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The Downside of Tracking Macronutrients

“I don’t think that fits with my macros,” I overheard a lady saying at the grocery store. Curious, I glanced over and noticed the food in question was almonds.

Yes, almonds.

Immediately, I thought, “this deserves a blog post.”

Tracking macronutrients is nothing new. It’s been a mainstay in the diet and fitness industry for decades, especially in the body building world. And it’s been popularized in many diets, such as The Zone Diet.

It’s also relied upon heavily in nutrition research, so scientists can help us understand the consequences or benefits of consuming diets that are high or low in a particular macronutrient. This is key when we’re looking for evidence to support a modified diet for certain diseases or general dietary patterns that are best for disease prevention.

What does “tracking macronutrients” really mean?

If you’re not already familiar with the term, tracking your macronutrients (or “tracking your macros”) involves monitoring the grams and/or percentages of your diet that come from carbohydrate, fat, and protein.

These three nutrients are where we obtain calories, aka energy, to live (plus, technically, alcohol also provides calories, though I obviously don’t recommend that it account for a considerable portion of your energy intake).

In some ways, tracking macronutrients sounds like a nutritionally-sound, sane thing to do.

How else would you know what you’re eating if you don’t track it?

And don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for tracking macros.

When is Tracking Macros a Good Idea?

1. As a temporary experiment

You may have heard that eating fewer carbohydrates can help you lose weight and control your blood sugar, but maybe you aren’t sure which foods are high in carbohydrates. Understanding how and where different macronutrients come into your diet can help you take an objective look at your diet. You may come to find that your diet actually isn’t that high in carbohydrates or you may find out that you’re getting a surprising amount from your morning smoothie or afternoon trail mix.

2. When you’ve identified problems in your diet

For example, if your healthcare practitioner suspects your diet is lacking in protein and you’re not sure how to increase your protein intake, you might consider tracking your macronutrients to help you see where you’re coming up short. It can also help you monitor your progress as you adjust your diet. And if your health does not improve following those dietary tweaks, you have “proof” that you tried is and can then move on to the next phase of health detective work.

Clearly, tracking macronutrients can be a useful tool, especially for clinicians.

But, just like any tool, you want to make sure you have the right one for the job. A hammer is pretty much useless if you need to repair a clock.

So, I want to be sure you also understand the downside of tracking macronutrients.

The Downside of Tracking Macronutrients

1. It’s often inaccurate

Unless you are weighing every ounce of food that goes into your mouth (with a calibrated food scale) and every teaspoon of oil you cook with (good luck with coconut oil), your estimates are likely going to be off. It’s especially difficult to track macronutrients accurately if you’re a foodie who cooks with fresh ingredients and without a recipe (that’s real cooking in my book).

Even if you are obsessively diligent about all of this (can we say unsustainable?), the chances that the nutrients in your food are represented accurately in nutrient databases is unlikely. As I explored in my post, 6 Reasons to Stop Counting Calories, the nutrient content of foods varies by season, location, growing conditions, processing, and a variety of other factors. That in-season, heirloom apple probably has a different amount of carbohydrates than the boring Granny Smith, but it might not even be found in the nutrient database (nor would I suggest you eat the lower-carb, less delicious apple even if it was!).

You can certainly use meal tracking software and nutrient databases as an estimate, but don’t fool yourself into believing those numbers are etched into stone.

2. You may feel your diet is never good enough

It’s really challenging to match specific macronutrient goals exactly on a consistent basis. That’s one of the reasons strict dietary studies (that require participants to eat a set ratio of macronutrients) require them to stay in what’s called a “metabolic ward” in the hospital (aka dietary jail) which provides carefully calculated diets and ensures they ONLY eat what’s provided. If your macronutrient ratio isn’t where “it should” be, you might beat yourself up over not being perfect (whatever that means). This sets you up to enter the well-established diet/binge cycle or at the very least, feel like a failure. Not a good place to be.

3. It takes the focus away from your body’s inner cues

What if mid-meal you decide you don’t want to finish the steak on your plate? Or perhaps you finish the meal and still feel hungry wishing you could snag an extra bite or two from the serving platter? When you’re tracking macronutrients (and you’ve already weighed your portion, for God’s sake!), you might feel like you don’t have “permission” to act on those instincts. This can lead to feelings of guilt in either direction.

If I don’t eat all of my steak I’m not going to hit my protein goals.”

OR

If I get seconds I’m gonna screw up my carbohydrate to fat to protein ratios.”

This is a disturbing reality for many people.

4. Tracking can be addicting

Tracking macronutrients can have some of the same downsides as relying on calorie counting. Essentially, it’s based on the same premise that if you track the nutrients coming in, you somehow have gained “control” of your eating and can ensure you never get too much or too little.

If you’ve had success tracking your macronutrients, you might feel like if you stop you’re going to mess up or eat the wrong proportion of things (and then worry about the impending negative consequences). Put simply, you can become reliant on tracking and find it difficult to break the habit. If you want to see a bunch of anecdotal support for this, head over to this post and read through the comments.

5. May limit diet variety

If you’re tracking macronutrients with the intention of limiting one of ’em, you might be shooting yourself in the foot long-term.

As people limit foods high in certain macronutrients, this may lead to decreased dietary variety.” (Medscape General Medicine. 2006)

And lower diet variety has been associated with lower micronutrient intake (that’s the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants we need to stay healthy) in all age groups, from children as young as age 1 all they way to elderly adults. (Public Health Nutrition, 2006 & J Am Diet Assoc, 2002)

On the contrary, the more varied your diet, the better your overall nutrient intake:

Diet variety was positively associated with the number of nutrients consumed at adequate intakes” (Journal of Nutrition, 2001)

Often, tracking macronutrients is presented as a healthier way to monitor food intake, but in reality, it present some of the very same pitfalls as calorie counting. For people recovering from eating disorders, limiting diet variety is strongly linked to relapse. (J Am Diet Assoc. 2011)

If you’re seeking to limit certain macronutrients for health reasons, be sure to work with an experienced, ideally real food-focused, dietitian/nutritionist to ensure you meet all of your nutrient needs within your dietary restrictions and maintain a healthy relationship with food.

A Better Alternative to Tracking Macronutrients?

Now you might be wondering: If I don’t suggest tracking macronutrients, what do I suggest? As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are some very good reasons to track macronutrients, at least in the short term, when there’s a solid reason behind it (and proper guidance to put what you learn into practice).

I find that in lieu of focusing on the numbers, a food diary that includes hunger and fullness, stress levels, digestive symptoms, etc is much more useful (though, as a real food dietitian, I do occasionally calculate certain nutrients when needed).

Nonetheless, my ultimate goal is that my clients learn sustainable habits and no longer have a need to keep a food diary. I’d say 95% of the time, my one-on-one clients achieve that.

When it comes to finding sustainable eating habits, I am a big fan of mindful eating, which connects you with your body’s inner hunger and fullness cues. It also gives you the freedom to choose whatever foods you are in the mood for in whatever portion your body is hungry for. The longer you practice it, the more your body craves healthy, nutrient-dense foods in ideal quantities for you. This is how I’ve maintained my weight and health for more than 15 years without counting and how my clients do the same.

Mindful eating has been shown to “support lasting reductions in the consumption of sweets and dessert foods,” result in fewer barriers to weight management when eating out, and be an effective tool for weight loss. (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2014 & Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2012)

In other words, mindful eating can help you eat healthier without stressing or consciously restricting your food. Here’s an intro to mindful eating and tuning in to your hunger & fullness cues.

The bottom line

If you choose to track your macronutrients or your food intake, you should do it for a particular goal in mind and for a set period of time. Then, take what you’ve learned and move on. Don’t get too caught up in the actual numbers (or trying to hit an arbitrary target) and instead focus your awareness on how your body responds to said numbers/ratios of macronutrients. Use the time that you’re tracking to build as much variety into your diet as possible.

It’s an experiment, NOT a test!

You should never be a slave to the meal tracking app on your phone, hitting some magical macronutrient goal, or appeasing someone else’s idea of an ideal diet. I assure you, your body can function amazingly well without all of that nonsense.

Now, I know there are a lot of different opinions on this topic and I’d like to hear yours:

  • Do you or have you ever tracked your macronutrients?
  • Was it helpful or not?
  • What did you learn from the process?

Tell us in the comments below.

Until next week,
Lily

P.S. If you have a hard time believing that you can live without strictly counting calories or macronutrients, but would like to give it a shot (and as a result, lose those last 15 pounds, improve your digestion, and get a body you love), you might like to work with me. I work with a select number of highly motivated clients at a time, so you get the attention you deserve and the results you paid for. Go HERE to learn more.

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.

6 Comments

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  1. I’ve helped a number of people on their apparently-stalled LCHF weight loss by reminding them that they shouldn’t eat “ratios”, but rather have a carb target (under XX/day), a protein target (between YY and ZZ/day) and then eat only enough healthy fat to be satiated. Too often, they would eat “fat bombs” and other bizarre things to ensure that their carb intake was a “low enough ratio”. Silly. Disclaimer: I’m just a life-student very curious about nutrition… but very happy that I was able to lose 45 pounds in 6 months with no exercise, calorie counting, or starving, by following the advice of people around me about LCHF, and have maintained my goal weight for three years now. Never looking back!

    • I, too, see some really strange dietary choices going on when people get too obsessed with the numbers. It’s akin to food companies formulating the “perfect” meal replacement bar and often leads into, what I like to call, The Nutritionism Trap.

      Congrats on your weight loss success, Randal! 🙂

  2. Interestingly I am currently experimenting with macro tracking because I’m concerned that I’ve actually been under-eating for a while in relation to how much activity I do. So it’s not a “restrictive” mindset but rather one of “let me make sure I’m getting what I need.”
    I also eat more if I am still hungry and less if I’m stuffed, so maybe I’m doing it wrong. 😉

    • Sounds like you’re doing it for the right reasons, Laura. Fits right in with the reasons tracking macros can be a good thing that mention at the beginning of this post. 🙂

  3. I started counting my macros years ago (no longer do), and can relate to so much of what you wrote here. I went into it with good intentions – just to see where my diet was at, play around with the ratios, and lose a couple pounds, but it spiraled out of control. I stopped trying new recipes because I got tired of calculating all of it (you have to put in every single ingredient exactly, then divide by a measured serving to get anything close to accurate), I began eating more packaged food (hello, the numbers are right there!), and made me feel like my body couldn’t function without having the numbers all match up perfectly. Honestly, I had a borderline eating disorder and it took me a while to quit. I had to delete My Fitness Pal from my phone and find the courage to trust my body again. I read a book on mindful eating, which helped a lot, too. Thanks for being one of the few voices of reason in the online world, Lily! -Trish

  4. I have been struggling with Anorexia for the past three years. To the point where I would only intake 600 calories a day (about 400-500 of those calories came from Malibu Rum). I hit rock bottom and started to see a nutrionalist and a therapist. I have done nothing but calorie count for those three years. Weighing and measuring every single thing before it went in my mouth. I am now on a 2600 calorie diet to regain weight. My problem is that my ED has decided I need to be obsessed with micronutrients. My % wheel on my app needs to be exactly on point ratio wise. I am really struggling with this. Once i hit my weight goal my nutrionalist told me we will no longer be calorie counting and I hyperventilate at the thought of it. Do you have any suggestions?

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