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What are Macros? Protein, Carbs and Fats 101

All parts of our bodies – from our muscles and brains, to our hearts and livers – need energy to work properly and that energy comes from the food we eat. Food consists largely of combinations of the three macronutrients, protein, fats and carbohydrates.

A complex journey, that starts when we begin to chew and ends with gut bacteria squeezing out every last usable morsel, breaks it down into microscopic particles that are absorbed by our blood stream and shunted round for use in various bodily functions.

All three macronutrients can be used as fuel for our bodies – and we can even train our inner furnaces to preferentially burn one source more than the other, it’s how high-fat diets such as Atkins work.

In order to better understand these concepts, it’s important to have a basic knowledge of protein, fats and carbohydrates, what they do and what the best sources of each are, so welcome to Nutrients 101…

First a word about the word ‘essential’

You may have read or heard about ‘essential fats’ or ‘essential amino acids’.

Our bodies are sophisticated bits of kit and can often make some of the nutrients we need from other substances: for instance beta carotene, a red-orange pigment found some plants including carrots is converted into vitamin A which is vital for healthy skin, eyes and immune functions.

There are other substances our bodies need, but that we can’t make – and so these have to come from what we eat, and these are the ones classed as ‘essential’.

Healthy fish meal with potatoes and side salad to demonstrate macronutrient ratio

What are macros?


Aside from water, proteins are the most abundant molecules in the body as they are major structural component of all cells, but especially muscles. The building blocks of proteins are in turn called amino acids.

There are 20 amino acids that are of use to us for a wide variety of functions.

Of those, 11 can be made by the body, while the other nine are essential in that they have to come from our diet.

Amino acids are used for building muscle tissue and repairing damaged tissues, which is why you’ll see them in some sports supplements. For a long time, a side group of essential amino acids, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) were all the rage as they are needed to switch on muscle synthesis.

Recently, essential amino acid (EAA) supplements containing all nine have grown in popularity as research shows a better balance of all the EAAs may be better when it comes to muscle growth and recovery.

Omnivores can get the full set of amino acids from animal products in their diet such as meat, seafood and dairy, while soy is the only plant source to contain all the EAAs. It’s why vegans and vegetarians need to make sure they consume a wide range of plant sources of protein to get them all in.

For those on a vegan/vegetarian diet, the most common combinations of meat free proteins to ensure a full complement of essential amino acids are:

1. Grains (rice, corn etc) and legumes (peas, beans, lentils)
2. Seeds (such as sesame or sunflower) and legumes

olives to showcase healthy fats


In dietary terms, fats have been unfairly demonised for many years.

Fat is actually essential for life – the walls of our cells are made up of saturated fat for instance. Where there is both confusion and misinformation is when it comes to how much fat you should have in your daily diet, what form it takes and where it comes from.

As a general rule, we need both saturated and unsaturated fats. Where issues do seem to occur is when we combine a diet of both high fats and highly processed carbs – this is likely to lead to metabolic syndrome, a condition that can be linked to obesity, type-II diabetes and a whole host of other issues.

As with proteins, there are some fats that are considered essential in that they have to come from what we eat.

The main ones are:

  1. Omega 3s: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  2. Omega 6s: there are more than 10 of these, the most common being linoleic acid

Ideally the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in your diet should be 1:1 to help reduce inflammation. Good fats increase satiety and can be used as fuel by humans – even people who are extremely lean store tens of thousands of calories of fuel as fat.

Nuts, seeds, avocados, fish oils, olive oil, coconut oil are good sources, but choose animal fat – other than fish oils – in moderation.

Baked bread to showcase carbohydrate macronutrient


Carbohydrates are the easiest source of fuel for us to burn… However, no carbohydrate is essential: we can obtain all the energy we need from protein and fats and unless you are an extreme endurance athlete you can significantly reduce carb intake without any issues.

This is where the principal for the paleo diet comes from.

Carbohydrates are generally broken down into ‘simple’ forms (sugars) and complex (starches from things like wheat, rice etc), although the reality is far more nuanced.

Processing carbohydrates tends to take any ‘goodness’ from them – so white bread for instance has most of the fibre taken out because it’s been highly processed.

By restricting carbs – especially simple sugars and ones with lots of starch – we can encourage our body to burn more fat. What we still need to do is have an adequate amount of fibre in our diet, so low glycaemic index fruit and green, starchy vegetables should make up most of your dietary carb content.

Macronutrient Ratio and Counting Calories

Manipulating macronutrient ratios is an increasingly popular tool for individuals looking to achieve specific goals with their body — whether it’s shedding pounds, building muscle, or gaining weight.

However, it’s essential to recognise that a balanced diet extends beyond just macronutrients. Achieving and maintaining good health involves a comprehensive approach that encompasses a spectrum of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients.

Tailoring Your Macronutrient Ratio

For those aiming to lose weight, a calorie deficit is key.

Each macronutrient contains a certain amount of calories per gram.

So, those on the macro diet can figure out how many grams of protein, carbohydrates and fats they can consume, within their set calorie allowance, to reach their personal goals.

Here are the number of calories per gram in each macronutrient:

  1. Protein: 4 calories
  2. Carbohydrates: 4 calories
  3. Fats: 9 calories

Anyone counting macros can then use this information to achieve certain fitness goals, which we’ve outlined briefly below.

Reducing overall calorie intake while ensuring an adequate protein intake can help preserve muscle mass while promoting fat loss. And, as we said above, balancing carbohydrates and fats can also impact your ability to lose weight.

But, it’s important to remember that losing weight isn’t always due to a healthy diet. It’s important to remember your health throughout, focusing on whole, nutrient-dense foods that give your body what it needs to work at it’s best.

This can be something that many on a macro diet can forget about.

Conversely, if you’re looking to build muscle, you might benefit from a slight calorie surplus, with an emphasis on higher protein intake to support muscle protein synthesis. Carbohydrates become important for energy during workouts, and fats play a role in hormone production and overall health.

Gaining weight requires a calorie surplus, where the emphasis is on increasing overall energy intake. Adequate protein remains crucial for muscle growth, while higher carbohydrate and fat intake provides the necessary fuel for physical activity and overall well-being.

The Role of Micronutrients

While manipulating macronutrient ratios is a valuable strategy, it’s vital to emphasise the importance of micronutrients—vitamins and minerals that are essential for various physiological functions. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and good fats ensures a diverse array of micronutrients, contributing to overall health and immune function.

Holistic Nutrition for Long-Term Health:

A balanced diet not only supports short-term fitness goals but also plays a fundamental role in preventing illness, reducing inflammation, and promoting long-term well-being. Micronutrients like vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, and antioxidants found in colourful fruits and vegetables are critical for immune function and protection against oxidative stress.

Furthermore, a diet rich in fibre from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables supports digestive health and helps regulate blood sugar levels. Healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, contribute to heart health and have anti-inflammatory properties.

Shopping/eating list

Protein rich foods: Eggs (lots), beef, chicken, pork, turkey, seafood (lots) full fat (FF) cottage cheese, FF Greek yoghurt, FF milk, cream cheese, protein shakes, soya products such as tofu, beef jerky, chia seeds

Healthy fats: olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds (especially flax), fish oils (from fatty fish), chia seeds, some coconut oil, some butter

Carbs to eat: Green apples, berries, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, peppers, cauliflower, asparagus, aubergines, broccoli, Brussels, cauli, celery, onions, tomatoes, garlic, white potatoes (skin on)

Carbs to avoid or eat in moderation: white potatoes (with their skin off), white bread, white pasta, cakes, crackers, white noodles, white rice, sweets, alcohol – if you have these, make them the exception and only small portions.

Fibre: can be found in many of the fruit and veg above. It’s also beneficial to take a spoonful or two of ground flaxseed a day.

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