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.