Kim Yawitz, RD
If you follow a lot of fitness influencers on social media (and I have a lot of thoughts on that for another day), you might wonder if you should be counting macros for weight loss.
Not sure what I’m talking about? Scroll through your Instagram and look for pictures of donuts and the like, paired with hashtags like #flexibledieting and #IIFYM (if it fits your macros).
There’s a reason why counting macros for weight loss is so popular. It can be very effective for leaning out, when done consistently.
My feelings on macro counting have shifted the longer I’ve practiced as a dietitian. In fact, I don’t recommend it for most of my clients these days (having utilized it much more often in the past).
This post will discuss whether counting macros for weight loss might be a good fit for you. But first, let’s talk about what it even means to count macros.
What is Macro Counting?
“Macro” is short for macronutrients, which are nutrients that we need in large amounts and that contribute calories to the diet.
Macro counting is a diet strategy that involves setting targets for each of the three key macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates), and then tracking intake of those nutrients every day.
If this sounds similar to calorie counting, it is…albeit much more detailed. The first step to counting macros is to calculate your daily calorie goal, and then to allocate those calories among the macros.
For example, a CrossFit athlete who needs 1600 calories per day and follows a pretty standard macro split of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat would be shooting for:
- 160 grams of carbohydrates per day
- 120 grams of protein per day
- 53 grams of fat per day
Hitting those macro goals (give or take a few grams) ensures that you’ll hit your calorie sweet spot, or at least be pretty close to it.
How do you hit those targets? By weighing and measuring your food, and by tracking it in an app like MyFitnessPal.
(Note: I could bore you with how to do macro math, but I’ll spare you the pain. Here is a link to a calculator you can use to calculate your own).
As I said, this is a lot more detailed than calorie counting, because you have three targets to hit instead of just one.
Even if counting macros for weight loss still appeals to you after reading this, chances are it still might not be the right approach to help you hit your goals.
Reasons You Should Not be Counting Macros for Weight Loss
Want to know if macro counting might be right for you? There are a few circumstances in which macro counting should be a no go.
You Haven’t Mastered the Basics
As CrossFitters, we learn to do advanced level movements by mastering the basics first:
- Air squats before heavy barbell squats.
- Overhead squats with a PVC before squat snatches.
- Handstand holds on a wall before handstand walks.
- Pull-ups before bar muscle-ups.
Macro counting is an advanced nutrition strategy. To do it well requires a pretty solid knowledge of nutrition, plus some foundational skills like mindful eating and meal planning.
My advice to you? Spend some time mastering skills like these before you even consider macro counting. I’ve had so many clients who’ve had tremendous success without ever counting a single macro, once they really dialed in these foundational skills.
You Don’t Have a Lot of Time or Energy
Macro counting only works if you are consistent and precise.
It’s easy when you’re busy to skip meal planning, weighing, measuring, and logging. However, most people underestimate their food intake.
Let’s say you need 1/2 cup of oats to hit your macros (which is not much at all, as anyone who’s ever measured oats knows!). If you’re not measuring every day and pouring yourself closer to 1 cup instead, that’s going to throw your calories and macros off and keep you from achieving your goals.
Macro counting can also be difficult for those who frequently go out (or call out, these days) for meals and drinks, simply because you don’t know exactly how much of each ingredient you’re eating. The best you can do in these cases is estimate, and we just talked about how that doesn’t really work.
The best nutrition strategy is the one that you can stick with, long-term. If you can’t consistently devote the time and energy to planning out your meals, weighing and measuring your food, and logging everything you eat, then macros probably won’t be that effective for you.
You’re Still Growing
I’m getting lots of calls lately from teenagers interested in counting macros for weight loss.
And I say this with love if this describes you, but you’re too young.
Your body needs more calories to grow and develop during your teens, and over-restrictive diets can cause a whole mess of problems (including hormone imbalances).
Focus on fueling your body with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and plant-based fats.
A registered dietitian who specializes in pediatrics is your best bet if your doctor has specifically instructed you to lose weight, while a sports dietitian can help you to develop a healthy fueling strategy if you’re a competitive teen athlete.
I’d be happy to provide referrals to colleagues who specialize in these areas if either of those statements applies to you.
You Have a History of Disordered Eating
I do not recommend macro counting for anyone with a history of disordered eating, simply because the attention to detail can lead to obsessive thoughts about food.
There are lots of great registered dietitians who help people with a history of disordered eating reach their goals and develop a positive relationship with food in the process. Feel free to reach out if you need some names.
You Could Maybe Try Counting Macros for Weight Loss
I’ve said it a bunch of times but it bears repeating: Macro counting isn’t for everyone.
That said, there are lots of people who do quite well with it. You might be one of those people if:
You Enjoy Data and Planning
Are you a data nerd? Do you get satisfaction from making and executing plans?
(Side note: I actually fall into this camp, at least when my life isn’t total chaos).
If so, you might actually enjoy counting macros! And because it’s easier to devote time and energy to things you enjoy, you will probably do pretty well with it as long as you’ve mastered the basics (see above).
But proceed with caution: Even us data nerds can burn out on macros if life is busy, or if we’ve been doing it too long.
My advice to you?
- Plan some maintenance breaks if you’re counting long-term. I recommend every 12 weeks or so, although it varies depending on the person and his or her goals. This gives both your body and your brain a break.
- Check in with yourself frequently, to see how you’re feeling about it. Consider shifting to a more moderate approach if you start to resent it, or if it’s feeling like it’s too much.
A registered dietitian/nutrition coach (like me!) can help you come up with an exit strategy.
You Have Very Specific Performance or Aesthetic Goals
Macro counting can be highly beneficial for those who compete in weight class or high-intensity sports (like CrossFit), or for physique competitors and fitness models.
Whenever possible, I recommend strict macro counting for defined periods of time, with scheduled maintenance phases in between for these athletes.
Should You Be Counting Macros for Weight Loss?
Macro counting can be very effective for weight loss.
However, it’s not the end all be all, and it’s certainly not the first strategy I’d put into place for most of my clients.
If you’re considering macro counting and don’t have much experience with following a plan, I’d recommend working on foundational skills like mindful eating and meal planning first. You may find you don’t even need to count macros to reach your goals!
You can always progress to macro counting if you think you’d enjoy it, or if you’re ready to implement a more advanced nutrition strategy.
At Two Six Nutrition, we specialize in helping our clients implement nutrition strategies that work with their lifestyles and help them achieve their goals (yes, even macro counting, if that’s your jam!).
Click here to learn more about one-on-one nutrition coaching.