If you’re even remotely close to the fitness industry, or someone in it, you’ve heard of the concept of “if it fits your macros.” For some, it's a way of life. For others, even the thought of keeping detailed notes on exactly what and how much they consume is their worst nightmare. So, I wanted to do a little breakdown and analysis of some benefits of macro counting, and maybe you can decide for yourself whether you could pull enough benefit out of the experience to give it a go.
History Behind Macro Counting
Keeping track of your macronutrients is essentially a smarter way to count calories. All calories are NOT created equal. My easiest analogy here is to compare 200 calories of sour patch kids vs. 200 calories of a smoothie that you made with protein, berries, and a handful of spinach. It doesn’t take a Mensa candidate to determine that the smoothie is going to fuel and satiate you 100 times better than those little sour dudes. Why?? It’s significantly more NUTRIENT dense than it is CALORIE dense, which is why you get so much more bang for your buck. Not to mention the zero guilt you’ll experience after consuming it. So…since basic calorie content has been debunked time and time again, it’s time to have a look at what we can count (for us quantitative individuals), that’ll actually help us reach our goals.
The idea of tracking the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat) behind the calories makes a whole lot of sense, so one can learn how to optimally produce a ratio of the 3 to create the desired results (whether it happens to be body composition, athletic performance, or something energy-related). Of course, you ultimately achieve a caloric intake goal with a combination of those macronutrients….but you’re able to get significantly more productive results with elevated concentration on where those calories actually come from. Make sense?
Note: This has the potential of being an insanely lengthy article…so for now, I’m going to just barely scratch the surface of the micronutrient (vitamins/minerals) involvement in the picture. But, for now...PLEASE don't become one of those standard "it fits my macros" dummies, that eats 500 calories of sour patch kids because they can squeeze it into their carb requirement. Pack in nutrient dense foods and the occasional treat to help keep your sanity :) #pleaseandthanks
How Do You Know How Much?
There are many calculators out there. The two most common in my recent experience are:
Don’t be shy! Go have a look and try to calculate out approximately what you “should” be consuming. It’s a great place to start! Another solid idea is to go to CompositionID and get your Resting Metabolic Rate tested, so you have an idea of the total caloric intake required, and then play with macronutrient ratios from there.
Will You Reach Your Goals?
Say you have a fat loss goal and you go to the IIFYM calculator. It spits out a few numbers, let’s say 1700 calories, made up of 150g Protein (600 cal), 150g Carbs (600 cal), and 45g Fat (roughly 500 cal).
The good news?
If you plug those numbers as goals into your “myfitnesspal” app, and you diligently stick with the numbers to a “T”, you’ll probably see some great results! Why? Who knows, the answer to that question is different for everyone. Maybe it reduced your total caloric intake. Maybe it helped you drastically cut back on sugar and other empty calories with no micronutrient value. Maybe it got you to increase your protein consumption by 50g, which left you more satiated and stopped you from binging on half a bag of potato chips because you were bored-hungry. All great moves in a direction towards better health and goal achievement!
The less good news…
Your body is ever-changing. What worked for you to “lose all that weight” in 2014 is pretty much guaranteed to not work for you today. Hormones change, daily activity changes, recreation activities shift throughout the years. When you lose (or gain) a lot of weight, particularly in a short period of time, your body’s requirements for nutrient intake will change completely. So we have to be aware of that. AND…the human body is an incredibly intelligent, adaptable creature. There will be a point that the initial 1700 calories of 150P:150C:45F is appropriate for maintenance, but not appropriate for the change in activity you’re experiencing because you decided to marathon train again. I know we’re all creatures of habit, but we NEED to understand that our body is complex, and that what works perfectly one week might not be appropriate the next. That’s the beauty of being human!
Macro counting can be a headache. Let’s be honest. If you’re TRULY counting your macronutrient consumption, you’re breaking out that food scale and measuring out every single gram of everything you put in your mouth. That means condiments, sauces (and their entire contents), precooked meat, drinks, etc. This also means you’re likely not eating anything out because you don’t know who cooked it and how they prepared it. And alcohol is always a weird one when adding it into the equation. Sounds like a good time, eh? And let’s not even discuss hormonal contribution to this. If we’re eating in a stressed state vs. non-stressed state, there’s likely a significant difference in the nutrient absorption rate in the gut, which can have a huge impact on how your body actually receives what you just gave it. And what about the details (yes, this means ALL of the above wasn’t details at all)?? A peach that is barely ready to eat likely has significantly less carbs than a really sweet, ripe Georgia peach. So entering “peach” into your app could mean two different things on two different days. Talk about a headache :(
Macro counting has a great amount of benefits. You can see how your body is responding to a baseline amount of each macronutrient for your given level of activity. You can then manipulate those numbers and see if you continue to get positive results! For beginners, it can be incredibly eye-opening, whether it be due to teaching you how to recognize carbs vs fat vs protein, or how to sorta-accurately determine portion size (aka a palm-sized protein portion is likely 30-50g of protein). Maybe getting behind the concept of macro counting inspires you to do more cooking rather than grabbing Whole Foods hot bar every day. For the more advanced, maybe you’re noticing performance trends, and learn how to make minor adjustments on workout days vs non-workout days, to maximize performance while maintaining lean body mass (hello DEXA scan).
Take it for what it is. Is it a diet? Not really. That’s the primary reason why I support it. Learning about macronutrients and how they impact your energy levels, sleep quality, body composition, and performance is beneficial for EVERYBODY. Give it a shot!
Teresa Harris can be found at Equinox every morning, having fun with her fitness clients. She loves to geek out on the psychology of eating (aka "why did I just eat a whole pint of Ben & Jerry's and now feel like shit?"), and is always in search of new, interesting things to cook. You'll likely catch her at DuPont Farmer's Market Sunday mornings, in search of a random ingredient to challenge herself with.
Check her out @ betterthanfitness.com.