I know it can look intimidating from the outside looking in. Tracking your nutrition down to the last carbohydrate seems like a lot of work, a lot of counting, and maybe even obsessive.
Before we get right into why you can and should track your food, at least intermittently, I should explain what exactly I am even blabbing about to anyone new to the nutrition tracking game.
First you have calories. These are the units of energy which we apply to food. You can classify your calories into three main categories. Proteins, Fats, and Carbohydrates. These are your macronutrients, or macros for short. To keep things nice and simple for now, I will say these few short words to describe the three macronutrients. Proteins are your structural components for bodily tissues (muscle, hair, etc), carbohydrates are broken down and produce quick energy for the body, and fats help our bodies process vitamins, aid in cognitive processes and contribute to immune function.
Regarding tracking macros on a daily basis, you are going to find a wide variety of opinions (and you know what they say about opinions). You have your die hard macro counting crew that you may have seen on Facebook or Instagram eating a hot fudge sundae while simultaneously showing off their extremely ripped torso, touting the slogan “Hey, if it fits your macros…”. Those at this end of the spectrum give no cares about the quality of their food, the health benefits or detriments to eating sugary and processed foods. They are lean however, because they eat at a caloric deficit, they eat enough protein to build and keep their muscle mass, and the KNOW it. They know it because they track it. What they lack in quality food choices they make up for in precision macro targets.
Then on the other end of the spectrum you have the anti macro crowd. You may have even seen them referred to as ‘clean eaters’, although I don’t want to classify everyone who is dead set against macro counting that way. This crew tends to hone in on food quality and let the chips fall where they may when it comes to total daily calories and macronutrient breakdowns. You will see them take the approach of eliminating junk food from their diets, eating whole foods and quality meats, eating when they’re hungry and stopping when they’re full. This is great. Except they are more than likely way under or over fed. How would they even know? Well that’s a trick question, they can’t know. Although the quality of their food is completely spot on, you don’t lose fat unless, wait for it, you are eating at a caloric deficit.
Although these two groups of people seem to be complete opposites, they actually have one major thing in common. They’re both so extreme in their philosophies that they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. On one hand the macro counters are so into the results a sound calorie and macro breakdown will provide they throw caution to the wind and fill their macros with any old thing, missing the benefits of high quality foods ( like you know, feeling and performing well). The anti counters place so much importance on their foods quality, they miss the fact that you don’t know what your energy intake and expenditure is unless you count it, at least intermittently to get an idea. Eat all the cage free chickens you want. If you’re eating too much or too little you might as well go to the other side of the playground and share an ice cream cone with the macro counters.
The right mind set? At least according to me, is right down the middle. Track your macros, count your calories, but become educated on quality foods, and fill up your macro counts that way.
Coach Mitch, isn’t calorie counting a bit obsessive and intense?
You know, I would have agreed with this if it was 1993. But luckily it’s not. We have smart phones and apps that can do all kinds of thinking stuff for us.
My personal favorite app to track macros is called MyFitnessPal. While I don’t recommend using their macro breakdown they provide, I do really like customizing the macros and using the app to track. It has a HUGE database of foods already entered so counting your calories is very fast and easy. I spend less than three minutes per day entering my food, and the payback on that three minutes spent is more than worth it when you consider the benefits of knowing your calories and macro breakdown is around where it needs to be to set you in a dead sprint towards your goals. If you don’t need the database, Fitocracy Macros can hook you up with a customizable, simple macro counter.
What if I fail at hitting my macro and calorie goals?
I promise you will, and that’s OK. First of all, if you are missing your goals, that means you’ve BEEN missing your goals, only now you know it. And knowing is half..never mind.
I usually recommend clients just track their food for the first two weeks without even making any changes to their diet. I let them know they will be way off their targets, but lets just get used to tracking nutrition and getting an idea of where we are. Without any effort, their diets begin to improve, and this is due to nothing but them being mindful of what and how much they’re eating.
After that initial two weeks, I like to take another two weeks to start making some small changes (which is usually all it takes), to get them closer and closer gradually to their macro goals.
Something to note, you will never hit your macro goals bang on everyday, and that is completely fine. The idea is to keep your food intake in the right ball park, not the right petri dish. No need to over analyze, just try to get close.
Macro counting can in fact be damaging if it is obsessed over. To avoid this keep the big picture mentality, keep a short memory (if you completely fall off the rails one day, analyze it, learn from it, then delete it like an old text message), and be PATIENT. It will take a lot of time to learn how to hit these macro goals, and you will get closer every day. As for the value in being so patient, I’ll let the changes in your body show you that.
As a final note, it’s important to mention your food quality. First off, it is SO much easier to hit your macro goals when you keep your food quality high. Research local sources for grass fed beef, cage free chickens/eggs, organic vegetables. Get your carbohydrates from quality sources like rice, potatoes and oats. If you (slowly, and patiently) learn how to track your nutrition, and fill your diet plan with quality foods, you will create a situation for the best results possible. And if you’re anything like me, you’re probably into that kind of thing.
Featured image courtesy of _Untitled-1 and used under a creative commons license.