Tracking macros on a phone

Counting macros: “Ignoring macros is the best thing I've done for my mental health“

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Calorie counting may have fallen out of favour but that doesn’t mean the fitness industry has given up promoting restrictive eating plans. Macro tracking is the favoured method of dieting these days – and it still works by encouraging counting and restricting. Writer Anya Ryan gave it up just in time…

Over the past few years, counting macros has grown in popularity across the wellness world. Sold as a flexible way of tracking what you eat – focused on the composition of food rather than its calorific value – counting macros has stormed the fitness industry as being a “balanced diet” that renders nothing off-limits.

Macros or macronutrients are the nutrients that your body can’t live without. “They are the foods that give you energy, so carbohydrates, protein and fats,” says nutritionist Pixie Turner. “In recent years, there has been a shift towards a high protein, lower carb way of eating in the fitness world, so that is probably why it has got so popular”.

Just spend two minutes on fitness Instagram, and you will find influencer after influencer posting picture-perfect plates of food with their macros detailed below. Celebrities are also on the macro-hype, promote their fitness coaching plans that promise personalised macro calculations and recipes.

Despite its popularity and PR, however, counting macros is still a form of restriction. “Easier to frame as not being a diet and not being limiting” (according to Pixie), calculating macros has so far received little criticism online or in the fitness world. But, she points out, “macro counting can be very restrictive, both in terms of how much you are eating and what you are eating.”

Growing up, I was obsessive about what I ate. What started as a desire to be healthier became a need to shrink myself. I compulsively checked the back of food packages in supermarkets, pushed aside meals in restaurants and ignored my stomach rumbles to make sure I didn’t go over my self-designated daily calorific total. Numbers constantly flew around my mind. I started logging everything I had eaten on MyFitnessPal until I became an expert in predicting how many calories each food had without even having to check. I got anxious at social occasions, praying no one would comment on my tiny portions. “I’m just not hungry”, I’d say. I had sucked the joy out of food. 

With the help of friends and family, I managed to untangle myself from calorie counting and started to eat more mindfully. It took years to unlearn the bad habits I’d picked up in my pursuit for better health. 

When I first heard about tracking macros, I was cautious… and curious. The words kept appearing as I scrolled down my Instagram feed, and with every influencer banging on about this new flexible way of eating. So, I eventually decided to give it a go, re-downloading MyFitnessPal – the app that had caused me so much trouble in the years before. I began to work out my personalised macros for each day using an online calculator. 

Predictably, re-focusing on numbers meant my unhealthy mindset from the past started to sneak back in. Despite my best efforts to stop my new diet from taking over, I couldn’t shake my anxieties. If I went over my macros even slightly, I felt like a failure. Unlike the influencers online, I didn’t find tracking enjoyable and I dreaded typing out the values of my portions after each meal.

Libby Horseley, a personal trainer who has personal experience of counting macros, recognises the potential problems with the diet – particularly for people who have previously suffered from disorder eating. “It can become very obsessive very quickly, and it can also be quite restrictive,” she says. “If you are counting macros, even simple things like going out for dinner can become a really difficult challenge because you can’t weigh out what is on your plate.”

Counting macros bad for mental health
Anya found that counting macros triggered the same kinds of anxieties as tracking calories had done years before.

Despite the hype, I experienced the same stress and unhealthy attitude from counting macros as I did when I was adding up calories or following any other restrictive diet. According to Pixie, this is more common than we might think. “In the short term, it could be helpful to give people a better understanding of what they are eating, but there are so many risks associated with long-term macro counting,” she says. “For a lot of people, it can become anxiety-inducing, stressful and not helpful at all”.

When it comes to advising clients on the best way to nutritionally support their training, PT Libby stresses that people need to be viewed on a “case by case basis”. Macro counting is definitely not a blanket fix-all for all goals and experiences. “If you’ve had anxieties around food before and you are using macros to lose weight, it could definitely spark those negative tendencies again,” she says.

I didn’t last long counting macros. After I started to weigh food over and over again and refused to listen to my body’s pleas to eat more, I decided that tracking food in any capacity wasn’t going to be healthy. “Broadly speaking, counting macros is not much different to going on a diet”, Pixie says. “It is still relying on an external factor to tell you what to eat, rather than your own body”.

Pixie is convinced that tracking macros always goes hand in hand with switching up your diet, explaining that it tends to be done “with the express purpose of wanting to change something, which means it can be restrictive.” When I started, I hoped that counting macros would be transformative – helping me to gain muscle, lose body fat and grow abs overnight. I didn’t even think about whether what I was doing was healthy.

Though counting macros is now at the forefront of most exercise or diet plans, there are still ways to keep fit without having to track them. “You could have strength-based goals or try mindful eating,” says Libby. “There are ways to be healthy without having to weigh or value everything you eat.”

Whenever I become too focused on the numerical values of food, my mental health suffers – and despite what the fitness industry says, I have been much healthier since I decided to ignore macros completely. Instead, I try to listen to my body. I eat what I want, when I want, and focus on balance instead of being obsessive. Surprisingly, I’ve never felt more in control of my diet than I do right now. 

For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity Beat website.

Image: Getty

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