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To Macro Or Not: Should You Track Your Macronutrient Intake?

For some of us, calculating macronutrients is a no-brainer. For others, it’s unthinkable. If you’re on the fence, hear the case from both sides!

To macro, or not to macro? That is the question I pose.

But first, what does "to macro" mean? "To macro" means tracking the number of grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats you consume on a particular day. Bodybuilders and physique competitors have mastered this art and have no qualms about whipping out their food scale at any given moment. For the rest of us, it means going out and buying a scale, taking the time to do the measurements and calculations, and perhaps most imposing of all, setting aside the mental bandwidth to actually care about the results.

So should you do it? It depends.

There are benefits and drawbacks to either path. I have tried both, and depending on my fitness goals at the time, I have found success with both. The key is to determine which method best suits you and is the most sustainable. If you're in a position where you're not sure whether it's worth losing sleep over your nutrition intake, allow me to lay it out for you. I've sketched a number of possible scenarios below, and your job is to align yourself with the one that best suits you.

Let me remind you, however, that you absolutely must be patient and consistent with whatever path you choose. Flip-flopping back and forth between tracking and not tracking your macros will put you on the fast track to nowhere.

When To Macro

Situation 1 /// You're Lean, but You Want to Be Leaner

If this is you, then you should know that even small variations in nutrition intake can mean the difference between dropping those last few pounds of stubborn fat or standing still.

I'm 5-foot-2, and my weight likes to fluctuate between two and five pounds on a day-to-day basis. Even just a few hundred calories can tip me over the line from caloric deficit to maintenance mode, and that would be frustrating if I were only one belt notch away from my goal.

I get that there isn't a huge discrepancy between 85 and 100 grams of chicken. In fact, that difference is negligible, and you can easily get away with it—in isolation. But that mindset of It's just a little bit, when applied over and over again to every food item at every meal, will add up to more than just a little bit by the end of the day. Thirty calories here, 20 there, 50 over there, and before you know it, you've eaten back the 250 you just burned off in your most recent workout.

If that sounds like your mindset, it's probably best not to take any chances. Keep a tight rein on your macros to dial it in for that home stretch.

Situation 2 /// You Have No Concept of What "Enough Protein" Means

For some individuals, when they say they eat enough protein, what they really mean is, My intake is probably around 40 grams, and I'm not sure, but I think that's enough. Peanut butter is full of protein, right?

No, that's not enough. Not even close. And sorry to burst your bubble, but peanut butter is a fat source.

As a general rule of thumb, shoot for one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. There are a number of variables that affect this number, but let's just leave it there for simplicity's sake. If your idea of a protein-rich breakfast is one measly egg white with your oatmeal in the mornings, it's time to re-evaluate the way you eat. First of all, you probably want to eat the whole egg. And second, aim for around 20-30 grams of protein per meal.

The same goes for carbohydrates and fats. It's common for people to grossly underestimate their carb intake and overestimate their fat consumption. Paleo dieters, I know some of you are guilty of eating way too much fat—however healthy the source may be—and then wondering why you're not leaning out.

Putting some caloric numbers to those fats may be just the thing to help you get your gut in order.

Situation 3 /// Your Body Signals Are Out of Whack

Tell me if this sounds like you. Suddenly, you need to devour an entire chocolate bar when the clock strikes midnight because your body "needs" it. If you crave chips, you convince yourself that your body is obviously suffering from a vitamin deficiency and it's imperative you get your daily dose for the health of your, uh, hair. And Grandma always said you have to have some dairy with each meal, and your body is calling for Ben & Jerry's, so I guess there's nothing you can do but oblige!

Or maybe you just have an insatiable appetite which, if left unchecked, could do some serious damage. Paying attention to your physical hunger signals could spell trouble, because your muscular lateral hypothalamus leads to a spare tire around your waist. It's unfortunate, but some people may need to conscientiously regulate their food intake with concrete numbers to overcome this beast.

The alternative may lead to a bit more hunger, but honestly, experiencing some hunger every now and again isn't a bad thing. It can be immensely beneficial; it teaches you to control your impulses and plan better—both great life lessons, if you ask me.

Situation 4 /// You Have a Deadline to Meet

A competition, a wedding, a photo-shoot—whatever it is, the clock is ticking, and there's no room to play guessing games. You have to know the facts, and you need to work with numbers.

Waist circumference hasn't budged in two weeks? OK, let's take a look at your macronutrient breakdown. It says here you eat 300 grams of carbs every day. That's why. What's that, your hair is falling out and your skin is dry? Well, you're only consuming 15 grams of fat per day! Let's triple that number and throw some extra fish oil in there.

Fat loss is by no means a linear process, and there are many factors which determine when and how much of the extra weight peels off. Sleep, water intake, macronutrients, and non-exercise activity thermogenesis all play a role. These are all controllable variables, and you'd better believe controlling what you eat will help keep you on track to be in rockin' shape by the time zero hour rolls around.

You can't afford to risk losing two weeks' worth of fat-shedding just because you want to test your theory that you can consume jasmine rice post-training ad libitum without gaining any extra weight. Ain't nobody got time for that.

When Not To Macro

Situation 1 /// Your Neurosis Gets You Nowhere

Once upon a time, I used to spend two hours every Sunday evening researching a million different diets and macronutrient recommendations. I'd tweak my macros. Half an hour later, I'd change my mind and tweak them again. Then I'd let it play out for about a week, and before I gave it a chance to let any real progress occur, I'd move on to a whole new set of numbers.

There I was, so closely scrutinizing every last gram of food I ate that I lost sight of the big picture. Patience is a virtue, and I had none of it. I didn't know how to relax when it came to my nutrition, and it manifested itself in the form of a whole lot of wasted effort in exchange for no discernible difference in my physique. This was wheel-spinning at its finest.

If you're like my former self and find yourself falling victim to paralysis by analysis, perhaps now is a good time to step away from the numbers for a while and invest your energy into the nutrition basics. I promise you won't die.

Take a deep breath, Nervous Nelly, and shift your focus to the weight that you pull in the gym. Or pay attention to the portion of sweet potatoes on your plate and how eating all of that makes you feel. Pretty good, eh? And how about that succulent steak? Cooked medium-rare to perfection? When was the last time you allowed yourself to enjoy food like this?

Situation 2 /// You're a Macronutrient Veteran

You're so well-versed with the art of macro-counting that you can glance at a slab of chicken and pinpoint its weight down to the gram. "That looks like about 134 grams," you say. And the food scale spits out close to the same number. "I'm going to have 200 g of carbohydrates today," you think to yourself, and you effortlessly eyeball your way to within three grams of your target intake by the end of the night.

Perhaps you got so good at this because you eat more or less the same foods every day. You're an extreme creature of habit, and you like to stick with what you know and what you like. This means the same food at the same time, day after day. While I strongly encourage rotating food choices for the sake of covering your nutrients and avoiding food intolerances, if you made the decision to eat this way, then your macros may not teach you much anymore.

This is a skill that takes years to master, and not many of us will fall into this category. Huge kudos if this is you.

Situation 3 /// You Just Got Your Feet Wet

Scenario A: You come from a sedentary background, and your idea of a healthy dinner is an extra lettuce leaf on your Big Mac.

Scenario B: You've ridden the elliptical all the way to a pancake-butt, and you wonder why you look worse, despite cranking up your cardio to 10 hours per week. No weight training, mind you, and all you eat are carrots.

Scenario C: "Is butter a carb?"

Whichever of these scenarios applies to you, you're not ready to make the leap yet. And that's perfectly OK, because you can still make tremendous progress—up to a certain point, of course—without counting a single thing.

Let's backtrack a little bit and work on the big nutrition rules. Are you drinking enough water and lifting consistently? Are you getting enough sleep and managing your stress levels? Are you able to look at two different food items and immediately know the healthier choice—and then eat that for dinner? Can you have a treat meal for Friday night's birthday celebration without it turning into a treat month?

Until you can do all of these things, there's no point in jumping ahead and worrying about macros.

Situation 4 /// You Want to Be Healthy, Not Freaky Shredded

You want to be a healthy size and fit back into the jeans you wore in high school. Or you want to be able to sprint to the elevator at work and not keel over. You have no interest in stepping on stage, spray-tanned orange and wearing a bikini that leaves little to the imagination—nor will you ever.

There's no timeline for your goal. Fitness is important to you, but you don't want it to consume your life, and you really, really couldn't care less if you consumed 160 or 185 grams carbohydrates on any given day. Life is short, and you'd rather spend your time doing anything but counting your food.

For some of you, this may sound like a regression waiting to happen. However, for many, it's a perfect end-goal, and a vast improvement over the average person.


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About The Author

Sohee Lee holds a Bachelor's of Science in Human Biology from Stanford and is a NSCA certified trainer who loves living a fit life and helping others.

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DavidZiegler

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DavidZiegler

this was a fun read

Mar 15, 2013 7:30pm | report
sxyfitmomwife

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sxyfitmomwife

good read

Mar 15, 2013 7:57pm | report
jigatronic

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jigatronic

Is butter a carb? LOL funny

Mar 16, 2013 2:44am | report
TheGov1911

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TheGov1911

extremely

Aug 21, 2013 10:50am | report
chiefgreybeard

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chiefgreybeard

I track macros and calories burned daily. I don't really need to but it helps with self control. When you are getting off your diet, you have to face the facts when they are right there in front of you in black and white!

Mar 16, 2013 9:10am | report
alex192

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alex192

I always try to explain to people what enough protein means but now I have a article to refer them too thanks! Great read by the way!

Mar 16, 2013 9:54am | report
fishnbrah

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fishnbrah

thanks for an article that says you dont have to count every macro to get in shape. i dont count any macros personally

Mar 16, 2013 1:31pm | report
TheDarkHorse77

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TheDarkHorse77

Great read.

Mar 16, 2013 4:04pm | report
awlareau

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awlareau

I don't count macros, though I am conscious of them throughout the day. I am doing just fine losing my extra fat and maintaining my muscle. Just be conscious of what you are eating, and make sure it's not something absolutely horrible for your body. Also the article implies that fat in peanut butter is bad. Though too much fat is bad, it aids in protein absorption.

Mar 16, 2013 5:40pm | report
Krissta

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Krissta

I really like this article. I can see the value of counting macros when I get to 18% or less body fat and am looking to get in competition shape. For now, eyeballing it is good to keep me from going crazy.

Mar 17, 2013 7:56am | report
JFort93

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JFort93

I calculate macros for a meal plan once and then eat virtually the same thing every day to know that I'm always hitting my numbers. Simple and effective.

Mar 17, 2013 1:07pm | report
garciajr88

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garciajr88

Counting is what i want my next diet plan to consist of! where can i get more information on this?

Mar 17, 2013 7:22pm | report
marydietz

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marydietz

Good read! I'm big on macros and have played around with all different combos..40/30/30, high fat, high protein, low fat, etc. Right now I'm on about a 40/30/30, but finally realize the importance of consuming carbs around my workout and not equally throughout the day (at least, that's what is working for me!)

Mar 17, 2013 8:10pm | report
marklu1992

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marklu1992

How about for people that know it, working out at least 2 times a day, 4-5 days a week, eating really healthy, but still have loose skin from back in the fat old days. It never seems to go away!

Mar 17, 2013 8:57pm | report
dajunglebrotha

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dajunglebrotha

there is nothing wrong with 4 whoppers in a day... pffft LOL!!!

Mar 18, 2013 9:14am | report
Focusonfifty

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Focusonfifty

Thanks for the read. Right now I'm doing 40/30/30 and have heard before protein should equal body weight and carbs, I believe, 1 1/2 grms per pound. Still never got a beakdown as to why though! As with this article. I like to know the reason behind actions.

Mar 18, 2013 12:01pm | report
nick.grohall

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nick.grohall

"spray tanned orange"? LOL that is hilarious. It good to be aware of what you put in your body. You cant even pronounce the stuff in half the thing at the grocery store!

Mar 18, 2013 2:10pm | report
TheGov1911

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TheGov1911

Amen to that.

Aug 21, 2013 10:53am | report
BoydKB

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BoydKB

This was a good read and it was funny too.

Mar 18, 2013 3:32pm | report
ItsMe713

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ItsMe713

interesting...

Mar 18, 2013 4:45pm | report
qtcandyxo

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qtcandyxo

I'm carb cycling for my upcoming competition so I've been tracking my macros, I think it definitely helps to get shredded. Good read!

Mar 22, 2013 10:23am | report
trapperj

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trapperj

Totally me. But what I really want to know is, how many calories in 4 ounces of RAW Chicken? Once cooked it wieghs?
I find a different answer everytime.
LOL!!!!

Mar 22, 2013 12:35pm | report
Kurli

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Kurli

Glad I read your article. It looks like I will Macro - asap

Mar 25, 2013 11:29am | report
pyaarawala

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pyaarawala

great article. informative and funny as well. And you're hot!

Mar 26, 2013 10:23am | report
womaninthewoods

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womaninthewoods

Very well written, interesting, and humorous. Good info!

Mar 28, 2013 7:22am | report
Showing 1 - 25 of 38 Comments

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