Macrotracking nowadays gets promised as the ultimate tool for weight loss and control over one’s diet. Back in the days, it was counting pure calories, now the more sophisticated 3 macronutrients took the place of the calories. Counts of protein, fats, and carbs reign the fitness world. The promises are big – it’s nutrition simplified. Put what you eat in an app and stay below what your goals are. Simple, efficient, and easy to set into practice. But is it really that uber-tool?
Macrotracking in itself is a purely quantitative intervention. It doesn’t address the main problem of many people’s diet nowadays – the overall quality. Taking the macrotracking approach to the absurd, you can even lose weight purely eating rubbish – like the one professor demonstrated solely eating Twinkie’s to lose weight. Although it works – it doesn’t fix the root cause. The root cause in my opinion are underlying metabolic processes and rather tied to food quality than food quantity. Health first, weight loss will follow. We got it backwards!
Macrotracking is simple to understand and conveys powerful ideas. I guess that’s why so many people religiously stick to it. Nothing wrong with that – what this post’s job is, is to challenge the idea of a purely quantitative approach to nutrition. Nutrition and health are so much more than numbers, 4g of calories per gram of protein and transferring everything zealously into an app. Each food is a collection of a vast majority of molecules and our body is the master chemistry lab. But let’s first get into the fallacious main promises that often come from folks marketing the macros’ path.
It’s pure Thermodynamics!
Short answer – no it’s not. On a basic level, it is convincing to think that your body function like a fire – what you pour into is what you burn.
But it’s not that simple, as your metabolism is a heck of a complex machinery of intertwined processes. Plus, many foods come with more than pure calories – if you look down the rabbit hole of fats each fatty acid has a different impact on how your body makes energy out of them, albeit they’re all classified as fats.1 They also come with vitamins, micronutrients, and many other compounds that have an impact on your body’s functions. Moreover, environmental factors such as your sleep, daylight, body temperature, and the like all influence your metabolism.
That’s why it’s wrong in my opinion to think that a calorie is a calorie.
It’s all about your 3 Macronutrients!
The 3 big ones – protein, fats, and carbohydrates. While those are in fact important and also useful to look at – it’s not all about them. There are so many other things foods contain that get left out of the equation by solely tracking those. Even if you’d also track your micronutrients and vitamins, many other substances of tremendous importance like choline, carnitine, or taurine would be left out.
Moreover to further complicate and shatter the simplistic viewpoint, not every vitamin or micronutrient is used the same way as the other depending on the food you eat. The term that comes to mind is bioavialability. If you’d solely try to:
get omega 3’s from linseed oil as vegans try
iron from plant sources, not animal heme iron
vitamin K from plant sources instead of K2 from animals
…you quickly ran into a problem. Your body can’t absorb those plant nutrients well. ALA from linseeds does get converted to omega 3’s only abysmally2, plant iron isn’t nearly as good absorbed as heme iron because the structure differs3, and plants use vitamin K1 compared to us who need vitamin K24. That said, nutrition is complex. Super complex in the light of human physiology. Macrotracking tries to simplify it to numbers, on the basis of the broken caloric model, but that’s not how it works.
What do IIFYM, Macrotracking and Flexible Dieting forget? Quality!
Why Modern Diets fail
There is a study that showed that 1 in 250 diets succeeds in morbidly obese patients. Those patients got a reason to succeed – so what is the issue? They can’t all just lack discipline. 2.1 billion people worldwide are obese.5 Can’t be that they all are flawed – rather it’s the quality of foods we eat and get taught. The obesity crisis is none to entirely blame on those individuals. I’d say the approach is flawed rather than 249 patients. I’d say the food paradigm is flawed rather than 2.1 billion people.
Modern Diets and therefore the modern diet fail because the approach is wrong. It’s not all about counting intakes and nutritional labels. It’s about the garbage we eat and can buy everywhere, plus the disgusting stuff the food industry puts into foods and sells to us. We’re so far diverged from what it means to eat like a human traditionally, that problems and diseases need to arise. The further we are away from nature the sicker we get – and nutritionally in the West we took a long journey away from meats, organs, and fruits to doughnuts, seed oils, and captain crunch.
It’s not all about ‘Calories In vs. Calories Out’
Calories were first established in the early 1900s as a unit of energy – how much energy do you need to raise the heat of one gram of water by one degree? Later on, Atwater introduced them as the nowadays used kilo-calorie for foods. How much energy do you need to raise the heat of one litre of water by one degree?
Sounds great so far that we use a model that is 200 years old and describes water heat changes. What has that to do with a cinnamon bun or a pound of ground beef? I can’t answer that. That’s why some folks use kilojoules to measure food energy.
The point is that the approach of measuring pure energy is way too simplistic – your body uses energy differently depending on the type of energy. Plus there are a lot of other factors to how that energy gets used – like the makeup of your microbiome, the exact composition of your calories, your metabolic health, and many more. That’s why the old caloric model doesn’t necessarily apply to human physiology in my opinion. A calorie doesn’t equal a calorie – at least not when you take it out of a lab into the chemistry lab that is your body. Even a spoon of canola oil doesn’t equal a similar spoon of beef tallow. They’re both two metabolically different substances. One damages your mitochondria, while the other is a great nutritional source.
We got Dieting backwards
Modern Diets all want you to lose weight. Sounds good, right? The thing is none of them prioritizes metabolic health. That’s why I say we got dieting backwards:
Metabolic Health needs to come first
Weight loss will follow as a consequence
Eat nutrient-rich and live your human ancestors did for millions of years and the rest will follow. You will lose weight, better autoimmune disorders, remove chronic inflammation, tilt your microbiome to the better, and so much more. My point is that health is so much more than having an arbitrary bodyweight of 70kg. It’s non-existent inflammation, good skin, no allergies, a functioning microbiome, enough energy throughout the day, and a myriad more.
Therefore, address the quality of your foods first. Satiety and hunger will adjust. And I am not saying that quality if the only thing to look at – you can look alongside at the amount of food you eat, but make the quality a priority rather than eating minuscule portions.
But – Macrotracking is a Useful Tool!
Like so many things – tracking your macros is a tool. A tool that needs to be seen and put into context – likewise gymnastic rings or a strict carnivore diet. No one would claim that gymnastic rings are the best tool throughout the bank, nor that everybody needs to eat strictly carnivore all year round for optimal health. It’s the same with macrotracking:
Solely tracking macros when dieting or eating fails because you miss half of the puzzle
Combining macrotracking and using it as a clever tool after quality is assured can reap benefits
That said – let’s talk next about when macrotracking is a clever tool!
Learn Nutrition and get a feeling for it
Learning nutrition is a process everybody of us has to undergo. Why is that so? Humans did well for a long time on intuition, right?
Yes, right. But that was in a time before seed oils, Kellogg’s, and most of the products of our food industry that are outright garbage. Really – margarine and seed oils were garbage or lubricants for heavy artillery for a long time before clever marketers packed them into food and sold Crisco to the public as the better butter. In a world where garbage is the default it’s important to learn nutrition and macrotracking is a useful tool to make nutrition measurable:
Which nutrients can be found where?
Where can I find Vitamin K2, where Selenium, and where Iodine?
How many calories has regular ground beef compared to extra lean?
All those answers can be brought to light with the help of a period of interventional macrotracking – alongside bettering the quality of your food of course. By tracking for 3-6 months and having a bit of interest in foods you’ll learn a lot and get the basic vitamins, macronutrient ratios, and some additional substances down.
Use it alongside Qualitative Improvements
As already aimed at, macrotracking isn’t the goal – the goal is health. Quality of food. Not pure quantity. If only looked upon from that angle diets fail and individuals tend to wear out feeling more like a competitive bodybuilder weighing every gram they eat. This struggle needs a definitive end.
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But when you learn about foods and improve the quality of your nutrition by for example:
Cutting out seed oils and processed foods zealously
Eating mostly animal meat and organs, preferably from ruminants
Sticking to the least toxic plants
Eating in sync with the seasons
Tracking them can make sense to see how many fats, protein and carbohydrates can be found where and especially which ones. Besides the improvements you can clearly feel by doing so, you’ll learn alongside a lot about why this is so. It is simply put a great opportunity to learn nutrition while being one’s own canary bird at the same time by running this experiment. You don’t need to go down the whole rabbit hole at once, nonetheless seeing how for example seed oils aren’t good for you while saturated fats provide reliable energy and satiety is a sign to be on the right path – contrary to public opinion.
How should I track my Macros – the Right Way!
First: Determine a Rough Goal
Before you go somewhere you need to know where you want to end. Fortunately, most will know exactly what they want to change – eat better in general, feel more energetic, lose weight, or gain muscle. Many don’t need a lot of work thinking about their goal. Keep your goal in mind, as it will determine how you will approach your nutrition.
If you want to gain weight you need to eat more and maybe sprinkle some additional fats onto your meals, contrary to when you want to lose weight. Then a more conservative approach is better. Fortunately, the great thing is once you address the quality of your food and eat better food choices often your satiety will naturally adjust, especially if you cut out processed foods and seed oils.
Nonetheless, having a rough goal in mind of let’s say approximately 2.500kcal a day is good to keep in mind. Remember though that it’s just a rough cornerstone to orientate with, not a chiseled-in-stone goal. 2.500kcal can mean a lot – depending on how you fill them! There are lots of online calculators around that can help you determine an approximate number of calories for each goal.
Second: Do the Math
After having a goal in mind you need to split your calories down to the level of the 3 macronutrients – fats, protein and carbohydrates. My general recommendations for macronutrients, before the background of an animal-based diet are:
0.8-1.2g of protein per lb of bodyweight
1.0-2.0g of fat per lb of bodyweight
50-150g of carbs per day
Depending on your gender, age, goal, and overall activity you can fill your estimated calories with the above number. Protein comes for 4kcal a gram, fat for 9kcal a gram, and carbs for 4kcal per gram. For that person eating 2.500kcal and weighing 160lb you could split it into 160g of protein, 160g of fats, and 100g of carbohydrates.
Next: Use Apps or an Oldscool Notebook
To track your macronutrients, you can either write them down on paper the oldscool way or use an app. I preferred to use the app MyFitnessPal by Under Armor. Once learned it is very intuitive and has a huge databank of many foods.
There are plenty of other apps around – feel free to try them. I can’t judge any of them. What counts is that you can easily get the habit down and quickly track your daily intake. Overall it shouldn’t take more than ~10 minutes to do so. By writing down the foods you eat you can get a good impression of what you eat a day and which foods contain which amounts of macronutrient. In the beginning, hitting your macros can be a challenge but don’t let that discourage you. As often said, quality, in the end, is what gets you towards health, not hitting your macros each day to the last gram.
Bonus Points: Learn what’s in the Foods you eat
OK – you’ve got your goals straight and learned how to track. Moreover, you learned how to incorporate tracking as a part of your lifestyle. At least temporary before throwing it fortunately out of the window again a few months down that learning journey.
The only thing left for you to get the most out of that learning journey is to actively seek out information:
What fats are there and what can I learn about fatty acids? How are they metabolized?
When I eat a pound of beef what nutrients can be found in there? What is Carnitine and Choline?
What is the difference between Iron from plants and animals? How comes bioavilability into play?
Which foods are high in magnesium, calcium, and iron? And how can I absorb them?
…just to name a few examples. By asking yourself these questions regularly and typing them into google you can gather a lot of usable knowledge within your own nutritional health journey. Combined with macrotracking you literally see what you eat a day and that can help you to construct an animal-based, nutritious diet that works for you as a person without the risk of running into dogma, or malnutrition.
The Life after Tracking – Eat Intuitively
Eventually, I would like to get anyone off tracking. It is a tool, not a lifestyle. Although some chose it as such – do whatever you want, but macrotracking takes time and can create compulsion and stress down the road, especially if you find yourself on the perfectionist side of the spectrum.
Therefore, use it as such – a clever tool to visualize nutrition and embark on a learning journey for a preset time of a couple of months. But after those months ditch it and try to eat intuitively. See how it goes. Hopefully, after addressing the quality of your food you should have well-working satiety mechanisms and your body should be nourished with everything it needs. Often in my experience malnutrition and eating garbage is what spirals people down the rabbit hole of misfunctioning satiety mechanisms and obesity. The fix to that isn’t counting calories – it is getting healthy and eating like a human being is supposed to be. And the best place to see how humans ate is a look at how our ancestors evolved and ate over the last few million years. If we do so we see the clear trend of an animal-based diet, from time to time even entirely carnivorous.
A great example of this are saturated fats vs. polyunsaturated fats. Albeit macrotracking tells you they’re all fats with the energy of ~9kcal per g, they act entirely different on your body’s mitochondria. While one promotes satiety and ROS, the other does not, produces fewer cofactors, and breaks down into oxidative stress promoting molecules.