IS COUNTING MACROS NECESSARY TO BUILD A GREAT PHYSIQUE?
If you want to build muscle, lose fat and carve out a great physique, you need to stay consistent with your workouts, manage your recovery and track your macros each day.
… or do you?
Proper training is obviously a critical side of the fitness equation, but is counting macros necessary in order to reach your muscle building and fat loss goals?
Or, a better question would be:
Just how closely should you track your diet each day to get the results you’re after?
Should you count macros? Track overall calories only? Or just eat intuitively and estimate things as you go?
Although most people prefer black and white responses to these sorts of questions, the real answer here is that it depends.
None of these individual levels of nutritional tracking are inherently right or wrong, and each one could potentially work well based on an individual’s overall training experience, goals, mindset and personal preferences.
Let’s go ahead and break them all down (intuitive eating vs. tracking calories vs. counting macros) so you can decide what’s best for you.
Option #1: Intuitive Eating
With intuitive eating you’ll simply “eyeball” your meals and base your food choices and portion sizes on your body’s hunger signals, rough estimations of the nutritional content and your own personal fitness goals.
However, you won’t specifically measure anything or actively log your calories and macros throughout the day.
There are two main situations where this would be a viable option…
The first is, quite simply, if you’ve been using an intuitive eating approach up until now and are consistently seeing positive results that you’re satisfied with.
I don’t recommend that most beginners try to “eat on the fly” without a set structure in place (since more often than not they’ll end up consuming too many or too few calories to support their goals), but for some people it can work out just fine.
So, if your body weight, body fat percentage and gym performance have all been moving in the right direction despite not specifically tracking calories or counting macros, you can simply continue with what you’re doing and only switch to a more detailed system later on if your results stagnate.
Maybe your goal is to lose fat and you’ve simply been focusing on healthier food choices and basic portion control, or maybe your goal is to gain muscle and you’ve simply bumped up your overall food intake slightly to get the extra calories you need.
In any case, if intuitive eating is working for you right now, then that’s basically an ideal scenario and there’s no reason to deviate until or unless it becomes necessary.
The second situation where intuitive eating would work well is if you’re a more advanced trainee who has learned how to do it effectively through experience.
You’ve tracked macros in the past (giving you a good idea as to which foods and portion sizes contain what), you know how your body responds at various calorie totals, and you know how to adjust your intake based on your hunger levels.
If you’ve built up enough overall experience to be able to meet your nutritional needs based purely on “feel” and on your own estimations, then you can stick with intuitive eating as your dietary strategy moving forward.
Option #2: Tracking Overall Calories + Roughly Estimating Macros
Intuitive eating is the ultimate direction that most trainees would probably want to strive for in the long run (after all, it’s not very realistic that you’ll be tracking calories and macros for the rest of your life), but it usually does require a good amount of time and effort for most people to learn how to do it properly.
For that reason, using a more structured method of eating will probably be best through the beginner and intermediate stages until you gain more experience.
With option 2, you’ll place your main focus on tracking your overall calorie intake, and then just roughly estimate your macros but without counting the exact gram amounts.
In my view, this level of tracking will be best suited to the majority of the training population out there.
It’s detailed enough to produce optimal or near-optimal muscle building and fat burning results, but simple enough that you won’t need to revolve your entire day around food and count everything in precise detail.
Keep in mind that beyond any specific macronutrient breakdown, your total calorie intake is by far the most important factor in your nutrition plan.
Overall net energy balance is what will dictate whether you gain weight or lose weight, and as long as your protein/carb/fat intake is reasonably balanced in the big picture, tracking total calories is usually enough to achieve the results you’re after.
Make no mistake though – calories absolutely do matter and they need to be landing in the proper range throughout the week if you want to see real results.
If your goal is to lose fat, you need to maintain a calorie deficit by consuming fewer calories than you burn. Without a consistent calorie deficit in place, you quite simply aren’t going to lose any significant body fat.
If your goal is to build muscle and you want to maximize your gains, you need to maintain a calorie surplus by consuming more calories than you burn.
It is possible to gain muscle while eating at maintenance (or even in a deficit) depending on your experience level and genetics, but it won’t be to the same degree that you’ll get from a surplus.
So, what I’d advise here is to track your calories decently closely – don’t worry if you go a bit over or a bit under on certain days, since it’s your average intake over the course of a few days or a week that truly matters – and then check to make sure that you’re hitting your minimum daily requirements for protein and fat.
These are the two “essential” macros that you must make sure you’re getting enough of each day.
Sufficient protein is needed to build muscle and facilitate proper recovery in between workouts, and adequate fat is needed to optimize testosterone levels among many other important physical and mental health benefits.
My recommendation here would be to aim for at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily, and at least 25% of your total calorie intake coming from fat.
Fats contain 9 calories per gram, so just multiply your daily calorie target by 0.25 and then divide by 9 to get the minimum grams of fat you’ll need to eat.
All in all though, as long as you’re tracking your calories with decent accuracy and are consuming adequate protein and fat, inter-changing your macros a bit is not going to be a big deal and striving for some “perfect” macronutrient ratio won’t be necessary.
Just try to keep them reasonably balanced by basing each of your main meals around a basic protein and carbohydrate pairing… add in a couple sources of healthy fats throughout the day… and get in a couple servings of both fruit and vegetables as well.
Follow this basic outline and the specific macronutrient numbers will usually just take care of themselves.
Tracking calories and then simply estimating macros is much easier to do in comparison to counting every single gram of protein, carbs and fats you’re eating, and this is a good healthy middle ground that will work well for the majority of trainees out there.
It might seem a bit tedious at first if you’re still a beginner, but it will get increasingly easier over time especially if you tend to eat similar foods and meals each day.
Option #3: Counting Individual Macros
Lastly we have option 3 – standard macro tracking where you count exactly how many grams of protein, carbs and fats you’re eating each day.
Counting macros would be a viable approach in the following situations…
The first is if you take your training very seriously and want to be 100% certain that you’re squeezing out every possible ounce of results from your nutrition.
This would especially apply if you’re trying to get into a very specific shape by a set deadline, such as a physique competition, photo shoot or some other special event.
In that case, counting macros would make sense to ensure that your eating plan is fully dialed in without any guesswork involved.
As long as you’re aware that tracking everything to the exact gram is probably only going to give you a small boost in the overall picture, then go ahead and track macros as normal.
The second group who might benefit from counting macros are those who prefer the organizational aspect of it.
If you find that having a set structure keeps you more motivated and on track since it lets you know for sure that you’re hitting all of your nutritional needs properly, then tracking macros may be the better option for you.
Some people find individual macro counting to be too detailed and thus unsustainable, whereas others are perfectly fine with it because it gives them the organization and structure they desire.
The final situation where tracking macros would be beneficial is for those who have simply never done it before in order to learn it as an overall long term skill.
Although a more intuitive style of eating is the ultimate long term goal, it’s pretty hard to get there without building up the necessary calorie counting and macro tracking experience first.
Going through a temporary period of detailed nutritional tracking will help you get a feel for the calorie and macronutrient content of various foods… how your body responds at various calorie levels… and how to match your daily food intake to your body’s hunger signals to land on the proper daily totals for yourself.
It’s not going to be realistic or necessary for anyone to track exact macros for the rest of their life, but where counting macros can be helpful is as a stepping stone on the way to an intuitive eating approach.
Whether or not tracking macros is necessary to get into great shape is one thing, but what is certain is that someone who has tracked macros at some point in their life will be in a much better long term position with their fitness plan than someone who has not.
The final point I’d make here is for those who probably shouldn’t be tracking macros regardless of the situation, and that is for those who are prone to eating disorders.
If detailed nutritional tracking becomes a source of significant anxiety and daily stress that is actively interfering with your social life and well-being, you’ll almost certainly be best off to stick with a “looser” system for meeting your nutritional needs.
I’m certainly no expert in this particular area though, so this is something you’ll have to look into and decide on for yourself.
Is Counting Macros Necessary? The Bottom Line
So, is counting macros necessary to get into awesome shape, or is tracking overall calories or just estimating things throughout the day good enough?
As with most nutrition related questions, the answer is context dependent and should be based on the individual.
That said, for the majority of trainees out there who are in the beginner to intermediate stage, tracking overall calories and then roughly estimating macros is a good middle ground to aim for.
This system of tracking is likely enough to get you the results you’re after, but without going overboard and being excessively detail oriented.
Counting macros to the individual gram may still be appropriate for certain trainees though, as will an intuitive eating approach where foods are merely eyeballed and estimated throughout the day.
Take all of the points in this article into account and then decide which option is most suitable to you.
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