Experiments in Food Tracking

Macro counting has become a buzzword over the last couple of years. What was once primarily used in the world of bodybuilders and physique competitors has now become mainstream. Tracking your daily intake can be very important in reaching your goals. Finding the easiest way to do that might be just as important.

What is macro counting?

Macros (short for macronutrients) are carbohydrates, fat, and protein. When someone is counting macros, they are keeping track of how many grams of each they are eating by means of weighing and measuring everything they eat. All three categories can be manipulated based on your goals.

There are benefits to tracking what you eat with almost any system. It helps to get a visual on what you are actually eating in a day, and it can help with body composition goals or to improve performance. 

There positives with macro counting, but there can be some drawbacks and side effects with macro tracking. Consider:


Understanding of intake and portion sizes

Many people overestimate the size of their portions and eat too much at each meal. Similarly, many people underestimate their total consumption for each day. Having a tool to keep track can assist in managing portion sizes and total intake for each day. 

Can help you understand full and hunger cues

As you become more aware of proper portion sizes and how often you eat, you will become more in tune with your body’s hunger and full signals. You can more easily recognize and then stop at the satisfied feeling, instead of finding yourself over full.

Understanding the difference between full and satisfied plays a major role in losing/managing weight. Often we eat to full or over full and completely miss satisfied. 

Creates awareness of what you are truly eating in a day

We often think “I eat pretty well” but don’t see the fruit of our “balanced diet”. Often once we start tracking our meals, we will find that there are more things sneaking in that we didn’t notice or that there is not enough of something. I commonly see that people aren’t getting enough protein. Or that they are eating way more snacks between meals than they realize. 

Paying attention to quantity every day, whether too much or too little of something, can make big changes. How often do we eat just one mini candy bar (several times in a day!), or finish off your child’s plate without “counting” that in what you ate for the day?

Easy to track when cooking plain/basic meals

If you like to eat a more bland diet, this works well. Because weighing and measuring is involved, it is much easier to track plain chicken breast, brown rice, and broccoli than it is a combination meal like stir fry.


Consumes a lot of time and effort

This takes the time of meal prepping a step further. Macro counting requires you to weigh and measure everything you eat. Having to input everything into an app also takes a lot of time. Every time you put anything in your mouth, you have to pull up the app, find the food, figure out your quantity, and enter it. It drains your time as well as your battery.

Doesn’t account for quality of food

When someone is tracking macros, it is easy to get so focused on meeting the number requirements that the quality of the food is forgotten.This can easily cause someone to choose food based on their macro needs instead of nutritional value. Micronutrients from fruits and vegetables are a vital part of a healthy diet and should not be minimized or left out.

There is a term in macro counting called If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM). This means you can eat whatever you want, as long as it fits into your daily set macros. While this is really appealing and allows for flexibility, it also opens the door to lesser quality options (like donuts for breakfast over fruit or oatmeal) more often.

Can create or exacerbate eating disorders

There is a lot of attention paid to weighing, measuring, recording, planning, and checking labels. Because of this, unhealthy and obsessive thinking can manifest. What started as a way to reach a healthy goal, can blossom into disordered eating. 

Temptation to eat packaged food over fresh

Trying to weigh and measure every ingredient in your dish can be stressful and time-consuming. Because you can find nutrient facts on foods with labels, it becomes easy to choose packaged food over fresh that is more nutrient dense. 

Can reduce variety of foods eaten

Because of the time and effort it takes to prep, weigh, measure, and record, it is easy to get in a rhythm of “go-to items” so you don’t have to think so much. While this is a way to save time, eliminating variety can reduce the vital micronutrients you need and potentially invite food sensitivities.

Also consider these questions to decipher if macro counting is right for you.

  1. Is it sustainable?
  2. Does it cause stress or interfere with your quality of life? Example: Can you dine out with friends and be ok with not knowing exactly what the macro breakdown is?

Can macro tracking be a beneficial? Absolutely! Is there an easier way to keep track that requires less math? Why yes, there is. 

The experiment

A while ago I decided to experiment with macro tracking. I wanted to know how close my hand method (details below) would be to a set macro count. I find tracking in this much detail very cumbersome and…well…annoying. But curiosity won. For 1 month I tracked my macros. I used my hand method to build my template for each meal, and then inputted that meal into a macro tracking app.

My Method: The Precision Nutrition hand-based portion calculator

In summary, you use your hand to calculate appropriate portion sizes. Since your hands are relative to your body size, this works really well. It’s an on the go, personalized measuring device. You can easily portion out your meals correctly wherever you are without needing the help of measuring cups, scales, or your phone.

  • Your palm determines the protein portion size (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans)
  • Your closed fist determines the veggie portion size (broccoli, carrots, greens, etc)
  • Your cupped hand determines the carb portion size (oats, rice, fruits)
  • Your thumb determines fat portions portion size (nuts, seeds, oils, avocados)

I knew that I needed 3-4 palm-sized portions of protein, 4-6 fist-sized servings of vegetables, 3-5 cupped hand sized servings of carbs, and 3-4 thumb-sized servings of fat. 

I found that using my hand method, I was nearly spot on most days with what my macro goals were set for. (Cool! My hand is so fancy) Was it perfectly spot on every day? No. But does our nutrition need to be ruled by a calculator or an app? No.

In fact, it’s effectively impossible to precisely know your calorie intake or to know exactly how many calories you’re burning on a given day. No matter how carefully you weigh, count and measure everything, calorie math has multiple layers of imprecision on both the “calories in” side and the “calories out” side. (<- the articles in those links explain why)

As you are learning to use your hands, remember to stay flexible and adjust your portions and meal frequency according to your body’s hunger and fullness signals, your daily routines/schedules, and your individual goals. 

You can use this method for any type of goal: weight loss, muscle gain, body recomposition (fat loss with muscle gain), performance, or to improve your health.

No idea how much you should be eating in a day? We can help you to set appropriate portions for you based on your individual goal!

Contact Abby in Watertown at [email protected]


Janaye in Spearfish at [email protected]

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