Is Tracking Macros Really a Good Idea?
Track my food intake in the most un-biased way and analyze the results. Meaning - plan my meals, snacks etc as I normally would - but at the end of the week track everything. Do not base my meal plan around any pre-determined calorie amount or macro ratio.
The reason for the plan.
I wanted to know — is tracking macros really a good idea and something I should do long term. I consider myself to be relatively healthy. I eat a fairly balanced diet. I meal plan like a champ — doing all my cooking once a week to make sure I am eating well despite my hectic schedule. I make one lunch and one dinner for each week and eat the same thing every day — until Friday when I usually make pizza or order Panera Bread. I TRY to make at least one meal a day a salad with a dark leafy green base, and TRY to plan one meal a day using plant based protein. I frequently [but not too much!] allow myself to indulge in reasonable amounts of snacks, sweets, and alcohol. And I try to move my body in the form of structured exercise at least a few days a week.
But what if I'm way off base. What if I only THINK I know what i'm doing. What if my idea of moderation is over the top. What if — because of intermittent fasting — I'm actually not eating enough. Or what if in my quest to eat enough vegetables, I'm really not eating enough protein or fat.
Disordered past behaviors
I've wanted to try this little experiment for months. However there is one thing that always made me put it on the back burner. I don't have the greatest track record when it comes to logging my food without guilt and/or restriction. You could most accurately describe my relationship with food as, "It's complicated".
I love food. I love cooking. I love eating. I love trying new things. But the minute an app or a magazine comes along and tells me I "should" only be eating only a certain number of calories I get locked into that number. "Yup, ok that sounds reasonable" because if I go over that number, I would feel guilty and bad about myself. If I go under that number, I would usually be hungry but convince myself that was "normal". And no, I wasn't doing this to lose weight, I was following the number to "maintain". In the end, the food guilt and the way it affected my life was not worth it. I learned other ways to ensure I am fueling my body as well as I can.
I wanted the data though. There had to be a way to get the data and not worry about the guilt. So I decided to keep a log of everything I ate - and I would look at it AFTER the week was over. Genius. Kind of like a run where you take your watch but swear you won't look at it [even though let's be real you still peak at it - you can't help it]. This way I could cook and eat as I normally would, only looking at the information after it was over and nothing could be done about it. If I wanted a bowl of chips I would do that, and if I wanted a salad I would do that.
I had all the confidence in the world this was going to be an easy experiment and I was ready to get into meal planning.
What I ate
I went to work meal planning as I would a normal week. For more meal prep / meal planning ideas check out this post.
Tortellini salad = Chopped raw lettuce with tortellini, cucumber, tomato, zucchini,
Ground Turkey + Chickpea lettuce wraps with peanut sauce and rice. After day one, this quickly morphed into a salad vs wraps but the ratios and ingredients stayed the same.
Kodiak Cakes waffles - with almond butter.
Trail Mix - Almonds, white chocolate chips & dried cranberries.
What actually happened.
Since most of the food I tracked was already planned and cooked - writing that down was a piece of cake. But despite my best efforts to take the guesswork and guilt out — I still felt old habits creeping back up. Somehow estimating when it came to home cooked meals didn't bother me. But bring out a bag of chips and I immediately counted out the exact serving [18 chips] and put the bag back into the pantry. When those were gone, I wanted more — but the serving size said I had enough so I didn't get out anymore. On a normal day I would pour a small bowl, eat chips, and move on. Later that night, I wondered why I didn't just pour the bowl first and THEN count.
I spent a lot of that first day worried that I was eating too much, or not enough, or the wrong things.
The second day I had to break down and sign up for My Fitness Pal. I needed to know what I was working with or the stress would build up all week. Seeing the numbers actually made me feel better — and surprisingly not guilty at all. It gave me a baseline to better estimate for the next day.
By day three, I was feeling great about the whole process — most of my foods were already logged or easy to find. I ate, I wrote everything in a note, and the next day I plugged it all into My Fitness Pal. There was one day that I came to work to find a giant donut on my desk — which I could and would never turn down. I happily swapped my afternoon waffles for an afternoon donut — and while it's probably not the most ideal choice I don't do things like that on a daily basis so it felt ok.
Friday is when things started getting difficult. I decided to get a drink with a friend after work. Wine was easy enough to track, but then we decided to get dinner. When it came to tracking the burger and fries, I was at a loss. Entering "cheeseburger" could range anywhere from 200-600 calories and at that point I just said "screw it". I picked an option that sounded close enough but couldn't take it seriously after that. What's the point of tracking my food if I could be off by that many calories?
Saturday I completely gave up tracking. I got a coffee from a local coffee shop to start my day, followed by an Acai bowl from EarthShake and then dinner was homemade pizza. There were also definitely a few glasses of wine. The idea of breaking down every sprinkle of cheese on the pizza, exactly what went into the dough or the sauce [all 100% homemade] sounded exhausting.
Thoughts on the data & the process.
Once I pushed past the fact of feeling like I was doing something "wrong" by eating more calories that I was "allowed" I was able to take a very objective view of the information.
Most days I went over my "recommended" calorie intake by 200-300 calories, even on days that I exercised. Based on my height [5'4"] and my weight [135lbs - which full disclosure is a complete estimate because I rarely weight myself] My Fitness Pal calculated that I should eat 1850 calories a day. For maintenance. As another comparison I used Bodybuilding.com's macro calculator - entered the same information and was given the following breakdown CARBS: 191 G | PROTEIN: 128 G | FATS: 47 G. [52% carbs | 35% Protein | 13% Fat] That adds up to 1,699 calories. Per day. FOR MAINTENANCE. It's no wonder that so many disordered patterns and behaviors about tracking food stem from these apps and sites. Both My Fitness Pal and Bodybuilding.com give me a number that was intended for maintenance but if I stuck to it, would probably result in weight loss. However it would likely leave me feeling restricted, unhappy, and "falling off the wagon" in a matter of weeks.
Calories aside — I was impressed to find that I had a pretty good macro ratio without really planning on it. Why is the macro ratio important? Your body uses carbs, proteins, and fats in different amounts and nailing down the perfect ratio ensures that it has exactly what it needs to function at the optimum level. I could probably stand to eat a little less fat [most of my fat was in the form of nuts, nut butter, and whole milk yogurt] and more carb - but all in all it's not bad.
On an even smaller level — micro nutrients — I found my diet was lacking in calcium and potassium.
Accuracy is questionable.
My example of the Friday night burger is not an uncommon occurrence for people trying to keep track of what they eat. It is of course is no fault of the app. Sure chain restaurants and packaged products make it easy to look up calories and even macro break downs but did you know they can be off by up to 18%? Foods labels are allowed up to a 20% margin of error and any food 5 calories per serving or less can legally be labeled 0 calorie. Even if you cook all your food at home, there is no way to know 100% for sure what you are eating down to the calorie. [source]
Would I do this again?
At the end of the experiment, I was happy to have the data but could not imagine doing this on a regular basis. As someone who loves to cook and rarely measures or follows a recipe to the letter — measuring everything so exactly is not something I want to sign up for. Cooking is something I do for fun and in general I still think I have a pretty good grasp on what is good for my body. Now I have even more information to improve in the future.
I have a new respect for people who chose to do this on a daily basis. Although I do think the estimations can be off base and I have seen too many people use macro tracking to get down to unhealthy levels of "leanness". I don't advocate tracking food intake as a permanent lifestyle - but then again I am not a nutritionist or dietitian. Please note, all this is just my experience and my opinion based on that experience.
I did however like having the information to analyze - so if anyone would like to follow me around all day and write down what I eat - applications are now open.
Have you ever or do you currently track your food? Any good or bad experiences? Tips and tricks or just general thoughts?