Nutrition is an ever-changing field and new approaches come into the limelight all of the time. Just take a quick stroll down your Instagram feed. There’s enough information (and opinions) out there to make your head spin.
One of these approaches is counting macros. Counting macros is a somewhat easier process than counting calories because as long as you have your macros planned out, the calories should take care of themselves. Macros are also easier to wrap your head around. You can see them in your portions—and you can feel the difference between, say, 50 and 300 grams of carbs.
Though counting macros is a popular eating strategy, it comes with some pros and cons. Here’s what I want you to know about it.
Rewind…What Are Macros?
First, let’s do a quick rehash of macros. “Macros” is a shortened version of the technical term, “macronutrients.” Macronutrients differ from micronutrients in that they provide energy in the form of calories. (Something like vitamin C is a micronutrient because it does not provide any calories.) The four main macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol. (Protein and carbohydrates contain about four calories per gram, fat around nine, and alcohol about seven.)
When counting macros, you basically add up the number of grams of each macro you consume throughout the day. As long as these macros add up in a favorable way, you should be moving towards your dietary goals!
Read More: 5 Health Benefits Of A High-Fiber Diet
One of the alluring aspects of counting macros is the idea of flexibility. Some proponents tout that, as long as you hit your macro goals, you can eat whatever you want! So, for someone who is trying to consume about 200 grams of carbs and 70 grams of fat every day, a couple of donuts could fit in quite nicely.
That’s where things start to get a little nuanced. Let’s break down some of the pros and cons of counting macros.
Potential Benefits of Counting Macros
Again, one of the biggest perks of counting macros is that it can be quite a simple process. Basically, at the beginning of every day, you have a target number for each of the macronutrients based on your individual needs and goals. Online calculators and certified nutritionists can help you figure out what numbers might be most appropriate for you.
Let’s say you’re aiming for 150 grams of protein, 200 grams of carbs, and 70 grams of fat. You can then split these figures amongst your meals for the day. If you’re going to have four meals, each meal can contain about 35 to 40 grams of protein, about 50 grams of carbs, and 15 to 20 grams of fat. From there, you can plan out foods that’ll achieve those goals at each meal. Since adhering to a nutrition plan is all about creating convenience and ease, macro counting is a solid method for many people.
Given all of this, I think counting macros is great for the busy person who only has time to “eyeball” their serving sizes. Similarly, for folks who find counting every little calorie stressful, macro counting can be a little easier on the nerves. Just remember that to see the results you want, you’ll need to plan out your macro diet well and generally adhere to it.
Potential Downsides of Counting Macros
Though counting macros allows for flexibility in the exact foods you eat, the quality of your macros still matters tremendously. Poor-quality proteins, like most plant sources, for instance, don’t offer sufficient amino acids for supporting muscle growth and tissue repair. Certain carbohydrates, like sugar, meanwhile, spike our insulin and, if consumed in high amounts for a long period, can cause insulin resistance. Moreover, certain processed fatty foods can impact organ function and other long-term health outcomes.
Not to mention, one classic study found that consuming processed foods results in a significantly lower metabolic response. You see, when we eat food, we need to burn calories in order to digest and process it. However, processed foods can actually “skip” certain steps of this system, so we burn fewer calories digesting them. Essentially, even though a processed food might “fit” into your macro plan, eating many processed foods over time really throws your calorie balance out of whack.
Ultimately, if you take the flexibility aspect of macro counting a little too far, you’ll likely miss the boat on your way to your goals. Counting macros may also not be a great fit for you if you’re all about “cheat meals” or eat a high amount of processed foods. In order for macro counting to be effective, you’ll want to have a pretty wholesome, nutritious diet.
The Bottom Line
Counting macros can be a useful tool for many people. The key here is not to fall too deep into the flexible dieting trap, in which you’re eating Pop-Tarts and Twinkies to hit your carb and fat totals. Picking quality foods to fill out those macros is a must for success.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.