Is counting macros necessary? Pros and Cons of Tracking Macros

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Is counting macros necessary? Pros and Cons of Tracking Macros

For bodybuilders, extreme athletes and those who are physique competitors, “tracking their macros” often becomes something they do almost on autopilot.  They don’t think twice about tracking their food intake, even if it means living by their food scale or stopping to calculate every morsel that goes in their mouth.  It makes one think that maybe we are all supposed to join in and track our macros? And for those less nutritionally savvy, the question is what is a “macro” anyway?

Lets get the facts out of the way before embarking on the pros and cons of “tracking macros,”  or “to macro” as it is commonly called.  “To macro” means to track the number of grams of carbohydrates, protein and fats that you consume on a daily basis.  When it comes to weight management one needs to consider the concept of calories in and calories out.  When one takes in more calories than they expend through exercise they will gain weight, and when intake is less than calories out, they will lose weight.  This is a pretty common premise that most diets are based on.  However, the intensity and method by which one pays attention to caloric intake varies greatly. 

The method of “tracking macros” is based on the intense desire to optimize body weight and composition, and the belief that keeping exact tabs on the food you eat will enable you to meet success.  For those who are competing, this attention to detail can be critical in terms of results.  While it may seem tedious to many people, for those who are looking for a specific outcome, counting macros has become a common practice.

Lets take a closer look at the pros and cons of tracking macros to decide if this method is right for you.

Pro:   Understanding Intake
By tracking your macros over a period of time, perhaps keeping a record of daily intake for a week or two, one can understand exactly what they are eating.  This can then be useful in understanding any changes in weight or performance.  By comparing this information they can better evaluate the results and make changes to enhance success. Without doing this, one may not understand where they went wrong, what macro balance works best for their bodies, or how to improve their results. 

Con:  Stressful Thinking  
It takes diligent note taking, along with ample time to measure and weigh your food, to accurately “track macros.”  It can be very stressful to have to stop and think about what you are eating, as well as critically track its content before it even makes it into your mouth.  For those who are not making all of their food from scratch or are just eating at home, this also can be an extra stressor when it comes to figuring out how to calculate foods you may not be preparing yourself. 

Watch: I don't workout or eat like you think I do; An argument for moderation

Pro:  You Are What You Eat
By using this method you will better educate yourself about what you are eating. The old saying “you are what you eat” can teach you a lesson or two.  By “tracking macros” you will be able to gain a greater education about what nutrients you are feeding your body, and where you might be lacking. Additionally, as you learn to recognize portion sizes, understand measurements and read labels, you may ultimately find foods you no longer desire and more nutrient dense favorites all at the same time. This method does have the ability to provide you with a great opportunity to optimize your health, and pay attention to many ways to improve your diet.  

Con:  Quality Versus Quantity
When one is focused on “tracking macros” they often are more consumed with calculations and meeting certain goals for caloric intake, rather than on the actual food.  This may cause someone to choose a food solely based on meeting their caloric or macronutrient needs rather than choosing one based on nutritional value.  Quite often this results in a caloric intake based on a diet that contains more junk and less nutrient dense foods.  Overall this can negatively affect ones health in the long run.

Pro:  Satisfaction 
When “tracking macros” it often has you more tuned into the food choices you make, how often you eat and what food is most satisfying.  While you are measuring and calculating your intake, there tends to be a greater awareness of what you are eating and how often. For this reason, people tend to learn about their hunger and fullness cues.  This often leads to a greater recognition of how to feed your body so that you feel satisfied, and not over full.  Even if you are only using this method for a shorter period of time, the long term knowledge of how to satisfy your hunger with a balance of food will come in handy down the road.

Con:  Eating Disorders
For some people, knowing too much can be detrimental.  As one becomes more and more focused on calorie counting, precise measurements and weights, and reading labels, eating disorders and unhealthy obsessive thinking can develop.  What starts out as a method to reach a health driven goal, can lead to obsessive thoughts and habits.  This is often how disordered eating patterns develop where one cannot stop thinking about everything they put into their mouth and start to obsess over it all.  

Related video: My Before & After Story: How I lost 40 lbs and Beat My Eating Disorder

With pros and cons on both side to “tracking macros” what is the right approach to take? Perhaps before embarking on this method it is best to understand your end goals and consider your lifestyle and personality.  And remember, ultimately it is most important to lead a healthy life inside and out. 

M Mittler, MS Registered Dietitian

FB Note: There are a lot of different things related to both exercise and nutrition that you can track & use to adjust your habits and results. Our stance is that these things can be helpful for establishing healthy habits, but that they are better implemented for a max of 2-4 weeks at a time. Tracking any variable meticulously can lead to, as discussed above, a mindset more focused on macronutrient content than actual nutrition value of the food. Of course it's not true of everyone or all personalities, but for some, the hyper-focused attention on any variable related to diet or exercise can lead to unhealthy, obsessive thinking. 

The questions we usually ask in terms of your questions about whether a particular diet/exercise strategy works:

  • Is it sustainable?
  • Does it make you feel good; energetic and healthy and like your best self?
  • Does it interfere with your quality of life or cause you stress? For instance, during a dinner out with friends, would you find yourself stressing out while eating foods that you haven't had a chance to calculate values for, or don't know the macro breakdown of?

Consider your answers to these questions honestly & carefully, and then you'll have a good indication whether what you're doing is "right" for you. 

What is your experience with tracking macros? Have you seen the results you're after? Is it a habit you stuck to for a short amount of time or indefinitely? Sign in & share below.