“If It Fits Your Macros, Bro!”
“Counting Macros” is a growingly popular approach to dieting that involves hitting predetermined daily calorie numbers via specific macronutrient ratios (carbohydrate, protein, fat). This growth in popularity has been aided and accelerated by the proliferation of apps such as MyFitnessPal and other quantified-self technologies that allow people to easily track their food intake, activity, sleep levels, etc. This method is largely a quantitative approach to nutrition and diet, wherein the individual is exclusively concerned with their calories and specific macro goals (carb, fat, protein). One figures out a few baseline parameters – activity level, current weight, goals (lose body-fat, gain weight, maintain, etc.), and then utilizes a calculator that analyzes these variables and spits out your daily macro “prescription” of X calories, carbs, protein, and fat. From there, one would need to determine how to spread out the daily macro intake across various meals and snacks.
First, let’s establish that there are many effective ways to tackle the questions of how, what, and when should I eat to optimize my health, body composition, and performance. Many people find success with the counting macros approach and thrive off the inherent structure it requires. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the pro’s and con’s of adopting this approach.
• Structure – you’ve got a specific macro prescription to hit and it’s up to you to do that in the most effective manner possible
• Everything Counts – every snack and meal counts and must be accounted for. You are now accountable to the app and your daily goals, and must adjust your intake based on your choices throughout the day
• Better Understanding of Portion Sizes – presuming you are largely tackling this approach via meal prepping your own food, you should gain a much better appreciation for carb / protein / fat portion sizes and how they differ from your old or normal consumption patterns
• More Mindful Eating – How much of your current eating rituals are deliberate, conscious acts and how many of them are just mindless habits? Eating a quality breakfast before work is a deliberate act. Eating a muffin or donut at the office because they are there is mindless eating, simply done out of habit or impulse. When everything counts, you tend to be a little more selective about when and where you use your finite calories.
• Lack of emphasis on quality – despite what you may have heard to the contrary, all calories are not created equal. Hitting your macro targets with wild caught seafood, fresh produce, and avocado versus fast food and energy drinks will not yield the same results in the short or long term. Highly processed, low nutrient density foods are unhealthy regardless of the ratio you consume them in.
As a general rule, focus on eating as much high quality food as often as possible before trying higher order nutrition strategies such as counting macros. You aren’t going to track for the rest of your life; make sure you know how to eat correctly and adequately without the use of a smartphone app
• Tendency to Binge Eat – extremely commonplace with folks that track their macros is a self-imposed cheat meal / cheat day / cheat weekend to provide relief from the rigidity of their regular eating. The basic premise is follow a super strict approach during the week, then go completely off the rails at some point over the weekend and consume everything you’ve been avoiding. Eating tasty, unhealthy food from time to time is normal; going on food benders is a clear sign of a disordered eating behavior with long-term pitfalls if left unaddressed
• Prescription Accuracy – who is determining your caloric needs? What about your macro ratios? Are your ratios regularly being reviewed and adjusted to reflect both the relevant variables in your life and your progress or lack thereof on your current ratios?
• Inherent inflexibility – Your macros are fixed and unfazed by your appetite, social calendar, daily workout volume, travel plans, etc. Regardless of whatever complicating variables at play, you still have to hit your numbers
• Impractical – weighing, measuring, and meal prepping work great when your schedule and life are routine and largely unchanging. However, if you travel regularly or have a highly unpredictable job, you will likely struggle with such a regimented approach to eating
• Smart Phone Dependence – Macro tracking only practically works via smartphone applications, allowing us to see updated numbers in real time as well as a database of common foods, preparation methods, and portion sizes. Most people are already overly reliant on their smart phones as it is, and this will absolutely add another significant time reliance to the docket. Every meal will need to be tracked, and typically in real time, to maintain accuracy and up to date numbers. This means more screen time, which none of us needs.
Ultimately, the best diet is the one you can successfully adhere to. It has to be a way of life that resonates with you, which is built to last. Macro tracking can be an effective tool in the long-term pursuit of better health, performance, and graceful ageing. However, it is important to understand both the benefits and the shortcomings before going all in on an approach that may or may not be ideal for you and your goals.