Does counting macros work?

Does counting macros work?

For every new client that comes on board, we usually have an uncomfortable conversation about tracking. It sounds something like “look, you’re going to have to track your macros.” It’s uncomfortable because for many of us (including me), it brings up ratios, percentages and failing yr. 10 maths. It’s also steeped in some neurotic behaviours where we define our self worth by how many calories we eat. 
These feelings are no fault of the person... you SHOULD be skeptical about someone telling you need to do something ridiculous like count your food. The messaging around dieting, nutrition, and body composition has been toxic for a long time.

The inconvenient truth about tracking is that it works. If you’re looking to lose fat or gain muscle, one of the most powerful things you can do is to track your intake of carbs, fats and proteins (particularly proteins). More than often people underestimate how many calories they’re eating (a lot of this is due to the higher energy/low nutrient nature of modern foods), and they overestimate how much protein they’re eating. Protein is vital for both growing muscle and losing fat, and it often takes tracking it for a few days to see how deficient we are in it. 
If you’re new to this, “counting macros” is something that many people do to see how well their eating behaviours are aligning to their goals. You might be aiming for fat loss, and your coach has told you that you need to be eating 1800 calories a day, made up of 160g of protein, 150g of carb and 60g of fat. These numbers are not arbitrary, they take into account your weight, activity level and goals - everyone will have different macros. You’d then go about entering your food intake into an app to see if what you’re eating is aligning to your goals. Over time, you begin to fill the gaps and get closer to “hitting your macros,” and this results in you achieving your body composition goals. Some people do this for a week, some do it for the rest of their lives, it really depends what works for you. 
This technique has proven itself time and time again to an effective method of losing weight. 

There’s been some pretty solid research done with macro counting in the short term. A Randomised Controlled Trial found that those who tracked their calorie and macro intake lost around 5% more of their bodyweight to those that didn’t
Effectiveness aside, you can understand how this behaviour can get ugly, as we use the numbers as gospel, and try to hit them at ANY cost, including our health. Yes, you can hit 150g of protein by downing 5 protein shakes a day, but it doesn’t mean that you should. Yes, you hit your macros but picked up a gut issue in the process. This is the issue with only measuring quantitatively. The same thing can be seen with someone who rejoices over losing 5kg after having as nasty bout of diarrhea. Yes, you lost weight, but that’s not good!

This is known as Goodhart’s Law, where the quality of a measurement decreases once it becomes a target. It’s a trick of the human mind to “win” whatever game is being played, but we must ensure that we’re winning in the right way. 
I believe an effective strategy to be one that uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures. So in addition to having macronutrient targets, we should aim for behavioural measures such as “only cook homemade meals,” or “only eat wholefoods.” Aligning these behaviours often crowds out the need to count anything, because if you engage in healthy behaviours you’re probably hitting your macros anyway! 

You should also count your victories that don’t involve numbers. Hey, you may not have lost weight this week, but how is your energy, your sleep and your skin? This shows that we’re moving the needle!

So while Quantitative measures like tracking calories and macros can be effective in the short term, you’re probably not going to stick to them long term. They’re still very valuable to find a benchmark of where we’re at, and I recommend them for most people. So going back to my original awkward conversation around counting macros, it will end like this “I want you to track your food for a week, get an understanding of where you’re at, then look to hit your qualitative goals for the remainder of your program.” This will usually place us in a healthy headspace to make sustainable changes. 

If you’re interested in making some changes with your nutrition, but need a little help doing it, I’m running a 6 week group program with Method Fitness called Method Driven Nutrition - you can check it out here.