Counting macros and “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) has invaded the health and fitness industry, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Nutrients are used by the body for growth, energy and other bodily functions. Nutrients describe all of the substances the body needs. Some in smaller amounts, some in larger. The nutrients the body needs in larger amounts are the macronutrients. These include carbohydrates (or sugar), fats (or lipids) and protein. The body also needs other nutrients, just in smaller amounts. Micronutrients are all vitamins and minerals that are found in minimally or unprocessed fruits, vegetables and animal products. These macro and micro nutrients make up the calories you eat.
The fitness industry has created a way of eating that allows you to pull out certain foods in your diet on a daily basis that are going to be better for your overall wellbeing, and insert highly processed foods like Pop-Tarts, breakfast cereals or any other food high in processed sugar and fat. This is called IIFYM, and basically means if it fits in your macro and calorie range for the day, you can consume it. What it doesn’t take into consideration is all the micronutrients you are missing out on, and how eating processed food will negatively affect your health, especially if you include it in your diet regularly.
What happens when people decide to get in shape or begin a training program, they typically judge themselves. When they eat minimally processed foods, they tend to tell themselves that they have been “good”. When they eat highly processed foods, they tell themselves that they are “bad”. Instead of judging yourself based on the foods you eat, we should strive to get to a point where we can hear the natural signals our body sends us. This means we pay attention to the environment were eating in, if we’re eating out of emotion or to serve us physically and how we feel before during and after we eat. This can take time and MOST people will tell me they feel great eating a lot of junk food. This is not the case. Most people have never truly felt great, so getting them to that point will be the ultimate goal.
So where does counting macros come into all this? Counting macros is an excellent way to figure out what kinds of things you’re eating daily. Typically, people are either really heavy in carbs, or really heavy in fats. And believe it or not, there are even people in the fitness industry who are going way overboard on protein (strive for around .6-.8g per lb. of bodyweight to build/maintain lean muscle tissue). Tracking macros is something everyone should learn how to do, but it can also be an excuse to “fit in” foods that lack in vital nutrients (I was guilty of this many times when I discovered tracking macros). Not only that, but people will ignore their natural signals (bloating, acne, brain fog, loss of libido, poor sleep, energy crashes, heartburn, anxiety etc.) just because they enjoy the “high” feeling of eating something very sugary and processed. When you eat like this all the time, you tend to crave more processed food. This is not going to be advantageous for your physical or mental health.
The key when you begin to track macros, is to listen to how your body responds to certain foods. Each food you have down in your food-tracking app is an opportunity for you to assess how that particular food makes you feel. If you find that a certain food tends to trigger a negative body signal, that is something you will want to remove from your regular diet. A good example for a lot of people would be something like milk. Whole unpasteurized organic milk is something that is full of vitamin D, healthy fats (omega-3’s) and protein. But there are many people who cannot tolerate dairy, and get a very negative body signal from it (bloating, diarrhea etc.). This is one of the more common food intolerances, but there are many more. Typically, when you’re eating high amounts of processed foods, you have learned to ignore these signals and pass them off as “normal”.
There are many different macronutrient ratios you can follow to achieve your goals. Figuring out what works best for you is going to be the key in not having to always track food the rest of your life. It could take up to 30 days to realize how many calories (carbs, fats, proteins) your body needs to maintain its current weight and body fat percentage, and what foods serve your body best. When you figure out that number, you can manipulate calories through your food 300–500 calories in either direction to either gain weight, or lose weight. Obviously, our goal isn’t to just gain weight, or lose weight. We want to gain muscle (increase metabolism) and lose body fat. For this to happen in a sustainable healthy way, we will want to have a well thought out resistance training program.
Healthy fats are not the enemy, and neither are good wholesome carbohydrates. If a food has more than 4 ingredients, typically you will want to avoid it. Eating whole fruits, vegetables, seeds/nuts, meats, fish, and eggs and other minimally processed foods most of the time are going to be your best bet. Some people do better on low carb diets, high fat diets. Some on higher carb, lower fat diets. It is all going to be based on your goals, and how your body responds to certain foods. Typically, I’ll eat lower to moderate carbs, moderate to high fats, and moderate to high protein. I say this because eating the same exact number of calories every single day can have negative effects on your metabolism. Undulating calories has been a game changer for me. If I’m trying to lose body fat and my maintenance calories are at 3,000, I won’t eat 2,500 every day. Instead, I’ll have a couple days when I’m below that number, a day or two when I’m above it and then maybe a day when I’m right at it. The point is, at the end of the week when I add my calories and divide by 7, I’m still at that 500-calorie deficit for the week.
Tracking macros is an important tool to understand, especially when you’re trying to figure out what foods work for you, and which don’t. It should be used as a tool. Not an excuse to eat processed carbohydrates and fats. Remember that most of the time we should eat foods that serve us best physically, meaning out body signals respond in a very positive way to it. Typically, once you experience the positive effects of minimally processed foods, you’ll crave them even more than the processed foods because of how they make you feel physically. This does not mean we shouldn’t also feed our emotional/mental self as well. The body is all one thing. It’s not split like you see in your anatomy book. When Christmas time rolls around and your favorite cookies are on the table, or your out with your girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife, or your buddies you haven’t seen in a while want you to go out to dinner, enjoy these things! Enjoy the moments that feed your emotional self in order to be your best physical self. Don’t pass judgement, just simply realize you aren’t feeding your physical self and you may experience some negative body signals. Enjoying your time with the people you love and care for is much more important for your well-being than making sure the food your eating fits your macros.