• The Problem with Macros

    The Problem with Macros | stupideasypaleo.com

    When it comes to the quest for healthier eating, there are two ways to approach things: quality and quantity, and what’s become abundantly clear to me in this Paleo world is that we have a problem with macros. And blocks. And points. And whatever other made-up-system is used to count and measure food.

    The problem with macros (or blocks or points) is multi-faceted and let me just say that it’s possible to do any “diet” or food paradigm poorly. Putting your hand in a bottomless jar of Paleo cookies is no better than snort-laughing and eye-rolling at the thought of vegan cheese on top of a tofurkey sandwich.

    The 1st Problem with Macros: Quantity does not equal quality.

    Not all foods are created equal. An apple’s better than a Snickers (like, duh) but the problem with macros is that simply counting them doesn’t mean the protein, carbs and fat you’re eating are optimal or even health-promoting. Buttery spread is not better than butter. (If you need more convincing, read Eat the Yolks.) Beans are not better than sweet potato. (Those gorgeous tubers have more micronutrition bang for the carb buck.) And isolated pea protein is not better than a steak from a grass-fed cow. (The amount of processing matters, yo.)

    I get it. I used to do Weight Watchers-ish (counting without going to meetings) back in the early 2000s. Tallying up my “points” was a way for me to feel in control—and unbeknownst to me at the time, severely restrict calories—but damned if I didn’t look forward to my Skinny Cow ice cream sammies, my I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray and all kinds of other processed crap. So while I met my daily points, I did it in a way that was pretty horrifying looking back as 2014 Me.

    Even if you’re within your macro totals, my question is: Are a majority of the foods you’re selecting whole and unprocessed? Nutrient dense? Anti-inflammatory? Do they promote a healthy hormonal balance? Stable energy levels? Good body composition? Slow and steady fat loss?

    If the answers are yes, cool. If you’re meeting your macros or blocks or calories or whosy-whats-its with pints of Ben & Jerry’s and Lean Cuisines, then Houston, we have a problem. (And, you’ve come to the right place to start making positive changes.) 2000 calories of chips does not provide what 2000 calories of quality meat, fresh produce and healthy fats does. For the bajillionth time: Not all foods (or edible things) are created equal.

    The 2nd Problem with Macros: Are you still hungry? Yeah, I thought so.

    Even if your ducks are in a row with regard to the quality issue, I have to ask: Are you still hungry?

    Honestly. Is the amount of food you’re eating leaving you satisfied and nourished, or do you suffer from constant hunger (or even worse, hanger), worrying about when your next meal is or if you’re going to go to bed hungry? In all seriousness, a little hunger now and then is fine, but when it’s your normal state of being, something’s broken.

    Mild caloric restriction for the purposes of shifting body composition, whether you meet it through macropointcalories or just eating a little bit less *of the right foods*, should still not leave you with perpetually gnawing hunger.

    If you’re not trying to shift body composition but you’re concerned that you need to keep tracking things, continuing to count long-term and ignore your body’s own hard-wired signals of hunger and satiety is doing you a disservice. You’re an adult who shouldn’t have to be chained to a spreadsheet, a food scale, an app or a website to track every morsel that passes your lips.

    Ask yourself if your current plan is leaving you not just fed but nourished. Are you surviving or thriving? Even if your numbers are perfect, are you really healthier?

    The 3rd Problem with Macros: It Robs Your Freedom

    Tracking and counting have their place (like creating a food journal for a nutrition coach or getting rid of portion distortion), but doing it for weeks, months and years on end is not a way to live.

    Planning and cooking meals with care, having body composition goals (muscle gain / fat loss) and steering the boat toward food quality is one thing. Let’s call that dedication. Worrying about food, not eating out because you can’t count your macros or figure out blocks and generally feeling like you’re beholden to the numbers is another thing. Let’s call that dysfunction. Even when the intention is good, in practice, things can quickly spiral out of control and leave you disempowered to make the real choices about food that will put you in a truly healthy place—both physically and mentally.

    What to Do?

    Before sending all the IIFYM folks my way, know that if you’re focusing on food quality in addition to quantifying, you’re doing okay regarding problem #1. But. BUT. You may still be struggling with #2 and / or #3.

    Ask yourself the following:

    • Why am I counting macropointblocks?
    • Am I trying to make some distinct changes in body composition or am I just after overall health?
    • Am I truly nourishing my body?
    • Am I shoving poor food choices into a shiny looking macropointblock counting system?
    • Does this behavior cause me stress?
    • Am I really in touch with feelings of hunger and satiety?
    • Do I put a premium on food quality?

    Only you can know if the answers are telling you to step away from counting macros and blocks and points.

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    The Problem with Macros | stupideasypaleo.com

    Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.

    Steph Gaudreau is a certified holistic nutrition practitioner, weightlifting and mindset coach, and the author of the best-selling Performance Paleo Cookbook. Her recipes and expert advice have been featured in SELF, Outside Magazine, Elle, and Greatist. Steph loves barbells, cats, and anything Lord of the Rings. She lives in San Diego, CA.

    41 thoughts on “The Problem with Macros

    1. aaaahhhhhhh STEPH! I applaud you for writing this! IT IS SPOT ON! I wish I was as good of a writer as you 😉 I sent you my guest post yesterday about macros and micronutrients and you dominated!!!!!!!!!!!! lol anyways – i couldn’t agree more. i totally agree with everything you said in this post. it resonates with me and i am so happy i don’t count macros anymore

    2. Love this! I used to eat like a bodybuilder- 6 meals a day and counting macros like a crazy person. I would literally sit for hours on end calculating how much protein fat and carbs I had to eat for maximum fat loss. Now, I was eating lots of whole, unprocessed foods but I would also have those icky, sugary, fake tasting protein bars with me in case I was somewhere where I couldn’t count my macros accurately (no way to live by the way). I would drive myself crazy and I was so depressed if I had a slip up. I was hungry all the time and all I could think about was food and the math of my macros. I would stop going to family functions or out with friends because I didn’t want to stray from my plan. Now- I’m eating paleo with complete freedom! I eat when I’m hungry and I stop when I’m full. And I actually get full. I put full fat coconut milk into my coffee and ghee on my grass fed meats and eat tons of veggies and some fruits and I feel amazing. My workouts have become greater and my endurance better and my skin clearer and me-happier! I still have some digestive issues that I’m trying to work out but other than that- I’ve never been happier with my way of life 🙂

    3. Great article! I agree that people can go overboard with obsessing over macros. For me however, I found that if I don’t target macros I cannot get lean no matter how Paleo I am. Calories still count for sure. If you are trying to drop weight and maintain lean muscle mass then getting enough protein is important. For me I figure out how many calories I need. Training days I need more. I try to get about 1gram of protein for each pound of Lean Body Mass I have. I keep carbs a fat flexible. I try to eat more carbs on training days. I try to eat the majority of may carbs right after I work out. But again….Moderation people. I still believe that eating unprocessed food is super important and obsessing about getting every single carb gram is unnecessary. It is like the price is right, get as close as you can without going over. I have seen results over the last month eating this way. I have been frustrated with a lack of results when I just eat Paleo and don’t track what I am eating. Everyone has to find what works for their personal body and lifestyle.

      1. Calories do count for sure, but the hormonal impact of food can’t be ignored. As you mentioned, adequate protein intake is super critical, and for fat loss, a very conservative decrease in calories seems to give the best long term results. I’m glad you have found a system that works for you!

      2. Agreed Contessa. In the end everybody is different and what may work for one person may not work for the other. I’ve actually found much more freedom in counting macros and am eating twice the amount so hunger is never an issue for me. But that’s just what works for me. The important thing is finding what works for you and sticking with it.

    4. I started to watch my macros a few months ago (months after learning to eat paleo) and realized all the things you stated above so I stopped…. Thanks for posting this, I kinda felt guilty for not wanting to constantly keep track of my macros. I eat very “nutritious” and have learned portion control with out feeling hungry, so to hell with counting… plus I now i don’t need to worry if I get in a bind and have to eat out, I don’t let it ruin my whole day feeling guilty.

    5. Looooooove this article!!! I truly hate tracking, measuring and all that jazz because I become obsessed with it and feel like I have no life, especially when I’m spending quite a bit of time on my tracking app figure out what else to eat to fit my macros and calorie goals. I would love to stop doing that but I struggle. I’ve tried to stop tracking and focus on healthy choices because I don’t want my kids to become obsessed with tracking calories/macros, especially my daughter. When I’ve tried to stop tracking, I really enjoyed it but I ended up gaining weight or my progress stalled.

      1. Allison, you bring up such an important point about setting good, healthy examples for children. While I don’t have any of my own, I applaud you for keeping this in mind as you go forth with your own eating journey.

    6. Yes ! I love this and need to hear this often, I am a recovering calorie counter tracking every single one obsessive compulsively. And I hear you about the skinny cow sammie been there done that! This is awesome !!

    7. This is a great post! I’m a fevered sugar junkie; you can usually find me lying in a gutter after selling my body for King Size Reese’s Cups. Heh. I’ve known for awhile I have to deal with the sugar problem and I’ve tried different approaches over the years, but I always end up falling off the proverbial wagon. So last week my doctor recommended Paleo: “Do it for one month and then we’ll see.” One month? Okay, one month (but hopefully longer). Anyway, the point of all this is twofold: 1) I’m new to your site and it’s terrific; thank you for providing such a valuable service! 2) I’ve done WW and after about two weeks of spinach salads with flax oil and organic chicken breast, I basically devolve to the point where I’m trying to figure out how many damn Peppermint Patties I can have with my points today! I was devoting a full THIRD of my daily points to sugar. There are people for whom one cookie is enough and two are never too many and they probably do really well with Weight Watchers. For me, however, I know I have to do make changes that are a little more foundational. It sounds as though you can relate. So, again, thank you for providing so much outstanding information and wish me luck as I face these first few difficult weeks ahead. Thanks!

    8. I was on that hamster wheel for a very long time, I burned out and just CAN’T do it any more!!! However I have serious health issues so I decided that Paleo is probably going to be the best approach….

    9. I loved reading this! I was considering doing IIFYM + paleo but then I realized they contradict each other after reading this. I just need to be a little more strict with my veggies 🙂 thanks for the insight!!

      1. Thanks Catherine! I think that’s one thing we all need to be a bit more mindful of…it’s an easy thing to skimp on.

    10. Thanks so so much for taking this side! I’ve been struggling so much with should I count or not count to help with weight lose but I just don’t want to feel restricted and so regimented when it’s hard enough. This with the Paleo Athlete recently just gave me a boost of confidence that it’s ok to just stick with my plan and journey! Thanks so much 🙂 Jennifer @paleopiggy

      1. Hi Jennifer,

        I am so glad you found this article helpful. You ultimately have to do what feels right for your body. I am glad that you’re feeling confident in your plan. I wish you all the best and know you will be successful.

        🙂

    11. You can do both Paleo & follow your macros. I am Paleo, I prep my meals every Sunday, take my ISOBAG everywhere (because it’s hard to find Paleo meals while running into town), & I use my Macro app on Sundays, while prepping, & make sure all my Macros fit. The rest of the week is easy. Just 1 day a week is all it takes. Yes, you can call me “obsessed” but, you have to be in order to be Paleo. Just sayin. 🙂

      1. Sure you can do both. If you feel like you need to control your intake that specifically for a particular goal, that’s great. My argument is that for long-term, this is the way you eat forever, it’s a LOT of work, and most people won’t see a cost:benefit that makes it worthwhile. I happen to know how much work it is because I have done it in the past and if I was just trying to eat for long-term health, it would not be my recommendation for a vast majority of people.

        I disagree that you have to be obsessed to be Paleo. Once you get the hang of things and you’re making generally good choices, there’s not much to obsess about 😉

    12. So true!! I love what you said about a food diary having its place, but not long term. After being diagnosed with a very rare form of colitis I kept a diary just to identify trigger foods. I discovered two things: unprocessed, real paleo foods make me feel better, and not tracking every morsel (just basic content) reduces my stress about food which also makes me feel better. Excellent post, I wish I could get all my friends who are married to their tracking apps to read!

      1. That’s great to hear that you’ve found improvement and identified those triggers for you. While I think macros do have a place, I worry when I see people so far into it without realizing if it’s even necessary for them.

    13. Macro counting

      I absolutely agree that food quality matters. However, for my performance and body composition macro counting totally changed my life. Prior to counting I tried to eat paleo, but allowed myself indulgences when I was out with friends. The more perfect paleo I ate the more fatigued I felt. I started drinking 5+ cups of coffee a day to stay awake, and I couldn’t lose weight. Once I started counting I realized that my carbs and calories were severely restricted for my activity level.

      I exercise 10 hours per week and have an active job. I was eating around 1500 cals/day and felt full on paleo. For the most part when I started counting I just added in more paleo friendly carbs, but I also have cereal pre workout and the carb boost makes my workouts feel awesome.

      I think paleo is healthier and simpler than counting. I don’t recommend counting for people who are sedentary, but for me personally and other very active people who have not found success with paleo or listening to their bodies it can be really helpful. I don’t plan to use a food scale forever, but after a little practice I can roughly tell how many calories/ macros I’m consuming to make sure I’m fueling my body for performance.

      1. All very good points!

        The conclusion of the article is simply that if macro counting is truly right for you, to do it well and understand the intention / goal behind it. I’m glad you’ve found it useful 🙂

    14. Ah yes!! As an RD in the fitness world I get the macros questions ALL the dang time and I am sick of the focus on quantity not QUALITY. Great post! Would love to get you on our podcast and talk about macros and why it misses the point 🙂

    15. So help me out here, should I stop counting calories and just look at the food quality and make sure it adhears to the paleo diet? Tired of logging into “my fitness pal”!

      1. Hi Brian…I don’t know because I don’t know what your goals are. Do I think food quality matters more than caloric intake? To a large extent. Say, for example, you have a 2000 calorie goal daily, but you fill those calories with M&Ms (not implying you ARE doing this, but bear with me), you’re getting your caloric (energy) intake spot on but the actual nutrition contained in that amount of calories is severely lacking. Make sense?

        So, if you’re hitting your macro goals with donuts and pop tarts, great, you’ve hit the carb or fat intake you need, but the nutrition in that food isn’t there.

        If you have a short term goal or you’re trying to make sure you’re eating enough, I’m not opposed to tracking. However, I don’t believe it affords people the freedom to live their lives without being chained to an app and a food scale.

    16. I agree that a healthy balance must be struck in order to create a both physically and mentally healthy diet. I must also note that if you are attempting to lose weight then you do, regardless of all the silly health information out there, have to spend time in a calorie deficit. If you are eating unhealthy then your deficit will occur just by changing your diet to a healthier one. I also get irritated by people believing that paleo is super carbohydrate restricted. I get bashed all the time for being Paleo and the number one reason is on the topic of carbohydrates. I have to inform nearly everyone that paleo prescribes to moderate carb consumption not high or low. Just by that context and the sources we use for those carbohydrates allows you to reach a nice healthy satiating point. Worse yet those within health in fitness believing carbohydrates make you more hungry, WTF? Anywho… great article!

    17. I was paleo for a long time but have been seeing shocking results with friends doing macros so I thought I would try. It’s been about a month, I’ve gained weight, I’m fatigued, I am uncomfortable in my skin and I am achy. It’s impossible for me to meet my macros on carbs without eating things I don’t want to eat and I keep being told to disregard my paleo mentality. I’m feeling very confused and frustrated…. your article is very helpful. Thank you.

      1. Hi Lish,

        It’s easy to get frustrated when we something doesn’t seem to add up. How did you feel when you were eating Paleo? That is really the question about your food and body; How does it make you feel? Some people have great aesthetic results counting macros but that doesn’t always include optimal health. Listen to your body, feed it nourishing whole foods with lots of nutrients and most of all…be patient grasshopper. The investment in your health is a marathon. No need to sprint. 😉

    18. I agree with all of your points, yet as a very overweight person, I feel that there is little choice now but to keep track of my calorie intake. For me it’s part of a whole, for it seems my entire life has been one of overindulging, starting with the “clean your plate” mentality and pancake eating contests with my cousin, ending with a binge eating problem. So some like me have to re-learn to eat the right amount of calories, not from the body, whose signals are either misinterpreted or broken, but from logging to an app. But it’s important to to so mindfully, paying attention to the food and how the body feels during and afterward. I think eating slowly helps. It’s very important to realize that logging’s only one part of a gradual and sustainable lifestyle change that doesn’t ever have a real endpoint, though a good goal would be to learn enough from logging not to need it anymore.

      1. Hi Jon,

        I totally agree with mindfulness and being aware of portions. My main point is that calories or even macros can’t tell us how nutritious / nutrient-dense a food really is. Hope that makes sense 🙂

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