Fuck Macros: Why Tracking May Be Making It Harder To Get Lean

Sensei Splinter thinks your macro ratio is bullshit.
Mike Sweeney, UK RD
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Mike Sweeney, UK RD

UK Registered Dietitian at Nutritionable
Mike is probably the UK's loudest and most outspoken UK Registered Dietitian. He lives in Leicester where he has a clinical caseload in the NHS, works with elite athletes on their performance nutrition and provides nutrition education to trainers that doesn't suck. He's been referred to by clients as "The Shaolin Master Of Nutrition" & generally he tries not to take life too seriously as you can tell by the silly picture.
Mike Sweeney, UK RD
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Latest posts by Mike Sweeney, UK RD (see all)

Lets be honest, getting lean is a straight up pain in the ass.

Not only have you got to train regularly and eat well (however you define that) but theres also motivational issues to consider, deciding whether to train alone or in a group, deciding what kind of training to do, planning everything around work and family and I’ve not even mentioned cooking and food prep.

To add to that joe-blow guru said you’ve got to eat a specific macronutrient ratio too. Maybe something like 30-40-30% (carbs: protein: fats), low-carb-high-fat, ketogenic or some other macronutrient ratio that promises enhanced fat loss or even superior health.

Getting sucked in and convinced by the wondrous promises of macronutrient ratios can make your life (or your clients life) boring and unnecessarily hard.

Thats because macronutrient ratios are completely irrelevant for fat loss purposes. 

But how can I say such a thing when the internet seems ablaze with LCHF (low-carb-high-fat) fever? What about all those randomised controlled trials categorically proving that low-carb is superior for getting lean?

Well only looking at randomised controlled trials for evidence is like only opening half your bills each month, only paying the half you saw, then when you’re in court being sued claiming you didn’t see the other half. Or something like that. Either way, its stupid and flawed.

Part of the issue with RCT’s is that they tend to use free living subjects. Meaning the people participating are free to do what they want. So when a certain diet turns out to be superior in a randomised trial, was it better because it was easier to stick to or because the weird macronutrient ratio enhanced your lard repositories with superhero like abilities to shed unwanted tissue more rapidly?

If you look at metabolic ward research then the picture changes. A lot.

Metabolic ward studies basically lock people into a hospital ward type environment and control every ounce of food thats eaten and often precisely how much exercise is done too. They usually measure things like gaseous exchanges to determine rates of substrate oxidation (burning of either fats/carbs/proteins), body fat loss etc. Having things so extremely controlled is hard to do and likely expensive but leaves nothing to chance. Unlike free living subjects who may only follow the diet for half the time then claim it doesn’t work that well (a bit like your clients, if you’re a PT).

So what does this ward research tell us? Glad you asked.

Golay and co way back in 1996 locked 43 obese adults in a hospital ward and fed them either a LCHF type diet (32% protein: 15% CHO: 53% fat) or a higher carb diet (29% protein: 45% CHO: 26% fat). Now if carbs actually made you fat or made it hard to lose weight then you’d expect the higher carb to come off worse, right?

To quote the study:

“Significant decreases in total body fat and waist-to-hip ratio circumference were seen in both groups and the magnitude of the changes did not vary as a function of diet composition.” 

So what they’re saying there is when it comes to fat loss, everyone in this study lost weight/fat regardless of the diet used.

Kevin Hall and friends did something similar in 2015 by locking up 19 obese adults in a ward. They controlled their food intake and fed them either reduced fat or reduced carb diets, making sure to control for calories. They even went ahead and used mathematical modelling to project their results forwards in time to simulate/predict what might happen over time – I’m guessing because those damn ethics board committee’s wouldn’t let them lock the subject up for 6 months or more. Damn it.

So what did they find?

“selective isocaloric reduction of dietary fat led to no significant changes in insulin secretion or fat oxidation compared to the eucaloric baseline diet, but significantly more body fat was lost than during the carbohydrate-restricted diet.”

Before you get all excited about going back to the low-fat 80’s though, its worth bearing in mind that the reduced carbohydrate group also lost body fat.

So here we have the latest in a long line of metabolic ward research (the most controlled and therefore accurate we can get) showing that reduced carb and reduced dietary fat BOTH lead to reduction in body fat.

But what about if you go ketogenic? Doesn’t that enhance fat loss with the power of Thor’s hammer? Or something?

Not according to this study by Johnston et al at Arizona State University. Whilst not exactly ‘metabolic ward’ research they did provide all the meals for their subjects for 6 weeks and found that both groups (ketogenic and non-ketogenic) both lost body fat.

There are yet more metabolic ward studies demonstrating similar findings to what I’ve mentioned here, but I think you get the point?

Good.

Because getting lean always was and always will be about total energy balance.

Even in an over-eating situation, like when domino’s pizza send you those awesome vouchers to get a pizza the size of england for just seven quid. Even then, both dietary fat and dietary carbohydrate lead to body fat accumulation with dietary fat being jammed in those lard repositories more efficiently. We’ve known this since at least 1995.

But that doesn’t mean lower carb diets are useless or vice versa. It just means that when your goal is purely to get leaner, you don’t need to burden yourself with stupid fucking arguments like what macronutrient ratio is best.

In fact you could go so far as to eat lower carb one day and lower fat the next. As long as you consistently control your total caloric intake you’ll lean out just fine. All whilst waving your middle finger to the extremists on either side of the pointless argument spouting their bullshittery.

And if you’re helping clients of your own? Well this just makes life a lot bloody easier.

But the real reason tracking macro’s may make getting lean hard is more psychological.

You’ve heard of will power, right? You probably think you, or your clients, have none. Thing is, every one starts the day with the same amount of ‘willpower’ which is essentially just ‘decision making ability’.

As the day goes on you become more and more fatigued, your ability to make good decisions declines. Think this is bullshit?

Think what you like because this study found that in a court of law, judges are more likely to deny a prisoners request for parole towards the end of the morning or day. The effect was attributed to decision fatigue.

The researchers said:

“Making repeat judgements or decisions depletes individuals executive function and mental resources which can influence their subsequent decisions.”

They also found that giving the judges a short rest restored their ability to consider the facts of the case and rule based on that rather than simply ‘you’re a prisoner, you deserve to rot’ type of decisions.

This applies to fat loss too. 

For every conscious decision you have to make about your food, the next decision in your day becomes slightly less quality. That happens repeatedly until eventually its 4pm, you’re knackered and heading for that domino’s pizza voucher and you don’t know why.

So it makes perfect sense to quit worrying about your macronutrient ratio and whether or not its ‘optimal’ (WTF is that, anyway?). Nobody cares. Not even your own body, physiologically and biochemically speaking.

All you’re doing by trying to adhere to a stupid macronutrient ratio is fast tracking your own decision fatigue, depleting your own willpower and making it unnecessarily hard and boring for yourself to get lean. Just eat whatever the hell you want (whatever you feel best with). The only parameter to stay within is your own caloric limits.

Over the last 5 years I’ve gotten bodybuilders/physique athletes successfully winning trophies at 5% body fat by focusing on total caloric intake as the primary determinant of getting lean.

So thats it then? Macronutrient ratios are completely useless? For fat loss purposes yes. There are applications that make sense but that’ll have to be another post for another day.

About The Author

Mike Sweeney, UK RD

Mike is probably the UK's loudest and most outspoken UK Registered Dietitian. He lives in Leicester where he has a clinical caseload in the NHS, works with elite athletes on their performance nutrition and provides nutrition education to trainers that doesn't suck. He's been referred to by clients as "The Shaolin Master Of Nutrition" & generally he tries not to take life too seriously as you can tell by the silly picture.