Why I Track Macros (Instead of Calorie Counting)

Disclaimer: this post is specifically about my nutritional strategy and is not meant as dietary advice nor a recommendation for weight loss. Please treat your bodies with love and respect, and don’t assume that just because I’m a macro-knob forever doing experiments on my body that you should too. Weight loss is massively over-rated, take it from me.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I have entered my first powerlifting competition in July of this year. In an attempt to increase my three big lifts and overall muscle mass ahead of the competition I decided to do a “dirty bulk” over Christmas. I’m now ‘cutting’ weight (or dieting, as normal people would call it) back down to my usual weight and therefore into my weight class for the competition (up to 67.5kg).

There are a hundred and one ways to lose weight, most noteably calorie counting, but ultimately all involve being in some sort of calorie deficit. (Yes, even your keto atkins cabbage soup detoxes or whatever is trendy at the moment.) My personal method of choice is tracking my macros.

WTF is a macro?

Macro, short for macronutrient, generally refers to carbohydrates (so your pastas, potatoes and sugars in the real world), protein (meat, fish, milk, legumes) and fats (oils, butter). Each of these macronutrients generally serve a different purpose:

  • Protein is essential for (in my case) muscle growth
  • Carbohydrates (or carbs) are broken down into glucose and provide energy
  • Fats are essential for hormone regulation

(This is a super simplified explanation but should give you the gist.)

It’s important to note that protein and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and fat has 9 calories per gram.

And what does “tracking” macros even mean?

Tracking my macros simply refers to the process of creating and following a plan which identifies my rough macro needs over the course of a day or week, and eating to that plan. Different people have different macro needs, and my protein macro count is skewed towards muscle growth – i.e. I eat more protein than your average Joe would need, averaging around 1-1.1g per lb of bodyweight. This isn’t the upper end of protein intake and if I bulk again I’ll probably aim for 1.5-2g per lb rather than eating aimlessly like I did last time.

I set my macros in a spreadsheet for the week on a meal by meal basis, and then more or less stick to that meal’s macros so I don’t have to be fussed writing stuff down or doing obscene amounts of mental maths throughout the day/week. If I don’t quite make my macros at one meal (e.g. am under by more than 10g of that macro) I will ‘roll over’ to the next meal to ensure I’m eating enough.

So why do you track your macros?

For me, tracking my macros allows me to tailor my nutrition more accurately and appropriately than calorie counting alone.

Sensible Refueling

On days where I’m doing more cardiovascular exercise e.g. running, I have higher carbohydrate needs than a rest day where I’m mostly sat on my bum at a computer. Tracking my macros allows me to ensure I am fueling — and refueling — my body based on those needs, which enables me to get up tomorrow and do it all over again. I’m never overly fatigued from under-eating as I get the nutrients that I need.

Stops fat-binging

If I only calorie count, or indeed don’t track at all, I am drawn to fats for reasons of deliciousness (of course). This means that to maintain weight I need to significantly lower my carb or protein intake to prevent rapid weight gain because as mentioned earlier, fat has more than twice the calories per gram. Lowering my carb/protein intake makes it harder to maintain effort during longer bouts of exercise and affects my recovery.

I also find that an overly increased fat intake exacerbates my PMDD symptoms, but this is more likely to do with the fact that carrying more weight affects your hormones rather than eating fat specifically. This is obviously a super personal thing that I have found *for me* rather than a rule that applies to all; I’m not a scientist, don’t @ me.

Forces me to be creative

With a better idea of what I need to eat, counting macros forces me to be more creative in my meal prep. Rather than just resorting to a bowl of cereal or a bar of chocolate and thinking “yeah it’s all good, I’m within my calorie limit”, I know that if I don’t add e.g. add protein to that, it’s going to cause problems when I’m trying to pull big heavy weights off the floor at the gym tomorrow. Because I’m forced to be creative, it encourages me to add a greater range of fruits and vegetables into my diet to make sure I’m ticking the right boxes which means I generally get my micronutrients in too.

It also means I sometimes eat weird and wonderful meals like leftover chicken curry with pickled cucumber on a toasted crumpet, but we gotta do what we gotta do.

It plays on my routine-driven strengths

I find focus and drive in a specific routine and so my week is planned around this: I know when I’m going to run, when I’m going to lift weights, when I’m doing taekwon-do etc. As such, I can set my macros up well ahead of time and know without fail what I need to eat and when.

The only time this is problematic is if I eat for a planned gym trip which then doesn’t happen for some reason, but one day of skewed macros is really not going to hurt my progress (athletic or weight loss).

Fixes my portion sizes

One thing I’ve historically been very bad at is judging portion sizes. Although I can generally eyeball it these days, my expectations for what e.g. a portion of pasta should look like were WAY off in the beginning, and like many people I used to eat far too much red meat in one sitting. If in doubt, I weigh my food and trim portions accordingly.

Are there downsides to tracking macros?

There are downsides to everything my friend. Here are some of the things I don’t like about macro tracking:

It fixes my portion sizes!

What if I want to eat 1kg of chocolate in one sitting? 🙁

It can be inconvenient

If I’m travelling, for example, it can be somewhat frustrating trying to make up my macro needs in restaurants or convenience stores. I have, on more than one occasion, ended up buying a packet of pre-sliced chicken and a bagged salad and just eating from each. Not ideal, but better than 1kg of chocolate.

If I know in advance that I’m going to be out or busy, I try and keep a protein shake on me, although I’m not a huge fan of dairy products (and neither is my digestive system, if you catch my drift).

It’s turned me into a food bore

Yes, I am now one of those irritating, boring people that knows the exact nutrient makeup of your favourite foods.

So how much of each macro do you eat?

There is literally no point in me sharing this data, because the macronutrient balance that’s good for me might not be good for you. I might work out more, I might have a higher starting bodyweight, you might walk 15 miles a day, or, maybe you do nothing at all. There are plenty of guides out there on how to calculate your rough macro needs so if you’re interested, start with Google.

I am however (as with my first “cut”) using RP Strength templates to guide me on my macros, and would recommend these for others looking for more specific guideance than e.g. a generic TDEE calculator. I’ve managed to increase strength AND lose weight from their templates previously, and trust their process.

Lead photo by Mika Baumeister

Jem Turner hello@strongmum.com +44(0)7521056376

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