“Macros” and Fueling Our Wise Bodies Well

By: Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, CEDRD-S with Lutz, Alexander & Assoc. Nutrition Therapy (Guest Writer)

As a Registered Dietitian, I get asked frequently about balancing “macros.” I also see a lot of nutrition misinformation out there that sets people up to not fuel their exercise well. There are many benefits to incorporating movement into our lives, including stress relief, bone health, improved mood, and improved sleep, but these benefits are limited if our bodies are not fueled. To learn more about these benefits and how to pursue movement for wellness, check out Brittany Guerin’s guest blog post on my website.

What are “macros?”

“Macros” is a term that is being used a lot recently. “Macros” is an abbreviation for macronutrients, nutrients that we eat in large quantities. This is compared to micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, that our body needs in small doses.  The 3 macronutrients that give us energy are, carbohydrates, protein and fat.

Should I count “macros?”

I don’t recommend counting macronutrients or focusing on numbers (like the scale). We are all unique, and while one person may feel great eating one way, another person may not. When we follow external guidelines, it is hard to listen to the information that comes from our bodies to help guide us in determining how we feel our best. Using external food rules can also lead to an unhealthy focus on food, thereby missing out on other more joy-filled parts of life.

Furthermore, diets are followed temporarily and, by definition, come to an end. Many people have a period of time of overeating, frustration and shame when a diet ends. (And, be careful if someone says it’s “not a diet,” it’s a “lifestyle change,” but that’s a different blog post.) Instead, when we use nutrition information as one tool to guide our eating, rather than food rules dictating our eating 100%, we can tune in to what makes use feel our best.

The 3 Energy Macronutrients

Carbohydrates give us quick energy, up to about an hour after eating. Contrary to their bad reputation, they are very much needed by most people to feel their best. They are the main source of energy for our muscles and brains.  We get carbohydrates from grains, beans, fruits, vegetables and dairy products. For many people, if their carbohydrate intake is too low, they may experience feeling foggy-headed, low in energy, headaches; as well as urges to binge and/or episodes of binging.

Protein takes longer to digest and gives us energy in about 1-2 hours after eating. It can kick in where carbohydrates leave off.  Protein is broken down into amino acids which are needed for muscle repair and making enzymes and hormones. Protein is also essential for the functioning of our immune system. Meat, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, eggs and dairy are all sources of protein.

Fat takes the longest to empty out of our stomach and gives us energy in 2-3 hours.  Because fat slows down the emptying time of our stomach, it can make us feel fuller longer, like protein. Our brain and nervous system are made of fat and we need to eat dietary fat to make certain hormones.  We get dietary fat from meat, fish, nuts, seeds, dairy, avocados, butter, and oils.

Picture from @foodandfearless

So, what does this all mean for fueling our bodies during exercise?

More than anything we need to be eating enough to fuel our exercise or movement. If we don’t eat enough, we don’t have available energy during exercise to engage in the activity. Also, we don’t have available protein afterwards to repair our muscles, because protein is being used as energy.

Fueling Before Your Activity:

It’s important to keep blood sugar levels relatively stable during exercise so that you can engage in your activity and gain the benefits. Having a pre-workout meal or snack, depending on how your digestive system can tolerate it, that’s carbohydrate rich and also contains protein can be helpful. Carbohydrates ensure we have available energy during the activity to engage and push ourselves to the level we would like and also helps with recovery.  The protein gives us more sustained energy when the carbohydrates leave off. This may be a balanced meal 1-3 hours before an activity or a balanced snack around 30-60 minutes before.

Re-fueling After Your Activity:

Research also tells us that having a balanced snack post-workout can be beneficial. I recommend having a snack that has both carbohydrates and protein.  The carbohydrates help replace glycogen stores in muscles (a storage form of energy) and the protein has been shown to both increase glycogen replacement (prevents soreness the next day) and is then available for muscle repair.  We make microtears in our muscles during exercise which increases our protein needs.

Here are some examples of pre or post workout snacks:

  • Cheese and crackers
  • Peanut butter and jelly or banana sandwich
  • Yogurt and fruit or Smoothie
  • Trail mix – nut, dried fruit, chocolate chips
  • Energy Bar with both carbohydrates and protein
  • Chocolate Milk
  • Turkey/Ham Sandwich, half or a whole depending on your needs
  • Banana or apple and nut butter
  • Oatmeal with brown sugar, almonds and fruit
  • Hummus and pita chips or pita points

Nutrition Information is a Tool

This is a starting point.  We can use this information either to drive us further away from listening to our bodies by following a certain plan or counting certain “macros,” or we can use this information as a tool to notice what makes us feel our best.  

You can begin to experiment with the amount and timing of pre and post workout food.  Try to notice how you feel if you eat a pre workout snack. How do you feel both during and after your activity, compared to if you don’t have a snack?  If you are sure to refuel after a workout, how do you feel later in the day or even the next day? How much is too much or too little to eat before an activity?  Do certain snacks, ones higher in protein or carbs work better for you? Start to notice and listen to what works best for YOU. YOUR BODY IS WISE– much wiser than any fad diet, nutrition facts, professionals or blog post.

Thank you so much Anna! This information hits on so many amazing points and, yet again, reminds me that their is so much information out there (i.e. counting macro tips) that is harmful information. For more information on what fitness social media messages to ignore, check out this blog post.

About Anna Lutz: 

Anna Lutz is an anti-diet Registered Dietitian with Lutz, Alexander & Assoc. Nutrition Therapy and specializes in eating disorders and family feeding. Anna writes about simple cooking, nutrition and family feeding at Sunny Side Up Nutrition. Anna received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Duke University and Master of Public Health in Nutrition from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD). In addition to providing individual nutrition therapy, Anna delivers workshops and presentations on eating disorders, weight inclusive approaches to healthcare, and childhood feeding. She is passionate about helping people reclaim joy and freedom in eating. 

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FB: @lutzandalexander and @sunnysideupnutritionists

IG: @annalutzrd and @sunnysideupnutritionists