“It’s the only way to lose body fat or gain muscle effectively.”
“It’s obsessive behavior and leads to disordered eating.”
“You have to count calories if you want to change body composition.”
“It’s completely unnecessary – just eat whole foods with lots of nourishment and your body composition goals will follow.”
“Measuring and counting is required.”
“Measuring and counting is a waste of time.”
“You can eat like this forever!”
“No one can really eat like this.”
“It’s actually really easy.”
“It takes over your life.”
“You can eat doughnuts!”
“It’s SO restrictive. You can’t eat ANYTHING.”
I have heard each one of these things said on the topic of macro counting. There seem to be two teams: the people who tell you that it’s the ONLY way, and the people who tell you that it’s NEVER the way. Personally – I don’t take advice on something from someone unless they’ve done the thing they’re talking about when it comes to a nutritional approach. So, if someone who has NEVER counted macros is telling me how awful counting macronutrients is but they’ve never actually done it for any extended period of time…I’m not buying what they’re selling. On the flip side, if someone has EXCLUSIVELY counted macros as their approach – I’m not going to buy-in to their claim that those who don’t count are missing the boat and that intuitive eating is a pipedream. Weighing and measuring your food can be a necessary and even important step on the road to intuitive eating. You cannot modify what you cannot measure. Plain and simple.
Some people absolutely hate it and do not do well in this type of format. Others (like myself) tend to respond VERY favorably. Just like EVERY OTHER NUTRITIONAL APPROACH – it depends and varies by person. It’s not all awful, obsessive eating – but it’s not the ONLY way, either.
Here’s what I believe:
There are one million and seven different ways to approach your personal nutrition, and the only way to find the one that works best for you – your goals, your lifestyle, your taste, your budget, your hobbies, your health – is to try a bunch (each for a solid chunk of time), and figure it out for yourself. Macros included.
Before I continue, you may be wondering what I’m talking about when I refer to counting macros. ‘Macros’ is the cool-kids abbreviation for macronutrients. Macronutrients are the main things that our food is made up of: Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Fats. They each perform different tasks in the body – from being the building blocks for muscle and tissue, to creating integrity in the walls of every single cell – they are needed for different tasks, and all three work together to keep your body fed and working the way it should. They offer different energy bang for buck: Proteins and Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram. Fat provides 9. A calorie is the unit of measure that we use for an amount of energy. When people are following dietary plans where they are counting their macronutrient intake, they are eating a specific number of Proteins, Carbs, and Fats each day – based on their individual needs and goals. The issue isn’t with calories. The issue is with the idea that calories are inherently bad and need to be avoided. So many things were marketed to us as ‘healthy’ because they were low-calorie, that we became obsessed with avoiding them and counting them and keeping them as low as we could. Then, the pendulum swung the other way and we all decided that calories don’t matter at ALL and counting them in any way is obsessive. When people are “counting macros”, they have a set number of grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates that they are eating each day.
So now that you’re all caught up – here’s the truth.
Macro counting is simultaneously none of the things listed above, while being all of the things listed above.
I want to start by saying one thing. A lot of the nutrition folks I see out there telling you to ‘just eat intuitively like me!’, have spent a lot of time in their life measuring and tracking their food and probably even following something that looks like a macronutrient plan, or experimented with lots of different approaches over the years. Now, they’re able to ‘eat intuitively’ based off of the knowledge they’ve gained from that time spent in the n=1 world. Eating intuitively to someone JUST starting to pay attention to their diet is like telling someone brand new to the gym to, ‘train based on how they feel’. You simply don’t know enough about how you’re SUPPOSED to be feeling to make those kinds of calls. That’s why there are coaches, and trainers, and programs, and the internet, to help you learn and then eventually, one day, you’re able to listen to your body and know the difference between ‘I need a rest day’ and ‘I’m just feeling lazy I should go move my body around.’.
Counting macros is a pain in the ass and can be REALLY boring. It just is. Sometimes. Especially when you’re in the middle of a longer stretch when you’re tired of chicken breast and just want to eat whatever you feel like eating without considering how much of what is in it. This is all true.
Counting macros can be a way to veil disordered eating and can become obsessive. Absolutely. Just like any other dietary approach with rules. Paleo, Whole30, WLC, Keto, Weight Watchers, even. Literally any approach to food besides, ‘Everything in moderation’, can trigger these behaviors and it’s totally true that an approach that REQUIRES specificity and measuring and counting would be a red flag to set those things off.
Counting macros is NOT necessary for weight loss or better health. You can 100% without a doubt lose body fat and drastically improve your health without ever measuring a thing and simply switching to nutrient-dense, whole foods and practicing the ‘eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full’ approach to portions.
Counting macros can be restrictive, depending on what your goals look like. You may have to choose lean proteins where you used to go with fattier ones. You may have to have a banana as a snack where you used to have a scoop of almond butter. You may have to decide between a cup of rice and a glass of wine. Do you want butter in your coffee, or on your eggs? Do you want to have that Rx bar as a snack, and then chicken breast for dinner…or have some turkey breast now and a steak later? Do you want that doughnut? Cool. It’s going to take up a lot of your carbs and fat for the day…so dinner might be chicken, broccoli, and some white plain rice. Yes, it can be restrictive and repetitive…but that’s true of anything when you’re not just doing whatever you want whenever you want.
Counting macros can help you work indulgences into your diet without the ‘cheat day’ mentality. When you have foods that you love, in appropriate portions, within a frame-work that still meets the needs of the goals that you’ve set, you’re less likely to have a blow-the-doors-off spiral or feel super deprived of the things that you love.
Counting macros can help you get over that fear of carbs. Many of us in the paleo world developed a completely unnecessary fear of carbohydrates. That carbs are going to make us fat and sick and if we don’t eat 200g of fat every day, our brain will probably melt. For me, when I went from eating less than 50g of carbs and over 150g of fat a day, to 200g of carbs and 70g of fat – I was really scared. But guess what? I feel fucking amazing in the gym, my brain isn’t mush, my thyroid is fine, and I didn’t get fat. Sometimes you need to actually measure foods to see WHAT your tolerance is, instead of just assuming you don’t do well with a certain thing because some snake-oil guru told you that carrots give you Alzheimers.
Counting macros is not sustainable for the long-term. I don’t believe that it’s a good idea for anyone to live the rest of their days counting their macro intake and measuring their food. It’s a tool, to be used when (and if) needed. I utilize it on and off depending on how I feel and what my goals are at any given time. It’s cyclical – like everything else. You use the tool when you need it. You don’t keep hammering a nail when it’s in the wall – you put the damn hammer down.
Counting macros doesn’t have to take over your life. Sure, some people might take it a little far and carry a food scale around with them all the time. One of the benefits of spending some time measuring and weighing food is that you get to know what 4 oz of chicken LOOKS like. What a tbsp of olive oil LOOKS like. These things allow you to ‘eat intuitively’ by eyeballing your portion sizes and continue to keep an eye on your intake without the need for a scale or cup measurer.
Counting macros is not always for fat loss or caloric deficits. Many macro plan companies market on the new-found lean and jacked bodies of their clients. This is understandable – because that shit sells. As much as we in the health-sphere would love to say it’s not true… at the end of the day, showing someone without abs gaining abs is going to get you some clicks. That doesn’t make the program or company the very face of evil.Tracking your macros can also be used for recovery after injury – to make sure the client is eating ENOUGH food and ENOUGH protein and carbohydrates to heal. Personally, when I just eat how I want to eat, I tend to fall VERY short on protein because I have a fondness for the fattier meats. At 145 lbs, doing CrossFit 4-5x per week…I need to be more conscious of my protein intake. Counting macros gives me some time here and there to really make sure that I’m getting in all of the nutrients that I need.
The first dalliance into counting macros should not be done alone (and definitely not with a calculation from an app on your phone). I highly HIGHLY recommend finding a nutrition coach that you like who specializes in this type of plan. Many programs spit out goals based on old school thinking (My Fitness Pal is the WORST offender here), or lack the nuance that’s required to set appropriate goals for the individual. Setting goals and making adjustments is critical to finding what works for you, and that’s best done under the supervision of someone who knows what they’re doing. I’ve used/looked at a lot of programs in my time – because I like to see what other people are doing. RP Strength is one that I’ve personally tried, and I think it’s better if you just want an “eat this now” approach without getting actual numbers to work within (not my favorite personally, because I don’t like the secrecy of the actual numbers and forced meal times, etc….but some people LOVE that structure and it works great for them). My preferred method, and what I use for my own Program is more open; daily numbers to hit and weekly accountability check-ins with a coach. I have also tried Macrostax and was VERY MUCH NOT A FAN. Like, at all. I absolutely hated it. The beauty of macros is the ability to adjust the foods you eat to fit your tastes and lifestyle and that was not an option in this ‘app that’s not an app’. I don’t recommend it.
If you’re interested in my Functional Fare Nutrition coaching program, you can check it out here.
When it comes to tracking apps, I do like MyMacros+ and recommend it for folks in my program. It’s the one I personally have been using for a while now. It allows you to set goals to the gram (as opposed to %), and set different day options. The database isn’t as large as MFP, but it’s so easy to add custom foods which then build you a personalized list of all the stuff that YOU eat. Plus no weird congratulatory alters for staying under your calorie goal – since that’s not the point.
No one NEEDS to count macros, but some GOALS may require it. No one. Well, I shouldn’t use superlatives…but it’s sort of true. There’s never really a desperate NEED to track macros. For the most part, you can be healthy, lose weight, and perform well all by just eating whole, nutrient-dense foods to satiety. That said, if you are someone who is looking to achieve a SPECIFIC goal that involves your body – be that performance, recovery, or yes…even the villainous and vain goal of god forbid wanting to be more lean than you are right now (I hope you got the sarcasm, there) … then counting macros nutrients can be a very valuable, useful, and effective tool. If you have significant amounts of weight to lose, you probably don’t even need to think about macronutrients and can focus on general portions/food quality. That said, if you are at the point where you’re focusing on aesthetics, or a couple of body fat % points (which – by the way – IS OK TO WANT TO DO. You’re not a terrible person if you feel like getting jacked up or leaned out), then yeah…this SPECIFIC goal probably isn’t going to be met without SPECIFIC tools.
Do I think everyone should count macros? No.
Do I think counting macros can be problematic for some people? Yes.
Do I think counting macros is necessary for living a healthy life? No.
Do I think counting macros is required for weight loss? No.
Do I think counting macros can be a tool used to reach a variety of goals? Yes.
Ultimately, it’s about figuring out what works for you. What approach lets you work towards your goals while still allowing you to live a life where you feel fulfilled, happy, and well, can enjoy it. Macros aren’t the villain, but they aren’t the savior either. It’s just another thing in your nutritional toolbox that helps you shape your long-term nutritional life that you can pull out when you need it, or use it to learn from.
I think it’s something worth trying.