“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.
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.