We have all seen the hashtags #flexibledieting #iifym #macros #macrocounting with pictures of buff people hoeing into giant burgers and doughnuts. I would forgive you in thinking it means “eat whatever the hell you like, coz you lift, bro!” Don’t believe that what you see on social media happens every day! Sure, if you’re macro counting, you can fit dirty meals into your day. However, I’ve done bodybuilding, and if you ate like that you wouldn’t get far!
Also, don’t believe that bad press. I’ve heard trainers scoff at macro counting while handing out meal-plans that are tailored from a specific macro count!
It seems to be one of those topics dividing the health and fitness industry, yet the negativity tends to be focused on misconceptions.
What is “If it fits your macros” or “macro counting”?
Flexible dieting is a way of understanding your daily food intake based on three macros: Proteins, Fats, and Carbs. Macros can be measured in calories or kilojoules- they are energy. Almost all whole foods combine a combination of these in different ratios.
Besides oils and fats, only processed products can contain only one macro. Most people would consume the right balance of macros if they just ate whole foods in the correct portion sizes. However, the reality is we are faced with so many different processed foods that are easy to access combined with confusing nutritional information. This is where flexible dieting helps to guide the way.
In the Beginning.
Macro counting starts with understanding that each macro plays a different role in the body, and not all foods under each macro are created equally. This is a very simplified breakdown:
I am sure you are aware that meat contains protein? Also eggs and fish? Protein powders would be one of the most widely used supplements. However, grains, legumes, nuts, and dairy are also good sources of protein. Protein plays a vital role in repairing and building tissues in the body.
Without sufficient total calorie intake, the body will start to break down muscle tissue to fuel its other functions. Without adequate protein intake, the body will struggle to repair itself, and over time will result in reduced lean mass and strength.
Fats are a little more complicated than protein, and the body copes with different fats differently. You do need to consume some healthy fats because they are essential to the immune system. Healthy fats come from foods like olives, olive oil, avocado, salmon and nuts. Saturated fats usually come from animal sources but can come from plants- i.e. palm oil.
Saturated fats are considered harmful because the body finds them more challenging to break down into usable energy. The body will store them far more readily. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature, whereas most good fats require refrigeration to become solid. Fats slow down the absorption of protein and carbs, that’s why a high-fat meal can make you feel sluggish afterwards.
Carbs are probably the most dynamic macro. They range from extremely fast absorbing to slow. Sugar is a refined simple carb, fruits naturally contain simple carbs. Simple carbs are fast digesting. Complex carbs come mostly from starchy vegetables like potatoes and from grains and foods made from grain. These are generally slower absorbing but can vary considerably.
For most people, around half of their macros will be carbs. They are the preferred source of energy for the body, and the body will use them for energy before it uses fats. The bloodstream delivers carbs around the body in the form of glucose. Simple carbs hit the blood fast as they need very little processing, whereas complex carbs will take much longer. The brain is a large glucose burner, so even people using a high fat keto diet still need to consume some carbs.
How to manage macro counting.
A flexible dieter will set daily goals of total energy intake, and what percentage will come from each macro category. They will probably use an app to calculate for them. A flexible dieter will have a rough plan of how much each meal will contain but can easily adjust on the fly if something disrupts the program. They will often meal-plan and meal prep to save time. And can enjoy a wide variety of foods and can easily adjust to taste and season.
In theory, you could make up your day with doughnuts and protein shakes, but that gets boring after about one day! Ideally, macros will come mostly from a variety of whole foods which will also deliver daily vitamin and mineral requirements.
When I found flexible dieting.
I discovered flexible dieting while competition prepping after following a meal-plan from a trainer. Following a meal-plan was instrumental in me learning how to meal-prep and identify what kind of portions were appropriate for my fitness goals. However, without variety and the ability to choose my own food, I began to feel restricted. I also experienced unnecessary anxiety when things disrupted my plan- like when my housemate ate my final portion of broccoli, and only found out after the shops were closed!
When I stopped working with this trainer, I was searching for a more sustainable way of planning my nutrition. I didn’t want to feel restricted. Because I still had specific health goals, free eating within The Healthy Eating Pyramid wasn’t appropriate. Flexible dieting was the answer.
I use MyFitnessPal to track my food and calculate recipes. I have daily macro goals, and I know roughly how many calories I need in each meal to feel satisfied. Some of the recipes that I use go together in the right ratio, but they have room for substitution so I can bulk prep most of my food. I can easily make adjustments round sporting events, social events, after a particularly gruelling gym session or even after taking a muffin and coffee with an old friend.
The most important thing is I eat healthy 98% of the time. I enjoy my food, and I’m also eating a wide variety of whole foods, so my nutrient intake is high. Yes, I can eat doughnuts, but I know what is inside them. But believe me, the small size and flavour do not justify the high saturated fat and sugar content!
If you are someone that works well in the kitchen, enjoys food and are prepared to do a little learning to use an app then flexible dieting should work well for you.
If that isn’t you, but you want to eat well, then try and stick with whole foods on The Healthy Eating Pyramid. For those that have more specific health and fitness goals, but using an app isn’t right for you, then a dietitian will help you with a particular meal plan that meets your macro and micro requirements.