What are Macronutrients? Should I eat them?

Everything below this paragraph is a little on the advanced side for most day-to-day CrossFitters. You can get a lot of mileage from the original CrossFit prescription of eating meat, veggies, fruit, nuts, seeds, and limiting your sugar without doing any math. But if you have day dreams about spreadsheets and you just LOVE tracking your food with your phone, then this will get you started.

The latest trend in diets for CrossFitters is macro based diets. So what in the world are macros? Do you even IIFYM, bro? Macro based diets go by a lot of different names. You’ve seen the Zone, Weight Watchers, IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), flexible dieting, and more. All of these plans base their recommendations off of the amounts of different macronutrients you should be consuming on any given day. Some are better than others for athletes, particularly if you take nutrient timing into account. Any of them will work, provided you can stick to the plan over the long haul. We’ll start with some very basic info and then the main point of this post will be how much should you eat on a daily basis.

But what are macros?

The 3 basic macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Protein generally comes from things that had a face. If it ever ran, flew, or swam you can probably file it under a protein source. Fat often comes from animal sources, but you’ll often find it in plant based foods as well. Nuts/nut butters, olive products, coconut products, and avocados are common sources of plant based fats. Carbohydrates are everything else. Often when we say carbs people mean grain based foods like bread and pasta. Those are carbs, but so are broccoli, cabbage, and squash. If you read the label on a food, you can usually file it under the category that has the biggest number next to protein, fat, or carbs. There is one trick here though: fat has 2x the calories as protein and carbohydrates, so be sure to take that into consideration.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, protein is generally needed for muscle repair. Carbs are important for energy in high intensity exercise. Fat provides a long term fuel source and is fairly neutral in the way it interacts with your body. When we eat protein, fat, and carbs in a reasonable balance to one another, it generally results in a body that we’re proud to live in. When things get out of whack, and they often do, things tend to run less smoothly.

How do I figure out how much I should eat?

The first step is to discover your daily caloric needs. You’ll need a few simple pieces of information to plug in. Sex, age, height, and weight will get you a generalized base metabolic rate, or BMR for short. I prefer the Benedict-Harris equation, but any popularized calculator will do. Your BMR is an estimation of the calories required to keep you alive on daily basis if all you did was lay on the couch. You will almost always have more general activity than that, so we’ll add a little bit to the BMR to find your starting goal for calories. Since this is an estimate, we can expect to have to tweak it a little bit over the course of the first 4-6 weeks to hit a balance for your real life energy demands.  

Keep in mind that this is an iterative process. We’ll have to massage the plan initially to make sure that we’re really getting you the calories you need to reach your goals. Any equation is going to give an average starting point. You might naturally be an ectomorph who burns more calories and has a hard time gaining weight. We’ll usually need to adjust your base up or down a little based on your body and your daily activity level. As an aside here, standing all day for work will burn an extra 300-500 calories per day as compared to working seated. That means that by standing 7 days a week, you’ll burn a possible extra 3,500 calories which works out to about 1 pound of weight loss in the real world without adding cardio.

Next we will tweak the calories to account for your goals. If you’re wanting to lose some weight, we’ll cut some out. For athletes over 200 lbs, we’ll start out around 500 calories per day. For those under 200 lbs, it’s usually closer to 250 calories per day. Body weight loss of over 1% per week is a little faster than I’d like to see as it increases the risk of losing muscle mass as you drop fat. If you’re wanting to gain some weight, we’ll just reverse those numbers and add 250 to 500 calories per day.

Watch the scale 2-3 times per week under consistent conditions and note the trending pattern. Regular body weight fluctuations are expected.  If you’re generally trending up or down at 1-2 lbs per week on average, we’ve hit the sweet spot for you right now. Eventually that change will stall and you’ll hit the dreaded plateau. I don’t consider it a plateau until you’ve been sitting at the same weight for at least 10-14 days.

Here are 3 common causes of body weight plateaus. The first culprit is usually poor tracking. My serving sizes have been creeping and I’ve been eating more or less than I thought I was. Sometimes the measuring cups and food scales have to make an appearance to help me recalibrate. The second is that the change in body weight has changed your caloric needs. Bigger people need more food to keep gaining weight and smaller people need less food to keep losing weight. That’s a bit of an over simplification, but for the purposes of this article it works. The third culprit could be a change in activity level. People who aren’t eating very much (or who are constantly feeling over full) don’t feel like moving around very much. This can fool an athlete into thinking they need even further caloric restriction to keep things moving. Please don’t do that. If a diet is making you feel full on crazy, it’s probably already too restrictive and some time to reevaluate what’s important to you might be required.

There are other avenues to explore, but these are the ground level basics of understanding caloric needs on a day to day basis. In another article I’ll go over how to apportion macronutrients to fill in those calories for optimal body composition and performance. If this stuff is confusing, let me know. Having a teacher makes this work easier and helps you to avoid costly mistakes.