Protein, carbs, and fat...these macronutrients are synonymous with weight loss, weight gain, and overall health performance.
You’ve probably heard of such things as “tracking your macros” and either know exactly what is meant by that, or get more confused as to what you should eat.
To put it simply, every food consists of a base foundation of “macros”. These macros provide particular amounts of energy for your body and are generally broken down and used in different ways.
What I want to go over today with you is the fact that tracking your macros probably matters a whole lot less than you are being told.
I’ll go over exactly how you can break free from the urgency of tracking your macros and find freedom in your food selections.
What is a macronutrient?
Macronutrients are as mentioned above, the base foundation of what food is made of. Food is inherently energy stored in which your body takes in by first chewing (physically breaking down the food), to swallowing and having the stomach further break down the food, which then passes onto the small intestine for body absorption.
A macronutrient is called a “macro” because you need lots of it to operate your body effectively. Therefore it applies to a “macro” scale, or larger scale of importance.
You’ve probably heard of “micronutrients” which consist of vitamins and minerals that aid in the body's functions. However you need far less of these in your body to run effectively, therefore they are considered “micro”!
Makes sense right? I hope so because we are diving a little deeper now…
The 3 major macronutrients are Carbohydrates, Protein, and Fat.
Carbohydrates contain 4 kcal/gram (or 4 calories per gram)
Protein contain 4kcal/gram
Fat contains 9kcal/gram
What this means is for every gram of let’s say...pasta that you eat, each gram will consist of 4 calories.
It’s clear with the numbers here that fat is the most energy packed source since it consists of 9 grams, more than double the amount per gram of protein and carbohydrate. (This is why you’ll notice how only a small handful of nuts can get up to a high caloric amount!)
I won’t go into detail about what each macronutrient will provide for your body (this is for another discussion).
However the takeaway for this point here is to recognize that all foods will have a ratio of each macronutrient.
Let’s take for example a whole wheat English muffin (one of our go-to sources of carbohydrates for breakfasts!)
As you can see in the picture, one serving of an English muffin will contain:
1g of total fat (which would account for 9 calories)
23g of carbohydrates (which would account for 92 calories)
5g of protein (which would account for 20 calories)
This brings a total of 121 calories (per serving it says 120, technically there’s only .5g of fat!)
Having fun with math yet?
Why tracking macros have become so popular
With everything related to health and fitness, having a plan to track numbers is highly encouraged, practiced, and taught by many coaches and doctors.
It makes sense…
When we break down exactly how weight gain or weight loss occurs, it comes down to how many calories does your body need to sustain itself, and how many calories of food are you consuming each day.
If you over consume, you will be in a caloric surplus and therefore gain weight.
If you under consume, you will be in a caloric deficit and lose weight.
We like things “simple” and concrete so this gives a very numerical, trackable outlet to make the changes that you wish to see in your body and health.
You can’t really hide the fact that you are struggling to lose weight if you are “counting calories and macros” religiously.
There is a popular diet trend called “IIFYM” or If It Fits Your Macros.
This belief of diet and weight control focuses solely on those macronutrients mentioned above. So for example if you required 100g of protein, 200g of carbs, and 70g of fat each day to “hit your macros”, you’ll be in line with the goal you set out.
Those macros would result in 1830 calories total.
Now if you want to lose weight and are in a deficit at that caloric amount, any foods that fall into those macros would be in line with your goal.
If you can’t see it yet - macro tracking is the same exact thing as calorie counting, just with a different name and different measurements.
Honestly it’s just another way to count the same thing...amount of food you intake each day.
Counting calories and macros isn’t a sure thing
If I’m telling you that doctors and coaches recommend some type of counting of macros to help you achieve your goal of weight loss or gain, how can I possibly start turning to the other side to say, “Tracking macros and calories are probably useless to you”.
I’ll preface this section by saying this: I personally have done some calorie and macro tracking about 5 years ago using myfitness pal. I used it to gain an understanding of how much I really was eating... however it was a short lived process.
I don’t count anything now yet continue to stay lean and confident about myself knowing that I’m eating the right foods.
So I have experience here - I’ve done it both ways and I know first hand what feels better to me.
Let me explain:
Your energy demands everyday are different. Some days we are ravenous and some days we barely need food to feel energized through the day.
Some days you get more sleep than others, some days you are lethargic and need an energy bump
Some days you exercise more or less, more intensity or less intensity.
Some days you are just having a bad day, sometimes you feel awesome.
Some days are jam packed with meetings and responsibilities, some days are empty with plenty of free time (although I’m sure less of the latter here for most parents!)
In our own individual, ever-changing worlds we will certainly need varying amounts of energy depending on those few factors mentioned above.
So when it comes to setting a standard amount of food every single day with a number attached to it - it’s unrealistic to think that every single day you’ll need or want to eat exactly 1830 calories.
Is tracking something that is easy for you?
With anything in life - consistency is king.
When it comes to food, and exercise - look at those people who you might look up to or admire about their fitness level.
Have they just started 2 months ago, stopped for a few weeks, started again for 4 months, stopped for 6 months?
Have they been doing it for 10 years with small changes along the way?
I’m going to guess the latter here again - people who do things for a long time see changes occur and STICK for the long-term.
So I ask you - is tracking food something you feel you can be consistent with?
For many, tracking food and macros gives a sense of relief or the knowledge that they are in fact “on point” or “on track”.
And this is fine...if that is you, keep doing your thing and don’t let me start telling you how tracking macros is useless!
As long as you feel you are making progress and that the tracking of food isn’t a chore or a bother - do your thing and ignore me!
However I think for most people...tracking gets old pretty quickly. This is of course just my anecdotal experience, but nonetheless it’s something that I’ve seen and have felt myself.
The emotional impact of tracking
For those who have used a tracking app - how do you feel when you see those calories in the red or green?
Does this trigger a response like…”Wow I overate again today...I can’t do this”
“Wow I still need to eat 300 more calories today but I’m not even hungry!”
“My protein intake is low today but I just don’t have the time to get more in today”
Now maybe having these thoughts only once in a while won’t hurt you much...but what if you feel this way every single day?
The focus on your calories, your food, your macros becomes too much. It’s exhausting just trying to envision what life would be like with these questions circling in my head every single day.
And I think that’s where coaches or doctors get stuff wrong - they forget about the human side of food and the impact on our emotional and mental health.
We all want to believe that we can achieve great things, that we can make that change and better ourselves. However when we live our lives in these tight constraints of X amount of protein, X amount of carbs, X amount of fat...we allow ourselves to be easily judged by our own selves!
It’s very clear if you are or aren’t “doing the right thing” when you log numbers into an app. And again for some this might not be a bother for you...but I’ve heard many, many stories of how this number tracking becomes obsessive.
Trust yourself - trust your body
Your body knows best...if you just listen to it, it will tell you how it feels.
Without having any idea of how many macros and calories are in a nice pasta dish at a restaurant, how do you normally feel after?
Are you feeling bloated and stuffed to the gills?
Are you feeling light, energized, clear headed?
Your body isn’t going to lie to you and it won’t let you down. It will tell you if you ate too much or too little.
And this is where the trust in yourself comes into play.
Macros create this false sense of security because it breaks down food, emotion, and family dinners into numbers.
Numbers appear to be simple...they are concrete and have no wiggle room. A piece of steak that weighs 8oz will almost always have the same amount of fat and protein.
Trusting yourself to know when to stop, or when to eat more is far more up in the air. It is based more on feeling than it is on concrete numbers.
This is more difficult and why I believe many people say things like:
“Oh I just can’t control myself around *insert favorite dessert here*”
I call nonsense on you! If you can’t control yourself around it, who can control it for you?
I can almost guarantee that if you took a break while eating your favorite dessert and took 2 minutes...yes 120 seconds to stop, check in with yourself and see how you truly feel about continuing to eat...you’ll learn far more about yourself than if you instead went to log in how many macros of carbs/fats/protein there was in your brownie.
And isn’t this the goal for us, as humans? To learn more about ourselves?
What you can do to learn about how food makes you feel
Here are some very simple strategies that you can do today to help you shift your mindset from calorie/macro tracking into a more intuitive, mindful approach.
Take 5 minutes after each meal to reflect on what you ate, and how you feel. By simply checking in with yourself 10 minutes AFTER you put the fork down, check to see how hungry you still are. Are you feeling a little sick to your stomach? Do you feel like you need to unbutton the pants? No judgements here - just gain some awareness as to how that meal made you feel.
Keep a food journal for 2 weeks. Simply write down what you ate (excluding any numbers!) followed by how you are before, during, and after. In 2 weeks you can learn a hell of a lot if you write down every meal. You can then look back and see how different meals impact how you feel.
Take a halftime break, or a time out while eating. Simply put down your fork when you are halfway done with your plate. Drink some water, take a few breaths and reflect on how your body feels at that moment. If you are starting to feel full, you might only need a few more bites to satisfy your current hunger level.
Become okay with eating different amounts each day. This one might be a little more difficult - but truthfully your body will need different amounts of food each day. As much as we like to think of our bodies as machines there’s far more to it than just numbers going in and out.
Remember, you eat food...not macros. When you go to sit down for your dinner with the family, do you see each food as 20g protein, 40g carbs, and 15g fats? OR do you see a piece of chicken, roasted potatoes, and avocado? You don’t eat the numbers, you eat food.
I hope this can help you to gain confidence in your own self knowing how your body should feel, or how it does feel after eating different foods and amounts.
Numbers can work for many, however don’t feel guilty or shameful if you find that counting calories and macros is too much work. I know for me - it’s not something I’ll probably ever do again. (Unless I decide to become a bodybuilder...that’s more important than!)
But if you are reading this - I doubt you are a bodybuilder or aspire to be one.
Ditch the trackers and start to practice trusting yourself!