Clients come to trainers every day with questions; questions in which they usually want “yes” or “no” answers to, as if there is a right and a wrong when it comes to exercise, rest, and nutrition.
Professionals know that it is much more complex than that. Everyone is an individual. Their goals, lifestyle, schedule, and ability to adhere to a program all come into play. As flexible dieting, IIFYM (if it fits your macros), and counting macros are becoming more prevalent in the fitness industry, the latest popular question is:
Should I count my macros?
Before you are tempted to give them a “yes,” “no,” or “it depends” answer, look at the arguments presented here and decide if this might be a worthwhile strategy to employ for this particular client or if there is a better alternative.
- Understand the importance of understanding the client’s goal, needs, and lifestyle before making programmatic recommendations.
- Identify the benefits of counting macros.
- Identify the drawbacks of counting macros.
Pictures, like the one of the coconut protein pancakes below, are becoming more and more popular on social media sites, like Instagram and Facebook. Viewers see a picture of a delicious food with what appears to be some kind of code on it: P25, C31, F4. They are curious about what this means and want to know if this is something that they should do too.
As they do some more investigation, they learn that this is a strategy that many people are utilizing as an accountability model for food intake—counting macros. These protein pancakes contain:
- 25 grams of protein
- 31 grams of carbohydrates
- 4 grams of fat
Trainers and clients who use this strategy have a goal, per meal or per day, of the total grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats (macros) they should consume and structure their meal plan accordingly. Many people who utilize this approach are flexible in the foods that can be eaten, as long as they meet their macro goals.
When clients want to know whether this is a plan that they should use too, consider the steps below:
Step 1: Look at the big picture
Step 2: Weigh the pros and cons
Step 3: Create a plan
STEP 1: LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE
- What is the client’s goal?
- Is the goal one that the client would benefit from counting macros? For example, does your client need a certain amount of leanness for a photoshoot or a physique competition? Does your client need to watch their blood sugar levels or limit their carbohydrate intake?
- What are other approaches that the client could use to reach that same goal?
- Would counting macros help or hinder your client’s adherence to a nutrition program?
Answering these questions will help you figure out the strategies that you and your client can choose from when developing a plan, as a skilled coach and trainer understands that a “one-size-fits-all” approach is not effective. A masterful trainer uses various tools and approaches at the right moment with each client so that the client gets the best results.
Involve clients in this step of the process. Clients will be more compliant with a plan they helped develop. Brainstorm different options for tracking their food intake. If counting macros is an approach that you both find might be a useful one, then move into Step 2, where you discuss the pros and cons.
STEP 2: WEIGH THE PROS AND CONS
Arguments for counting macros:
- Choice equals increased compliance
Usually, counting macros is associated with a more flexible eating approach. Clients can choose the foods they want to eat as long as they stay within their macro recommendations. From an adherence perspective, this can be a very beneficial technique. The freedom to choose usually increases client compliance.
As soon as you tell someone they can't have something, they want it even more. By allowing clients to make their own dietary choices, they may be less likely to overeat their favorite “forbidden” foods because there are no foods that are off-limits. They can choose what they will or will not eat.
- There is structure within their ability to choose
Even though people like choice, especially when it comes to the food, most clients fall into one of two categories. They like structure and having a plan to follow or they need structure to keep them on track. Either way, some structure is helpful. That's why they come to you as their trainer. They want someone to help them discern all the information they may read about in books or on the internet and help them figure out what is best for them.
For people who like structure, counting macros gives them a goal to shoot for. They have a target of how many grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates they need to eat per day. As you see how their bodies respond, you can make adjustments.
For people who need structure, counting macros allows them the freedom to choose the foods that they want as long as they stay within certain parameters. This will keep them from over-consuming carbohydrates or fats, as is common with many clients.
Keep in mind that for some clients a daily macro total is not sufficient. They may stay within their daily target but have meals that are too high in carbohydrates and cause them to have unstable blood sugar levels. Others may consume too much protein in one sitting. For these clients, the macro goals for each meal might benefit them more than just a daily total.
Arguments against counting macros:
- Are you considering micronutrients?
There is more to good nutrition than macronutrients. Not all proteins are equally nutritious. The same is true for carbohydrates and fats. By having clients make their choices based on the macronutrient content only, you are not guaranteed that they are making healthy, nutrient-dense choices.
Even if the choices they are making are nutritious, it does not mean they are getting a full spectrum of the vitamins and minerals they need. Even a traditional meal plan from a bodybuilder’s diet of chicken and broccoli cannot possibly provide all the essential nutrients. Having a variety of nutrient-dense sources is important and requires more than just looking at the total macros consumed for the day.
For some clients, whether they will adhere to a program or not depends on its complexity and how much time it takes them. Some clients are not familiar with counting macros. Others find it very time-consuming. For these clients, mandating that this is part of their nutrition program may be a great way to keep them from following the plan at all. They might do better using portions or some other method to structure their meal plan.
STEP 3: CREATE A PLAN
Once you and your client have weighed the pros and cons of counting macros, you can come to a decision as to whether or not this is the best plan for your client based on their goals, needs, and lifestyle.
If you determine that counting macros will be a helpful tool, your client will likely need additional support and guidance from you. Anything that is new or foreign can be challenging and potentially stressful. You can minimize the stress on your client, by providing resources, example meal plans, and recipes that your client can use to get started.
If you determine that the cons of counting macros outweigh the benefits, you can utilize another accountability method, like:
- Portion sizes (Precision Nutrition has a great calorie control guide using portions HERE)
- Plates that actually have sections for vegetables, proteins, and carbs so that clients can better manage the quantity of food that they consume
Just as your clients come to you and want definitive “yes” or “no” answers to their questions, you as the trainer may have hoped that this article would provide a conclusive determination about counting macros. Is counting macros the best nutritional strategy to use with your clients? There are both pros and cons. Ultimately, only you and your clients can determine if this is the most effective accountability model for each of them. The steps above are a good pathway to help you and your client make this choice, as the best choice is one that the client can follow, is willing to follow, and does follow.
Andrews, R. & St. Pierre, B. (n.d.). Forget calorie counting: Try this calorie control guide for men and women. Retrieved from: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/calorie-control-guide
Moore, M., Jackson, E., Tschannen-Moran, B., & Wellcoaches Faculty Team. (2016). Coaching psychology manual, 2nd Ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.