Between the gym community, social media influencers, popular media outlets, and the hashtag #IIFYM (if it fits your macros), you’ve probably heard the term ‘counting macros’. This way of eating has been around a while, and doesn’t seem to be getting any less trendy.
I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I thought this would be a good time to weigh in on what macros are, why people count them, how to count macros, and if we should be doing it at all.
What are macros?
Macros is the short form of the word macronutrients, the major building blocks of all the food we eat.
At the highest level, macronutrients break down into three big categories: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Each of these building blocks serves useful purposes in the normal and successful function of our bodies.
Carbs in our diet come from sugars and starches, as well as fibre (yes, fibre is a carb). Aside from being the first line for our body and brain for energy, some carbs also feed our good gut bacteria.
Whole food carbs are often good sources of antioxidants, nutrients, and fibre. We’re talking grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Some of these *ahem* carbs *ahem* are vilified as ‘bad’ or blamed for all of our problems, but the reality is that a healthy diet contains all of the macronutrients. Sure, you *can* live without carbs, but why would you want to?
Fats come from oils, nuts, seeds, dairy, meats, avocado, fish, and eggs.
Fats aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) and carotenoids, are a rich source of energy, carry flavour in food, and among other things, are vital for hormone production and the formation of myelin, vital for normal epithelial cell function. They also make food satiating and delicious.
Sources of protein include chicken, eggs, fish, tofu, tempeh, legumes, and dairy.
Protein is the building block of pretty much everything in our bodies, from hormones and enzymes, to organs, muscles, and DNA. Protein comes from plants and animals, and is in the form of amino acid chains when we consume it. There are 20 amino acids in total. 9 are considered ‘essential,’ meaning we need to get them from food. The other 11 can be synthesized by our bodies.
What is counting macros?
When I worked as a dietitian in the ICU, I had to calculate macros in order to get an idea of a general range of carbs, fats, and proteins that patients needed for both IV or tube feedings.
The patient’s weight, height, activity level, and stress levels are calculated to figure out a range of calories they need, and from there I calculated how many of those calories should ideally come from carbs, fats, and proteins (with a low and high end of the range). These were pretty sick people though, and that was a very specific situation.
Outside of the practice of dietetics, you may have read about counting your macros in a YouTube video or overheard the person doing deadlifts at the gym mention it.
Much of the online dialogue goes like this: Trying to lose weight? Cut fat! Trying to max-out your bench press? Load protein! Trying to cure cancer? Cut carbs! Seems… too easy. And when things seem too good to be true, they often are.
In short, it’s a way of determining how much of each macronutrient you should be eating. People generally use macro counting as an alternative to calorie counting for weight loss, or to maximize their gains at the gym. Some people say they count macros to ensure that they’re eating the ‘right’ ratio of carbs to protein to fat, but remember that ‘right’ is subjective – we’re all different, and our needs can change daily.
Macro counting and weight loss.
Common marketing claims for macro counting are that this is NOT a diet, and that it results in easy weight loss. And while some companies and individuals claim that macro counting is simple, it’s actually not.
If you choose an app or program to help you track your macros, you’ll go down a rabbit hole of personal anecdotes, inspiring tales of ‘miraculous’ change, and links to paid products, coaching, programming, or fee-for-use apps.
Notably lacking is quality scientific evidence that tracking calories or macros creates long term sustainable change in weight or body type.
While there are certainly studies that show diets meeting requirements in carbohydrates and high in protein may be useful in maintaining lean muscle mass and promote recovery in highly trained athletes, the careful tracking of ‘macros’ has not been rigorously tested in this setting.
The bottom line is this: weight loss depends on a calorie deficit. If counting macros puts you into that calorie deficit, and is sustainable for you (while preserving your relationship with food and your body…I know, it’s a tall order)
An interesting review on the accuracy of various smartphone-based diet-tracking apps found variances of more than 10% between apps in the estimated macronutrients eaten in a day, based on the same input. Even when you have help, it’s not that simple!
More concerning is that preliminary data has suggested that use of calorie tracking apps and devices with similar mindset to macro-counting have been associated with eating disorder symptoms in college students.
While it’s unclear whether it causes the behaviour, it may exacerbate underlying tendencies.
How do you count macros?
Here’s how it works:
First, you need to figure out what you want your macro percentages to be: this may look like, 45% carbs, 20% fat, and 35% protein. Then, calculate how many calories you ‘need’ or think you should be eating in a day using one of the many apps or equations.
Once you find your total daily calorie number, you’ll calculate grams of each macronutrient you’ll be eating using your predetermined percentages.
After you do that, you’ll track what you eat, every single time you eat. This is the actual ‘counting macros’ portion. It’s actually not that much different from calorie counting; it’s just more complicated. Instead of counting total calories, you’re breaking everything down into grams of each macro.
Pick a platform. You’ll be collecting and inputting a lot of data all the time, so you’ll need some help. That’s where macro counting apps come in. You might even decide to use a food scale if you really want to be accurate in counting exactly how many grams of each macro you’re getting.
This can be a major issue if you’re out to eat or even having a meal with friends – it’s hard to not be distracted by figuring out exactly what fits your macros and what doesn’t.
But before you track anything, you’ll have to figure out if it fits your macros.
Let’s say you’re eating an apple. That’s pretty straightforward – fruit generally has around
15 grams of carbs per serving, so you’d log that and be done. There’s not calorie counting with counting macros, just carbs, protein, and fat.
If you’re having a mixed dish though – even something like a cheeseburger – you’ll have to find some estimation of size and ingredients.
Track all of these things for a while, and track them accurately. How long you need to track macros depends on your goals, how varied your diet is, and how diligent you are.
Tracking long enough to get a reliable data set will show if your determined macros are correct for your goals.
One thing about macro counting is that it doesn’t take into account the quality of food you’re eating. You can eat less nourishing food all day long, if it fits your macros. Most people don’t, but this is a definite loophole that exists.
Another issue with counting macros is that because it’s so labor-intensive, people often get into the habit of eating the same thing every day to avoid having to do the work with different foods. This can not only limit food variety, but also the variety of nutrients you’re feeding your body.
Should we be counting macros?
While it does get easier with practice, this approach isn’t sustainable or enjoyable for most people. Yes, some people love it, and that’s okay! But clearly, it’s a lot of work, and it does take a lot of time and effort.
Understanding the food we eat can be helpful in making choices. Understanding your general calorie requirements, range of macronutrient recommendations, and how your favourite foods fit into these ranges may be helpful for some, for a period of time. Doing this obsessively, or in a restrictive fashion is disordered.
Simply ‘counting macros’ is not a good solution for most people. Macros don’t touch on vitamin and mineral intake, fibre, don’t cover the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats, food quality, etc. Many foods we eat, particularly pre-packaged foods, are a mix of carbs, fat and protein. It can become time consuming to a point where you’re not actually living your life.
In that case, #IIFYM is #NOTWORTHIT.
Optimal wellbeing, both physically and emotionally can’t be boiled down to just meeting your daily macro goals.
Co-written by Lise Wolyniuk