By: Natalie Ribble, MS, CSCS
Of course, like nearly everything in fitness, there are many nuances and the answer to this topic is both yes and no. First of all, let me explain what we mean by changing your body composition because it isn’t the same thing as just losing weight. When we talk about body composition we are talking about the ratio of adipose tissue or fat mass to muscular tissue. Body recomposition usually refers to gaining muscle and losing fat. Body recomposition is different from weight loss because you could gain muscle and lose fat, and weigh exactly the same.
Right out of the gate I want to acknowledge that many folks out there have a very difficult history with tracking calories or macros. For many folks, it can become obsessive and lead to disordered eating habits or full-blown eating disorders. If this is you, we love you, we see you, and this is probably not the blog post for you. Macros and calorie tracking have become so intertwined with diet culture. And what diet culture does is assign morality to certain foods or food choices. Diet culture teaches us that eating less and being our smallest version makes us good and attractive and morally better. It teaches us that the only “good” choice is to eat only “healthy” foods (notice all the quotes) and make “healthy” choices when in reality no choices are morally good or bad. Choices are relative to your goals and sure, certain choices will help you move either closer or farther away from those goals. I think one of the keys here is making sure that your goals are truly what YOU want. Diet culture has sold us that the only acceptable goal is to be small or lean or super jacked. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but if you would rather have a full social life and calendar, or you would rather train for maximal strength, or you would rather climb mountains and run races than spend hours in the weight room, THAT IS OKAY!
So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about Intuitive eating vs tracking macros. And I truly hate that these two have been pitted against each other because I don’t think it has to be ALWAYS one or ALWAYS the other. And it also shouldn’t be “you’re on one team or another or one is bad and one is good”. They are both tools that can be applied in different ways. It is so individualized for each person. It depends on your background, what you’ve done in the past, and your mindset toward tracking in general. For example, if your mindset is that tracking is only and always a tool for making yourself smaller, you might not be in the right place to track. This can lead to obsession over the numbers and feeling like you have to track every single bite for the rest of your life and never go over calories even by one because you’re scared to gain weight. *red flags, red flags* It might take some time before you can get to macro tracking and there are certainly other ways that you can work on your nutrition without tracking.
Intuitive eating can be super transformative for certain people, we absolutely aren’t denying that. However, doing so on your own when the only advice you’ve been given is “just eat when you’re hungry” or “just listen to your body” can be super scary! If you’ve been chronically undereating, likely your body’s hunger cues are super stunted and you may not “feel” hungry for a while. “Just listen to your body” is also an oversimplified misunderstanding of what Intuitive Eating really is, even though it’s what social media portrays it to be.
So on the flip side, tracking can be an amazing tool to help educate and gain awareness around what “enough” food even looks like, how to build a healthy and well-rounded day of eating, and the composition of each type of food. Both Erin and I used tracking as a way to help fuel our passion for powerlifting and get away from chronically undereating. When we started tracking, we learned that we didn’t need to be afraid of food and that we needed to eat WAY more than we ever thought in order to support our goals. And I think a common misunderstanding is that you have to track forever. Many of the athletes, influencers, etc that you see on social media who are super fit and eat intuitively, spent a lot of time tracking their macros in order to get to a place where they could put the apps aside and know how to fuel their bodies without having to track, which in my mind is 100% the goal of tracking. I have zero intention to be tracking my macros when I’m 60 years old, but hopefully, by then I know how to fuel myself, what my body’s cues feel like, and tying them to the data in my tracking habits right now.
So… Can you make compositional changes without tracking? Absolutely. There are other methods of becoming more aware of the foods you’re eating and making more intentional choices around food. There’s the hand portion method that Precision Nutrition loves, there’s the plate method, and there are apps like Foodie which allow you to take pictures of your food and have a food journal without having to track calories. If your goal is body composition changes, although you don’t have to track macros or calories necessarily, some kind of internal tracking and goal setting will be necessary. Whether that’s a food journal, pictures, or some other tool, having some data on your food intake is going to be necessary in order to be able to manipulate variables to achieve your body composition change goals.
What is important to understand, however, if you are not tracking, is that your rate of progress might be a little different than someone who is tracking, which isn’t a bad thing, just something to be aware of. Progress with either of these methods is never linear but comparing your journey to someone else’s who is using different tools than you likely won’t make you feel good. A great tool (whether you’re tracking or not) is to have a coach who is knowledgeable to help you decipher your tracking (photos, journal, etc.) and help you have a better guesstimate of your intake. The other benefit of having a coach is that it is phenomenally difficult (and this is me speaking from experience as a highly educated and experienced coach) to be objective about yourself. I have a Masters in Sports Performance and it is still helpful for me to have Erin’s eyes on my nutrition and exercise. The cognitive load from doing these kinds of things is hard enough as it is, and having a coach (that you trust) helps take a lot of the decision making processes away from you. Especially if you are *not* tracking calories or macros in a formal way, having a coach on your team is going to be so much easier than going it alone.
The last thing I want to say is this: if you are just starting, and want to make body compositional changes in the long run, if you are eating 3-5 palmfulls of protein a day, not underfuelling, getting 7-10k steps a day/meeting daily activity guidelines, strength train 2-4 times per week, and rinse and repeat forever, you’re going to like the way you look. You are going to make body compositional changes. It may happen over years vs months but it will happen.
If you’d like to get started tracking your macros, we highly recommend the app MacroFactor. You can use our affiliate code “strongnotsorry” at sign-up to get a free 2 week trial!