The End of Fad Diets: How Counting Macros Will Change The Way You Eat Forever
“If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”
― Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
Before you hit the road on a trip, the first thing you have to do is find out where you relative to your destination, that way you can figure out the best way to get where you’re going. In fact, when you’re driving is pretty amazing to think that everyone on the road started from a different point and is going to a different destination.
In a similar way, we’re all travelers on the road of life. We all have different goals when it comes to our careers, our love lives, and even when it comes to fitness. And we’re all starting at different places.
Which is exactly why we aren’t fans of cookie-cutter nutritional approaches and fad diets; regardless of the success that people may have had using them, these diets don’t take into account individual starting points and goals, and is the very reason why many people fail with these approaches.
Picking up from a previous article where we discussed what metabolism is and how it affects your efforts to lose fat and gain muscle, we’ll now discuss how to figure out how much food you need to eat for your individual needs and goals. If you haven’t read that article, stop what you’re doing and go there right now. If you don’t read that article, you might not believe some of what I’ll say later on and you’ll miss out on the best part of counting macros: being able to eat whatever you want.
Oh, you’re back. Well, let’s keep going.
Beyond The Food Pyramid
Since the early days of grade school, we’ve been taught about the food pyramid.
The foods on bottom two levels of the pyramid are carbohydrates, the next level up are mostly proteins, and the top of the pyramid is mostly fats.
“Macronutrients,” referred to from here on out simply as “macros,” are these same basic elements of food: proteins, carbs, and fats.
Each of these three macros provides a specific and unique function, and will all help you to reach your goal in different ways.
Macros: It’s What Bodies Crave
Protein: Taking in sufficient protein will help build muscle and prevent muscle loss during periods of caloric restriction, like during a diet. Protein also requires the body to work harder during digestion via the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF); about 20% of the calories that come from protein is consumed in digestion. High satiety is also one of the benefits of protein, keeping you feeling fuller, longer.
It’s mostly found in meats, and to a lesser extent in legumes (beans) and dairy products. Because protein is mainly found in meats, getting enough protein, especially if you’re on the go, can be a bit of a challenge. Protein shakes are a convenient and inexpensive way to hit your protein requirements no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
Carbs – Carbs (starches and sugars) are turned into glycogen and then stored in the liver and muscle for later use. Glycogen is also the primary fuel source for the brain, which is why low carb diets can leave many feel lethargic. It’s found in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, packaged foods and drinks, and just about everything delicious, making it the easiest macro to come by.
Fat – Fat helps with vitamin absorption, cognitive functions, and hormone production. In fact, saturated fat is vital for testosterone production (I’m looking at you, fellas). It’s mostly found red meat, dairy, fatty fish, nuts & nut butters, oils, as well as packaged foods. Like carbs, fat is the fairly easy to come by… maybe a little too easy, in fact.
Macros Are Calories Are Macros
All calories come from macros, and each macro has its own calorie value. Protein and carbs both have 4 calories per gram, and fat has 9 calories per gram. That’s important to know because, gram for gram, fat has almost double the calories found in protein and carbs. This means that fat calories will sneak up on you very quickly.
We can think of calories as a budget, and each macro as a necessary expense like housing, utilities, and credit cards; bills that have to be paid no matter what.
The size of the caloric budget is determined by the metabolic demand placed on your body, or simply put the stuff you do on a daily basis. The more stuff you do, the more calories you can eat to maintain your weight (yes, maintain. Not “lose.” We’re getting there). This is known as the basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Additionally, BMR is impacted by other factors, such as age and weight. This is why the BMR of every person is unique. It’s also why it’s almost impossible to know what a person’s exact BMR is without getting it tested by a doctor.
Have no fear.
We’ll provide you with some easy-to-use guidelines to calculate what your body needs. No need to make a doctor’s appointment or fighting with your insurance company about co-payments.
We aren’t real doctors, we just play them on the internet.
Before we begin, it’s important to recognize that these guidelines are merely jumping-off points. Based on your starting point, goals, and progress, you can make minor adjustments as you go along, and we’ll detail how to do that later.
Using the multipliers below, we can get an estimate of the number of calories you would need to reach a specific goal.
Maintain weight (Basal metabolic rate): Multiply your current body weight x13
Fat loss (caloric deficit): Multiply your current body weight x10
Muscle gain (caloric surplus): Multiply your current body weight x13, and add 500 calories on training days.
So, a person that weighs 165lbs., who is fairly sedentary and is looking to lose fat would eat 1650 calories. That’s their caloric budget. Also note that the 10x multiplier is a bit on the aggressive side when it comes to fat loss; that means that fat loss should come fairly quickly. However, using a multiplier of 11 or 12 would also work, just slower.
Next, we’ll talk about how to split those calories by macronutrient for individual goals.
Macros, Math, The Metric System, and You
Things might get a little hard to understand but just stick with this. This information might change your life. There’s a little bit of math involved, as well as the dreaded metric system.
But, like I said, have no fear. We’re going to try to break this down as easily as we can.
For the purposes of looking great naked, protein is the most important macronutrient. A good starting point for all goals is to set protein intake, in grams, to your current body weight.
Using the same example above, a person who weighs 165lbs. looking to lose fat, build muscle, or maintain their weight would eat 165 grams of protein. There could be reasons to raise protein intake during a severe calorie restriction or a specialized muscle-building phase, but this is a good starting point for most people.
As mentioned earlier, fat is necessary for several processes in the body, including hormonal functions.
As a rule of thumb, get no less than 50g of fat consistently every day. This amount could even be higher depending on preferences and total available calories. Women also tend to do better on higher fat diets.
Remember that carbs are the primary fuel source for your brain and muscle; they’re vital for athletic performance, and overall mental well-being.
The remainder of your caloric budget can be spent on carbs.
Putting It All Together
Using the example of the 165lb.-person mentioned above, a fat loss diet could look something like this:
165lbs x 10 = 1650 total calories
1 gram of protein/pound of body weight (165 grams) x 4 calories = 660 calories
1650 total calories – 660 protein calories = 990 calories remaining
50 grams of fat x 9 calories = 450 calories
990 remaining calories – 450 fat calories = 540 calories left over for carbs
540 divided by 4 (number of calories/gram) = 135 grams of carbs.
When you add it all up, you’d have:
- 165 grams of protein
- 50 grams of fat
- 135 grams of carbs
- And a total of 1650 calories
It’s important to note when setting up a fat loss diet, total calories matter most, followed by protein. This means that the remaining 990 calories (after subtracting protein) can be broken up in whichever way makes it easier for you to stay at or below 1650 calories/day. The breakdown above can also be followed for maintaining weight or gaining weight, so long as you’re using the right multiplier for your goal. However, those wanting to build muscle should prioritize carbohydrates over fat while never going below 50g.
Using MyFitnesspal, a free online food diary, you can search for food items using their extensive food database. And if you download the app for your smartphone, it even has a barcode scanner, making tracking even easier. MFP will keep track of your food intake and add everything up for you. Easy as pie (which you can also track).
The best part about this approach? You can eat just about anything you want.
I told you you wouldn’t believe me. And that means that you didn’t read the article. Naughty, naughty. If you did read the article, you’d know that science has shown that weight is gained or lost based on how much we eat, not what we eat.
Tracking Progress and Making Adjustments
Track your weight using the same scale and under the same conditions. Preferably first thing in the morning, right after using the bathroom, and before you eat or drink anything.
Fat loss isn’t linear. This means that some days, the scale will say that you’re losing weight and other days it will say you’ve gained weight. However, if over time the scale is trending downward, you’re on the right track.
Remember, however, that your body weight is changing, so your BMR is also changing. In the case of fat loss, a loss of 10lbs. would lower your BMR by 100 calories (10 lbs. x 10 [fat loss multiplier] = 100 calories). You’re going to have to drop calories a bit to your progress going.
Protein intake is non-negotiable, so you’ll have to subtract those 100 calories from either carbs or fats. Just remember the importance of not going below 50 grams of fat per day for too long.
Keep an eye on the scale and the mirror. If things are changing in the right direction, great. Make adjustments every time you lose 10lbs.
If the scale isn’t moving, try dropping 100 calories, track your progress for about two weeks, and see if that helps. If not, drop another 100 calories and try again.
That was a lot of info.
Congratulations for making it this far. You deserve a high five!
You deserve the highest of fives!
This topic is pretty dense, and we appreciate you making it this far. We also understand a lot of people hate math. That’s OK, we can do it for you.
Our motto is “We Do All The Thinking – You Make All The Gains”, after all.
Think you’re ready to create your own nutrition plan? Comment below with your numbers, and we’ll check them out for you!
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