Hey runner... should you start counting macros?
Hey runner - are you counting your macros? Should you start? Is it worth the time, or not??
"Counting macros" is a pretty popular thing ATM, but what exactly does it mean? "Macros" are just short for "macronutrients", which are the nutrients in foods that actually provide calories: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
We all need all 3 macronutrients in our diets, but some of us need more of a certain type than others. As runners, we need plenty of carbohydrates -- more carbs when we're running more miles. But if we're injured runners, we need more protein. So we all have slightly different needs, and our needs can change from season to season.
Counting macros is basically a way of tracking your food intake to monitor the amount of each macronutrient you're taking in (not necessarily calories, but it could include that too). Most people use apps, such as My Fitness Pal, to keep track of what and how much food they eat. Then the apps do some fun calculations and let us know how many grams of each macronutrient we're eating, and what percentage of our total intake that macronutrient provided.
It can be insightful - like, "Hey, I ate very little protein today and I should eat some more!" But it can also be detrimental if you end up worrying too much about fitting in your macros just right.
Here's some potential benefits and drawbacks to counting your macros... and whether or not you should actually start tracking.
You know you’re getting what you need
If you're counting your macros, you'll know that you're getting your recommended amount of carbs and protein -- which can give you peace of mind. You're not just relying on guess work, you're not just wishing and hoping, you're not just making assumptions.
Let's pretend you're injured and you're really wanting to focus on getting an optimal amount of protein in order to help expedite your recovery. If you're counting your macros, you can see if you're meeting your protein goal, or if you're falling short -- and then make steps to fix that.
You're more in tune with your food intake
When you're counting your macros, you're paying a lot more attention to the food that you're eating - including what it's made of, how it's made, how much you're consuming, and more. This might mean that you'll be less likely to mindlessly snack, or it might mean that you'll reach for a boiled egg and a piece of fruit before grabbing the leftover half of a donut in the staff lunch room. So there's a good chance you'll make smarter food choices based on what your body needs.
It can lead to obsession or worry about foods you’re consuming
Some people easily become obsessed about calories, fat grams, or the amount of food that they eat when they are constantly thinking about it. What may have started out as a healthy habit can lead to obsession, worry, restriction or avoidance, and changed habits. Remember, your mental health is just as important as your physical health – and an unhealthy obsession with food doesn’t do you any good at all.
You might end up eating foods just to “fit your macros”
One thing that I sometimes see when people count macros is that they will eat foods they don’t enjoy (or don’t want, or aren’t even hungry for) just to hit their protein (or fat, or carb) goals. For example, they might eat a chicken breast at 9pm just to make sure they eat enough protein for the day, even though they’re not hungry. Or they’ll skip the piece of toast because they ate more carbs earlier in the day and they don’t want to go over their goals.
This can be stressful, but it also doesn’t allow us to honor our hunger cues. You might also find that you choose a food just because of the macronutrient content, rather than the nutritional value of the food itself –which can affect your health! You might find yourself eating (or not eating) things just because you “should”, rather than because you want to.
It can be time-consuming
If you’re counting your macros, you’re probably using an app to input every food you eat – meaning you’re typing, or scanning, or uploading data all the time. If you make a recipe, you might need to upload the recipe to the app to make sure the macro breakdown is correct (because there are 100s of recipes for chicken pot pie – who knows if the one you chose on the app is correct?!). You’re also taking the time to measure your food and scan labels. You might even spend extra time at the grocery store trying to decide the best brand to buy that will best fit your macros. You get to decide if the extra time is worth it to you or not.
How to decide if you should do it or not
To help you decide if counting macros is for you, consider these questions – and be honest with yourself when answering them!
Is it sustainable for you?
Counting macros can take extra time and planning. Is that something that you’re willing to do? Or is there another way that you can be fairly certain that you’re reaching your macro goals without counting and measuring everything you decide to eat? If you’re counting macros regularly, it should feel sustainable and flexible, not like a rigid approach.
Are you going to get stressed, anxious, or obsessed? Will it affect your quality of life?
If you’re someone who can easily become obsessed about calories or grams of fat or the numbers in general, then counting your macros might not be a good idea for you. If you might avoid going out to dinner or eating foods that you didn’t make yourself because you don’t know what the macro breakdown is, then counting macros might not be a good idea for you.
Does it make you feel good?
If you don’t mind the extra time, and you feel confident knowing you’re giving your body the nutrients it needs, and you feel healthy, and you’re not obsessed with the numbers… then feel free to go for it.
So the decision about whether or not to count your macros is completely up to you. I have clients who count macros pretty regularly, some who do it occasionally, and some who hate it and stay away from the mere idea. None of them is wrong; it is all about what works for you. If you don't know whether you should start (or continue) counting your macros - or if you're wondering how to eat for performance while staying the hell away from the macro game, I can help. Schedule a free runner's nutrition strategy session to see how I can help you become the best runner you can be - macro counting or not.