Health

Tracking Calories Is Pointless. Here's What to Do Instead.

Published On 08/05/2016 Published On 08/05/2016
tracking macros scale
Oren Aks/Thrillist

If you've spent any time eavesdropping on people at the gym recently (who hasn't?), then you've probably heard the phrase "tracking your macros." Or, more accurately, "That doesn't fit in my macros, bro."

It sounds complicated, and something only jacked, roided-out fitness bros have the secret info on. But like counting reps and stacking weight plates on a barbell, tracking macros is just basic math disguised as an overhyped fitness concept. A calculator, some Googling, and a place to jot down your food for the day are all you need to jump on the macronutrient-tracking bandwagon.

In spite of its annoyingly vocal jacked-and-tan adherents, tracking macros is far superior to the outdated and ineffective diet trick of counting calories when it comes to weight loss or achieving your personal fitness goals. Like becoming a jacked-and-tan macro-tracking gym rat. Here's how to do it, and why it works.

What the hell is a macronutrient?

"Macronutrients are the main sources of calories in our diets (proteins, fats, carbs)," says dietitian Jim White, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. "These are the nutrients that we need in the highest quantities to sustain life."

That sounds heavy, but it's pretty simple considering the food you eat contains either one, two, or all three of the main macro groups. Let's pretend you eat a flawlessly healthy diet. That apple you have as a daily snack has 1g of protein, 30g of carbohydrates, and 0g of fat -- it's a good source of carbs, but not anything else. The 6oz skinless chicken breast you enjoy every night for dinner, on the other hand, has 6g of fat, 52g of protein, and 0g of carbohydrates, so it's a huge source of protein, but not so much fat or carbs.

Packaged foods with nutrition labels make life a little easier, if not necessarily healthier; all the info is right there. But for the fresh, whole foods you eat all the time, you'll have to do a little research via a search engine or guidebook. If that sounds tedious, you must not be aware of how much you use the internet to look up pointless facts like celebrity birthdays and what time the Super Bowl is. 

So how do I track them?

You... track them. Warning: there is some basic arithmetic involved. Counting macros is based on a caloric breakdown: 1g of protein has four calories, 1g of carbohydrates also has four calories, and 1g of fat has nine calories. So that apple has 120 calories from carbohydrates, and four from protein. This breakdown may not exactly add up to the total caloric value of the food, especially if you're rounding up to the nearest half-gram (as you should), so don't let that trip you up each time you analyze a nutrition label. You only need to worry about calories from protein, fat, and carbs.

Can I track macros to lose weight? 

Like everything fitness-related, there's a way to utilize this method of eating to shed some pounds, if that's on your to-do list. But there's no one-size-fits-all, exact formula for weight loss. White recommends a split to lose weight as: fat between 20-35% of your daily calories, protein between 20-35%, and carbs between 50-65%. That means if you're eating a 1,800-calorie diet, 360-630 of those calories should come from healthy fat, like mono- and polyunsaturated; 360-630 should come from protein; and 900-1,170 should come from complex carbohydrates, like whole grains. Carbs have gotten a really bad rap in terms of weight loss, but White says that shouldn't be the case, especially if you're working out hard.

"I like having a higher balance of carbs for energy, than going low," he adds. "It gets really miserable." Indeed. Saying no to (whole-grain) bread is always miserable. It can also put people at risk of not getting enough fiber or other essential vitamins.

How is this any better than counting calories?

Although you can technically still count calories to drop pounds -- "calories in and calories out are the big picture in weight loss," according to White -- this is 2016, and everyone realizes that not all calories are equal. As amazing as it would be if 200 calories of broccoli were the same as a 200-calorie donut, they aren't, so don't try and kid yourself.

"Keeping track of just calories as opposed to what makes up those calories can be harmful to your body despite the weight loss," White explains. "With counting macros, on the other hand, you are fully aware of what you are putting into your body and you're keeping track of very precise numbers of those nutrients."

Consuming all of your calories from just one or two macro groups can also throw off other internal operations: blood sugar, hormone levels, and muscle mass, even if the scale isn't budging. If you just ate donuts, for example, you're also loading up on the simple carb sugar, which can cause all sorts of problems. Macronutrient tracking does require some common sense -- getting your carb macros doesn't mean from simple sugars or alcohol, unfortunately -- and focuses on consuming a well-rounded diet. "It's all about quality of nutrition," he says.

Who should and shouldn't count macros?

There's a reason it's a really popular method of food tracking among bodybuilders and other fitness pros, and not just because it sounds fancy -- it actually works. "It can be for anyone," White says. "But more for athletes, bodybuilders, moderate to advanced fitness enthusiasts," he adds, because the concept can get a little confusing to newbies, and annoying to keep up with day in and day out. The specific ratios vary depending on fitness goals; marathoners may want more carbs for energy, while bodybuilders would need more protein for their muscle mass.

But it's not for everyone. People with diabetes, or kidney or liver disease, should consult a doctor before attempting to track macros, since their ratios will have to be highly specified. It's also not recommended for someone who has a history of disordered eating.

"I see a lot of people counting macros, and people get hyper-obsessed," he says. "This can lead to orthorexia, and people being scared to eat foods if their macros are off."

How do I get started?

After you've mastered the complicated-sounding lingo, your best bet is still consulting a registered dietitian (many take health insurance now!) to work out a plan that meets your specific needs. If that's not in the cards, then taking the standard 20-35% fat, 20-35% protein, and 50-65% carbs is a good place to start, then adjust from there based on how your body is doing. If you notice you're not losing any weight and are constantly hungry, then scale back on the carbs and increase your healthy fat intake.

Also, invest in a food scale and some measuring cups. It will make you look legit, and also ensure you're consuming the correct amount of food. Log your macros with an old-school pen and food journal, or take advantage of one of the many helpful tracking sites and apps such as My Macros+ and Fitocracy Macros.

Tracking macronutrients may make you feel more hardcore, but it doesn't have to be a permanent way of life. It's mostly just a great nutrition tool to have in your arsenal, especially for setting specific fitness goals. If anything, at least you'll be able to chime in on the next macro conversation you overhear in the weight room without being a pretentious jerk about it. 

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Christina Stiehl is a Health and fitness staff writer for Thrillist. She loves eavesdropping on people at the gym. Follow her on Twitter: @ChristinaStiehl.

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