It’s everywhere, or so it seems.
Flexible dieting – also known as counting macros or ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ – is a way of counting macronutrients to achieve body composition goals that has recently gained traction as a way to lose weight while eating “whatever you want” as long as those foods fit within your set macros.
But what makes up flexible dieting? Let’s break it down, including what macros are, and the pros and cons are of flexible dieting.
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients are nutritional compounds the body needs in large amounts. They include protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Each one serves a different purpose within the body.
Carbohydrates are formed from sugars and starches and are responsible for supplying the body with a significant source of energy as the it breaks down carbs the easiest of the three macronutrients. Carbs supply the body with glucose, its primary fuel source, and then a whole series of events happen to convert it into ATP, a form of cellular energy. Unused glucose is stored in the liver and as body fat to be used later.
Carbs get a bad reputation thanks to the likes of the Atkins Diet and the Ketogenic Diet, but carbs are good. Not all carbs are created equal, however. Complex carbs found in food sources like sweet potatoes, apples, quinoa, and beans take the body longer to digest and tend to keep one feeling fuller longer. Simple carbs such as sugar and corn syrup are found in sodas and pre-packaged foods which tend to be less nutrient dense and higher in calories. Simple carbs are digested quicker by the body and can spike blood sugars while complex carbs general lend themselves towards more stable blood sugars.
One gram of carbs equals four calories.
Proteins are the building blocks of the body. All proteins are made up of combinations of twenty different amino acids which the body breaks apart and combines to form different physical structures. Amino acids are used to build new proteins for cellular functioning, as an energy source, and as a building material.
Of the twenty amino acids, nine are essential, meaning the body cannot create them so they must be taken in through food. The other eleven are nonessential and can be consumed via food or synthesized by the liver. Like carbohydrates, one gram of protein contains four calories.
Fats also get a bad reputation, but your body needs fats to stay healthy. Adequate amounts of fat supports hormone functioning, insulates the nerves, and promotes healthier skin and hair. Fat also helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, and adds flavor and texture to food. Fat is also an energy reserve as it is the body’s preferred method for storing unused calories.
There are three primary types of dietary fat – saturated, unsaturated, and trans. Saturated fat is found in meat, butter, cream, and other animal sources. Unsaturated fat is available in olive oil, nuts, avocados, canola oil, and other plant source and trans fat is found in commercial products like snack foods, fast food, and margarine. It’s trans fat consumption that should be minimized as studies have shown it increases risk of coronary heart disease and obesity.
A gram of fat is equal to 9 calories.
How To Track Macros
The first step to determine macros. There are numerous calculators available online and apps like MyFitnessPal will also give a breakdown. I highly recommend working with a nutrition coach or registered dietitian to determine macros, however, as they tend to need to be tweaked to find what works and the ratio of carbs/fats/proteins often depends on what goals a client has. A client who wants to bulk or is an endurance athlete may need more carbs, for instance, while a client looking to lose fat may need higher protein.
Tracking macros can be as easy as logging meals in MyFitnessPal or a similar app and monitoring how many grams of each macro has been consumed and what’s left for the day. It can be as complicated as spreadsheets and in depth meal planning and prep. Keep in mind that it is necessary to measure and weight everything in order to be 100% accurate with macros.
Pros of tracking macros
Flexible dieting is a proven method for reaching body composition goals such as losing fat while maintaining muscle when combined with a calorie deficit. It can also help with muscle gain when combined with a calorie surplus. Elite athletes such as CrossFit Games athletes and the likes of Michael Phelps track macros to properly fuel their body for performance.
Some may find the “if it fits your macros” approach to help them feel less restricted when dieting. They can “fit” a cookie into their day if they so choose, as long as they have an adequate number of appropriate macros left to do so.
Cons of tracking macros
Tracking macros correctly involves a lot of planning as well as measuring/weighing all foods, right down to the splash olive oil in the pan when cooking dinner. Some may find this kind of tracking to be difficult and time consuming. Others have reported that counting macros causes them anxiety around food. They stress about whether they have enough protein left for this, how to fit in that lunch date without blowing all their carbs.
While the “if it fits your macros” attitude can bring food freedom to some, others may find themselves using their macros on foods like pizza and ice cream as opposed to whole foods. While these foods may fit their macros, they may also be less nutrient dense than other food sources such as whole grains and lean proteins.
Is flexible dieting for you?
Should you be counting macros?
I recommends macro counting for clients with specific body composition or performance goals who have demonstrated success with nutrition practices such portion control and following the 80/20 rule (healthy choices 80% of the time). I can help you establish what your macro split looks like and then make adjustments week-to-week as needed.
For the vast majority of clients, I recommend more lifestyle-centric approaches to nutrition such as focusing on portion sizes, eating enough, and choosing whole foods most of the time. Macro counting should be considered a more advanced form of dieting when goals have shifted to performance or aesthetics.
Hopefully this piece provided insight into what macros are and the pros and cons of flexible dieting. Have questions? Email me!
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