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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.”


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,

P.S. If you have a hard time believing that you can live without strictly counting calories or macronutrients, I encourage you to give it a try for a little bit. If you are pregnant, you may find mindful eating especially helpful, given that your appetite and interest in foods may shift at different stages of pregnancy (ahem, the first trimester). It turns out that women who use mindful eating naturally end up eating a more balanced diet and fewer processed foods than women who do not. Who knew? I discuss this research in chapter 2 of Real Food for Pregnancy.

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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.


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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?

  5. Hi,

    Great article Lily, I’m not against Macro counting per se. What I am against is misleading the public, I have recently stumbled upon what seems to be an innocent misuse of the definition of sedentary. That is, the calculator being used stipulated that a sedentary lifestyle was anything less than full on lumberjack work.
    Clearly this is not true by definition or common sense, but what this does do is immediately place you in deficit in terms of calories because it views you as being inactive and therefore assumes you require less calories. The problem with this is twofold, firstly: it decieves the user as opposed to educating them about proper nutrion and choices by by-passing the truth so to speak.

    Secondly, and leading from the first point, this deficit is essentially starving the participants which is why the dramatic results can be seen, however the potential for long term health issues is increased following this process.

    If used as a ‘test’ (short term) as you suggested then its all good, but as with nearly everything these days the objective is to make money longterm for these companies and so the objective will be to string along users for as long as possible.

    I cant help thinking how many people are suffering both mentally and physically trying to maintain what is essentially a bodybuilder pre competion diet!

  6. I went to a new funcional medicine dr yesterday and he basically told me I am malnourished, even though I have like an extra 5-7 lbs on me. After the birth of my 4th I was so depleted and got adrenal fatigue, it’s taken 3 years to heal that and still healing. He told me I’m still tired bc I don’t eat enough protein and too many carbs. I guess I realized bc I have a large family, I end up eating at the end or give them the meat and eat the rice and beans or lentils or whatever I made to bulk up the meal. I don’t eat gluten or dairy, and he told me I shouldn’t eat any grains as most have gluten protein as well. So I wasn’t encouraged to try keto or count macros but I feel I need to so I learn what I need to eat. Like what is my plate supposed to look like? I also fear doing keto the wrong way. Do I eat Mostly protein, a little fat and mostly veggies? Sounds like aip. I’m so confused. 🙁 I have a hard time eating eggs and don’t buy much meat as it’s expensive. Eating grain free seems so hard to me I don’t even know what to eat anymore.

    • I’d suggest reading Ch 12 of Real Food for Pregnancy, which covers postpartum nutrition and nutrient repletion. Best of luck!

  7. THANK YOU! My diet went downhill once I started this to join my boyfriend in his routine. My macros were always “on” when I cut out the amount of fresh fruits and veggies which are often labeled “carbs.” I actually gained more weight the more “accurate” my macros were. I’m now back to a low glycemic diet. My carbs look through the roof but I’ve shed the extra weight and feel myself again thanks to all these whole grains and plants in me, as opposed to protein shakes.

  8. In an attempt to reduce about 10 pounds of body fat, I tried the keto diet. It was going well at first, but after a few months I started noticing that my hair was falling out and I was constantly exhausted.
    I added healthy carbs back into the mix but quickly gained all that I had lost plus a few extra. I *felt* better, but felt like a failure when I weighed myself. This sent me going back into limiting myself even further. Eventually leading into a phase with “intermittent fasting” that was really just me starving myself.
    I’ve done this whole thing for a few years now, and can honestly say that the only things I have to show for the whole experience are issues with cortisol and body dysmorphia. The craziest thing is that I KNOW better! I have had plenty of nutrition education as a student midwife (including your books) and I still fed into the diet culture. As well as the self- loathing and shame that goes along with it.

    I’m getting better at intuitive eating and I’m trying harder to love myself. I would love to see a blog post on how to heal from these fad diets that cause harm.

  9. Hi Lily, thanks so much for sharing this post! I went into a diet plan and increased my exercise in January 2020. I then followed this with a super strict diet and cardio exercise plan (3x per day) from March 2020 – August 2020 where I ate only certain foods from my trainer/coach up to 5 times per day. Fast-forward to October 2020 to present (March 2021) where I’ve been tracking macros and exclusively weightlifting (heavy for me) with a strict training program. I don’t know what to do anymore because I often feel “trapped” by the macros. I don’t feel like myself – I’m afraid to travel or go places or even have dinner with friends unless its on one of my “untracked” meal days. I don’t know when my life became so sucked of joy and I had to monitor everything I ate every second of the day and track my steps, all of my foods, all of my workouts and my weight every. single. day. I’m in good shape but I’m not sure what it is for if I feel bound my macros for the rest of my life. I often marvel at the days where I could wake up, work out and go about my day without having panic attacks of first having to log my weight on the scale, figure out my macros for the day and ensure I hit them – and ensure I have all of the food cooked because who knows, the world might end if I do not hit my macros. And I’ve been suffering from anxiety over the scale and missing my macros which is starting to mess with my head and feelings of “not being good enough” or something weird coming out of this entire, horrible long-winded dieting process. And I continue to struggle with anxiety over the fact that I’m afraid if my weight goes up even a little after an untracked meal or even a little during the course of a week – it always goes back down again – but I don’t know what to do because on some level, given my training phase I cannot control what the scale says – the only thing I can control is a) hitting my macros, and b) really working out hard during my workouts at the gym.

  10. I recently started tracking my calories and protein during pregnancy to make sure I’m getting the amount you recommend in you Real Food for Pregnancy book. It was eye opening to realize how far short I fell, but also not fun trying to cram food in when I don’t feel hungry. I was already making good food choices, just not enough…. what do you advise in these situations? I was eating when hungry and I thought that was good enough, but what do you think about forcing the food in when the hunger cues aren’t there?

    • Hi Marie,
      First, you want to be sure you’ve calculated your true protein requirements. There are weight-based calculations that can be used (see Ch 2 or this post on protein requirements & pregnancy). For example, a woman who is 5’2″ and weighs 102 pounds needs a lot less protein than a woman who is 5’11” and weights 185 pounds. I do not advise eating beyond your comfort level. So, yes to being more conscious about your protein intake, but don’t force it. Your body is smarter than a calculator.

  11. This article was bang on. I just recently started a weight loss program about 4 weeks ago where it’s counting macros. I’ve never counted macros before. I don’t believe in counting macros but thought I should give it a try. Well my feelings on not counting macros has just be made more permanent. I’m stressed all the time worrying about my next meal, if I’ll hit my macros, eating the same food over and over again because when I try something different it sky rockets my macros. I’m finding that counting macros is very restrictive. I can’t try new recipes because I don’t have time to measure and weigh everything out. I don’t want to ever go out to eat because it’s hard to track my macros. Trying to find a balance between feeding my kids as well as myself that is macro friendly is very hard. I do agree that there is a time and a place for counting macros but I don’t think it should be a life style. The constant measuring and weighing, restrictive food choices that’s not good on anyone mentally I’m already feeling that mental stress and I’m only 4/5 weeks into my program. I don’t think macro counting is healthy long term. I have learned a lot from this program. I learned not to be afraid of food and that I was under eating when it comes to my protein intake, but I honestly don’t think I can continue this program. It’s mentally draining.

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