Calorie counting used to be one of the most popular methods for losing weight and getting healthy. But over the last couple of years, macros have moved into the main spotlight. If you’re here wondering what exactly are macros, have no fear—you’re not alone here!
See, the idea of counting macros originated with a group of bodybuilders who were tired of the strict limitations that came with crash diets and counting calories. Since then, macros have made their way into mainstream health conversations through popular diets like keto and If It Fits Your Macros, or IIFYM as it’s known.
If you’re curious about counting macros or have ever thought about giving it a try, there are a few important things to know first.
First things first: how are macros different from calories?
Calories are units of energy. When we count calories throughout our day, we are essentially counting the energy we get from the food we eat. So if we consume 2,000 calories during a day, we can look at that as consuming 2,000 units of energy.
Macros are similar to calories because they are also measurable units of energy that we get from food. But more specifically, macros, or macronutrients, are the three foundational nutrients of dietary health: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
When we count macros, we are measuring the percentage of each nutrient that we get from our food in a day. This allows us to raise or lower our intake of specific nutrients to match our health goals. For example, according to Dana Carpender, author of the Keto Fat Gram Counter, someone on the keto diet would probably be aiming for a macro count of around 10-20 percent proteins, 75-85 percent fats, and 5-10 percent carbohydrates.
When comparing macros and calories, we can think of macros as a more specific way of tracking the energy that our food gives us. But how important is it to track our macros? And can it actually help us reach our health goals?
Is it important to track your macros?
Counting macros can be a bit more time-consuming than counting calories, so it’s understandable that people would want to know if it’s worth their effort. We talked with a few health experts about their experience with macronutrients, and what we learned is that ultimately it just depends on your personal health goals.
Jade Dinsdale, a certified health coach in Florida, believes that counting macros can be an important way to learn about your eating patterns.
“Macros highlight the balance of your diet and give you a look into what you’re eating. Calories don’t give you balance, they just give you a number,” she says.
Dr. Cedrina Calder, a preventive medicine physician and fitness professional, agrees that counting macros can be an important tool for knowing the details of what you eat and how you can adjust to reach your health goals.
“Counting macros allows you to figure out how much you’re eating of each group, and tweak your diet accordingly, depending on what you want to accomplish,” she says.
What are the benefits of counting macros instead of calories?
Aside from allowing you to get an overview of how many carbs, fats, and proteins you’re getting in your everyday diet, counting macros also allows you to track the quality of the food you eat.
Calder notes that it’s much harder to look at the nutritional value of the food you’re consuming if you’re only counting calories. “With macros, you can really see the quality of your diet. If I’m only counting calories, I can eat 2,000 calories in just bread for the day and technically still be within my calorie goal,” she says.
Dinsdale agrees that macros can help us see where we may need more or less of one category, while calories limit us to only a number. “When we are focused too much on counting calories, we often miss our nutritional needs. If we limit ourselves to quantity, we might forfeit quality,” says Dinsdale.
Another benefit of counting macros over counting calories is that when you’re aware of your macros, you can more easily adjust to meet your health needs. “It’s hard to really figure out how many calories you should be eating in order to lose weight or maintain a good level of health,” says Calder. “The issue is that some people think they just need to drop calories by a large amount to lose weight. But this isn’t true. It depends on so many other elements.”
With macros, you have a better understanding of which nutrients you might need more or less of. This makes it much easier to make adjustments to your diet than if you’re just working with calories as a number.
Are there downsides to counting macros?
With counting macros, there is still room for eating a lot of processed, unhealthy foods. Although it’s easier to watch your nutrient intake than counting calories, you can still fit a lot of junk food into your daily macro count. A cheeseburger with no bun from McDonald’s will still be low in carbohydrates and high in fat/protein content, but repeating this often will not help improve your overall health.
Another negative aspect of counting macros is the potential lack of variety in your diet. When you’re tracking your macros, you’re usually limiting yourself in one or two areas, which can affect the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that your body is getting. Lily Nichols, RDN, CDE says that “lower diet variety has been associated with lower nutrient intake. The more varied your diet, the better your overall nutrient intake.”
These tracking diets have also been associated with some patterns of an unhealthy obsession with eating among certain people. Dinsdale also warns that counting calories and macros can be problematic if you have any history of eating disorders or an unhealthy relationship with food. “For so many men and women, disordered eating has guided an unhealthy relationship with food, and counting calories or macros can sometimes exacerbate that pattern,” she says.
So, should you be counting macros?
Overall, our experts agree that counting your macros can be helpful for knowing your eating patterns better and making changes to your diet to meet your health goals. But tracking macros should never take the place of eating balanced, nutrient-dense food.
Dinsdale says that although macros can be an important way to know your diet better, they aren’t the be-all and end-all solution to healthy living.
“We are all different, and when we focus on food being fuel for a more healthy and connected life, it is easier to listen to our body’s signals and what it needs,” she says.
Calder is a proponent of counting macros, but she too believes first and foremost that healthy eating is the most important, sustainable goal. “The easiest way to achieve your health goals is to follow a healthy eating pattern,” she says.
Whether you’re counting your calories or counting your macros, it’s important to be aware of what you’re giving your body. If you decide to give macro-tracking a try, remember to incorporate balance and high-quality food whenever you can.