Counting Macros: Key to Success or Obsessive Behaviour

November 03, 2018

Whether from the trainer at the gym, or your pal at work, you’ve probably heard the buzz about counting macros. What does that term actually mean, and is it a necessary part of your nutrition strategy, or an obsessive dieting behaviour? Let’s dive deeper!

But before we do, I want you to think about a time when you had several sugary or carb-heavy meals in one day. Maybe a donut for breakfast, a bagel for lunch, and we’ve all done it… ice cream for dinner. Do you remember how you felt at the end of the day? Jittery? Anxious? Short-tempered? Your blood sugar was probably out of whack due to macronutrient imbalances, and if you did this every day for a long period of time I bet you’d start to feel pretty crappy.

What are macros?

Macronutrients are substances your body needs in large amounts. Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are all macronutrients and they perform different functions, briefly:

  • Carbs

    • Provide your body with a main source of energy
    • Can be stored as energy for later
    • Fibre, a type of carbohydrate, keeps things moving in your digestive system and keeps you regular
  • Fats

    • Can be used as a fuel source as well
    • Help you absorb certain vitamins
    • Insulator for the body
    • Affect the level of inflammation in the body
  • Proteins

    • Building blocks of your body
    • Involved in immune function
    • Some hormones are made from protein (e.g. insulin)

The balance between these three nutrients is important as they affect bodily functions like processing energy, immune response, tissue growth, joint fluidity, and even the rate your body heals after an injury. A diet too high in carbohydrates (common in Western diets) can destabilize blood sugar and raise fat levels in the blood. Western diets are high in carbs because they’re easy and cheap to produce, think of all the processed foods like pastries, chips, and candy that are readily available in stores.

In Mediterranean diets there is greater emphasis on fat with 30-40% of the diet coming from that source, 50-60% carbs, and about 10-20% protein. The common ketogenic diet trend takes a low carbohydrate approach (10-15% of intake) and puts the body in a state called ketosis where fat is used as fuel instead of carbs.

How do you count macros?

I won’t go too deep into the nitty gritty of counting because it involves complex calculations, and there’s plenty of calculators online. But briefly, a rough estimate of your caloric needs are calculated based on your age, sex, weight, height, activity level, and weight goals (lose, maintain, or gain). Then the calculator examines the balance between the three macronutrients and tells you to aim for a certain number of grams of each per day.

Should I be counting macros?

Is it important to count numbers to determine the correct ratio? I would argue it’s important to be aware of the nutritional content of your food and strive to have balanced whole food meals, but I don’t believe in strict food rules. That crosses into dangerous territory of disordered eating. Eating should be an enjoyable experience, and if you truly enjoy counting those numbers then go ahead, but for the majority of people it’s a pain and sets you up for failure. It leads to harmful self-talk like “I was bad today” if you don’t meet your goal or things get off track.

How mindful eating fits in?

This brings me to the importance of mindful or intuitive eating. Your body naturally knows what balance of nutrients it needs, you just need to amplify those signals.

Here are a few ways:

  1. Eat when your body tells you to eat
  2. Slow down mealtimes, taking at least 20 minutes for a meal
  3. Appreciate your food and where it came from

Focusing on mostly whole foods in the diet sets you up to maximize your nutrition and eating mindfully is the missing puzzle piece for good health. I’m here to help you tune into those signals and figure out what balance of nutrients is going to work best for you!


Heather is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist trained by the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. She also has a Masters of Science in Public Health and a Bachelor’s of Science in Kinesiology both from the University of Waterloo.
Heather specializes in personalized nutrition using live, natural, and whole foods and looks at many factors surrounding food choices such as stress, sleep, mood, and lifestyle. She has a strong background in mental health and is passionate about promoting its connection to nutrition. Heather sees clients who are overworked, overstressed, and overtired and empowers them to bring their body back into balance. She also specializes in plant-based diets, being vegan herself since 2013. In her spare time, you can find her scouring dog parks for animals to pet, or searching for the city’s best smoothie!

Heather Lillico, MSc, RHN, RYT


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