It seems like everybody is doing it these days – “counting macros” – which means that they are keeping track of what they eat by weighing and measuring their food and then recording the grams of each macronutrient: protein, carbohydrates and fats. But is this really necessary to ensure you are eating a well-balanced diet? Maybe and maybe not, it depends and there are a few things to consider when deciding if you want to give it a try.
There are definitely some benefits to keeping close track of what you eat – improved body composition, accountability and recovery to name a few. But this type of strict monitoring also isn’t recommended for some as it can exacerbate certain unhealthy behaviors and undesired conditions in our lives or give us a false sense of security with our nutrition.
When considering if YOU should count your macros, please contemplate these things to see if it’s a good fit.
#1 – Helps hold you accountable to eating the right amount of food. Many people will overeat if they aren’t watching themselves closely and taking notes. And some, as crazy as it may seem to many, don’t eat enough unless they hold themselves accountable to a certain number of calories each day. In these cases, counting macros might be a good option to make sure you’re eating the right number of calories for your goals whether it is to gain muscle, lose fat, or for post-workout recovery.
#2 – Can be used in conjunction with some diets to make sure your ratios are where they need to be. Both the Ketosis and Zone diets, for example, are very precise and require you to measure your macros so that the percentages aren’t thrown off. With the Ketosis diet, the benefit is that you train your body to use fat as its main energy source and consuming too much carbs or protein can kick you out of that fat-burning, ketone-producing zone so it’s important to keep precise track of what you are consuming to reap its rewards.
#3 – Provides an awareness of any imbalances you may have with your current nutrition. As coaches, we hear it all the time. “I eat well!” or “I eat a balanced diet.” But what does that actually look like and are you really eating what you say and think you’re eating? A lot of times, once we start recording what we eat, we realize that certain things might be sneaking in or even missing. For example, often times people think they are getting in enough protein but once they start putting the pen to paper, they realize they are not. Or others swear they “don’t eat that much sugar,” but according to their MyFitnessPal account…Counting macros will help you know these things.
#4 – Opens your eyes to what an actual serving size is. Sadly, ½ cup of peanut butter is much larger than the recommended portion for most of us. And the recommended portion of broccoli is much larger than most of us would put on our plates…Oh yeah, and those steaks you’ve been eating are probably two to three servings…
#5 – It can be good for those who struggle with the feeling of being “deprived” of foods they like on other nutrition plans. Macros may allow them to moderate their choices a bit more than a strict stripping away of certain food groups.
#1 – Doesn’t take into account food quality. Calories-in vs calories-out is a flawed philosophy, especially for those wanting to lose weight. For example, the reaction to the body and nutrients it receives from 50 calories of broccoli is vastly different than it receives from 50 calories of red licorice. So unless you have other parameters on your nutrition besides just the calories of each of the maco units, then you aren’t always doing yourself a service by merely counting them.
#2 – Takes some time and effort. For those with busy lifestyles or who are already having trouble finding the time to meal prep, this adds another step. Besides weighing and measuring all of your food, to really make counting macros effective, you also need to record what you ate somewhere like in a journal or on a tool like MyFitnessPal.
#3 – Can exacerbate and/or create disordered eating. Because of the amount of attention that is paid to weighing, measuring and recording macros, it can fuel already unhealthy, obsessive habits in people who have a history of eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and restrictive food intake.
#4 – Often reduces variety of foods eaten. Once you get in a pattern with your weighing and measuring (and recording), which takes time and thought, it is easy to find your “go-to” items and meals so that you don’t have to think and work as much at counting your macros. Yes, you are saving time and energy to do this but you are also eliminating variety from your diet and variety is not only the spice of life, but extremely important in making sure you are 1) getting all the vitamins and minerals you need; and 2) not eating so much of one thing that you create a food sensitivity issue.
#5 – Can lead to social stress and alienate people from friends and family. Have you ever been “that guy” when eating out with friends? You know the one who rewrites the menu at the restaurant to make sure they are getting their 40-30-30 ratio. It might not be a big deal to some, but to others, that type of stress can keep them from going out with friends. That’s just one example, and if your friends and family are supportive, then it’s probably no big deal. But many people find that when they change their way of eating or pay close attention to it, others also pay close attention and they are not always outwardly supportive. You find yourself having to explain and defend your actions or you might even avoid going out with friends or eating at family’s house to avoid these uncomfortable or unsupportive situations.
As you can see, there are many benefits to counting macros. And there are definitely some things to consider that might steer you away from doing so, or at least doing so all the time. Cycles of counting here and there might be something to consider if you relate to items from both the pros and cons.
If you decide to go for it, make sure to reach out to a professional who is an expert in making nutrition recommendations. They will likely ask you for some baseline information like your body composition numbers, training type and volume, lifestyle and goals before giving you some numbers to hit.
If you decide counting macros is not for you, don’t worry! You can still ensure you are eating well and fueling your body for success by following this simple rule. Eat real food and a variety of it! This means to avoid processed foods and follow this general prescription of how you load your plate: mostly vegetables, a palm-sized portion of meat (or other protein) and a thumb-sized portion of fat. Mix in some starch after training and a piece of fruit here and there.
Hopefully this helps you decide if counting macros is right for you. What has your experience been with keeping close track of your intake?
Written by Michele Vieux