Macros: To Track or Not to Track?

So let’s strip it back to the basics.

We eat food.

That food provides energy.

The energy in food is measured in calories (kcal)

Those calories come from 3 main sources: Protein (which has 4 kcal per gram), Fat (which has 9 kcal per gram) and Carbohydrate (which has 4 kcal per gram).

Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates are the three main macronutrients. Alcohol is a fourth macronutrient, but is usually left out for nutrition content like this for simplification. Alcohol contains 7 kcal/g.

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What do the Macronutrients Do?

Each macronutrient has various functions in the body. For a start, they all can be used as energy sources in the body, but the amount of each used will depend on various factors, including activity type and duration, and general nutritional intake. However, the energy is mainly provided by carbohydrates and fats, rather than protein.

Protein, or rather the amino acids that protein is made up of, is used in the synthesis (a.k.a. building) of muscle and other tissues in the body. This is of particular importance to athletes because exercise is generally a catabolic activity, meaning it breaks down muscle and other tissues. Therefore, in order to gain, or even just maintain, muscle mass, as well as to recover properly for subsequent sessions, it is important to consume enough protein.

Fat is a crucial part of any nutritional plan, and completely removing fat from the diet would lead to many negative health consequences. Fat is used in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K. It is also involved in the regulation of hormones and cell health.

Carbohydrate is the main fuel source in high-intensity activity. This is obviously important to athletes who are involved in a lot of high-intensity training and competition. Carbohydrates are also important because most fruit and vegetables contain carbohydrates. For these reasons, it is not advisable for athletes to follow a low-carbohydrate diet.

Why is it Important to Hit the Right Amounts?

Again, back to the basics. In order to lose weight one must be in a caloric deficit, meaning they are eating fewer calories than they are expending. In order to gain weight, one must be eating in a caloric surplus, meaning they are eating more calories than they are expending.

Since the macronutrients make up the caloric intake of our diet, by altering the macronutrients we eat, we are altering our caloric intake. That is simply to say that e.g. if we reduce our carbohydrate intake and don’t change our intake of the other macronutrients, our overall caloric intake has been reduced. (Note: This is a common reason that people see weight-loss results on a low-carb or low-fat diets. Jumping to the conclusion that carbs make you fat, or fat makes you fat, is due to a failure to recognise that the overall calories were the main factor at play.)

Furthermore, hitting the correct amount of each macronutrient within our caloric recommendation will likely lead to improvements in body composition, recovery and performance.

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How Much of Each Should Be Consumed?

To read my full article on how to calculate your own recommended macronutrient breakdown, go to this link [LINK]

The optimal range for protein intake for athletes is about 1.7–2.2 g/kg B.W. (grams per kilogram of bodyweight).

With fat, we have to at least meet the minimum requirements in order to maintain health, and allow for a sufficiently enjoyable diet. Usually, this means a range of about 20–30% of the diet being made up of dietary fat.

Carbohydrates will then make up the rest of the calories in the diet. It is important to remember that when optimal performance is required, it is crucial that the intake of carbohydrates is sufficiently high. This may mean that you have to lower fat or protein intake slightly, in order to allow more carbohydrate intake. Otherwise, you may have to increase your overall caloric intake to allow for more carbohydrates, which may lead to a slight gain in bodyfat, but may be deemed worth it, for the performance benefit. It should also be noted that increasing the overall caloric intake may not lead to this expected gain in bodyfat, due to the fact that some people can end up compensating for the increase by moving more, and therefore expending more calories, balancing out the energy equation by default.

How Does One Track Macronutrient Intake?

The easiest way to track is by using a food tracking app, such as the MyFitnessPal app. This app allows you to search for foods within their food database, and add them to your daily diary within the app. This will give you a running total of your intake of calories for the day, along with the macronutrient breakdown. Doing this consistently allows you to adjust your intake to meet your requirements.

Advantages of tracking

1. Precision

If you really want to make sure you are hitting your targets, there really is no more accurate, practical way than tracking every piece of food you eat. Yes, you may be able to get pretty close using a number of tactics that I will get into in the next podcast episode (which will be on alternatives to tracking), but there will be some margin of error in each of these alternatives.

2. Flexibility of food choices

Another advantage of tracking is that it gets away from the usual idea of having a few specific foods to stick to. For example, Let’s say you really want a mars bar. Usually, you may think you couldn’t have that and still make optimal progress. However, if you’ve been tracking your total intake for the day, you’ll be able to see that maybe you can fit the mars bar in, if you simply reduced specific macronutrient intake somewhere else during the day.

3. Teaching correct amounts

Another advantage to tracking is that after a while of doing it, you are eventually able to make very accurate estimates of the calorie and macronutrient intake of foods, without the need for inputting each individual item into MyFitnessPal. This is advantageous because it means you can eventually meet close to your required intake, without the need to track.

4. Game-ification

The tracking process almost turns nutrition into a game, where you can see if you’ve hit your targets each day, and if someone finds this motivating, then it is worthwhile.

Disadvantages of tracking

1. Time

It takes time to not only learn how to use the app, or whatever other tracking process you use, but also takes time throughout the day to actually go through the tracking process. For most of us, who are already busy with work, training, family life and social life, any perceived time cost is something that can be deemed a negative.

2. It doesn’t account for micronutrients or timing of food.

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When we focus on the total intake of macronutrients only, whilst we are probably covering off most of our nutritional requirements, there is always the potential to forget about the quality of our food. It is important to remember that without getting enough vitamins and minerals in our diet, we put ourselves at risk of developing deficiencies, which can lead to any number of health issues.

Also, by only focussing on total intake for the day, we may miss out on optimising the timing of food. This is especially important when performance is a goal. For example, we may want to place more of our daily carbohydrate amount around the workout period. If we only focus on tracking our daily carb intake, this timing isn’t taken into account. Then again, in order to create this timing protocol, a element of tracking will be required in order to do it correctly.

3. It can become obsessive

In tracking your food by the numbers, there is always a risk that we can get too caught up in hitting the exact numbers every day. However, there really is no need to be getting wound up about hitting the numbers perfectly. In fact, the reality is the all the numbers you have been tracking already have some errors. This could be a rounding error by the food company, a measuring error by you, or even an error in the food database. With this in mind, being a few grams of carbs over your recommended is no big deal, since you actually may have eaten 10 or 15 grams either side of what the app is telling you, due to the aforementioned errors.

So, Do You Need to Track Your Macros?

Well I guess the main things we need to consider when answering this question is what level of nutritional knowledge the individual already has, and also what their goals are.

Firstly, I feel that before someone begins to track their food intake by the numbers, there are a few things that should already be in place. For example, are they eating a diet containing mostly whole foods? Are they able to cook 3–5 good meals from scratch? Do they have a basic knowledge of the macronutrients and their use in the body? Do they have a regular eating schedule? Unless the answer is “yes” to those questions, it’s probably not a good idea to get someone to strictly track their intake of macronutrients daily.

The second aspect is the extent of the individual’s goals. Usually, the more goals the person has, the more accurate they need to be. For example, if they simply want to lose weight, then they may simply need to develop a few key habits that will allow them to eat fewer calories and be more active. However, if they want to lose weight, and maintain muscle, and maintain their sport performance, then that will require more accuracy, and tracking may be the only way of providing that accuracy.

So, technically, the answer to the question “Do you need to track your macros?” is “No.” However, in certain circumstances, where the person has already developed good nutritional habits and knowledge, and has goals that require accuracy, then tracking would be a productive option.

Conor

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