What’s tracking "Macros" and should I be doing it?
If you follow me on social media you may have seen my recent post on Macros.
Tracking macros is a hot diet trend. You may have wondered, what’s this all about, and is this is a good approach for me? Read on if you want to know more about Macros, my thoughts, and the pros and cons of tracking them. Why trust me? Good question. I’m a registered dietitian with a science backing and lots of training under my belt. I also specialize in sport nutrition, and healthy weight management, keeping sustainability and safety at the root of my reccos. So let’s get into it.
What are Macros?
Macros, short for Macronutrients are essential calorie containing nutrients. Compare this to Micronutrients, essential vitamins and minerals that come from foods, but NOT calorie containing. There are only three Macros: Protein, Fats and Carbohydrates; each contain a set amount of calories per gram. Protein = 4 kcal/g, Fats = 9 kcal/g, and Carbs 4 kcal/g. Alcohol, not considered a macronutrient contains 7 kcal/g. Each macronutrient has its own unique function and role in the body which I’ll discuss later in this blog.
You’ve already gained some crucial information about the foods you eat daily. That is, that each macro has a different role in the body, AND that the calorie density of foods depends on the macronutrient content of them. For example, foods higher in fats, like avocado, have a larger calorie density per volume, compared to lean protein foods like chicken breast. Some foods like yogurt or legumes have more than one macronutrient; some have all three, some have only one. If you build a balanced plate with a combination of foods, it’s likely that you have all the macronutrients in one meal. Ever wonder how the calories on a food label are determined? Well, you multiply the number of grams of each macro indicated by the kcal/g of that macro and add them all up to get TOTAL calories per serving.
Some diets restrict entire macro groups. Ketogenic diets for example focus almost solely on fats, with moderate protein, and virtually no carb. Is this safe? It depends. What’s important to know, is that manipulating macronutrients can have different impacts on different people for different reasons. Some may even have a therapeutic or medical purpose. While one diet may be indicated for one individual based on certain goals, health status, and lifestyle choices, the same diet could be risky or sabotaging for another. Furthermore, before embarking on more extreme approaches, examining the pros and cons to ensure you’re getting what YOU need, doing it safely, assessing the sustainability, and how it aligns with YOUR goals, is key.
“Tracking my macros"
Say I have three clients eating 1800 calories, what they eat and the macronutrient balance could be very different based on their goals. This could be weight, health and/or performance related.
When it comes to “tracking macros”, there’s a couple approaches. One way requires intensive measuring and weighing ALL your food and tracking it in an app. Another simply encourages a deeper understanding of food labels, and an increased awareness of the composition of your foods and their unique roles. BOTH may involve some degree of “macro tracking”. The objective either way is recognizing that in addition to calories, manipulating macronutrients matters.
Do I need to track my food to track my macros? Not necessarily. BUT, most of us, don’t intuitively know how many grams of protein, carbs and fats are in our foods, or calories for that matter. Many of us have never learned label reading, or really have an understanding of the weight or volume of the food on our plate, and generally speaking, our “estimations” are pretty poor. So, when embarking on making changes to our nutrition and learning more about what we eat, tracking food for a period of time can build awareness, accountability and can be a useful tool in educating oneself about food and their intake. Knowledge is power.
Too much knowledge though, if not guided and used properly can lead to unsustainable eating patterns, over obsessing, and risks removing any intuitive eating practices or true hunger cues. This isn’t good and can trigger disordered eating. It can also be a fruitless waste of time and effort if the data isn’t applied properly.
Do I need to weigh and track my food to see results?
I get this question alot. The answer is, it depends. While loose measuring and logging food in the short term is beneficial for almost all clients trying to make changes and learn about their intake, there are specific individuals listed below that may benefit from more advanced “macro tracking”; meaning weighing raw foods and tracking every bite in an app.
Someone wanting very accurate information about their intake. Usually this is for high performance or physique athletes during a cut or a bulk
Those needing or desiring VERY fine tuned body composition results
Someone with weight or performance goals where other more sustainable efforts have not resulted in success to date
NOTE: I would highly suggest this be guided by a nutrition professional and used only in the short term. Those with a current or past history of disordered eating should not do this.
While calories in calories out is the standard approach to weight loss, weight maintenance, or weight gain, we also know that the quality and composition of those calories does have an impact on success. As mentioned, this depends on goals; which is to say that not everyone’s macronutrient needs, and "success" measures are the same. Keep in mind there may be other health or optimization instances outside of just body comp change, where looking at macros is indicated. From a performance nutrition standpoint, understanding macros is invaluable.
Given that macros contain different calories per gram, understanding what we eat and how that impacts total daily intake is a great piece of knowledge, as is knowing the magic behind each macro. The very first step is building a database of what foods contain what types of macronutrients so you can functionally apply all this to your daily meal planning. As you advance your nutrition goals, how you time your macros may further step up your game.
Now, here’s some key characteristics about the three macronutrients that will help you understand more.
A huge macronutrient powerhouse, protein has a high satiety factor, a higher thermogenic impact (so positively impacts metabolism), as well as muscle building, repair, and protecting qualities. We also are less likely to store excess protein calories as fat. Due to these qualities higher protein diets are key to manipulating and maintaining a healthy body composition, especially for athletes, obese individuals, and aging populations. Calories being equal, higher protein ratios work well for more sustainable fat loss while maintaining lean mass and preventing hunger. Protein-based foods: Eggs and egg whites, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, meat, poultry, fish, tofu, tempeh, whey/plant protein
In short, carbs are fuel. We can live without them but they are the body’s preferred source of energy for the brain and the muscles. Carbohydrate foods, also tend to be a good source of fibre and other nutrients like magnesium. Athletes need higher carb ratios as well as those trying to make gains from a strength, and performance perspective. Some individuals with obesity, epilepsy, diabetes and other metabolic disorders as well as sedentary and aging populations may do better on lower carb ratios. Some do well timing this macro more specifically around their exercise, while focusing on the quality of the carb itself. One’s macro ratio for carbs is largely driven by activity level, but age, gender, body type, metabolic health, and age play a role. Carbohydrate-based foods: Potatoes, squash, legumes, pastas, rice, breads and cereals, oats, fruits, bakery items and snack foods
Fats are essential for the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals, and are important for hormone regulation. Omega 3 fats have heart health and anti-inflammatory properties. Fats are the most calorie dense of all the macros and require the least amount of energy for our body to process. So, smaller amounts of fats add up more quickly and are more readily stored as fat if in excess. Fats are satiating and slow blood sugar spikes, they’re also tasty, so including some fat at meals is a must! Macro ratios of fats tend to be higher for those needing to gain weight, have low appetite, or athletes who have very high calorie needs. When it comes to weight loss, focusing on healthy fats with awareness of portion control is necessary to ensure calories are managed. Athletes tend to do better including fats farther from training.
Fat-based foods: Avocado, fatty fish like salmon, nuts and seeds, nut butter, coconut, oils, butter, mayo/dips, high fat dairy (cheese, cream, ice cream), fatty meats
So, in summary, understanding more about the macronutrient composition of your daily intake may provide added value if you’re trying to make changes to your health, performance and body composition. I talk about macros all the time with my clients. Especially PROTEIN! While calorie balance is still the most important factor in weight management, because of the unique characteristics of the different macronutrients explained, different ratios of macronutrients do impact success or, lack thereof. I’ve made reference to a few examples, specifically relating to satiety factors, metabolic impact, fuel and recovery properties, performance and muscle protection.
Given that, when deciding if “tracking your macros" is for you, it’s first important to review your goals and needs. Then, you can decide what level of intervention you need to make the desired changes, and what macronutrients you need to focus on. If you’re a beginner, some basic tracking using an app, looking at food labels and a very brief experiment with portioning your food may provide enough useful data. Advanced interventions like scale-weighing raw foods, and tracking every morsel, is the most accurate way of knowing exactly what you’re eating. As such, it will undoubtedly provide enhanced results. BUT it also takes on other risks, is unsustainable for most, and not in line with intuitive eating or following hunger cues. This type of extreme approach should be done with caution and ideally guided by a trained professional. Like ME, or another expert Registered Dietitian! Furthermore, YOU have to decide if this level of intervention is worth the time and effort for where you want and need to be, and if it will actually benefit you in the long term.
I hope that helps you make sense of macronutrients, the pros and cons of macro tracking, and what it’s all about. I always love to hear from you! Questions and comments are welcome. Also, if you're looking for more resources on snack ideas, macronutrient cheat sheets and fuelling tips, check out the resources page here and make sure to follow me on Instagram @dietitiandebs