Note: I have divided this topic into 2 posts in an effort to make it more digestible, especially if you’re unfamiliar with flexible dieting. This first section discusses the principles behind dieting and weight loss, introduces macronutrients and macro tracking, and discusses some of its benefits. The second section addresses how to determine your calories and macro breakdown and my own personal experiences with flexible dieting.
Increasing public interest in health and wellness has resulted in an explosion of readily accessible information on how to ‘get healthy’ and ‘achieve your ideal body’. Despite having so much free information just a click away, it can be very overwhelming trying to wade through the sea of often conflicting advice and determine what is factual from the latest attention-grabbing gimmick. This creates an ideal environment for companies to claim that there is some magical weight-loss secret only they have the answer to. Weight loss supplements, extracts from ‘exotic’ fruits that melt fat away, wraps that magically make you skinny, diet teas, the list goes on. If we’ve discovered the secret to easily losing weight and keeping it off, why do new products keep coming out? There are big bucks at stake. Knowledge is power and the diet industry thrives on misinformation.
Enter: flexible dieting or ‘if it fits your macros’ (iifym). This evidence-based style of eating emerged in response to the extremes of the dieting industry, showing that the main determining factor for weight loss is ‘calories in vs calories out’ and you can still achieve your goal physique while eating foods generally off limits to dieters, provided you hit your macronutrient targets. But this ‘diet’ isn’t all about eating poptarts at every opportunity. Allow me to clear up some of the confusion and give you a brief introduction into the principles of flexible dieting and how you can get started.
Why most diets work (in the short-term) for most people:
Essentially all diet plans rely on the same principle; creating an ‘energy gap’. If you want to lose weight, you have to decrease the calories you’re consuming and/or increase your energy expenditure. If you’re taking in fewer calories (less energy) than is needed to sustain your current body weight, you’ll lose weight. If you’re in-taking more calories than are needed, you’ll gain weight.
Different diets go about this in different ways but the principle is almost always the same; eliminate or reduce consumption of processed, nutrient-poor foods and choose instead lower calorie and more filling foods. Most people will lose weight when they go on a diet, at least initially, because they’re reducing the number of calories they’re consuming. If your weight is stable and you’re eating an average of 2,000 calories and then you go on a diet and eat an average of 1,400 calories, you will lose weight. Your body previously required 2,000 calories to maintain its size so dropping 600 calories means your body will now reduce in size to accommodate this energy deficit. It’s not a magical property of the specific foods you’re told to eat on that diet plan, it’s the result of eating fewer calories than are needed to sustain your current body weight. There are no magical weight loss foods. The calories in quinoa don’t somehow not count because it’s a ‘healthier’ food than white bread.
This is, admittedly, an oversimplification. Your metabolism isn’t static; it changes in response to how much you’re eating, the type of activity you’re doing, your hormones, stress level, thyroid function, etc. I’d also like to point out that even though ‘calories in vs calories out’ is the key factor for weight loss, there are most definitely better ways to go about dieting than others. Weight loss can be, and often is, accomplished in very unhealthy ways that do far more harm than good and are completely unsustainable. When embarking on a weight loss plan, the ultimate goal should be to improve your health and longevity. Crash dieting on really low calories and eating nutrient-poor foods will not serve you as well as eating mostly high quality proteins, healthy fats, and micronutrient-dense foods will. I just want to drive home the point that you don’t lose weight by eating ‘healthy foods’, you lose weight by being in a negative calorie balance. While flexible dieting doesn’t address the health benefits of specific foods, what it does do is enable you to track and manipulate the number of calories you’re taking in so you can be consistent without being overly restrictive or having to eat the same foods all the time.
There are also dieting strategies, given the same number of calories, which enable you to lose more fat than others. Research shows that concentrating carb intake vs spreading it throughout the day, varying or cycling carbohydrate intake throughout the week, and minimizing your ‘eating window’ (intermittent fasting) are superior ways to manipulate your diet to maintain a leaner physique. I almost always employ some form of one or more of these techniques when strategizing client’s diet plan. Discussing these techniques is beyond the scope of this post but I felt it worth mentioning as people will often try these techniques with limited success because they’re still overconsuming calories, ignoring the fact that ‘calories in vs calories out’ is still the most important factor when it comes to body composition. You will not successfully lose weight employing these strategies if you don’t have your calories in check.
What are ‘macros’ anyway?
Macros or macronutrients are the protein, carbohydrates, and fat that make up the calories in all foods.
1 gram protein = 4 calories
1 gram carbohydrate = 4 calories
1 gram fat = 9 calories
1 gram alcohol = 7 calories
You can calculate the calories in foods if you know the grams of macronutrients they contain by multiplying the grams of carbohydrate by 4, protein by 4, and fat by 9 and adding them together.
Fat: 8 x 9 = 72
Carbs: 37 x 4 = 148
Protein: 3 x 4 = 12
Total Calories: 72 + 148 + 12= 232 (rounded to 230)
Is “if it fits your macros (iifym)” a diet?
No. There is no specific iifym/macro tracking diet. Tracking your food intake without manipulation will obviously not help you lose weight. It simply quantifies what you’re eating and allows you to make sure you’re being consistent while affording you the flexibility to choose a style of eating that works well for your body, preferences, and lifestyle. You can eat paleo, vegan, ‘clean’ foods, do intermittent fasting, or not adhere to any specific style of eating and track your macros.
Flexible dieting gets a bad-rap sometimes because people post photos of themselves eating pop tarts, chocolate bars, and ice cream sundaes and people assume that it’s an unhealthy diet that encourages the consumption of highly processed, nutrient-poor foods. The truth is, if you have well set-up calorie goal and macro goals, it will be virtually impossible for you to eat this way all the time and hit your target numbers. Your diet will more than likely be comprised largely of what are considered ‘clean foods’, e.g. lean proteins and vegetables. In contrast to ‘clean eating’ diets where many foods are totally off-limits, flexible dieting simply affords you the freedom to add in some discretionary foods that aren’t typically considered ‘healthy’, while still hitting your numbers and working towards your goals.
What tracking macros teaches you:
1. Which foods are predominantly protein/carbs/fat:
Most people don’t have a good understanding of the macronutrient composition of their food. I get asked all the time if bread is bad because it’s ‘just carbs’ but the same people assume that eating unlimited fruit is good for weight loss. When these people track and see the breakdown of the foods they’re consuming, they’re often very surprised that the banana they ate has the same amount of carbs as the slice of bread. To qualify, I am not saying that these two foods are ‘equal’, I’m saying that for weight loss, carbs are essentially carbs, whether they’re in the form of bread or fruit. Tracking foods and looking at the breakdown allows you to remove some of the labels attached to foods and understand that they’re all comprised of varying levels the same 3 macronutrients.
2. How many calories are in foods
Most people are very surprised by where their calories are coming from, e.g. that Starbucks banana loaf they had with their coffee that added 400 cals to their day and did almost nothing to fill them up; the extra 250 calories of vegetables oils their restaurant meal was cooked in. Tracking macros is a valuable tool because it helps you remove some of the guess work when deciding whether or not something is a good choice, based on your goals.
3. What you’re actually eating in a day
It’s a big eye opener for people to see how the foods they eat throughout the day add up, as most people have no clue what and how much they’re actually eating. Are you over-eating? Under-eating? We’ve all heard, “eat more protein” but what does that really mean? Are you actually getting enough? Tracking your food intake allows you to see how much protein/carbs/fat you’re actually consuming. This awareness is a lasting benefit of macro tracking that eventually allows you to eat more intuitively.
4. Removing the guilt
“Quinoa is a ‘good’ food and ice cream is a ‘bad’ food”. What does this even mean? Foods are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, these are just labels we’ve attached that, unfortunately, very often come along with feelings of guilt. Of course it’s not going to serve you well to eat a chocolate bar for every meal but foods should be considered in the context of your overall diet, not in isolation. When you track a food and are able to see the calories and macronutrient breakdown, it helps you to remove some of the attached emotions. Soft serve from McDonald’s is mostly just carbs, like an apple is mostly just carbs. If you control for calories, your body will not magically store the ice cream as fat. In the context of a diet that has adequate fibre, good quality fats, and lots of nutrient-dense foods, enjoying a cone with your friend will not derail your progress. It is very possible to lose weight and have a healthy diet while ‘fitting in’ these foods once emotions and misinformation have been removed from the equation.
5. Avoiding unnecessary restriction
On every single diet on the planet, your weight loss will eventually stall. As most diets don’t explain how to proceed when this happens, people are left wondering what to do. What foods should you now cut out? What should you do to kick-start weight loss again? When dieting, you need to drop calories but you should never just plummet to starvation levels. Always aim for slow and consistent weight loss and make as small a deficit as is necessary to lose weight. Tracking what you’re eating allows you to do this in a more precise way and can help to prevent unnecessary food restriction. If you’re someone who tends to get fixated on whether or not you’re doing the ‘right thing’, this can really reduce your stress. You can also be sure that if you’re consistently hitting your numbers and not seeing results, it’s simply time to modify and continue.
6. You can have a life and still reach your goals
Good news, you don’t have to bring your Tupperware of chicken breast and asparagus to the restaurant on date night. With your new-found knowledge you can look at the menu options and make a selection that fairly closely fits your macros. You also have the freedom to modify your earlier meals and enjoy a more calorie-dense meal out without feeling guilty that you’re ‘cheating’ on your diet. In some ways moderation is more challenging than staunchly adhering to a restrictive plan, at least in the short-term, but it’s ultimately far more sustainable. The effectiveness of a diet lies in your ability to sustain that diet and maintain your results, not achieve temporary weight loss.
How to get started:
Luckily, flexible dieting has been made extremely easy by the rising popularity of macro-tracking apps. These apps have a huge database of foods stored so you can simply search and select and the breakdown is done for you. You can even scan in barcodes for a food to be entered automatically, manually enter a food if it doesn’t happen to be there, or input your own recipes. Here are a few popular apps;
You’ll also need to purchase a food scale so you can accurately track your foods. Weighing your food helps you to get used to serving sizes and it doesn’t take long before you can fairly accurately eyeball portions (although weighing will always be more accurate). You can purchase a food scale at kitchen supply stores, Walmart, Canadian Tire, etc. They’re also relatively inexpensive; the one I currently use cost me $15 and I’ve had it for about 3 years.
A lot of people find macro tracking a little overwhelming at first but don’t let your apprehension deter you. Initially you need to devote a bit of time to planning out meals, practicing adding up foods to hit your numbers, and finding accurate foods to track. Like anything in life where you’re trying to develop a skill, it’s a learning process but the knowledge you gain is worth the time-investment. Figuring out which foods are mostly protein/carbs/fat, how many calories are in the foods you typically eat, how to spread your protein throughout the day, how to space out your meals, etc. can take a bit of time to figure out. If you stick with it, it will quickly become second nature. Most people don’t spend more than 5-10 min/day tracking their food when they’ve been doing it for a while.
Part 2 – The next post will be the practical application section where I delve into how to determine your maintenance calories and set your macro numbers for weight loss. I also discuss whether or not macro tracking is actually necessary, how to determine if it’s right for you, and my personal experiences with flexible dieting and how it has helped me. Stay tuned!