Before I get started, I want to clarify that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with counting macros. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the practice, “counting macros” refers to measuring a person’s daily intake of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein) and keeping them below certain levels. While it is certainly possible to establish a healthy and balanced eating pattern while also counting macros, doing so can very quickly become unhealthy, both physically and psychologically. This post will be discussing some problems that can arise (in behavior and thinking) with the practice of counting macros.
Micronutrient balance is more important to health than macronutrient balance
Contrary to what many of us are told, chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease are not caused by imbalanced intake of macronutrients. In the 90’s the media had a heyday about a study (which has since been proven invalid and discounted by the CDC) which suggested that saturated fat causes heart attacks. The health industry was confused, of course, when dietary intake of saturated fat decreased, but deaths by heart attack increased. [Read more about the subject here.]
I’ll spare you the scientific minutae, but the truth is that we have no evidence that too much or too little of carbs/protein/fat alone causes cardiovascular disease (or any other disease, for that matter!) Rather, we do have evidence — and lots of it — that deficiencies (or rarely, excesses) of micronutrients including vitamins, minerals, and other metabolically important molecules can cause chronic disease. For example, many of you might be familiar with the association between maternal folic acid deficiency and fetal neural tube defects/spina bifida. However, folic acid deficiency can also cause anemia, heart disease, and colon cancer. Likewise, vitamin C and magnesium have been shown to prevent and reverse atherosclerosis!
The main takeaway should be that getting enough micronutrients in the proper balance is a much better predictor of health and longevity than macronutrient “balance,” not to mention that a standardized numeric for macronutrient balance really does not exist.
Counting macros usually is about weight loss rather than health
First of all, body weight and health status are not one in the same. People who weigh more can be just as healthy, if not healthier than people who weigh less. They can certainly be unhealthy, but so can those who have a lower BMI. Body weight does not predict health.
Regardless, many people who count macros are not doing so in the name of health. We already discussed how macronutrients don’t predict health, but many of the people I talk to who count macros aren’t doing it to be healthy, anyways. Rather, most people do it in order to manipulate their body’s shape or size. Many body builders count macros to aid them in building muscle or reducing body fat. Many non-body builders also have this motivation. Regardless of the reason for the counting, the purpose is almost always to attempt to manipulate body shape/size. In the same way that counting calories is used to prevent overeating, counting macros is often used the same way.
The truth is, we don’t actually have much control over the shape and size of our bodies. Regardless of the mechanism for weight control, many efforts ultimately fail with time despite initial perceived success, leading to frustration, shame, and disordered eating behavior.
All macros are not created equal
“A calorie is a calorie” is a misleading statement. Likewise, all sources and forms of carbohydrates are not equivalent, and neither are all sources of protein. If the measure you are using is “no more than XXX number of carbs per day” it would be easy to get these carbohydrates solely from candy. I think we all can agree that there’s a huge difference — both in terms of health and metabolism — between sweet tarts and sweet potatoes.
A standardized numeric for macronutrient balance really does not exist
Irrespective of the form of food a person is eating, it’s actually impossible to exactly predict the body’s daily needs for carbohydrates, fat, or protein — and especially not calories. There are so many factors that affect a person’s daily macronutrient needs. For women in particular, there are enormous fluctuations in dietary needs due to hormonal changes each month. Even aside from periods, this is true for men, too; sleep, exercise, illnesses, stress, among so many others influence how much energy our bodies need, and in which form. Paige Smathers wrote an excellent post on this topic, and I encourage you to check it out!
As a fun fact, calorie and macronutrient counts on nutrition labels are actually very misleading. Food scientists make these calculations by literally setting the food sample on fire and measuring how much heat is emitted. (A calorie is a measure of heat energy.) Levels of fat, protein, and carbohydrate are determined indirectly from this value by using calculations based on the known number of “calories per gram” of each macronutrient. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the body’s metabolism functions very differently from a furnace, and in real life, digestion, absorption and energy utilization aren’t nice clean calculations. Even if we were able to predict these values exactly on an experimental human, each of us is unique, so those values wouldn’t apply to anyone else besides that individual.
My take away? I can’t accurately calculate my macronutrient needs, so I don’t try. Rather, I do my best to listen to my body, cultivate trust, and eat intuitively.