A healthy daily macronutrient distribution is crucial to your health and well-being. Macronutrients are nutrients that our bodies need to function properly. Your body uses macronutrients for energy, growth, and maintenance of various functions.
What are macronutrients?
There are three macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
A good diet should be a balance of proteins, carbohydrates and fats depending on your body composition and health and fitness goals. The reason for this is that the body needs the energy to function properly.
Protein has multiple functions in the body such as: acting as enzymes and hormones, maintaining proper fluid and acid-base balance, providing nutrient transport, making antibodies, enabling wound healing and tissue regeneration, and providing energy when carbohydrate and fat intake is inadequate.
Carbohydrates are the body's primary source of energy and the brain's preferred energy source. Carbs are broken down by the body into glucose – a type of sugar. Glucose is used as fuel by your body's cells, tissues, and organs. Fat is also essential for energy production, cell growth, protection of organs and absorbing vitamins and minerals. Fat just takes longer to convert into usable energy.
What is the recommended intake?
There is a lot of different advice out there about what percentage each macro should be as part of your daily intake. Instagram influencers with their midriff showing should not be your main information source!
The Ministry of Health Guidelines recommends the average adult needs about 45-65% of their calories from carbs, 20-35% from protein and 15-25% from fat, depending on their activity level and goals (losing weight vs maintaining or gaining weight).
But of course for women it is not as simple as that. The stage of your life and hormonal levels will play a part in your optimal macronutrient breakdown, as well as your training levels.
Is this different if I train regularly?
Sports specific research suggests that women require higher protein requirements, for example, to meet the demands of regular training. We want to build more and stronger muscles (not the same as bulky!). This way we continue to improve our performance and avoid falling into the trap of under-eating. As a guide if you are doing 1-2 hours of triathlon training or running you need:
3-4g/kg of body weight of carbs
2-2.3g/kg of body weight of protein
1.2g/kg of body weight of healthy fats
Using protein as an example (and because many women do not eat enough of it) a 65kg woman after running for 2 hours would need to consume 120-149.5g of protein that day. This could be made up of:
2 palm sized servings of chicken/red meat
1 scoop protein powder
2 T peanut butter
150g natural yoghurt
miscellaneous protein from the other foods
That is quite a lot! This also means that your other macronutrient percentages may change in order to have the same daily calorie intake.
I’m not advocating for any particular type of “diet”. Instead I’m suggesting that your macronutrients may need to be adjusted for the type and intensity of training that you are doing. This may not be the same week to week.
Does my menstrual cycle affect this?
There is also your menstrual cycle to consider. During the second half of your cycle your body’s demand for protein increases due to the body preparing the uterus for a potential pregnancy and then the breakdown of tissue when there is no pregnancy. Effectively, you are in a catabolic state and the body is “eating” the tissue.
This also means that your body is going to more readily break down muscle (which it does as part of the stress of a workout anyway). But now the body's function is focused on breaking down tissue for your next menstrual cycle. This may explain why you feel hungrier than usual right before your period or why you get cravings around this time.
This is also why some experts will recommend more endurance based sessions around this time (instead of high intensity) - to minimise muscle breakdown. Or at least not to put the body under further strain.
So to combat the cravings and the propensity to break down more muscle, aim for the 2.3g end of the range for this phase of your cycle.
With regards to carbohydrates, these are still important for your training. Making sure you are well fuelled and have carbohydrate available to fuel your workouts will also help stop your body breaking down muscles for fuel. Eating carbohydrates also regulates hormone production and regulates our appetite. So if you are trying to lose a little bit of weight, restricting carbs may only be making things harder for you!
Did you know that you are in menopause on the date when you have gone 12 months without a period? Prior to that if you are having menopausal symptoms/side effects you are probably perimenopausal. More on that another time.
Once you are in the menopause stage you don’t have the same cyclical fluctuation of hormones. This does not mean that you don’t need protein. In fact you need to work a bit harder to maintain your muscle mass as you get older.
Dr Stacy Sims recommends 2.2-2.4g of protein per kg of body mass for the menopausal woman who trains. Plus increasing your protein intake can help with some of the other side effects of the menopause transition.
The key takeaways from this blog are:
All three macronutrients are important for overall health.
For women, more protein may be needed for those who train regularly as well as for different stages of your cycle.
Menopausal women still need protein to help maintain muscle mass.
Fuel properly for your training and to recover.
I’ll be talking more about this as a topic of one of the education workshops - part of the Women’s Triathlon Camp (see below). If you are interested in a long training weekend for your upcoming triathlon, and want one that is women specific, then register your name on my form.
I’m not a registered dietitian. But I am a qualified personal trainer who has done further study and gained further qualifications in women specific areas. However, if you have specific nutrition requirements or need meal planning and dietary intake advice please speak to a registered dietitian.