This post was inspired by a discussion I had in a Facebook group on the weekend. It started with someone sharing this Instagram post from Dr Spencer Nadolsky about the dichotomy between HAES advocates and Fitpros attitudes towards obesity, and the lack of nuance that often exists in these conversations. It’s something I’ve noticed myself – on one hand there seem to be the militant macro trackers who tell everyone to track all their food and get shredded that way, and on the other are the militant HAES advocates who tell everyone to eat whatever they want (with little regard for food quality) and let your body weight fall where it may, without regard or mention of the risk factors that obesity brings. The grey area in between is massive, and in a world that’s dominated by infographics and physique shots, most don’t expend much effort to individualise their advice or caution people about the downsides of extremes in either direction.
Thankfully I think things are slowly changing in the fitness world. There seem to be more and more people in the industry like Eric Helms, Emilia Thompson, Abel Csabai, Stephanie Buttermore, Jordan Syatt and others who are aware of the potential pitfalls of macro tracking particularly with regards to food anxieties and disordered eating. These folks generally encourage their followers to seek out body composition goals and nutritional approaches that are sustainable for that individual – even if it means they carry a little more weight than they’d ideally like, without ignoring the fact that obesity is a risk factor for many diseases and is something we want to avoid. And that, to me, is the kind of message that I want to support.
So I’m going to put down some opinions here, and then share my experiences and thoughts on how I came to them.
Should I track my macros?
- Do you have ambitious body composition goals, either to get to extremely low levels of body fat (say sub 8-10% for men)?
- Do you have a fairly tight deadline to lose a significant amount of fat – for example for a photo shoot or a bodybuilding/physique show?
- Are you an athlete competing at a high level, who needs to ensure their body is optimally fuelled for all training sessions and competitions?
If you answered yes to at least one of these, then tracking macros is probably the best approach to meet your goals, providing you don’t have any contraindications listed below. If you didn’t, then I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t track, but I think you can probably smash your goals out of the park without needing to track anything, it might just take a bit of setting up and experimentation to begin with.
Is there any reason why I shouldn’t track?
- Does tracking your food add additional stress and burden to your daily life?
- Do you suffer anxiety about social events or eating food prepared by others due to the impact on your nutritional plan? Do you sometimes avoid these altogether because it’s easier than trying to estimate macros and fit them in to your daily targets?
- Are you fearful that you’ll be unable to hold back at buffets and parties where there is lots of food available?
- Do you tend to avoid entire food groups that you’d otherwise enjoy eating simply because it’s too hard to fit them into your daily macros?
- Do you have a history of disordered eating – whether that’s restrictive eating, binge/purge behaviour, or something else?
- Is your life hectic and busy, such that you’re quite often under stress, eating on the fly, and have difficulty planning your meals most of the time?
If any of these apply to you, then I’d really question whether tracking macros is a sensible idea. At the very least, if you’re going to do so, at least take the time to consider whether tracking is actually adding anything worthwhile to your life or whether it’s making things more complicated. And on that last point, I would argue that ‘keeping my weight under control’ doesn’t really ‘add’ anything; if you absolutely need to track in order to keep your weight under control then in my opinion you’re either trying to maintain a weight that’s too low for your body to healthily sustain, and/or you’re probably quite capable of maintaining that weight without tracking, simply by learning good habits and eating mindfully. However it does take a leap of faith to let go of the MyFitnessPal safety net and go it alone.
Why do I think this?
Firstly let me say, I don’t hate tracking – at all. I think it can be a fantastic tool and I don’t really regret my time doing it, despite the mess I got myself into with it. As someone who used to be obese and didn’t have any idea or care for what I crammed in my mouth so long as it tasted good, it taught me a lot of important lessons that I’ll continue to use for the rest of my life. For example:
- What’s a sensible portion size – for me – both in terms of what will satisfy my hunger, but also make me feel good
- What’s an appropriate amount of protein to be eating at each meal and throughout the day
- What sort of macro breakdown most foods contain, and how calorically dense they generally are
However, as another commenter on the thread stated: ‘I have no “off” when it comes to food. Can eat and eat and eat and eat‘ – and I totally relate to that. For me, when I was tracking, I always felt like I was restricting and eating less than I needed. The longer I did it, the more food became the central focus of my life, the more tired and grumpy I became, and the more food anxiety I experienced. The problem with tracking is that the more you ‘eat by the numbers’ the further and further you get away from your own hunger and satiety signals, and the more your forget where your ‘off switch’ should be! So while the lessons I learned were important, in the long term, for me it was really just putting a bandaid on the problem.
Another commenter suggested that perhaps I was just not eating enough carbs – but no, that wasn’t the problem. Now I’m a fair bit heavier, it’s clear that I was simply trying to maintain a body weight that was too low for my individual body. I dieted to such a lean state that I had barely any muscle mass and was a starving, tired mess – but yet I was still shit scared of gaining weight. Many people who were once obese and go through a weight loss journey will relate to this – I’ve heard it called adiposephobia, Former Fat Boy Syndrome, and other such names.
Now I’ve come out the other side and I’m in a bigger body, I’m also carrying a lot more muscle and feel like I’m maintaining my body weight without depriving myself much at all – and I’m in a far better position to get a little leaner when I decide that I’m ready. Could I track food now without anxiety now though? I don’t think so – not for very long, anyway – now I know I’m predisposed to these issues, I don’t want to risk going down that rabbit hole again. And anyway, I feel like I’m so much more in tune with my body and so much better at eating mindfully (not without slipups, though… yet) that I strongly believe I could diet down to an acceptable body composition without needing to track anything, just by manipulating the portion sizes and composition of my meals.
This brings me to the point I wanted to make, which is that saying ‘I have no “off” when it comes to food’ perhaps creates a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy. In my professional life, I have no time for people who don’t want to learn to help themselves, and I guess I feel like this attitude might be similar. If being out of touch with your body’s nutritional needs is a problem, then is tracking the answer? Maybe, maybe not. I had one person say that tracking is ‘The complete opposite of anxiety for me. I just do the math then eat guilt free or whatever’. If someone has this attitude to tracking and it genuinely causes no issues, then I say, track away.
But on the other hand, if tracking causes issues (and I can’t see how it won’t, at least occasionally) then in my limited experience, eating mindfully and intuitively is a skill that can be learned like any other. I’d be willing to bet that most of us could figure out where that off switch is and how to utilise it with some practice and experimentation. The problem is, it does take more time and effort than tracking – it’s not as simple as ‘eat X calories to maintain my weight’ – there are lots more factors at play. But the more I learn and the more I practice, the more confident I feel that this is the most sustainable approach for me to achieve my training and body composition goals while still finding joy in all types of food.