Counting macros, tracking macros, if it fits your macros (IIFYM). In the last few years it seems like our attention has shifted—at least somewhat—from calories to macronutrients, particularly when it comes to weight loss. But just because lots of people are talking about macros—counting them, hitting them, etc.—does that mean we all need to? Many people already track their carbohydrate intake—people with diabetes (myself included) do this every day to know how much medication to take. But should anyone and everyone? Well, it depends. But probably not? Let me explain.
Nutrients are the things we get from our food that we need to survive. There are two kinds: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients (macros) are the nutrients we consume in large amounts, and micronutrients—vitamins and minerals are examples—are the nutrients we require in smaller amounts.
Macros fall into four main categories: protein, fat, carbohydrates, and alcohol. All of the energy we get from food comes macronutrients, so they all contain calories (damn). Protein and carbohydrates contain about four calories per gram, fats contain nine, and alcohol contains seven. Most macronutrients provide more than just energy. For example, some types of protein and fat also provide essential amino acids and essential fatty acids, respectively. (They’re called essential because our bodies cannot make them on their own, but we need them to survive.) Fun fact: We don’t actually need to eat carbohydrates or alcohol to survive (except in awkward social situations)—although, for my money, living without carbs is no way to live at all.
Most diets based on macronutrient tracking start with a calculation of how many calories you “should” be eating based on your energy expenditure, which is estimated based on some additional info you provide, like your age, sex, height, weight, and activity level (you can see an example from the USDA here). If you tell the calculator that you want to gain or lose weight, the number is adjusted, often a few hundred calories up or down. The calculator then divides the calories into carbs, protein, and fat in different ratios depending on the diet.
According to the CDC, Most Americans get about 15 percent of their calories from protein, 50 percent from carbs, and 35 percent from fats. A low-carb or low-fat diet would mean eating getting less than 30 percent of your calories from carbs or fat, respectively. A very low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet would require eating about five to 10 percent of your calories from carbs. A high-protein diet would mean 25 or more percent of calories from protein.
Many people who tweak and track their macros are trying to optimize athletic performance or meet body composition goals.
Counting macros “can be beneficial for competitive bodybuilders or athletes, where research has shown consuming certain proportions of protein, carbohydrates, and fats can optimize athletic performance,” Jacob Mey, R.D., Ph.D., tells SELF. A person who’s primarily focused on building muscle mass may focus on getting more of their calories from protein because it’s is so important to building muscle. An endurance athlete in the middle of training season might adjust their diet so that they’re eating a higher proportion of carbs as well as protein to help them recover from intense training. These diets often start with a goal of consuming a number of grams of protein or carbs (or both), then dividing up the remaining calories depending on the person’s preference.
But tracking macros isn’t for everyone, especially if you have a history of disordered eating habits.
“Tracking macros can be positive or negative depending on the client. On the one hand it can be very helpful and eye-opening for clients to take a look at where the calories are coming from in their diet” registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, Stephanie Hnatiuk, tells SELF. Looking at your macronutrient breakdown can help you understand a bit more about how your diet might be affecting you. For example, if someone wants to transition to a vegan diet, a registered dietitian might want to look at the person’s macronutrient breakdown to make sure they’re getting enough protein. An dietitian who’s helping someone lose weight might want to see if there’s a particular area where they’re taking in excess calories.
“On the other hand, some people can get a little too obsessive with tracking their macros, and this strategy would be completely inappropriate to use in clients with disordered eating patterns,” says Hnatiuk. A registered dietitian can learn more about your goals and your relationship to and history with food and eating and help you decide if macro tracking is for you.
That said, even if your relationship to food and eating isn’t and has never been disordered, macro tracking still probably isn’t necessary, especially over the longterm.
Tracking your macros or eating a macro diet can help you feel empowered and in control of your personal nutrition. However over the long term it can be difficult to do all the time, and may simply require more effort than is actually required for most people to eat a healthy diet. “It’s something I typically look at in the short term. I’d never expect someone to track their calories/macros forever,” says Hnatiuk. “Many people have success following a macro diet. Unfortunately, when they stop counting macros, they experience a weight ‘rebound’ because healthy eating habits were not developed,” adds Mey.
Keep in mind that we don’t eat “macros,” we eat food that contain some or all of the macros in different amounts. A healthy lifestyle is about more than the amount of macros you're eating.
Macronutrient-based diets can be preferable to other kinds of diets for some people because they more or less accommodate any kind of food (within reason). So, you can have that heaping helping of chocolate bacon peanut butter ice cream, as long as you are okay with your only other meal that day being a protein shake. The problem is that eating to fit your macros doesn’t necessary mean you’re getting all the vitamins, nutrients, and fiber a healthy diet optimally contains. For example, you can hit your macros with porterhouse steaks and Pixie Stix, but in this case, hitting your macros will mean missing a lot of essential foods that are recognized as very good for you (whole grains, fruit, vegetables, fats, etc.). “A macro diet may be lacking in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients—all pivotal dietary components to reaching your health and wellness goals” says Mey.
If you’re so focused on your macros that you miss the big picture, you’ll might be missing all the other things that are more likely to keep you healthy. Not smoking, being physically active, and maintaining a healthy body weight are the lifestyle factors which show a strongest relationship to good health. Your macronutrient intake may influence your diet quality and could help you maintain a healthy body weight, but only to a certain point. If you hit all your macros but smoke and drink a lot, your macros probably won’t improve your health outcomes. Also, total food energy intake (i.e., how many calories you’re actually eating every day) is the most important factor when it comes to weight loss, gain, or maintenance. If you think or find counting macros helps keep you mindful of your diet quality and quantity, then by all means do it. However, if you find tracking your macros makes you stressed or miserable, it probably isn’t for you. There are lots of different dietary strategies out there, and the only ones that really work are the ones that work for you.
Dylan MacKay (@dylanmackayphd) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, Clinical Trialist at the George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare innovation, and an expert adviser with EvidenceNetwork.ca.