A Registered Dietitian’s View on Macro Counting & Reasons Why Macro Counting Might Not Be a Good Idea

This post has been long waited for. I’ve had many requests for my opinion on this topic, but truthfully it’s taken me a while to write because I wanted to find the best words to clearly explain my feelings. Before I start, please keep in mind that these words are strictly my opinion that has been formed through: countless lectures & research about different eating strategies, hands-on experience with in-patient & out-patient counseling, one-on-one personal training and nutrition counseling sessions, and hundreds of hours shadowing Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) who specialize in weight loss, sports nutrition, eating disorders, health at every size (HAES), nutrition therapy, and intuitive eating. In short, I am approaching this topic with a bird’s eye view where I have exposure and knowledge in every dimension surrounding it.

What is Macro Counting?

I first heard about counting macros 2 – 3 years ago. If you don’t know what it is, I describe it like an amped-up version of calorie counting. You track your carbs, fat and protein grams each day, and try to keep each set within a specified ratio. The ratios can vary depending on your goals. Today, it is a commonly used eating strategy to aid in weight loss, weight maintenance or to build muscle.

My Personal Experience with Macro Counting

During my dietetic program, I was given an assignment where I had to keep a food journal and track everything I ate.  Essentially, I was counting macros, but I didn’t have a specific amount of grams I could consume. Going into the assignment, I was excited and thought it would be super interesting to really see what I was eating and how it all added up. I used My Fitness Pal, Super Tracker, and a special software RDN’s use to input my food, and compared the softwares against each other. (Side note here: it was really surprising and somewhat humorous to do this, because I realized how different and off-calculated My Fitness Pal and Super Tracker could be.) Interestingly enough, after 2 days of doing this I started to have negative feelings about this assignment; it was a lot of work!

Once the 2 weeks passed I was so tired of physically tracking, measuring, and weighing my food. (I typically eat a lot of plant foods, which in the macros world means a lot of weighing and calculating.) Counting macros took up to too much time. Even more than the physical act of counting macros, I was so tired of thinking about food. It was a mental thing. It took up too much headspace.  I realized that I was constantly thinking about what I would eat next, and how much time it would take to prepare. Overall, this experience was too intense for me.

Reasons Why Macro Counting Might Not Be a Good Idea:

I do understand that my experience with macros might be entirely different than yours or others.  In fact, I know and follow people who count their macros and speak very highly of it… These people tend to thrive on structure and typically have precise nutrition and fitness goals. In fact, these people are usually selling individualized macro plans to others as a way to lose weight, maintain weight, or build muscle. (Another blog post to come regarding the topic of diet culture). As a RDN, I do realize that macro counting has shown to be effective in quick weight loss. I also notice that counting macros can help give people a general idea of portion sizes, and can help achieve a more well-rounded diet by pointing out macro nutrients (protein, fats, and carbs) that are possibly lacking, or exceeding, in the diet. However, I believe that there is a better, more sustainable approach to achieving those things mentioned above. I would not recommend counting macros.  Here are reasons why:

  • It can take the fun out of food. I feel like anything that turns eating into a math project isn’t sustainable. If you are closely monitoring macros there is no room to go to a restaurant without looking up the nutrition information beforehand, or to not think about the macros in the food you are eating. In my experience with macros, I soon realized that meal prep was easiest.  It allowed me to save some time because I could use the same ingredients on My Fitness Pal.  However, what started out as saving time turned into dissatisfaction as I ate the same thing everyday. No can do…I’m a girl who needs variety!
  • It hinders your ability to eat intuitively. If you count calories or macros, there might be instances when you realize you are low in macros/calories towards the end of the day. So, what do you do? Grab whatever it is that fits into your plan and make up for it…even if you weren’t hungry. You cannot count macros and be an intuitive eater.
  • It often leads to either become consumed or burned out. Counting macros takes a lot of planning, time and headspace. Our intentions are well-meaning, but often, counting macros turns into an obsession which can innocently lead to body dysmorphia, disordered eating, eating disorders, or orthorexia. Believe me, every single girl that I met at an eating disorder facility did not start out thinking she would be there. On the contrary, there are those who try counting macros for a few days and say “FORGET THIS.” (I hands down would have been this person if I didn’t have to do it for an assignment!) The unfortunate part is that it usually doesn’t stop with throwing your hands up in the air and moving on… it continues on with binge episodes and feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust with yourself for not sticking to it. It’s all easier said than done; I know. We are lost in a world of conflicting nutrition information, pseudo-science, new fads, trendy superfoods, and supplements. Just let food be beautiful. Let it be nourishing. Don’t let it be stressful or harmful..don’t let it be the enemy.
  • It overly simplifies food when there is much more to consider. Let’s just say that a cup of sweet potatoes drizzled with almond butter has the same macro count as a brownie. Even though these numbers are the same, we’re failing to consider the hormonal and physiological effects of choosing the sweet potatoes. Our immune system, hormones, energy levels, and digestion will be completely different. I’m not saying, “Don’t eat the brownie” (because we all need brownies in our life), but that the sweet potato will provide positive nutritional benefits that the brownie doesn’t have.
  • It does not have research to back it up. To me, counting macros is just another fad, pseudo-diet. You might be thinking, “No way, you get to decide what foods you eat–they just have to fit within your macros,” but truly, it’s just another way to reduce the size of our bodies (same with other pseudo-dieting like: challenges, clean eating, elimination diets, or simply “cutting back.”) Research shows that these diets, or pseudo-diets, don’t work. In fact, 95% of people who set out to intentionally lose weight will regain the weight within 2 years.
  • An “individualized macro plan” is probably not what you think. Interestingly enough, many people I’ve talked with think a magic macro formula that tells you exactly how many grams of protein, carbs, and fats you should eat exists. They assume it’s personalized exactly according to their body needs, and different from others. Truly, it’s saddening to me, because there’s no such thing.  The same person could go to 5 different health coaches or RDNs to receive their macros and walk away with 5 different “individualized” macro numbers. I’m not sure where health coaches get their information to create macro plans honestly, but very likely it stems from a Google search. As an RDN, I know we are taught to use particular formulas to figure out the individuals needs, depending on their condition and goals.  However, there is still not 100% certainty in these formulas. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Association has performed research on the accuracy of these formulas, and the best ones have at least a 10% discrepancy on average.

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All in All

Everyone’s food journey is different and even my food journey has changed so much over time. You really have to do what you enjoy and makes you feel at peace, and fuel yourself in a way that energizes you and makes you feel good. Please feel free to share this post & comment below!

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2 thoughts on “A Registered Dietitian’s View on Macro Counting & Reasons Why Macro Counting Might Not Be a Good Idea

  1. This is exactly why I haven’t started macro counting. I just strikes me as glorified calorie counting and I get really frustrated when I am thinking about food all the time! I’d like to know what you’d suggest instead, though? I am not a healthy weight, think my metabolism needs a boost, but as you said there are so many fad diets and so much conflicting information…I’m just not sure what direction to take to be healthier (and a healthier weight) without it becoming an obsession.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Charity! Great question–I think the answer is so much more complex than just one direction. I believe that food freedom is the ultimate goal, and it can be reached with using Intuitive Eating principles. I also believe in a health at every size approach which comes with not focusing on body weight, but instead looking at how you feel, function, etc. It’s crazy because once we switch the mindset from thinking about weight and instead overall wellness, weight loss can be a side effect! It’s such an awesome thing. So, I would suggest reading the book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Both are Registered Dietitians, and there approach is amazing. I also will start offering nutrition one-on-one sessions at the beginning of next year if you wanted to meet with me, I would love to help you find your healthy!! Let mek now if you still have any questions. 🙂

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