By: Bianca Herres, CPT
Fitness culture has been popularized for long enough now that most people can at least recognize the term ‘macros’. Understanding what it means, how to use macros, and the difference between dieting and tracking, however, takes much longer to discern.
The first big thing to tackle in building the skill of macro tracking: getting clear about what we’re even talking about. Macros are the 3 big macronutrients – carbs, fats, and proteins. These three categories make up the bulk of our total caloric intake, and serve as our nutritional guidelines in regards to whether or not we are in a deficit, a surplus, or at maintenance.
Many of us felt the popularization of IIFYM or “if it fits your macros” in early 2013-2017 fitness culture, where it was all about trying to prove you could “eat whatever you wanted and still lose weight” as long as it fit into your given macros. That said, this approach completely disregarded micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc – and also did nothing for us in the way of education around how to use macros as a tool rather than a diet.
It’s now almost 2023, and tracking isn’t just for a fat loss phase, nor is it about “cheating” the ways you can eat. Macros aren’t just a number, they are the actual components of real food and real nutrients we take in!
We can use macros for any phase of nutrition, as it should build awareness and confidence of what constitutes your day to day foods, as well as build on our understanding of nutrition, while not requiring a particular goal.
Even if fat loss is the eventual goal, consistency within a maintenance phase or surplus builds the confidence for consistency and accuracy within a fat loss phase. While macro tracking, like any nutrition practice, isn’t a perfect thing, it gives us a head start. The process of gaining, losing, or maintaining via tracking is only frustrating without a framework. This is why we want to build our tracking skills gradually, so that we understand and believe in our abilities with it fully!
When used properly, tracking macros should be something that builds confidence in our ability to understand what foods fall into what categories, what caloric ranges help us feel our best, and how to build nutritional habits that feel sustainable and replicable, even without tracking.
In other words, you can’t build a solid nutritional foundation purely on tracking. To do this, you have to have a stable understanding of nutrition on the whole, solid habits, and the confidence for consistency in all of these.
Your foundation comes from introspection and education, the macros are just the walls that can then be built up on top of this.
That in mind, where do we begin? How do we build the skill of tracking from the ground up, so that we can get confident enough to not need it?
This is where we come in.
The first thing we tend to recommend to clients is to start with tracking protein alone. If you’ve never tracked before, expecting to go from 0 to all of a sudden logging carbs, fats, protein, and total calories can be overwhelming and make us more likely to quit. If we only have to keep an eye on protein, we are doing a few things:
- We’re able to build confidence in tracking because it’s one goal to focus on, and helps to establish the habit while taking in a smaller subset of information
- We’re allowing ourselves the opportunity to learn about how to get enough protein, something that most people aren’t doing when we begin tracking
- We give ourselves the opportunity to stop here! There’s no hard and fast rule that says we have to track everything. If we find that tracking protein helps us feel stronger and get a better sense of meal structure, there’s the freedom to only keep this habit, and not add in the rest.
When we start tracking protein, we get to learn things like what 4oz of chicken even looks like, how we feel digestion-wise with nutrient shifts, and how to split up total protein goals throughout the day. All of this translates to the other nutrients, too!
The second tool we recommend for beginners in the skill of tracking macros is to prep ingredients rather than meals. This gives us the opportunity to measure/weigh ingredients out individually and get a sense for what these portions mean and represent without being convoluted by too many ingredients. Pretty much any “build your own” kind of meal allows us this opportunity! Some of our favorites are:
- Breakfast sandwiches: we can change the bread type, cheese, protein source, toppings, etc but still have a foundational “formula” for what goes in
- Bowls: choose a carb base (grain or starchy vegetable) and add in whatever veggies, sauces, spices, and protein you like
- Stir fries, tacos, the list goes on!
Easy to log doesn’t have to mean boring – and the more formulaic we can start to make meals, the more we can set a plan for what we want the macros to look like and learn how to fill it. This gives us an approachable, but fun, “mix-and-match” way to begin to understand our nutritional needs.
The third and final tool we want to recommend for building up the skill of tracking your macros is to PRE-LOG YOUR FOOD! This is the hill we will die on here at SNS. There’s so many times where so many of us who track accidentally end up out of calories too soon, with weird distributions, or with too many to catch up at the end of the day.
Pre-logging or pre-planning the night before allows us to not only alleviate these issues, but also have more time to spend learning how to split up nutrients across meals, and by nature of that, create more balanced meals overall.
In short, what we want to drive home is that while macros are a great tool for nutritional education, the macros themselves or the act of tracking in and of itself doesn’t teach the mindset or confidence we need to make nutritional habits stick. These aspects come from consistency, coaching, and resources.
For example, if you’ve been tracking just for the sake of tracking, that can go fine at home, but how do you feel when you end up at a restaurant? Or needing to order lunch because you forgot yours? This is where we would hope to implement the tools we’ve learned through tracking; we can stop and think about okay, how do I feel? How much protein have I had, and where can I get more if needed without necessarily blowing fat out of the water, for example?
Macro tracking isn’t just IIFYM anymore. It’s not all dieting. Rather, it should be a way to visually and actively engage with our food, and to learn how it serves us. Lastly, however, we always want to consider: do you need to track at all?
Not all of us do!
Truly tracking does take time, effort, and consistent engagement. Not all of us want this, and that’s more than okay. If it doesn’t feel like something you want to give your entire focus to, though, it may be a good opportunity to reevaluate your goal set, and what’s driving them, both personally and/or with a coach!
Tracking and understanding macros is a skill that takes time, and our goal is to not only help you understand its purpose, but how to break the ice and make the process less daunting. You deserve confidence and empowerment in your nutritional goals, whether or not you track long term!