Counting Macros: The Good, The Bad and the (potentially) Ugly
What is a 'macro'?: 'Macro' is short for 'macro-nutrients' which are the essential foods for the human diet: protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Why do people count macros? As a means to track their food intake in relation to certain athletic, aesthetic or performance based goals without restricting foods or being on strict meal plans.
How do people count macros? Via macro/calorie tracking apps like myfitnesspal and My Macros +.
This 'tracking of macros' is known by many names:
'IIFYM' (If It Fits Your Macros)
Now that you have some baseline understanding of what 'counting macros' is, let's dive in.
Counting Macros is perceived as 'better' than restricting foods a-la 'meal plan's and 'diets'.
Why? Several reasons:
Counting macros allows you to eat foods you love without restrictions that can lead to disordered relationships with food
Counting macros helps you learn what it takes for your body to be fueled, satiated and obtain prime performance from your food intake
This can lead to learning how to eat intuitively and maintaining your level of fitness for life
Counting macros allows you to be FLEXIBLE whereas restrictive diets teach you 'good vs. bad' foods and again, can lead to disordered relationships with food
Counting macros teaches you about other important 'micronutriuents' that are essential for your body to function properly.
Counting macros allows you to incorporate foods you love while also learning the importance of nutrient-dense foods
Counting macros is a more realistic approach to weight loss than 'meal plans' as you do not have to restrict foods and meal plans are a means to an end (diets restrict foods and are not long term solutions)
Typically, those counting macros fall in to two categories:
People trying to lose weight (for any reason from everyday life to a fitness comp)
People trying to improve performance
The beauty of counting macros is that you can regulate exactly how much you need to intake for weight loss or performance and still eat things you love. No restriction = a more sustainable way of living = better, longer lasting results.
This is also highly beneficial for people who have 'chronically dieted' and have 'good vs. bad' connotations on food. They can eat whatever they like as long as it adds up to their allotted macronutrients for the day.
From an athletic standpoint, counting macros can help ensure performance athletes are getting enough of certain macronutrients and micronutirents to help fuel their workouts, increase stamina and prevent injury.
THE BAD With any type of nutrition philosophy, there will always be counter-cultures built around a belief and passion for their philosophy of choice. And this is great, particularly for those people who feel they need a community supporting them to succeed.
Where it can be disheartening is the negative label many put on the philosophy based on what they experience on social media.
Flexible dieting has gotten a bad rap for being a 'junk food' lifestyle. Flex dieters are always posting photos of their Oreo's, doughnuts, pop tarts, sugary cereals and other processed foods they get to eat while still getting results. The 'clean eaters' are always talking bad about the flex-dieters and and the flex dieters are dissing the clean-eaters. But in reality, there are negatives and positives to all ways of eating.
One of the negatives that arises from counting macros is the very same reason this way of eating can be a positive: flexible nutrition allows you to eat anything you want as long as it fits in to your daily allotted macro nutrient goals. This includes a host of highly processed foods and 'non-foods' made of chemical products. Much of these products are what make their way to social media and what many flexible dieters are including in their daily meals - though this is not ALL flexible dieters eat.
Being able to incorporate these foods is GREAT for those who need to get rid of the 'good vs. bad' connotation with food- but - where it falls short are that many people are lacking much needed nutrition from nutrient dense foods.
Why is this bad? Well, it can be bad to consume these foods for people who:
Struggle with hunger and cravings: consuming daily processed foods (breads, whole grains (yes!) pastas, pastries, sweets, even trail mix, meal replacement bars, etc. that contain added sugars, processed corn products, etc.) can cause glucose spikes and crashes which affect insulin and increase cravings.
Struggle with chronic illness: processed foods are linked to elevated blood pressure, elevated blood sugar and internal inflammation which are all linked to chronic diseases.
Struggle with auto-immune illness: The chemical 'man made' nature of processed foods can weaken the intestines, making your body more susceptible to auto-immune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, MS, celiac disease, thyroid diseases and other AI dysfunctions.
Have a history of cancer or cancer in the family: As mentioned above, processed foods have been shown to weaken the intestines, making the immune system more susceptible to foreign invaders - even more serious disease like cancer and heart disease.
The good news: you can STILL count your macros and avoid processed foods (I do!). You can count macros following any nutrition philosophy!
I am a macro-counter. And I believe in living flexibly. Which is the whole point of the term 'flexible dieting' (aka: counting macros.)
If you cannot be flexible i.e. live your life and allow for un-weighed food at restaurants, un-tracked days on vacation and even mental days off - how is it truly being flexible?
Well - it's not.
It's PERFECTLY OK track closely and be hyper-focused on your macro nutrient intake for reasons like these:
You are a physique competitor and are shooting for a certain leanness on stage
You are trying to make weight for a power lifting meet or another performance sport
You are prepping for another physique-related event
I would rather be counting macros for my weight or physique-related events than restriction.
However, if you are not doing any of the above and are obsessed with tracking - that could be a problem.
This is where counting macros can get ugly.
Counting macros is also a form of control - as is restriction, binging and purging, etc. I have witnessed HUNDREDS of people who are not prepping for any of the above events (or have completed above event) that have become obsessed with counting macros.
So much so that they:
Will not eat out at a restaurant because they cannot weigh their food or control what it is cooked in.
Spend an hour searching for and logging food at a restaurant to see what they can eat instead of enjoying conversation with friends or family.
Spend hours a day (yes hours) matrixing food in apps, programs and their head.
Will not have a drink with friends even if they greatly desire to do so.
Talk incessantly about their macros, tell everyone about their macros, ask questions to friends about their macros, ask questions to wait staff about their macros and drive everyone crazy about their macros
This is not healthy.
I repeat. THIS. IS. NOT. HEALTHY.
This type of control can truly be disordered eating.
Here is a list of disordered eating signs from the National Eating Disorders Association:
Self worth or self esteem based highly or even exclusively on body shape and weight
A disturbance in the way one experiences their body i.e. a person who falls in a healthy weight range, but continues to feel that they are overweight
Excessive or rigid exercise routine
Obsessive calorie counting
Anxiety about certain foods or food groups
A rigid approach to eating, such as only eating certain foods, inflexible meal times, refusal to eat in restaurants or outside of one’s own home
Plain and simple, counting macros can end up being another form of an eating disorder.
I know what many will say: "But as a physique athlete, I have to be diligent about counting and eating out."
Yes. But can you live truly flexibly after said event without being hyper-focused or obsessed with your macronutrient intake?
If your answer is no - or if you are NOT involved in weight or physique-related competitions and you are still falling under one of the signs of disordered eating above with your macro-counting, I advise you to STOP counting macros.
Stop counting macros.
Not forever - just until you can let go of the obsessive counting and tracking.
If no Macros, then what?
On the flip side, I know PLENTY of people who have no attachment to their macros other than it simply being a way to ensure they are getting enough of each macro and micro-nutrients for their goals. I feel I am finally at this juncture.
BUT - this took me over a year to get here. When I first started counting macros, I had recently come off of restrictive meal plans and severely disordered eating. I became OBSESSED with tracking my macros. I was that girl in restaurants spending most of my time in my phone, stressing over logging, what will I eat, how will I know how much is in what I am eating, how can I survive?! I brought my food scale in my purse, I asked Chipotle to weigh my meat, I threw away PRECIOUS GUAC and I refused to go anywhere I couldn't find nutrition information online.
I traded one disorder for another.
So I STOPPED counting.
I stopped for over a year. I focused on the damage my body had absorbed and educated myself on healing, nutrient-dense foods, insulin resistance and living a healthy, balanced life.
I was able to come back to macros after a year with a whole new outlook. Now it's just numbers, just food. And if I start to get obsessive, I just walk away for a while and take a break while practicing intuitive eating.
This has worked for countless others. If the obsession is there - STOP counting. Practice intuitive eating. Focus on something ELSE like performance and healing, nutrient-dense foods, fun, family, adventure, a new workout style, etc. Anything to take your focus off of counting. In extreme cases, you may need to spend some time in therapy (which I highly recommend from my own experiences!) to disconnect the disordered relationship with food from your life.
Is counting macros for you?
If you are a fitness competitor and want a better, less restrictive way to 'diet' - it may be.
If you are a performance athlete and need to make sure you are getting enough macronutrients for your sport - it may be.
If you are trying to lose weight and continue to fail based on restrictive diets - it may be.
If you are curious if you are getting enough of a macro like protein, it may be beneficial to track for a while until you are able to eat intuitively with the same amount.
If you have a chronic illness or auto-immune disease and can count using nutrient-dense, whole foods and avoid processed foods for medical reasons - it may be.
If you cannot count macros without obsession over your food or any of the behaviors listed above that are 'disordered' in nature - I advise against.
If you are predisposed or have a chronic illness or auto-immune disease, by all means, count macros! But avoid processed foods and focus on whole, nutrient dense foods that are healing in nature
Above all - you MUST do what is best for you, your lifestyle, your relationships and your body. But I will say - life is much too short to spend it in constant obsessive tracking, macro-counting and mental focus only on food. You MUST find balance, flexibility and happiness. If that is found counting macros or simply just focusing on a healthy lifestyle - so be it.
Happy and healthy living~