Have you heard of “macro counting” or eating to “fit your macros”? This style of eating plan has been in fashion among fitness-minded folks, bodybuilders and the Cross-Fit set for a while now, but it has filtered down to the general public more recently. It’s used primarily as a weight control/weight loss plan, though technically it could also be used for “leaning out” (dropping body fat but not body muscle) or even gaining weight. Here are the basics…
What are these “macros” anyhow?
The word “macros” is short for macronutrients—nutrients that our bodies need in relatively large amounts in order to grow and function (as opposed to micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, which we need in small amounts).
There are three macronutrients present in food: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
How many macros do I need?
The first part of following a macro-based eating style is to calculate macro goals. There are macro “calculators” available online that ask you about your activity level, your height, your weight goals, etc and after you enter all that information the calculator will spit out a set of macro goals for you. These goals are expressed in percentages, meaning that your day’s calories will be divided into the three macro categories according to the percentages. A common macro division is 40% of calories as carbohydrates, 30% as proteins and 30% as fats, but of course it varies by individual. These percentages correspond to a specific number of grams of each macronutrient. In general, if you’re looking to drop pounds, your carb percentage and number of daily grams of carbohydrate will be on the lower side and your proportion of protein will therefore tend to be on the higher side.
How does tracking macros work?
Making this type of plan work requires entering daily food intake into an online program (a spreadsheet type of setup usually) or using a phone App (MyFitnessPal is a common one that has both an App and a website version). Tracking your food intake after each meal shows how your food choices “fit” (or don’t fit) into your macro goals. Through trial and error you learn to adjust your food intake in order to stay within your macro percentages. The dietary approach isn’t really new (keeping carbohydrates in check for weight control, for example), but the mechanism of tracking food intake and monitoring how foods fit into your allotted percentages are the more novel aspects.
Are there benefits to this approach?
Proponents tout the flexibility of the macros approach as being one of the biggest benefits; some even call it the “Flexible Diet,” claiming one can “eat anything” and still lose weight. Well, you can eat anything—to an extent. For instance, if you want pancakes for breakfast you can plug that into your tracker and from there have a good idea of what the rest of the day’s food needs to look like (i.e. probably not very much carbohydrate and plenty of protein is what you’ll have left). You certainly can’t have pancakes, then fast food at lunch and then pizza and beer for dinner and expect to hit your macro targets. And, although the macros approach doesn’t seem to emphasize food quality as much as it does making sure that the day’s consumption “fits the macros,” the more serious macros followers—as well as those who have been doing it a while—do advocate making wise dietary choices. Why? Well, it’s just so much easier to hit your macros if you eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods. And when you must have a treat or really want to have Friday night pizza, you can plan for it in advance adding the food into the tracker to see how it will affect your macros distribution before you eat it. For some people, simply keeping track of one’s food intake is enough to help them shed pounds. So for them, having the convenience of an electronic food journal can be a smart idea.
What are the drawbacks?
Well, first of all, while calorie counting is not central to the macros approach, there are still overall calorie limits that are inherent in this type of plan. It’s not an eat-as-much-as-you-want-plan-that-still-causes-fat-loss—there really isn’t a plan like that. However, if you meet your macros each day, chances are your calories are going to be in the right place because the macro percentages are figured in conjunction with a specific calorie level appropriate for your needs and goals. So yes, while you can have some foods that you crave, you soon learn that as the day goes by you’ll need to make adjustments in your food intake to stay within your macro goals, which in turn will keep you in place with your calorie intake. If you don’t hit your macro goals, your calories will likely be off as well and then you won’t see the results you’re looking for.
Secondly, keeping track of every morsel of food and drink that crosses your lips can be time-consuming and rather tedious depending on the tracking and recording method. It involves weighing out some of your food (protein foods, for example) and not everyone has a food scale (or wants to go buy one) and get into that. This type of food micro-managing can be dangerous for some people who may already tend toward disordered eating. It encourages a preoccupation with the minutia of food instead of a more holistic approach to eating that emphasizes food quality and overall nutrition, mindfulness and enjoyment as being central to healthful eating. The novelty of keeping track of one’s food intake in this manner may wear off quickly, and if new eating habits haven’t been developed then it’s back to square one.
What’s the bottom line?
Tracking macros is not a magic method for losing weight while eating what you want all day long. Weight loss is always going to involve keeping calories in control and making smart food choices, and people can drop weight on all types of plans—at least for a while. For some, following the macros approach can help them prioritize protein and keep carbohydrates in check. And, if the visual approach of seeing your day’s food intake displayed in a nice, colorful pie chart gives you satisfaction, then this might be a method to consider trying.