A huge part of the fitness industry, and a word that you might have heard thrown around regularly, is macros and the concept of macro tracking.
We know that calorie restrictive diets don’t work and we know that they can be harmful in many ways. Not only are diets one of the strongest predictors for future development of eating disorders in those who are vulnerable to restrictive/controlling behaviours, but even those of us who aren’t vulnerable per se can still get hung up on arbitrary numbers, fall into binge – restrict cycles and generally just feel meh. Not to mention, most restrictive diets result in a person regaining more weight than they initially lost.
For the most part, the effects of calorie restriction on a person’s body are largely driven by science and are inescapable. No one is immune to the effects of calorie restriction.
Macro tracking on the other hand is a little more nuanced.
Macros – or macronutrients – are what our food is made up of. Protein, Fats & Carbohydrates. Of course, nature hasn’t neatly compartmentalised our food and many foods contain a mixture of macronutrients.
So how does this apply to fitness?
Say you’re working on performance. You might want to work on your heavy compounds in the gym or start training for an ultra marathon. In terms of training and recovery, this can’t really be achieved optimally without an awareness of, at the very least, protein and carbs, depending on what your goals are.
If your diet significantly lacks in protein, not only will you not build and restructure your muscles in the required way to improve your performance, you’ll also recover slowly and feel pretty crappy. The same is true for carbs, you can’t run for long distances, or do anything for long distances, if you don’t fuel pre, during and post workout.
These are just facts.
Fundamentally, macro tracking isn’t a product of diet culture but it HAS been infiltrated by it.
But that also doesn’t mean that there are zero risks involved in macro tracking or advising macro tracking to your clients or audience.
Macro tracking can still form a method of restriction if you’re only allowed x carbs, x protein and x fats within a set calorie window and, when paired with intentional weight loss and daily weigh ins, can still have the same harmful effects on someone’s mental health as a restrictive calorie diet.
We know how disordered the body builder world can be when cutting calories pre competition and the psychological stress that athletes can go through when trying to make their weight category. You only have to listen to Mary Cain’s story to realise just how disordered the athletic field can become.
Although macro tracking isn’t a direct product of diet culture, we have to remember that diet culture also has links to fat phobia and weight stigma. So any recommendation of a way of eating – even if it isn’t viewed as a diet – that wants to manipulate the way your body looks by vilifying ‘fat’ is technically diet culture, no matter how small of a sub division.
This is also fact.
Restrictive diets are only done for one reason. People want to lose weight or look a certain way. Any emphasis on wanting to change your body can have huge negative psychological implications. There is no escaping this. Macro tracking with a similar emphasis can be just as harmful. There is no escaping that either.
Anyone recommending macro tracking to their clients or followers needs to be aware of the potential harm, instead of dismissing that any harm can occur just because it isn’t their own lived experience. If you’re someone who tracks macros and feels completely nourished, happy and neutral about numbers – I am honestly so happy for you.
But that doesn’t mean this will automatically be everyone else’s experience.
If coaches recognise the potential harm, this is actually a good thing. If something is off with one of your clients then this should be your first route of enquiry. Bringing a clients attention to the risks will only help a coach to support the client in their decision making. And a coach that wants to check in on the mental state of their clients throughout any process is a damn good coach.
So before you decide whether or not you want to start tracking macros there are some important considerations to make.
If you struggled with weight loss in the past, got caught in diet cycles and regained more weight than you lost…will tracking macros be a trigger for further disordered behaviours? Have you let go of the idea that you can and should change the way you look? What support are you going to seek in the process? How will bringing an awareness to macros support your fuelling and performance goals?
Coaches also need to make considerations. If their clients are at risk of, or currently have, a disordered relationship with food or have a low body image, will tracking macros help or hinder their healing? What support are you going to give them? Can you support them without bringing attention to arbitrary numbers?
Fiona, a non diet dietician who works closely with athletes, offers some important takeaways when considering macro tracking. Listening to Fiona talk about macro tracking from a training perspective was incredibly reassuring as she reflected exactly the same attitude that I also have towards it.
I’m completely open minded to using macros as a tool to support performance based goals.
I also found this blog on her website which lays out the aims of a mindful fuelling approach when it comes to training.
A summary of my advice on top of hers would be:
- What are your goals? If you’ve let go of aesthetic and weight loss goals and you are performance driven, being aware of your macros can really help with your training.
- Reframe the idea of macro ’tracking‘ to macro ‘awareness’. Tracking can seem like a strict protocol. Awareness ties in nicely with being aware of all of our other internal cues from hunger to fullness.
- Record in a way that feels neutral. Are you going to list specific foods? Or just record when and where you ate and how hungry/full you felt. It is absolutely possible to record and bring awareness to your macros without ever thinking about grams or amounts but you can record in grams if you don’t find it triggering. Avoid apps like MyFitnessPal as they award too much value to arbitrary numbers. Plus, some of their marketing is insidious, like sending emails with 1200 calorie meal plans. Hello diet culture.
- Use the Intuitive Eating framework. Macro awareness can work well with the intuitive eating process. Honour your hunger, fullness and allow macro awareness to form part of your body choice congruence – a way of eating that helps you live, train and perform optimally. Remember, every time you eat is a chance to learn more about you and your needs so stay switched on to your internal cues. If you haven’t already, you’ll need to buy the IE book as the principles alone won’t be enough if you haven’t read up about them in context.
- Listen to your body and focus on feeling good. Eating and training should be making you feel strong, empowered and both mentally and physically nourished – if it isn’t, it’s time to reassess your goals and relationship with food/exercise.
- Don’t set a daily calorie target, number focus or make it about losing weight. As soon as the focus is lost to that of aesthetics or weight loss we are on a downhill spiral to a body image dilemma. A low body image is also a strong predictor of future disordered behaviours. Not to mention that weight loss is not synonymous with health and also upholds harmful weight stigma. Focus on performance.
- Who will support you in this process? If you’re aiming to to be aware of macros you might need someone to support you through the process, whether that’s a personal trainer, coach or dietician. It is important that whoever is supporting you is also aligned with anti diet approach.
- Understand that you don’t have to be aware of your macros whatsoever and if it isn’t working for you, drop it. If suddenly you’re in fear of having a meal out with pals because of a macro amount then it’s time to step away from bringing any awareness to macros at all. Go back to making a healthy relationship with food your soul priority.
I think the main point here is that any macro awareness should be done to aid performance and recovery and should combine what we know about fuelling our bodies (food facts) and our inner cues which apply to us as individuals (lived experiences).
This also falls into line with the approach of Kelly Jones, another nutritionist who works with athletes and regular gym goers alike from an intuitive eating perspective.
Giving it any other value, like changing the way you look, can instantly start you down a dark path. No one is immune to diet culture and the psychological impacts of trying to look a certain way or weigh a certain amount – there’s also wider implications to think about like weight stigma which I mentioned above.
As fitness professionals we need to do better with our advice regarding food and as much as it may conflict with what you have always been taught, recommending and supporting practices that encourage weight loss are never risk free.
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