Macro is short for macronutrient, which are the three categories of food you eat the most. They provide you with energy. They are the building blocks of your diet and can also be described as what calories are made of. Counting macros is a similar concept to counting points or calories, it just looks more specifically about what types of foods you're eating.
There are 4 calories in 1 gram of protein. So a 3oz serving of chicken breast has 26g of protein and has 104 calories from protein (it's more calories than that total because it also contains fat, but more on that later).
Protein is not a primary source of energy for the body, but it is very important. It is involved in building bodily tissue and plays a critical role in many bodily functions including muscle recovery.
Animal-based proteins are the ones people typically think of that come from meat, dairy, and eggs. They are all complete proteins, which means they contain all the essential amino acids. Most plant-based proteins are not complete proteins (soy-based foods are complete proteins), so often times you need to combine two kinds of proteins to mimic a complete protein.
There are 9 calories in 1 gram of fat. It's more calorie-dense than both protein and carbs, which is why your goal for fats for the day is lower than the other two macros. That 3oz of the chicken breast we talked about above has 4g of fat in addition to the 26g of protein, so it has 36 calories from fat and 140 calories total.
Fats are a major source of energy for the body. Fats also help metabolize some vitamins and are used in cell membranes. Having fat in your diet is really important, but you don't want to consume too much fat since it's the most calorie-dense macronutrient.
Monounsaturated fats are found in avocado, nuts, and olive oil and are considered "healthy" fats. Saturated fats come from animal sources and are "unhealthy" fats and can raise your cholesterol and increase your chances of cardiovascular disease. Trans fats are the worst for your health. They can raise your LDL cholesterol, increase the risk for heart disease, and contribute to weight gain.
Carbohydrates, like protein, have 4 calories per 1 gram of fat.
Carbs are the body's primary source of fuel. Once absorbed, carbs are either immediately used as fuel or stored in the liver and muscle tissue. If you consume more carbs than can be used as energy or stored, they are converted to fats. If you don't consume enough carbs, your muscle tissue is broken down to convert to energy. You want to find the right balance to fuel your workouts and help you build muscle without eating so many that they'll be stored as fat.
Two things that are talked about a lot fall into the carbs macro: sugar and fiber. Some foods have naturally occurring sugar like dairy and fruits, but you want to avoid foods with a lot of added sugar. Fiber also falls under the carb umbrella. Getting enough fiber can improve your digestive health, reduce the risk for cancer, and help with weight loss. Most people don't get enough fiber in their diet.
Why should I care about macros?
Counting your macros helps to improve the quality of your diet. Calories don't give you all the information you need about your diet, you can consume a lot of calories in one meal that has almost no nutritional value and still leave you feeling hungry and wanting more. Counting macros can help you with specific goals like weight loss or building muscle mass. You need to get adequate protein and carbs to maintain muscle mass while losing fat, or to build new muscle mass. It can also contribute to improved athletic performance. Counting macros instead of overall calories also allows for flexible dieting. You can plan ahead and have high protein, nutrient-dense meals earlier in the day so you can go out and have higher fat and higher carb meal with friends at night and still be able to make progress towards your goal. Macros help to account for the quality of food instead of just quantity!
find downloadable versions of these graphics in resources. For a complete guide, including meal ideas, meal and grocery planner, go here.