“If it fits your macros,” said a friend of mine a few weeks ago with a shrug, biting into a huge chocolate glazed doughnut. The concept has always intrigued me — that you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want as long as it “fits your macros” at the end of the day. I’ve seen weightlifters, dieters, and various gym-goers attempt the regimen time and time again, swearing that it works.
I was skeptical.
The idea is that based on your height, weight, activity level, and fitness goals, there exists a magic triad of numbers that dictates an optimal number of carbohydrates, protein, and fats you should eat every day.
People who attempt the diet calculate their recommendations and adhere to them — some nights restricting their intake of fatty foods if they’ve already consumed enough, and other nights “macro-capping” with a huge bowl of ice cream or onion rings to fulfill their quota.
Neither of those habits sounded healthy to me.
But I liked the idea of assessing your diet based on nutrient intake alone — which prompted me to give it a try. I didn’t want to manipulate my diet to fit the macros recommended. Instead, I wanted to glean some insight into whether the recommendations were anywhere near what I was already eating.
I wanted to know: Was I eating enough protein? Did I need to limit my fats? What about my love for carbs? Was it taking its nutritional toll?
So I opened up Google, searched for a macro calculator, and input all my personal information. The calculator asked for my weight, height, and activity level. I told it how many times I work out per week, the intensity of my workouts, and what my fitness goals were like. I work out often, usually a blend of cardio and weight training. My goals were to get stronger and maintain my current weight.
The results recommended the following for my daily intake:
(Keep in mind that these results are personalized based on my information alone and should not be interpreted as specific nutritional advice.)
I downloaded a tracker to my phone, and for a week I input all my food. I didn’t want the experiment to interfere with what I was already eating — I wanted to assess my current diet, not change it. So I went about my day like I normally would, and I entered all the foods I ate into the tracker at the end of the day. Here’s what I learned about my diet.
I never hit my macros.
I’m a pretty healthy eater. I usually eat what I crave, and I often crave healthy foods. Vegetables, whole grains, fruit, and healthy fats are staples of my diet. I cook for myself, buy lean proteins, and eat substantial (yet low-sugar) breakfasts. Occasionally, I’ll eat a slice or two of pizza or split a slice of cake with my roommate — but I’ve been taught time and time again that that’s all part of a healthy diet. It’s worked for me so far.
I learned a lot about nutrition in college, taught a nutrition course for my peers, and even worked with nutritionists and dietitians on multiple projects. My weight has been relatively steady for some time. I know I eat healthy — which is why this discovery didn’t seem to make any sense.
There wasn’t a single day that I came close to hitting my macros.
No two days were the same.
Not only did the macros not line up, but they were never the same. There was one day that I’d apparently eaten 30 grams of fat more than my macros prescribed. But I’d eaten healthy foods all day — a salad at dinner, whole-wheat pasta with a pumpkin-based sauce for lunch… My afternoon snack of a chia bar and some roasted almonds must have pushed me over. But it wasn’t like I was gorging on fries and hamburgers.
On another day, I ate hardly any fats compared to my quota. Maybe I was subconsciously responding to what I’d learned the day before? After tallying up before bed, I ended up eating some peanut butter on a spoon just to make up for what my diet had apparently lacked.
Honestly, my macros were all over the place. I did find that I ended up eating more carbs on days that I exercised, which I thought was kind of cool. I also just ate more on those days than I did on my rest day in general — which made a lot of sense to me, too.
I eat a lot of protein.
Too much, maybe. Oh, well.
Between the whey protein at breakfast, edamame pasta at lunch, and salmon at dinner, my protein levels were through the roof. Protein bars are a regular part of my snack rotation — which could also have pushed me over the limit.
This is actually pretty typical for most Americans — we eat way more protein than we should. But since I had put my goal in the calculator as “gain muscle mass,” I figured I’d be alright. Turns out, I still consistently overdid it with the protein. I definitely won’t be worrying about getting enough after this week is done.
I shouldn’t be worried about cutting carbs.
329 grams is so. Many. Carbs. And in all honesty, I already eat quite a lot of them compared to the average health-conscious person. With all the paleo, ketogenic, and gluten-free trends circulating, carb-cutting has gotten pretty popular. I don’t subscribe to any of these, making me the exception in some circles. But even with my frequent consumption of bread, pasta, and fruit, I rarely hit my recommended 329 grams.
In summary, I definitely don’t need to cut any carbs. Apparently I should be loading up — pizza, here I come.
From my experience, I learned that food tracking is annoying and unnecessary — though maybe a useful awareness exercise. It was interesting to see how my diet compared to the macro-counter’s “ideal.” But do I want to change my diet now? No, not really.
The “results” that the macros promised still came true without me having to change my diet at all. My weight stayed the same. I gained muscle mass, using dumbbells one step heavier than I was used to during my workout after day five of tracking. To me, that was definitive proof that my usual regimen was already working for me. But the macros never lined up.
I also know that food tracking, even if it’s just counting macros, can be debilitating and steal a lot of freedom from everyday life. Like if my friends asked me to go for drinks but I’d already hit my carb quota, macro counting wouldn’t allow me to go. I’d rather live freely and trust my cravings than stick to an outside number.
Plus, macro counting seems just like any other health trend to me — and if history has told me anything, it’s that those trends are not to be trusted.
Holly Van Hare is the Healthy Eating Editor at The Daily Meal with a passion for podcasting and peanut butter. You can listen to her podcast Nut Butter Radio on iTunes and follower her health food Instagram @eating_peanut_better.