Healthy Diet Mindsets and Counting Macros

Is there a way to include calorie or macro counting without developing unhealthy, scarcity mindsets around food? I have a lot of respect for Greg Nuckols and Eric Trexler at Stronger By Science, and I know that in their release of the Macro Factor app, they wanted it to be as ethical as possible. They don’t want to increase risky behavior in folks who use their app, and it has me asking the question–can an app or any other calorie or macro counting strategy be neutral in these situations?

Correlational data show an increase in dieting behaviors and thoughts (intentionally limiting foods, food moralizing, etc.) amongst people who count calories and macros. As any good intro stats student can tell you, correlational data doesn’t give us causation–meaning if there’s is a causal relationship, it may be that the direction goes either way. Is someone who is high risk for eating disorders or restrictive eating more likely to count macros and calories or does counting macros or calories lead to an increase in eating disorders or restrictive eating? (It’s also possible that there’s some other trait that folks who count calories and macros have that increases their risk for unhealthy diet mindsets and macro tracking.) Without direct causal data the promotion of calorie counting can feel risky and like potentially setting someone up for disordered habits. And speaking from personal experience and from observations of other folks unlearning diet culture, whether or not we are already predisposed to unhealthy mindsets before calorie counting, I have witnessed folks learning healthier mindsets most easily when they learn other strategies for managing their nutrition. And, as I discussed in my previous piece on calorie counting, there’s also a risk of teaching someone to ignore their basic needs like hunger and psychological satisfaction with their food.

But what do we do with an athlete or recreational lifter who wants to approach their bodyweight or physique with a more mathematical method? Can we marry these two ideas without increasing their risk for an unhealthy or less healthy relationship with food and their bodies?

My honest answer is that I don’t know. I do know that the same actions can be healthy for one person and disordered in another. We can, for example, exercise for healthy reasons and we can exercise for unhealthy reasons. There’s a big difference in going for a jog to clear your mind and improve your cardiorespiratory health and going for a jog to burn off those slices of pizza you had for dinner last night. The problem isn’t the exercise, it’s the mindset behind it.

So, what would a healthy mindset behind calorie and macro counting look like? I think a piece of it is that there needs to be an understanding of flexibility and taking imperfect action on a regular basis. This includes redefining success as a long-term pattern over time rather than based on individual days or meals.

I also see the risk of giving calorie counts to someone without teaching them the behavioral and emotional tools in order to be successful with maintaining those calorie counts. I’ve written openly about the challenges with emotional eating that recur for me. Eating to manage my feelings is an old pattern that will always be with me to some extent. Addressing that challenge has nothing to do with calories; if anything, counting calories seems to make it worse. For example, I could tell myself I have 600 calories left for dinner and use that external measure of how much to eat. For me, over time, this leads to scarcity mindset, even if I am physically satisfied most days with that amount of food. And as a result of that scarcity thinking, I am more likely to keep eating after satisfied for fear that I won’t have enough later. There’s also research that suggests food will be more appealing to me and I will be more drawn to highly hedonic foods.

Scarcity mindset is the feeling that there isn’t enough, or that there might not be enough in the future, or that I better get what I can now because it won’t be there later. Scarcity mindsets can be triggered by other things besides calorie counting. Those of us who had some food uncertainty growing up will have an increased risk for scarcity mindsets around food. If you lived in a big family, you may have been raised that if you don’t get it now it might not be there for you later, and that can set you up for a lifetime of wanting to get in everything you can now before it’s too late. Dieting can lead to scarcity mindset as you teach your brain over time to believe that food is limited. A neutral relationship with food could develop into a scarcity mindset if over time you find yourself limiting which foods you can eat, or at what times of day you’re willing to listen to your hunger cues. These actions disconnect us from our bodies and can lead to a loss of trust in ourselves around food choices.

An important alternative to macro and calorie counting are habit-based systems for learning eating behaviors over time. These systems rarely require digging into the nitty-gritty details of macros and precise calorie counts. The intent is for this very reason–to avoid the potential risks associated with scarcity mindset and other diet culture challenges. Moreover, when done well, habit-based systems are done in conjunction with mindset work, and I don’t know how that can happen in an app. I know the folks at Noom think they’re providing “psychology” with their little lessons each day, but from what I’ve observed, it still boils down to an extremely low-calorie diet that incentivizes movement to increase daily calorie targets, reinforcing the harmful myth that exercise can “cancel out” our eating choices and deemphasizes the literally dozens of other good reasons to have a regular fitness habit. I also don’t see it providing the level of individualized troubleshooting that many of us would require to dig more meaningfully into our habits to make them truly sustainable.

A true behavior-based system would tell somebody here’s some good sources of protein and then help the person build the habits they need to incorporate that protein regularly into their diet. Do they need to know if their regular serving is 20 grams or 30? Usually, I think the answer is no. What really matters isn’t the precise amount of protein but rather whether or not it meets their needs. What is their reasoning for increasing protein? Is it so that they’re more satisfied and do less random snacking in the evening? That can be assessed without ever counting macros. Is it so that they have a favorable environment for building muscle and improve their strength? Two or three days of doing the math should give them a pretty good idea of what they normally consume, and then after that I’m struggling to see why they would need to keep that level of detailed attention. The range of protein consumption that is adequate for building muscle is just that–a range–and it isn’t like we need to hit a precise number or otherwise all of our efforts are gone to shit.

So, I guess my concern is that the very act of macro or calorie counting creates artificial limits and expectations, and I don’t know how an app or other system could get around that. Maybe there’s nothing inherently wrong with counting all the things, but it provides a level of granularity that I see as unnecessary for 90% of the folks we interact with on a regular basis. You can create a sustainable caloric deficit without counting calories. You can create healthy, balanced meals without macro counting. You can identify that you eat too much between meals and address that challenge without counting calories. Most of us know when we are overeating; we don’t need an external number to tell us that we’re stuffed.

I do recognize that there is some utility in learning the basics of nutrition. Which are more calorically dense foods, and which are less? Which foods have more protein, and which are a mix of fat and carbs? I’ve heard lots of folks talk about peanut butter as a good protein source seemingly unaware that it’s actually mostly fat. So, maybe there’s a way to use calorie counting to teach that skill? But so does a food list or three–list of lean protein sources, list of fat sources, list of sources of both.

Instead of calorie or macro tracking someone could track behaviors. Although to be healthy, I still believe it requires important mindset work so that motivations are addressed, and unhealthy diet culture isn’t being exacerbated. There are literally endless examples of tracking a behavior rather than macros. For example, the person can ask themselves if there was a protein source at each meal? Or did I stop when satisfied at dinner? Did I wait until hungry before eating my afternoon snack? Did I get 1-2 servings of fruits and veggies at most meals? Each of these would provide meaningful results for a person’s overall caloric or macro targets for the day without ever getting into the granularity of counting. And I see the advantage in that they are each less likely to create scarcity mindset and other unhelpful diet-related thoughts. I also note that these are mostly additive dietary strategies rather than subtractive ones, which is well-supported by the evidence as far as being more psychologically friendly, too.

At the end of the day, I recognize that calorie and macro counting isn’t problematic for everyone. There are clearly many people who like it and seem to maintain a peaceful relationship with food and their bodies. However, for those who find it problematic, or who don’t want to take the risk that it might exacerbate unhealthy mindsets, I want them to know that there are alternatives. I really applaud Greg and Eric for wanting to create a healthier macro counter. I wish everyone who provided nutrition and fitness services would do it through a lens of avoiding harm to their clients and users. I wish they all did it from a place of teaching people the skills they need for a lifetime rather than serving up a quick fix that’s most likely doomed to fail. There are sustainable ways to improve how we eat and our fitness, but I’m not convinced that regular macro counting can get most of us there.

Less harmful tracking? I’m a brainstorming kind of person, and here are some thoughts on qualities that might make a tracking program less harmful for someone with similar a psychology to myself:

  • The option to only track one macronutrient or a few micronutrients and to “silence” others. My thinking is that this can lend someone to checking in on a macro of concern without getting into the weeds on others. For that matter, what about “silencing” weight measurements? Not everyone wants to check in regularly on body composition goals who want to check their macros.
  • A focus on averages for targets–what is the 7-day average caloric or macro consumption? Maybe this helps with perfectionist tendencies?
  • An ability to put in hunger and satiety notes (like the 1-10 scale I use) connected to eating sessions might incentivize checking in with oneself and help with seeing patterns outside of external control.
  • Reduced emphasis or incentives for daily tracking. The occasional check-in can be helpful and potentially less harmful.
  • If I’m dreaming big, I would LOVE a macro counter to link with resources that help someone with the necessary behavior and mindset work, or to somehow build those skills in. Maybe in the meantime tie in a habit tracker? Some preset ideas for healthy, baby step goals wouldn’t go amiss either, I would think.

Even with all of these features, I think I would stick with a once-in-a-while check-in kind of use of trackers but adding them in might make me less hesitant to give it a try. Would anything make a tracker less problematic for you? I’d love to see your comments below!

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