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If you frequent the gym or keep up with the latest diet trends, you may have heard of macro tracking. This eating method, otherwise known as IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) involves setting daily recommended goals for each of the 3 macronutrients – carbs, proteins, and fat.
Macro counting is often practiced by those looking to gain weight, lose fat or build muscle. If you are someone who likes guidance and structure around what you should eat and in what portions, macro tracking may sound appealing to you.
While macro counting has its benefits, there are some potential downsides to consider. What is counting macros and how can you do it properly for the best results? Keep reading for the pros and cons of macro counting and how to decide if it’s right for you.
What is counting macros?
Macro counting is a common trend that focuses on eating a set amount of carbohydrates, protein, and fat – which are three macronutrients. These “macronutrients” are named as such because our bodies need them in “macro” or large quantities.
Consuming a balanced diet that includes the recommended portion of each macronutrient can support your health goals such as body composition changes, specifically weight gain or weight loss. Depending on your goals and preferences, you will have a certain macro target goal to reach each day in regard to grams of carbs, protein, and fat.
Carbohydrates, fats, and protein all provide a certain number of calories per gram, so without even realizing it, you are also tracking your total calories by counting your macros. Your macro breakdown can be set in order to achieve a calorie deficit for weight loss or a calorie surplus for weight gain.
Either way, the variation in macronutrient distribution can depend on your goals and personal food preferences. We help create macro targets for our clients and hold them accountable for tracking their plan.
What are the pros of macro counting?
As with any eating pattern, there are always pros and cons to consider. Some of the pros of macro counting include:
Balanced consumption of macronutrients
By having a set amount of carbs, protein, and fat to consume, your body will be meeting your macronutrient needs to support essential bodily functions. Many of my clients tend to eat a lot of one macronutrient and not enough of another, which can hinder their progress. A common mistake I see is eating too many carbs and not enough protein.
Macro counting ensures that you consume the recommended balance of all three macros which can be beneficial for those who tend to eat more of one than the others. It’s not just about sticking to your calorie range, it’s about the portions of what you choose to eat within that calorie allotment.
Portion size awareness
Macro counting requires measuring foods in order to ensure you are getting each macro in the appropriate amount. This helps build awareness of the proper portion sizes needed, as most people tend to overestimate this (or not measure at all).
For example, you may eat 1 cup of trail mix when the serving size is actually ⅓ cup. Measuring your food helps you to become more mindful about the amount you eat, but may take some practice. This can also help you reduce calories naturally by decreasing portion sizes. For some clients who are already mindful of common portion sizes, they prefer macro tracking plans.
Can support body composition changes
Studies show that recommending specific amounts of macros based on body weight can support healthy changes in body composition, weight loss, or weight gain. Setting your macros based on these recommendations may help you meet your goals.
Weight loss occurs when your macronutrients are set within ranges that create a calorie deficit. However in this case, instead of counting calories, you’re counting your total grams of carbs, protein, and fat.
A nutrition expert like a registered dietitian can help you set your macro targets properly based on your individual needs and goals. It is best to work with a professional, rather than leaving it up to chance or estimating based on what a nutrition app recommended.
Allows for flexibility in your diet
The number one IIFYM rule is that all foods can fit into your macro plan, with no foods off-limits. In other words, it doesn’t matter where those grams of carbohydrates, fat, or protein are coming from, as long as they add up to your recommended total grams by the end of the day.
This is beneficial as it allows you flexibility in the types and amount of foods you consume at any given time.
What are the cons of macro counting?
If you are thinking of trying macro counting, here are some downsides to consider:
Doesn’t account for food quality
While macro counting does provide benefits, solely focusing on macros may overshadow the most important aspect of nutrition – nourishment. As mentioned, this way of eating allows you to eat any food, as long as it fits within your macros. While this can sound intriguing and more flexible, you may end up consuming foods with lower overall quality, that lack nutritional value and are not nutrient-dense. No matter how perfectly you meet your macro goal, this can leave you feeling hungry.
Food choices shouldn’t be just about their macronutrient content, but about all of the nutrients they provide. Low quality foods may negatively impact your health over time.
Doesn’t account for micronutrients
Although all foods are fair game with macro counting, you may be missing out on essential vitamins and minerals (micronutrients). For example, the majority of your fat grams may be coming from animal sources such as cheese and meats (saturated fats) rather than foods rich in healthy fats such as avocados or nuts which provide nutrients like omega-3s, fiber, and potassium.
By solely counting macros and ignoring other important nutrients, you may end up with a diet missing essential vitamins and minerals.
Can create excessively strict habits
While macro counting provides awareness of how much you’re eating, the constant measuring and tracking may create some excessively strict habits and could even promote disordered eating.
For example, you may become anxious you’ll go over your macros, or worry about how you’ll stick to the plan when eating out. It’s not always possible to measure your food and this can lead to obsessive thoughts about food or feelings of guilt.
If you become mentally preoccupied with dietary choices to the point it’s negatively impacting your mental health, social life, and relationships, this ‘healthy way of eating’ is no longer healthy. If you find this happens to you or you have a history of an eating disorder, macro tracking is likely not the best plan for you physically or mentally. Food is so much more than just the number of grams it contains of certain macros.
May reduce the variety of food
While no foods are technically off limits with macro counting, individuals who count macros tend to get in the habit of eating the same food items over and over again. This is because it’s easier to track when you narrow down your consumption to the same few items.
By doing so, you may reduce the variety of foods you’re eating to save time. Less variety also means fewer vitamins and minerals needed to optimize health. We know that eating a variety of foods, especially plant foods, is beneficial to the overall health of our gut microbiome.
Should I be counting macros?
Counting macros absolutely works for some people, and can provide needed structure in eating specific amounts of each macronutrient. It could be a helpful method when trying to initially understand portion sizes and the makeup of meals, in an effort to manage your weight or build muscle.
However, proper nutrition also needs to embrace nourishment and extends far beyond just macronutrient distribution. You can be hitting your macro numbers every single day, but that doesn’t equate to better health.
For optimal health both mentally and physically, look at the entire picture beyond just macros. An eating pattern that allows you to consume foods you enjoy while emphasizing a healthy meal pattern is optimal, as it is the most sustainable way to eat.
For best results and individual guidance, work with a dietitian who can guide you along your nutrition journey. As registered dietitians and performance coaches, we help active people like you meet your personal goals and maximize your nutrition at the same time.