By now you’ve probably heard about the wonderful world of If It Fits Your Macros, and you’ve probably seen a number of Facebook, Instagram, tweets, Tumblr pics of people eating donuts, Lucky Charms cereal, and ice cream with the hashtags #IIFYM and #gainz. Those pictures are followed up with a quick pic of their 6-pack abs or PR’ing their back squat. Let’s face it, IIFYM is everywhere these days.
If you follow me on Instagram, I, to a lesser extent, do it too. My journey of IIFYM is constantly taking new turns and twists, and as I had mentioned before, IIFYM is the only sustainable way I’ve been able to lose weight, continue to maintain my weight, and gain muscle over what’s now almost 9 months. But, with macro counting comes a number of intended and unintended consequences. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, some of it has resulted in habits forming, and some of it has resulted in useful life information. So, to put it all together, I thought I’d outline my experience so far in learning what macro counting is, and how it’s impacted my life.
For anyone who needs a quick refresher on what macros are, they’re carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. In reading The Renaissance Diet (1), they do a wonderful analogy:
…if muscle is the car, protein (or rather the amino acids that compose it) is/are the metal out of which the parts are built.
If protein is like the metal composing car parts, carbs are like the gasoline. ”
And fats, well, fats just taste good. But fats provide cushioning for organs and joints, act as a secondary source of energy, and help us to continue maintaining growth and development. And just to be clear, fats don’t make you fat. Eating foods with zero nutritional value makes you fat. No matter what your macro percentages are (and they can change depending on what your goals are), the fundamentals about macros don’t change. Ok. Moving on.
Good Things About Counting Macros:
1. Food awareness. Pretty obvious right? You learn that your fully loaded Chipotle burrito is over 1000 calories, and is mostly sodium and fats. You also learn that 1/4 cup of raw almonds sets you back 180 calories, and has almost 15 grams of fat. One of the things I learned through counting macros was that everything you eat goes against your macro allocation. So, the 5 Hershey kisses I ate at my desk because I was bored has an impact on my macros. Also, the amount of protein in 1 cup of shredded chicken has significantly more protein than one Progenex Recovery shake. You also start learning things like what an equivalent of what 1/2 cup of rice looks like relative to your hand – unless you’re like me, and you have small hands and have to adjust 🙂 In any case, food awareness and education is one of the most beneficial things I’ve learned as part of my macro counting experience.
2. You lose weight (if that’s your goal). As I had mentioned, using macro counting helped me shave off weight last year, and it was incredibly effective. I’ll pause and say that this assumes that your macros are calibrated correctly, which is a whole other post and one that probably requires an expert and not a #n00b like myself. If weight loss is your goal, you adjust your macros to avoid undereating and catabolism aka your body eating itself and eating muscle. By adjusting your protein and carb macros, you give your body the opportunity to burn through fat, resulting in weight loss. But, couting macros also works if you’re trying to put on muscle, maintain what you’ve already got, or at a minimum, give you the opportunity to figure out what your body responds to whenever you have a goal in mind.
3. You get really good at grocery store buying and meal preparing. One of the unintended consequences of counting macros was me becoming more efficient with my grocery store buying. I’m not even lying, I love going to the grocery store. It’s therapeutic, and I am in “do not disturb” mode while I’m there. Before macro counting, I’d walk into Whole Foods and start perusing down the aisles, pick up whatever came to mind, and then it’d sit in the fridge/bin for the week, not get used, and need to be thrown out by the end of the week. By figuring out how to maximize the amount of protein/carbs/fats I need, I can plan my grocery list ahead of time. Wanna know how I found out about all of those chicken recipes? Counting macros. The whole chicken recipe helps me for at least two weeks and solves any gaps in the event I end up falling short of my protein, rice I’ve made ahead of time helps me for my carbs, and nut butters help me for my fats. All very useful information when it comes to going to the grocery store.
4. You get to live it up a little! It’s true in a sense that you can eat donuts, ice cream, chocolate milk, whatever is your Achilles heal on IIFYM. You can also avoid being the person at the dinner table who requests every possible exclusion from a menu item. I have no medical issues when it comes to gluten or dairy (I have a terrible reaction to sea urchin, some types of fish, and strangely, melons), but I would constantly be the person who would ask to “hold the cheese, no bun, dressing on the side, is there soy in that?, and can I have a side of avocado?” For my friends who are still my friends, thank you for dealing with me. Being an SF foodie, I would have serious guilt trips when I’d go out for ramen, cheesecake, the late night tapas meal, a glass of wine, or fried chicken. But, as long as I knew what my macros were leading up to those meals, I am able to enjoy everything freely (and in moderation, of course).
5. You treat all food the same. After being on the Paleo kick for so long, I viewed all bread/grain/dairy items as evil. Eliminating things like cereal in the mornings was beneficial, but I wasn’t getting carbs through other and more nutritious foods. Ultimately, I was overcompensating my carb needs by eating WAY too many fruits, not enough vegetables, and a significantly ridiculous amount of fats via nuts. By allowing certain breads/grains and dairy back in, I no longer feel “restricted” in the sense that I can’t have things without feeling shameful. My mornings and sometimes afternoon snacks now include a little bit of Greek yogurt, brown or white rice for my carb refuel post-workouts, and happily taking down one of my most favorite and beloved foods of all time without any guilt – pizza. Food no longer is “evil” and as long as I have the macros space to do it, I can eat freely and eliminate the stigma of “clean eating”.
Bad Things About Counting Macros:
1. Eating crap food. So, while eating donuts is permissible, eating a donut every day because it fits your macros isn’t. The context around eating good, wholesome and nutritious foods is where macro counting is most effective. So, while it might look like eating pizza works for lunch, and a donut for after dinner, neither of these food items provides you with the right nutritional content you need for optimal performance (and you’ve probably exceeded your intake in other categories like carbs or sugar). Treating yourself to something like a cheat meal is good, but just because it fits in your macros doesn’t mean you should consider it part of the diet.
2. The devil is in the detail. I’m a numbers person and I’m a planner. What happens to me more often than not is that I sit down for my week, start planning my meals out and start consuming myself with how I’m going to squeeze in 2 grams of carbs, 5 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fats after planning out the rest of my main meals for a day. I literally drive myself crazy trying to balance everything out, all while staying with the caloric parameter I’ve set for myself. The objective at the end of the day is to optimize your body by giving it what it needs – not obsessing over the minutia. This is probably the one thing I have against IIFYM and macro counting. I tend to get too obsessed with meeting my macros and less on what I should be eating and how I’m feeling.
3. You’re still annoying. So, rather than being the individual who excludes things while ordering at the restaurant, you’ve now morphed yourself into the person who weighs things on a food scale (true story, I know people who bring a food scale with them to dinner. As a food & fine dining person, that borderline offends me, but whatever – you do you), keeps measuring cups and measuring spoons at their desk (see above), and is overly annoying about needing to know how many grams or ounces are in things. It’s annoying and overwhelming to deal with, especially if all you want to do is enjoy your plate of food that someone painstakingly put together for you to enjoy.
4. Guilt still exists. At some point, you run out of macros to eat. You’ve eaten your cup of ice cream topped with Golden Grahams, and you’ve eaten your shredded chicken, olive oil salad, and steamed vegetables. But you’re still hungry. For whatever reason, be it hormonal, psychological, a hard workout or whatever, going over your macros because you ate a bag of popcorn looks/feels scary when you’re staring at MyFitnessPal and see nothing but negative signs in red (why do they use red? It feels like elementary school when you’d get a math problem wrong and the teacher corrects it). So, even if things do fit your macros, you still have guidelines and parameters to adhere to, and it still brings on the psychological issues of being in compliance with a so-called “diet”.
5. Reliance on other people’s numbers & data. I’ll admit, I love snacking. I’ve got Hobbit-like tendencies; I like having a second breakfast. For all my tracking in MyFitnessPal, snacks are one of the hardest things to log into the system. The other day I had a cookie from someone’s nicely put together cookie basket. I honestly didn’t have time to go through the process of weighing said cookie, understanding what might be in it, and whether it was a chocolate cookie with almonds or a chocolate cookie with hazelnuts. I honestly really didn’t care. I ate it on the spot. In going back through MyFitnessPal, if you search “chocolate cookie with nuts,” you get a universe of data. Frankly, some of the data in MyFitnessPal sucks. If you’re a user, type in “Chipotle Guacamole” and see how many results come back. It’s actually sort of comical. Who knew that Chipotle’s guacamole had so many ways to divide up calories and macros. In any case, unless you’re making all of your own food from all of your own recipes, you are relying on your fellow users to provide good and useful data. The point of MyFitnessPal is to utilize a database full of nutritional information to help you track your macros, but if that data isn’t any good, it sort of defeats the purpose. I personally like the “scan” feature of MyFitnessPal, but I’ve even seen inconsistencies in using that.
So, there are equally good and bad things about doing something tedious like counting macros. It takes a lot of diligence, planning, and stopping yourself from going too far away from the objective, but if you can rein it back in, it works. I love it, and I find it to be a happy medium with enjoying a healthy lifestyle that factors in what my body needs, but also having the ability to go out for dinner and enjoy a lot of life’s little luxuries (like dessert). If counting macros seems like something you’re interested in, I recommend talking to one of your coaches or finding a nutrition coach first. One of the challenging parts about counting macros is actually determining your macros and sticking with them. But, as I’ve outlined, there are good and bad reasons to consider this approach to nutrition for fitness. If you have questions, shoot me a comment or an email: lisa at stilettostosnatches dot com.
(1): Israetel, Dr. Mike. The Renaissance Diet. 1st ed. Vol. 1. 2014. 106. Print.
(2): Cagney, Krissy Mae. Flexible Dieting: A Guide to Macros & Eating for Life. 1st ed. Vol. 1. 2014. 28. Print.