Counting macros is certainly not a new diet trend, but around the turn of the new year, I hear more questions about this practice and whether there’s any benefit to it. The “macros” in question are macronutrients of carbohydrate, protein and fat. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could just punch in your stats into an online calculator—age, gender, height, weight and your activity level—and receive a formula for exactly how many grams of each macronutrient you need to eat in order to lose, maintain or gain weight? That’s what counting macros promises. But there are a few hitches…
WHAT’S BEHIND THE CALCULATOR?
The science behind the calculator itself is a bit hazy: You can find umpteen online calculators, each cranking out different numbers for the same input. What all have in common, though, is if your goal is weight loss, the calculator prescribes a diet that will put you at a caloric deficit. If you eat less energy than you burn, you’ll lose weight. That’s basic math.
But most calculators assign protein needs at or close to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, making it a very high protein diet. While this may be appropriate for athletes, spending all day chasing down 150 grams (or more) of protein means many on this plan are consuming protein shakes or bars over real food in order to hit a number without much scientific basis. Not only that, a focus on hitting this arbitrary number could easily crowd out other healthful foods, which brings me to my next concern.
QUANTITY OVER QUALITY
Counting macros is often referred to as “flexible dieting” because as long as you hit your numbers, you’re free to eat whatever you choose. That means there’s room for pizza, fries and beer as long as your numbers still add up, hence the annoying hashtag #IIFYM, aka If It Fits Your Macros. You can hit your macros without ever consuming a vegetable or a piece of fruit. Though I haven’t seen any flexible dieting website espousing it explicitly, you could get all your protein from a can of protein powder and all your carbs and fat from Twinkies as long you meet those counts laid out for you in the calculator. If this sounds familiar to some of you, that may be because it’s quite similar to the good old Weight Watchers points game. As long as you stay within your WW points, eat whatever you please!
YOU’RE GONNA NEED TO COMPULSIVELY TRACK
How do you know whether you’ve met your prescribed macro numbers? You’re going to have to track what you eat, and I’m not talking about jotting down your meals in a notebook: You’re going to need to know the carbs, fat and protein in every morsel you eat, and to do that, you’re going to need a food scale and either an app or a serious spreadsheet. You’ll know if someone is counting macros because no bite of food goes into their mouth without the phone coming out to track, track, track.
Hard to disagree with those who refer to macro counting as Intro to Anorexia, as the only way to achieve your numbers is by compulsively analyzing and re-analyzing food intake. It’s an all-consuming exercise.
YOU ARE NOT A MATH PROBLEM
So if you use the calculator, carefully track every bite, and hit your numbers, will you lose weight? It’s likely. Weight loss is a math problem, the numbers at the end of that formula promote caloric restriction.
But here’s my biggest beef with counting macros: This practice isn’t sustainable long term without compromising your quality of life. It further separates us from our connection with bodies and our hunger.
It tells you that you cannot be trusted to know when you are hungry and what your body and brain wants and needs. It takes away our agency, putting in place FOOD RULES that must be OBEYED.
Yes, you can lose weight on a restricted calorie diet, like flexible dieting—or the Twinkie Diet or the Potato Diet for that matter—but there’s a cost. What do I recommend instead? Ditch the counting and focus on eating real whole food. There’s no sexy hashtag, and it doesn’t sound cool on Instagram, but a truly healthful diet—one that doesn’t just add up to weight loss, but also promotes HEALTH—is made up of about half vegetables and fruit (heavier on the vegetables), about a quarter lean whole proteins, about a quarter whole grains and/or starchy vegetables, plus plenty of water and movement. It also leaves room for pizza, fried and cake when we treat them as treats and not as diet staples.
Need support adopting a way of eating to discover the healthiest, most empowered version of you? Get in touch, and let’s talk about it.