein and carbs: 4 calories per gram
- Fats: 9 calories per gram
Remember than when the body doesn't need any more calories, it just stores that molecule as fat, whether than molecule is a protein, carb or fat! That's the catch with this macro. Yes it is healthy for you, but because it brings in so much energy, it may cause your body to store that excess energy.
High fat diets are a viable option in my eyes. The biggest mistake I see people do on them is to keep a lot of the other macros as well.
Because fats bring in more calories, they make you feel more full, which is why they are so important to a well balanced meal.
You may of heard the terms unsaturated, saturated and trans fats and how they all have different impact on your health. Here’s a quick guide for you to remember when thinking about these 3 different types:
Unsaturated: They are liquid at room temperature, making their digestion much easer. Typically seen as the healthiest of fats. Comes from natural oils.
Saturated fats: Still healthy but solid at room temperature so harder to digest. Comes from animal products.
Trans: Have been artificially altered to have a longer shelf life, very solid at room temperature and very hard for your body to digest and get rid of, this is the one that causes us more harm than good, avoid if you can!
Image from https://draxe.com/low-fat-diet-risks/
Contrarily to popular belief, alcohol doesn't stall weight loss by itself. As long as you drink it in moderation, you are in the clear. I wrote a whole post about it here that has a lot more detail on the issue.
If I can summarize that post for you very briefly, it would be that alcohol doesn't bring a whole lot of nutritional benefits to the table and even prevents your body from burning fat while the substance is in your body. Not a big deal if you keep it under control. I enjoy a glass of wine or 2 or 3 on a weekly basis. I only completely go sober when I am in contest prep and even then it's only in the last few weeks when the dieting becomes extremely important.
What I’m hoping you’re getting from this is that there is no best way to eat. It depends on so many factors that are unique to you. All that’s required is a little understanding on how macros and calories work.
Last side note
A few people have asked me why is it that on food labels, the macros amount don't match the amount of food listed. For example, you have 100g of chicken and the label will read:
- protein: 31g
- carb: 0g
- fat: 3g
That only adds up to 34g!! What about the other 66g? The answer is actually surprisingly simple: it's water and all the collagen (tendon and ligaments) that make up all the extra, useless stuff.
Clem Fitness Inc.
Clem Fitness is a personal training service based out of Vancouver, BC. Our area of expertise are muscle definition, weight loss, fitness plans designed to fit in your lifestyle and nutrition counseling.