“Counting macros” seems to have become the food management scheme du jour.
For the many people who feel confused or frustrated when deciding what to eat, and unsure if it will serve their goals, tracking macronutrient intake seems like a magic bullet!
By adhering to their macros, they can “guarantee” themselves results and still choose to incorporate things that most food management systems forbid, like cookies, pasta, and all of the other delicious things in life.
But what the heck does “counting your macros” actually mean?
Does it work? Should you do it?
As you may have guessed… I have some thoughts.
What it is:
We all know that changing caloric intake can effect body size.
By counting calories, you can cause your body to grow or shrink. Calories fall in to three macronutrient categories:
As you can imagine, if a 2300 calorie diet was comprised mainly of protein it would have a different effect on someone’s body than a 2300 calorie diet comprised mainly of fat.
Same number of calories, different effect on the body.
In the 90’s when someone decided that counting calories was a good idea (hot tip: it’s not), people took advantage of the knowledge that if they ate above their energy output they could grow, and if they ate below it they could shrink.
However, two people could consume the same number of calories and experience very different results based on the macronutrient ratio of their respective diets.
If consuming 2300 calories/day is below an imaginary person’s energy level (let’s call him Jamie) they will shrink in size whether that 2300 calories comes from cupcakes, or from kale and tofu.
However, Jamie’s body on 2300 calories of cupcakes may perform and look very different than it does on 2300 calories of kale and tofu.
Same number of calories, different effect on the body.
More research on the effects of different macronutrient ratios on body composition has made it possible for people to manipulate the number of grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats they eat in order to reach certain performance or aesthetic goals.
Let’s say Jamie decides to derive 40% of his calories from protein, 30% from carbohydrates, and 30% from fat in order to reach a goal. For his 2300 calories, that looks like:
- 173g protein
- 230g carbohydrates
- 77g of fat
Instead of just keeping track of the number of calories he consumes, Jamie would log the macronutrient makeup of each food he eats, to make sure he achieves the desired ratio, not just the desired calories.
Many people call this “flexible dieting”— if they know they will be at a birthday party later, they log the piece of cake into their macro allotment earlier in the day and then adjust all prior and subsequents meals so that the daily target is not not effected, and they don’t “have to” abstain from cake in order to meet their goal. Similarly, If Jamie chooses to allocate 150g of carbohydrates to the new carrot cake Oreos (which are amazing by the way), he can do so without hindering his “progress” even though Oreos are typically considered “off limits” by people trying to change their bodies.
In summary: “Counting Macros” is a system of food management that manipulates the macronutrient ratio of a person’s diet in order to achieve performance or aesthetic goals.
It is done by keeping track of the of protein, carbohydrate, and fat grams consumed per day and ensuring that the target ratio is adhered to, regardless of the kinds of foods consumed.
Does it work?
That depends on how you define “work”. Will adherence to the plan cause body composition changes, while still “allowing” you to eat foods typically demonized by diet culture?
Most likely, yes.
- If you’re reading a blog online, you’re a grown-ass person who doesn’t need to be “allowed” to eat food. It’s a muffin, can-I-see-your-manager-Carol, not a bomb, so back up. We have more important things to worry about (see: the climate crisis, the current pandemic, millions of people without access to food and basic healthcare, how Jennifer Aniston hasn’t aged in 26 years, THOSE kinds of things).
2. Will adherence to the plan also completely remove authentic enjoyment of food and the connection it brings to people? Most likely, yes.
3. Will counting macros start as a benign “I’m just going to try this for a while” fling and then devolve into a toxic relationship of stress, anxiety, and guilt that people can’t turn off? Also yes.
4. Is tracking macros just another form of restriction, that is being sold to us by companies trying profit off of our appearance insecurities that THEY have created (and made sure in their creation that they are nearly impossible to maintain)? You betcha.
Following a rigid plan that doesn’t allow for our constantly changing needs as human beings such as varying stress levels, activity levels, emotional labor, and a shifting external environment, SETS US UP FOR FAILURE.
Perceived failure = “screw it I’ll do whatever I want” = guilt = “back on the wagon being EXTRA GOOD THIS TIME” = tighter restrictions = higher chance of perceived failure.
Sound familiar? That cycle repeats over and over, and with each round the rules increase, the metabolism is harmed, and our sense of intuition when it comes to feeding ourselves with care and consideration is all but obliterated.
So should you do it?
I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing your sanity or relationship with food to reach a goal. There are ways to work toward goals that don’t include weighing your morning cereal or handing over your innate wisdom of what your body needs to a tracking app (side note: most of those apps underestimate caloric requirements anyways, so they double-suck).
I’m all for learning how to read a nutrition label, eating nutrient-dense foods, and experimenting with which combinations make my clients feel their most capable, energized, strong, and happy. Macronutrient breakdowns of a food provide some helpful data in that process, but they are not the silver bullet of health-supportive eating.
There is no silver bullet.
But if there were brass bullets, they would include eating enough to feel full, comforted, and fueled, sleeping well, spending time with people who make you happy, eating a varied diet of nutrient-dense and not-as-nutrient-dense foods without guilt, and giving yourself the gift of patience and grace as you navigate this tricky space.
I hope this quick breakdown was helpful!
If you’d like someone to help you cut through the crazy health landscape BS, I offer 1:1 Nutrition Coaching and “Nutrition Intuition” Membership Group Counseling. I’m here for you.