Should you track your macronutrients? A dietitian explains

Yaroslav Danylchenko / Stocksy
Originally Published: 

Macro tracking is huge in the fitness community. Macros, short for macronutrients, are the nutrients your body needs in large quantities: mainly carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Counting macros basically involves ensuring that you eat a specific amount of each macro every day to meet your fitness goals, which, for many gym-head, means maximizing gains while still staying lean. Sure, pretty much every fitness influencer on Instagram tracks their macros — but does that mean you should, too?

How do you track your macros?

First, figure out your daily caloric needs using a special equation that factors in your gender, height, weight, and age. Next, multiply the result by a certain number based on your activity level.

Now that you know how many calories you need each day, determine how many of those need to come from carbs, protein, and fat. Many in the fitness community recommend a 40/40/20 macro split, meaning that 40% of your calories should come from carbs, 40% from proteins, and 20% from fat — but whether an “ideal” ratio exists remains under debate.

Then, divide the number of calories that need to come from carbs, proteins, and fats by the number of calories per gram each of those macros contains. (Carbs and protein both contain four calories per gram, while fat contains nine.) This gives you how many grams of each macro you need to eat every day, which makes tracking them easier, since most nutrition labels list them in grams.

While you can calculate all of this by hand, you can also just use a macro calculator, and apps like MyFitnessPal or MyPlate allow you track your daily macro intake on your phone.

Why is tracking macros so popular in the fitness community?

It provides a simple way to ensure you’re getting enough protein to build muscle mass, explains Julie Stefanksi, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Pennsylvania and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Although protein is also important for workout recovery, the emphasis on protein is primarily geared toward gains. “I think that’s a big focus in the fitness industry,” she says.

What are the benefits of macro tracking?

As with any type of food tracking, counting macros can help familiarize you with the nutrient content in different foods, Stefanski tells Mic. “You want to look at it more as a teaching tool to see how different foods are creating an effect on your body.”

Ivan Gener / Stocksy

Plus, it offers some wiggle room. Also known as the "If it Fits Your Macros" (IIFYM) eating plan, macro tracking allows you to eat donuts, chips, and pizza, as long as doing so still keeps you within your maximum daily intake of carbs, protein, and fat. Junk food “can certainly fit in a balanced diet,” Stefanski says. “Food is supposed to be pleasurable.”

Tracking your macros can also help ensure you’re consuming enough carbs and protein to fuel and recover from your workouts. “Typically, carbs are more important going into a workout, and proteins are more important on the other side of the workout,” Stefanski says. Research suggests that eating some sort of carbohydrate-rich food before a workout can improve performance, she adds, and that consuming protein as part of a balanced meal within one to two hours after a workout is important not only for gains, but also for recovery from soreness.

What are the drawbacks of macro tracking?

While there’s nothing wrong with focusing on your carbo, protein, and fat intake, many macro calculators underestimate the number of calories (and therefore the number of grams of each macro) people need per day, typically by at least 500 calories, Stefanski says. “You might be hyper-focused on something that’s not the right goal anyway,” she explains. Your recommended macro intake is “being selected by a computer program, not a nutrition professional,” who can account for other factors that are important to consider when setting a daily calorie goal, which a macro calculator might not include, such as metabolism or thyroid function.

As a result, you might not be consuming enough food to fuel your workouts — or gain mass, if that’s your goal. “If you don’t have enough total calories, the protein you’re eating will never go toward building muscle because it’s just being turned to energy you need just to make your body run,” Stefanski says. She notes that for most people, 70% of the calories they need each day go toward breathing, pumping blood, and other functions required to simply keep them alive.

Some people also tend to be too rigid in their tracking (beating themselves up if they go over their macro counts, for instance), which can lead to disordered eating behaviors, Stefanski says. Indeed, I tracked my macros when I started weightlifting — but learning that I had exceeded my maximum fat count, or fallen short of my protein count for the third day in a row, only fueled my perfectionism and anxiety, so I stopped after about a month.

So, should I track my macros?

Don’t track your macros if you tend be overly self-critical, are prone to disordered eating, or if you’ve had an eating disorder in the past, Stefanski says.

Otherwise, tracking your macros “in a gentle way” can help you reach your goals, even if you do it just for a few days to evaluate your current eating pattern it, she notes. You might also consider consulting with a licensed nutritionist to verify whether the numbers recommended by a macro calculator really reflect your individual dietary needs, based on your biology.

If you do choose to track your carbs, protein, and fat, remember to also consider the quality of the food supplying them, Stefanski says. Sure, you might be hitting your macro counts, but if you’re getting them mostly from protein powders or processed foods, you may not be getting enough micronutrients — vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that your body needs in smaller amounts but are nonetheless important for immune and other functions.

How can I ensure I’m getting enough macronutrients to fuel my workouts if I’m prone to perfectionism and/or disordered eating?

Leave the numbers out of it, Stefanski suggests. Think of 20 grams of protein as a slice of meat that’s roughly the size of a deck of cards, or a certain combination of Greek yogurt and eggs, for example. This way, you think of food less in terms of numbers, and more in terms of whether they can supply you with the nutrients you need. In fact, this is exactly what I do now instead of counting my macros — I aim to include a serving of protein around the size of a deck of cards in every meal. This more intuitive approach has been much better for my mental health since counting macros, for some, may require more nuance than a macro calculator alone can provide.