You’ve probably overheard someone at your local gym talking about tracking their macros. Maybe your trainer has suggested you should be tracking your macros, or perhaps you’ve taken it upon yourself to look into the details of your food consumption with one of the many macro-tracking apps available.
In this article, I will discuss the benefits and the downsides of tracking your macros. – yep, there are downsides. My perspective here is as a consulting naturopath. My nutrition training is in naturopathic nutrition and Eastern Ayurvedic nutrition, so my viewpoint will differ from a dietitian or a personal trainer.
Naturopathy is a modality of healing that aims to support the body’s natural healing processes. The underlying philosophy of naturopathy is about working with and treating the whole individual, so using broad-sweeping statements or assuming a one-size-fits-all approach to any health condition goes against these naturopathic principles.
Ok, so let’s get into it.
What does “tracking your macros.” mean?
Let’s start with a definition of ‘macros.’. ‘Macros’ is an abbreviation for macronutrients, and those macronutrients are proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
Seems simple enough, huh?
These three macronutrients comprise the more significant parts of the foods and drinks we consume. Everything we eat contains a combination of proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
Tracking your macros is a term used to record your intake of these three nutrients, and it’s often with a specific goal to make observations and improvements to your diet.
For a little on the basics of macronutrients:
Protein is used in the body for repairing and building tissues – muscles, bones, cartilage and skin. The building blocks of proteins, amino acids are also precursors for neurotransmitters, regulate the immune system and play a significant role in just about every structural element in the body.
Fats are essential precursors for hormones, comprise a significant component of the brain and nervous system, support cell wall function and provide an excellent fuel source for the body.
Carbohydrates provide food for the microflora, fuel cellular function, regulate blood sugar levels and are the premium source of fuel for the body.
How do you track your macros.?
Fortunately, these days several free phone applications allow you to easily and quickly record your food and drink consumption – many have features that allow you to scan barcodes and create a list of your favourite or frequently consumed foods.
Tracking your macros is not a new thing, though. Back when I studied nutrition … we would use a textbook with the breakdown of the macronutrients of each food consumed, and we’d record it all by hand in our trusty exercise book. For processed foods, you would manually write down the nutritional profile, and sometimes, you would have to guestimate ratios based on whatever information you could find.
I’m sure you could still pick up a macro tracking book at a second-hand store if you wanted to track your macros the old-fashioned way.
But most people use one of the many available apps for their macronutrient tracking. Still, my favourite is Cronometer – I’ve found that with just the free version, you can access premium-style features with minimal intrusive advertisements.
Why should I track my macros.?
There can be many reasons to track your macronutrient intake, which can differ for everyone. But essentially, tracking your macronutrient intake can give you vital information on how you’re fuelling your body and where you might be going off track with your health or fitness goals.
There are many different theories on what percentages or proportions of each of the three macronutrients you should have, and all of this depends on your perspective and what health conditions or concerns you are working with.
The most common reason people track their macros these days is to increase their protein intake to help with their fitness goals. Other reasons could be to monitor your overall caloric intake, decrease your carbohydrate intake, and monitor your blood sugar levels. However, there are numerous other reasons to track your macronutrient intake too.
Who shouldn’t track their macronutrients?
Although it might sound silly, tracking your macros seems on-trend now; honestly, it’s not for everyone.
Someone with a history of an eating disorder or mental health issues may find tracking macros more harmful than beneficial. If, for any reason, you feel that recording your macronutrient intake is overwhelming or is becoming an obsession, please speak with your healthcare practitioner for some guidance on your health.
Also, as a practitioner, tracking macros is something other than what I suggest regularly to clients. If there is no specific goal or reason to track macros, then there is no point to it – so without a goal, why track?
The Downsides of Tracking Your Macros.
The assumption that when you track your macros, it’s going to be true and accurate can be misleading.
Tracking your macros is never going to be entirely accurate. A few variables need to be considered, including the accuracy of the application you’re using, the estimation of your energy use and output, weighing and measuring your food, and, of course, accurate macro tracking relies on you remembering to track everything you consume.
The accuracy of your energy output will only ever be a rough estimate, and the amount of calories you ‘burn’ walking or doing yoga will be variably estimated with tracking apps.
The psychology of tracking
Well, this is a big one, and I’m not even going to attempt to cover the whole range of emotions and behaviours that can present themselves when you begin tracking your macros.
Of course, your emotional reaction to tracking your macros will depend on your personality, coping style and life experiences. And it may be a few weeks into tracking your macros that you will start to feel emotionally affected. This is where careful consideration of how you feel tracking your macros is essential, and if necessary, seek help, guidance or support for your wellbeing.
I’ll give you some examples from my experience tracking my macros and what I have found with my clients in the clinic.
Control. On the one hand, you can feel more in control of your food when you’re tracking your macros; on the other, you can feel controlled by tracking your macros. This can lead to imbalances, with a desire to stay in control and not be flexible with what you’re eating or a drive to be out of control and eat whatever you want.
Rigidity. For those who like routine, tracking your macros can seem like the sensible thing to do. However, you might be apprehensive about trying new foods or deviating from your existing and comfortable eating schedule. While this may sound minor, it can affect your social life and connection with friends and family.
Guilt. Guilt often rears its head while you’re tracking your macros. Guilt about what you’ve eaten in the past, what you’re eating now, or what you’re about to eat. If you feel worse about yourself (rather than better) when tracking your macros, then it might be time to review your tracking methods.
Keeping an eye on your mental and emotional well-being is vital when tracking your macros. While it can be a beneficial experience, it can quickly become an unnecessarily stressful process; check in with your healthcare practitioner if you find it overwhelming.
When we use technology or external sources of information to monitor our bodies, we can become disconnected from our physical, mental and emotional bodies and become reliant on the external source of information for validation.
Listening to your body’s cues on your appetite, feelings of hunger and desire for food can sometimes be a more accurate way to monitor your macronutrient intake.
Eating when you’re not hungry or trying to squeeze more protein into your diet just because it’s what your macro tracking app has told you to do will not benefit you in the long run.
My Suggestions When Tracking Your Macros.
Keeping an eye on your macronutrient consumption can be beneficial in so many different ways,
- It can help you to be more mindful of what you are eating,
- Allow you to understand how your nutritional needs change with differing levels of physical activity and
- Find out how your body prefers to be fueled.
It can take time to track your macronutrients, especially if you’ve not measured or weighed your food before. Slowing this food preparation process down to weighing and measuring takes a few weeks to master, and you have to stick with it for a bit to understand how it works.
Depending on the variety of foods you eat and how you prepare your food, it may take two to six weeks to understand food weights and measures.
Once you have reached the stage where you can ‘eye-ball’ the weight of a food and estimate the breakdown of macronutrients, you’re at the stage where you can push the tracking to the side and freestyle your eating again.
I suggest periodically returning to your tracking when you’ve changed your diet or exercise routine or feel something else has changed with your body. You can view your macronutrient tracking with fresh eyes and adjust your meals as necessary.
Just like driving a manual car and working your way down the gears to slow down to take a corner, tracking your macronutrients can become a skill you can become familiar with. You can notice a difference between different foods when you eat them and better understand how to fuel your body for greater efficiency.
Once you have mastered your macro tracking, you can easily manage your weight, energy and overall health by understanding your body.
I see tracking macronutrients as a tool that you learn to master and enable yourself to learn more about your body. It’s not something that I suggest that you do long-term. I discourage this because it can become an unhealthy way of monitoring your food and health.
So when do I reach this point when I’ve mastered my macros.?
Well, I like to see it like having training wheels on your bike. The tracking app is the training wheels to allow you to master your nutrient breakdown without falling off your ‘bike’.
Once you take off the training wheels, you can ride your bike as fast as you want, take the corners real quick, or slow things down to ease your way through the corners.
It’s a skill that some love to master, for others, it is more of a chore than anything else.
Remember that your food comprises more than just protein, fats and carbohydrates, so other micronutrients such as calcium, magnesium and potassium are just as important as flavour, colour, texture and satisfaction.
So that just about covers macronutrient tracking, and the only thing left is for you to either try tracking your macros or decide that it’s something you really don’t need to do. And honestly, even if you don’t track your macros, you can still reach your physical and nutritional health goals just as well.
Do you think I’ve missed anything with this article? If there’s anything that you think I should add, let me know.
The information provided in this article is for information purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. We recommend you consult with a GP or other healthcare professional before taking action based on this article. While the author uses their best endeavours to provide accurate and true content, the author makes no guarantees or promises regarding the accuracy, reliability, or completeness of the information presented. If you rely on any information provided in this article, you do so at your own risk.