The first time I heard people refer to macros at CrossFit I had no idea what they were talking about. I doubt I had heard anything new about nutrition since the FDA switched its guidelines from the ‘basic four’ to the ‘food pyramid.’ For anyone who cares to know, by the way, the ‘food pyramid’ has apparently been replaced by ‘my plate.’ I’m guessing the next one will be called ‘iEat’ and will be sponsored by Apple.
It is quite clear to anyone paying attention that our understanding of nutrition has been controlled by big agra and other special interests for decades. I prefer to get my nutrition science from people who don’t have a horse in the race. CrossFit certainly has a point of view, but generally speaking it is a libertarian culture and people are encouraged to learn for themselves and use an evidence based approach to fitness. So recently I decided to seek my own answers to nutrition’s most pressing questions, including the question that all novice CrossFitters eventually ask: WTF are macros? To that end, I attended a talk by Dr. Laura Hutchins Christolph, resident nutritionist at PVCF and all around fitness badass. Here is what I learned:
Experiment to find what works. The science of nutrition is fairly new. When Laura was in college not too long ago, nobody was talking about macros. Now they are an essential aspect of understanding nutrition, along with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and phytonutrients (the stuff in superfoods). Macros are the three sources of energy for the human body: protein, fat and carbohydrates. Our sources of energy are obviously a pretty essential part of nutrition. Their relatively late arrival on the scene – or at least the fact that there was never a focus on them as such until fairly recently – should give us all a healthy understanding of just how new the science of nutrition is. Most importantly, despite what we may hear from people trying to sell us on their diets, the science isn’t exact, and our bodies are quite variable. The takeaway: aside from some basic guidelines, follow your body, not someone else’s program.
Know why you’re eating. Laura pointed out that we eat for all kinds of reasons, including eating for pleasure and as a part of our culture. It is within that context that we eat for other goals, including health, performance and aesthetics. And that is OK. In fact, it is encouraged. There is plenty of play in the human body for all of the stuff of life. It helps to be aware that our goals may be divergent: a man who gets his exercise playing tennis will not build muscle like a bodybuilder and does not need a bodybuilder’s intake of protein. But with a little tweaking, we can find the right diet for our lifestyle and attain our nutrition goals without sacrificing the other important roles that food plays in our lives.
When you eat is as important as what you eat. We need energy and nutrients at the right time for them to be most effective. It makes more sense to eat at the beginning of the day, when we are about to start burning fuel doing the stuff of life. We also need energy before a workout. In terms of timing, our bodies absorb nutrition best when they are depleted right after a workout. Carbs help deliver nutrients, so right after an intense workout is a good time to eat them.
All bodies are not created equal. Our bodies come in three basic types. We are sorted into ectomorphs, mesomorphs or endomorphs. Which one you are is determined by the sorting hat at Hogwarts. Or maybe some other way. In any event, it helps to know whether you are naturally long and lean, curvy, or muscular and to eat a ratio of carbs to protein and fat accordingly.
Change habits, not diets. Laura advocates a gradual approach to improving nutrition: change one thing in your diet at a time. This is much easier to do than making whole sale changes, and it has the added benefit of helping us to identify when a change works and when it is the act of eliminating something yummy for no good reason. I have tried it the other way – eliminating everything that could possibly be unhealthy from my diet for a few weeks and then experimenting by adding back one thing at a time. Ever try that? After 21 days of salads, nuts and berries, on day 22 I gorged on everything with no ability to control myself. The net result: I was a cranky bastard for three weeks, a human trash compactor for three days and no healthier or wiser for the effort.
Now that I know what macros are, I can stop looking for them on food labels, at least until the FDA comes out with nutrition guidelines called ‘McMacros,’ sponsored by McDonald’s.