As a dietitian who uses a flexible dieting approach in my practice, I get a lot of questions about how I use macro tracking to help my clients improve their health, body composition and athletic performance.
Truthfully, many clients come to me with some great eating habits already. After you’ve adopted an eating pattern that’s chocked full of whole, real foods that make you feel great, and master blood sugar stability with PFC balanced meals and snacks – you’re ready for more. It’s a natural and appropriate progression to start looking at macronutrient amounts and eating in a balance that’s right for you and your goals.
After you know WHAT to eat, the next logical question is often “how much should I eat?” and tracking macronutrients is the approach to explore that.
Here are some of the most common questions I get as a dietitian using macro tracking in practice.
What are macros and why would you track them?
The term “macros” is short for “macronutrients” and refers to the large nutrients that make up all of our food. The three main macronutrients that we are concerned about are protein, fat and carbohydrates.
Macros contribute to the overall calorie content of the food, so if you’re tracking the macros in your meals, you’re inherently counting calories, too.
But, if calories are king for determining changes to your weight, macros are king for determining changes to body composition. Macros are what make calories “not equal”; they are what make 100 calories of broccoli completely different than 100 calories of peanut butter or completely different than 100 calories of ground turkey.
If you care about how strong and fit you are and don’t so much care about what the number on the scale says – tracking macros over calories (or blocks or points or something else), is the best approach to do so.
macro tracking is not mainstream with dietitians. why do you use it with your clients?
I’ve found that offering flexible dieting in conjunction with behavior change coaching to be the perfect recipe for my clients to achieve their goals. Most people seek nutrition professionals after they’ve made all the changes they know to make but are still not seeing the results they want. Maybe they’re not be able to lose that 10-15 pounds sitting around their midsection, or they constantly struggle with digestive issues or highs and lows in their mood and energy.
We all need a certain amount of proteins, fats and carbohydrates to feel vibrant, energized, and to support a healthy metabolism. Your body is counting macronutrients whether or not you are!
In my experience, my clients are typically struggling to meet their protein and fat needs, which means they’re proportionately eating too many carbohydrates – though they don’t realize it. It’s also very common to see people eating far too few calories, and again, they don’t really know it. These typical eating patterns lead to the common complaints (like I mentioned above) we see as nutrition professionals. I’ve found that tracking macros offers a way to help clients see how much protein, fat and carbohydrates they need. When they’re able to start eating enough of the right macros in the right balance for them, they see almost immediate positive results.
DO YOU HAVE CONCERNS THAT, IN A FLEXIBLE DIETING APPROACH, a CLIENT MIGHT MEET THEIR macro targets THROUGH SIMPLE SUGARS AND NOT FOCUS ON COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES?
Nope, no concerns at all.
Simply put, it’s very hard to hit your protein, fat and carbohydrate prescription with junk food. My clients have health, body composition and athletic performance goals that are clearly established. While I encourage them to work simple sugars, junk foods, or “bad foods” (however they want to label it) into their macro prescription without guilt, they find out very quickly how hard or uncomfortable it is to “eat around” those types of foods with plain chicken and broccoli, for example, because they decided to chow down Krispy Kreme donuts.
In order to get to the place they want to be, they’ll need to prioritize meal planning, and food prepping, as well as restructure their environment in order to be conducive to the lifestyle changes they’re making. What kind of RD wouldn’t want their clients to struggle through the muck with the right tools and come out the other side having decided on their own to eat whole, real foods over processed, packaged or refined ones?
WHAT TYPE OF RESULTS HAVE YOU SEEN USING THIS APpproach?
I typically work with clients for 3 months, but sometimes up to 6 and 9 months. In that amount of time we are able to see drastic improvements in body composition; primarily dropping body fat while maintaining or gaining lean muscle. However, I am always most excited to see my clients make peace with food for good.
Flexible dieting is the only method I have found which offers the structure that people need, while also promoting choice and autonomy. I think it’s incredibly powerful to help someone achieve the “look” or aesthetic they want while living the life they enjoy at the same time. When clients “graduate” my services, they’re armed with the sustainable tools and approaches to make them feel empowered to take things into their own hands long into the future.
How do you set your macros? How do you get started with tracking?
Specific macro needs are determined with formulas (and professional expertise). Generic formulas might simply take your sex, height, weight and weight goals into consideration when setting your macros, but a professionally set prescription might also take your food preferences, health history, and athletic performance goals into account as well. The amount of protein, fat and carbohydrates that you eat each day can influence your hunger and satiety, overall energy, hormones, athletic performance, and body shape and size. A formula that uses more input data is usually a better fit for the user.
The best fit macro prescription or daily macro targets for you should feel relatively easy to hit. In other words, you can create meals you enjoy eating, while hitting your goals each day. You’re not fumbling around to make franken-style meals with random ingredients to hit your goals.
To get started with macro tracking, you just have to start. You’ll download a food tracking app and do your best to log the food you eat to the best of your ability (Cronometer is my favorite). After determining your daily macro goals, you’ll compare your current eats against your prescription and begin to make small changes to your meals so you can hit your daily targets more often. I wrote a step-by-step guide about how to get started with macro tracking on my blog.
Before tracking macros, a client might have opted for a fat free yogurt + fruit for breakfast. Later, she might have had a big salad with black beans + cheese + olives + tortilla strips + salsa. Dinner was simple with the family, and she might have rounded out the evening with a bowl of ice cream. All pretty healthy eats!
After some experience with macro tracking, my client knows she needs to front-load her day with a bit more protein because her previous menu was lacking. She made some adjustments to her salad by adding chicken, turkey or ham and might choose to hold back on the cheese or tortilla chips. Macro tracking does not hold her back from enjoying sweet desserts, but now she knows how to better portion control or “make room” in her macros by cutting back somewhere else.