Macronutrient tracking has become increasingly popular with people striving to change their body shape and size.
This approach, known as “counting macros” or tracking macronutrients, has both pros and cons.
In this blog, we’ll explore the dynamic world of macros and discuss when tracking them can be beneficial and any drawbacks of counting them.
What are macros, and how do you track them
The prefix macro in the word macronutrients originates from the greek prefix macro – meaning very large in scale scope or capability. (1)
Regarding macronutrients specifically, it refers to the three primary sources of energy (calories) we obtain through food:
- Carbohydrates – 4 calories per gram of carb
- Protein – 4 calories per gram of protein
- Fat – 9 calories per gram of fat
These three macronutrients provide a significant source of energy compared to other nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Tracking macros involves monitoring how much of each macronutrient you consume on a given day.
This can be done either manually or electronically via online apps or software programs. I like to use Cronometer as my food-tracking application.
Pros of counting macros
There are many benefits to tracking your macros. Doing so can help you achieve your health and fitness goals, such as:
- Developing a better understanding of the nutritional content of food
- Better control over portion sizes
- More accurately assessing calorie intake
- Achieving desired energy levels through strategic nutrient timing
- Improved performance in physical activities
- Achieving weight loss or muscle gain goals
Counting macros, also known as flexible dieting, offers flexibility not seen in many other dieting regimens.
There are no forbidden foods, so you can still enjoy your favorites while being confident that your food choices align with your fitness goals.
Whether it’s a vegan or carnivorous lifestyle or a low-carb diet, counting macros allows you to accommodate whatever nutrition is best for your goals.
With macro tracking, you can control and customize the plan that works best for you.
Developing a better understanding of the nutritional content of food
Counting macros is an overlooked but effective way to get a better understanding of the nutritional content of food.
Taking count of each macro in your meal and understanding their differences can help you gain clarity about nutrition and ultimately make healthier choices for yourself. This daily exercise can also help direct you toward reaching your goals related to weight loss or other health targets.
Taking the time to record your macronutrients gives you insight into what exactly is going into your body and serves as a helpful guide in making better nutritional decisions.
Tracking macros offers an invaluable opportunity to reflect on one’s nutrition.
Not only does it provide a detailed insight into the nutritional content of each meal, but it can also help you to recognize patterns in your eating habits.
I like to compare this to money and budgeting. When you are aware of how much money you spend in different categories, it can help you to feel more in control and provide a better understanding of where your money is going.
Similarly, tracking macros helps to give you an understanding of the foods that compose your diet and how they contribute to reaching your goals over time.
By tracking macros, you can also become aware of when you may be exceeding your targeted daily amounts or when perhaps a certain kind of food might not fit into your diet.
This helps develop informed decision-making abilities, leading to more mindful dietary habits.
There is a boatload of variables that make up a healthy, well-balanced diet, and it can feel almost whelming when you are simply flying by the seat of your pants and jumping into the nutrition pool.
Tracking macros allows you to take control of your own dietary needs by giving you some sense of direction.
With this direction, you can adjust your eating habits to ensure you get the right balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
Consistently hitting your proteins, dietary fats, and carbohydrates goals over time allow you to see whether or not you are reaching your goals.
This includes gaining insight into how each meal makes you feel and how your body responds.
In conclusion, monitoring and keeping track of your macronutrients can help you to reach healthier dietary goals by providing daily objectives for protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
Weight Loss/Gaining muscle
As mentioned above, there are a ton of variables that are going to affect a well-balanced diet. This becomes even more convoluted when you layer in a weight loss or muscle-gaining goal.
Because both weight loss and gaining muscle will require a calorie deficit or surplus, respectively, tracking macronutrients ensures that you’re meeting these caloric goals.
Additionally, if you are trying to lose weight and/or build muscle, it’s important to get enough protein each day, and by tracking your protein intake, you can rest assured that you indeed meeting this requirement.
We won’t go into detail here, but you can read the blog post on how long it takes to see results from counting macros to get a better understanding of the time it will take to hit your goals.
While there are many benefits to tracking macros, there are some drawbacks that you should be aware of.
Cons of counting macros
Now, just like with anything else, tracking your macros isn’t without its drawbacks. Some potential cons of counting macros include:
- Becoming overly focused on the numbers
- Not accounting for micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals
- Not accounting for satisfaction from eating
- Increasing stress levels due to having to count and measure food
- Reducing flexibility in your diet
- Making it difficult to eat out or travel
The first drawback to counting and tracking your macros is that it can be tedious and time-consuming, resulting in increased stress levels.
With our current system of agriculture, processing, and grocery stores, we have taken the traditional process of preparing food out of our hands.
We no longer need to worry about sourcing food. This has made it so we can focus on our careers, families, and hobbies.
Spending more time and mental energy on what we eat can take away from these experiences.
Counting and tracking your macros requires you to measure portion sizes, keep track of nutritional information, and calculate the breakdown of your daily intake.
Not accounting for micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals
The second drawback to tracking macros is that it requires you to focus on the numbers or grams of protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
This makes it hard to factor in other important aspects of nutrition, such as micronutrients and fiber.
It may promote obsessive dieting behaviors.
Becoming hyper-focused on counting macros and tracking meals can create a fixation on calorie numbers and percentages, leading to unhealthy dieting behaviors.
When you become too fixated on the minutiae of your macro breakdown, it can be hard to pay attention to other aspects of nutrition, such as feelings of being satisfied and the joy which food brings.
This can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and increases the probability of developing disordered eating patterns.
Not everyone is the same.
Nutrition science is still in its infancy. We are starting to see the relationship between individual genetic makeup and the biodiversity of our microbiome, which can affect how people metabolize and absorb nutrients.
This means that what works for one person may not work for another, so it’s important to find a plan tailored to your unique needs rather than trying to fit into any specific diet or nutrition plan.
It can cause anxiety/stress if you don’t hit the targets
Tracking macronutrient intakes can become a counterproductive exercise when people obsess over reaching specific figures, neglecting their mental welfare in the process.
Counting macros can be quite difficult because of its precise nature, and if these goals are not met by the end of the day, this can lead to feelings of anxiety or stress.
In worst cases, an obsession with hitting a specific macro goal can form and cause seriously disordered eating patterns. As such, counting macros should only be done with understanding nutrition and being mindful of how it affects overall well-being.
Difficult to maintain long term
As with any diet regimen, consistency and long-term adherence are key to seeing lasting results.
Counting macros can be quite rigid and hard to maintain over a lengthy period, meaning that people may find it difficult or tiring to stick with it.
For those looking to make long-term changes in their diet and lifestyle, counting macros may not be the best option.
Although it may help to reach a short-term goal, other approaches, such as intuitive eating, may be better suited to make lasting changes.
Although tracking your macros can provide valuable insight into nutrition, flexibility, and an opportunity to reflect on dietary habits, it is important to recognize that there are certain disadvantages.
While macro-tracking can be a beneficial tool for improving one’s eating habits, it should not be the only option in your nutritional arsenal.
With disadvantages like being time-consuming, stressful, and not taking into account other important nutrients, counting macros may not be the best choice for everyone.
As a dietitian, I always suggest that people weigh the pros and cons of counting macros before they decide what the best approach for them is.
Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.