“Oh, I’m not on a diet. I’m just tracking my macros.”
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard something along those lines, I’d be well on my way to early retirement from my work as a dietitian.
This declaration of a lifestyle choice comes from clients, friends, family members, acquaintances, colleagues in healthcare or fitness. Even strangers in the grocery store or at public events have felt the need to disclose their dedication to meticulously tracking every bite they take.
They’ll say, “I’m not on a diet.” Uh huh, sure. I think to myself.
That’s because I notice them doing the mental math to calculate how many calories are in each meal. Or tallying up the grams of carbohydrates, fat, or protein to make sure it “fits” in their plan.
Not on a diet? Well…technically no.
But macro tracking and calorie counting are both tools of dieting for the intent of changing your body. Whether it’s weight loss, muscle gain, or any other intentional manipulation of your body size or shape, eating with that goal in mind constitutes a diet.
Bottom line: this is one (of several) habits around food and eating that I wish would just cease to exist.
Your body doesn’t need you to track your macros.
What Are Macros and How Do You Track Them?
“Macro” means macronutrient, or the nutrients that provide our bodies with energy and are measured in gram amount. We also have micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, that are measured in milligram or smaller amounts. One gram of carbohydrate has four calories. So does one gram of protein. One gram of fat has nine calories, and that’s just about all you need to know to quickly become a self-taught expert in macro tracking.
Seriously. That’s it.
In theory, without any nutrition knowledge at all, one could become quite skillful at reading labels, performing simple math, and staying within certain parameters of how many grams to consume each day. The most common method starts with estimating energy needs (calories), and divvying them up between percentages of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. From there, you’d divide by four, four, and nine and end up with the number of grams needed each day. Tinker around with the percentages based on whatever goals you have in mind and you’re all set to go out there and crush it.
Except for one little detail.
Achieving better health is never that simple.
Brief Physiology Lesson
There are instances when knowing how many grams of carbs, protein, or fat you’re eating is recommended or even necessary. Maybe you’re an athlete with performance goals who needs to prioritize protein or carbohydrates for refueling and recovery. Maybe you have Type 1 diabetes and need to know how many carbs you’re eating to accurately dose insulin.
Let’s be very clear: eating for better health is never about black & white, all-or-nothing thinking. There will always be exceptions. But the major difference is the mindset. A person with Type 1 diabetes doesn’t need to count carbs for the sake of tracking their macros; they do it to accurately dose a life-saving medication. An athlete doesn’t measure grams of carbs during endurance training to lose weight; they do it to make sure they don’t underfuel their body and risk injury or poor recovery.
Mindset and intent is everything.
Now, back to basic physiology. Without diving too deeply into how the body digests, absorbs, and utilizes the energy it gets from food, just know this:
- Macronutrients are absorbed in one of only a few forms. Simple sugars and starches can be absorbed and converted to glucose (energy). Meanwhile, fiber is excreted. Proteins are denatured and absorbed as amino acids. Fat goes through a process to separate fatty acids from their glycerol backbone.
- Yes, there are differences in the source. The simple carbohydrates from sugar are going to have a different effect than eating high-fiber, complex carb food. But your body is going to absorb and use the energy from that simple carbohydrate whether it came from a piece of fruit or a high-dollar, gluten-free, paleo-approved cupcake.
- Your body doesn’t keep a running tally, your brain does. Our energy needs change. It is normal. It is natural. And regardless of how inactive you are you still deserve to eat to nourish your body, without running through the math to factor out whatever you would have “burned off” in a workout.
- You aren’t going to change your health or your body with one meal or in a single day. Isolating such small increments of time is a colossal waste of time because the big picture is what really matters.
Take a look at this example from dietitian Fiona Willer of Unpacking Weight Science. This graphic shows four people, all considered “weight stable” based on BMI.
I mean, just look at that. There are days these people ate a lot. There are days they didn’t eat much at all. The researches noted periods of overeating that lasted days or months. What does all of this mean?
You can vary your intake from day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and not see a significant change.
One key thing they also noted? Study subjects with less consistent body weight also reported more fluctuations in the energy density of their diet. In layman’s terms: people who had a more chaotic pattern of eating (such as binge eating followed by purging and restriction) saw more changes in their weight.
Let’s also note that restriction doesn’t always come in the form of eating less.
It can also be a restrictive mindset, such as the habit of someone who tracks their macros to be diligent on most days, but allow a “cheat meal” or “cheat day” and create some of that chaotic eating described above.
That’s a big reason why I take issue with “If It Fits Your Macros” or IFFYM. It perpetuates the idea that as long as food “fits” into your macro ranges, it’s a good choice. Cheat meals and cheat days aren’t necessary when all foods are permitted, regardless of how many grams of carbs, protein, or fat they have.
Macro Tracking is a First World Problem
There are a lot of first world problems out there (intermittent fasting, I’m looking at you next).
But let’s take a moment and just think about the level of privilege and access one has to have to even be able to track your macros in the first place. To get started, let’s assume you have all or most of the following:
- Education. You understand (at least, to some degree) what carbs, protein, fat, and calories are.
- Time. You can afford to devote time and mental bandwidth to think about your food this way. You can take time to enter the info needed to plan, measure, and track your food.
- Choice. You have choices when it comes to food and are free to make selections from what is available.
- Food Access. You likely don’t feel the pressure of food insecurity and can trust you’ll have another meal or opportunity to eat later.
- Money. Let’s assume you aren’t tracking macros on scrap paper with a pencil that lost its eraser. The majority of people who track macros are using technology in some way, whether that’s journaling in spreadsheets, apps on their phone, or with a coach whose services they pay for.
And, at least in my experience, and many people who track their macros also have a pretty disordered relationship with food and/or their body.
It’s just not necessary. And it’s just not helpful.
After all, what did humans do for thousands of years before we knew what calories were?
Nutrition science is a very young field. It wasn’t until a few generations ago that we learned what macronutrients were, what they did, and how they fit into our eating patterns. Humans of centuries past certainly did not spend any time wondering how many of each they were getting or meticulously tracking them in apps or journaling tools.
The point is, that connection to what your body needs for fuel is there. In a modern society where we are faced with messages from diet culture around every turn and plentiful food options, it’s easier than ever to learn to ignore that connection.
But many people do just that.
If we compare the attitudes towards food and health in the United States, it’s a stark contrast to some other regions of the world. It’s an interesting (albeit, disappointing) phenomenon to observe how attitudes towards food and bodies evolve when American or Western culture begins to infiltrate other cultures. There remain people and cultures who don’t rely on MyFitness Pal to guide their food choices. Some of the healthiest populations in the world prioritize things like a variety of foods, community or family-style meals, enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction.
Perhaps it’s ironic there isn’t a widely-downloaded app designed to measure those things — we simply don’t value these subjective measurements as much as we love the objectivity of counting calories or grams of macronutrients.
Does Tracking Your Macros Work?
Short Answer: It depends.
Long Answer: It might, depending on your reasons and motivation for tracking macros.
But at what cost? Unless there is a physiological need as discussed above, it perpetuates disordered eating behaviors around food and often leads to unsustainable dieting habits.
To Recap: Your Body Doesn’t Need You To Track Your Macros
Here are a few reasons why:
We don’t eat nutrients; we eat food.
Food is more than energy and nutrition. To say we eat only for those reasons is like saying people only have sex for procreation. Your relationship with food is part of mental and emotional health, both of which are part of overall health.
If stressing about nutrients and tracking macros harms those, guess what? It’s not a healthy behavior!
Appetite and energy needs can and will change.
This is natural and normal. Trying to fight this is a fight against our physiology.
It bears repeating because so often we’re afraid or anxious about our appetite. We want to control our hunger. We don’t want to grant permission to respond to it.
Macro tracking is one way to keep our appetite in check because we use the logical knowledge that we’re meeting all of our nutrition needs to convince us not to eat if hunger pops up.
Your body doesn’t run on continuous 24-hour cycles.
Sure, we know about circadian rhythms. We experience a natural ebb and flow on our body clock. But there is no internal stopwatch counting down the minutes until the clock rolls over at midnight. Our bodies don’t hit a reset button when we start a new day. I mean, how confusing would it be to try to maintain that when you fly back and forth between timezones? I’ve never done it but the math alone would just about make my head spin.
Everything you need to become an intuitive eater is already there. It’s not easy. It’s hard to reject diet culture and begin trusting your body again.
One small step towards that is letting go of external tools like tracking your macros. We can learn to trust our bodies, understand our appetites, and create new patterns for eating in a manner that supports total health.
If you didn’t track your food or use an app to journal every meal, how much more time would you have? How many fewer things would you have to worry about?