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Flexible Dieting: A Guide To Counting Macros

You’re overthinking your diet.

If you aren’t, then somebody is.

You’ve done the Google searches. You’ve got excel documents saved with calorie counts and recipes. There’s a tracker on your fridge that you haven’t updated in weeks. You have color-coded food containers in your fridge labeled for days of the week. #mealprep right?

You may even have subscribed to a service that mails you unsatisfying portions of someone else’s idea of good food. Why are you eating someone else’s favorite foods? Have you even met that person? 

Look, everyone is overthinking the whole operation. Now read on, because Uncle CHOMPS is going to lay down some knowledge.

At the risk of losing all credibility, there is one shocking truth that needs to be exposed: you can eat the foods that you want.

Brace for another shock: you do not have to starve yourself.

Let’s address the first point first. What is your favorite cheat meal? Did you answer “celery?” If celery was your answer, then congratulations, you need to eat worse. That’s a good problem to have.

If you’re human, you’re still reading.

The name of the game is “flexible dieting.”

You may know it by its other label, IIFYM, which stands for “If It Fits Your Macros.” Each of these terms essentially tells half the story. The short version is that quantity of food intake is more important than the specific foods you eat. You move around during the day. You probably work out. You need to eat.

Flexible dieting is a relatively simple nutrition strategy. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less than you burn. If you want to gain weight, you need to do the opposite. Specifically, this is calculated in calories, and contains just a few added guidelines to observe.

You need to know your maintenance calories. You can calculate this yourself, or use an app like MyFitnessPal. Apps are preferable. Who wants to do more work? If you want to do more work, you can multiply your body weight, in pounds, by about 15 or 16. This will give you an idea of how many calories you need to maintain your existing body.

You aren’t here to maintain your body, though, one would assume. You have one of two goals: either slim down or bulk up.

If your goal is to slim down, you should try to eat less than you burn.

Don’t cut too much, or you’ll be starving yourself. In addition to breaking your poor mother’s heart, this can lead to other health concerns and isn’t conducive to overall fitness.

Try not to fall below about 75-80% when it comes to calorie intake versus calories burned. On the other side of the equation, of course, is exercise. You can always increase what you’re burning. When you spend more calories, you can eat more food. As far as calculating this, plenty of workout programs, such as P90X, give the participant a good idea of how many calories are burned in a given exercise. For the real numbers-enthusiast, you can get more specific measures by using a fitness tracker, such as a Fitbit. One could also try a treadmill or stationary bike, as many such machines include calorie counters.

For those looking to bulk up on muscle mass, you want to eat more than you’re burning.

Add about 10% more calorie consumption over the amount that you are burning. Go heavy (pun intended) on powerlifting and any type of high weight, low rep training. You’ll concentrate nutrition flow to your muscles, and avoid doing so much work that you burn mass, requiring obnoxious food consumption to meet your goals.

Obviously, the idea here isn’t to consume half your weight in Twinkies and forget about nutrition specifics.

You also need ice cream. Just kidding.

The thing is you CAN eat those things. Forget about dieting as some cookie-cutter list of five things you can eat, at specific times of day, on specific days. When you jump into a strict nutrition plan like that, you’re going to get cravings. Cravings lead to cheating, sliding, and eventually abandoning your diet altogether. Counting macros isn’t a temporary plan, and it isn’t a diet. Counting macros is your new lifestyle. It’s time to learn how to cheat the right way.

What are “macros?”

This is the nickname that the fitness community has given to “macronutrients,” which are the three nutrients that should be present in any healthy nutrition plan. These three nutrients are protein, carbs, and fat. You read that right. No more eliminating certain foods from your life. Every food falls into at least one of these macronutrient buckets. This means you can eat anything, as long as the numbers fit your target, and still be on your way to a healthier body.

“If It Fits Your Macros.” Get it?

Unlike other diets that focus on staying under a certain number, you are now aiming to hit a target mix number of proteins, carbs, and fats. Eating less is not the key here. The key is eating what your body needs.

Each of the three macronutrients has a role in your fitness.

  • Protein lays the foundation of building bones and muscles. It is vital for tissue growth and repair. Foods that are high in protein make you feel full more quickly, because they slow digestion.

  • Carbohydrates have gained a bad reputation in recent years, but the right kinds of carbs are very important in a balanced diet. Carbs break down in the body more slowly than other macronutrients. This slow breakdown regulates blood sugar and energy level. Under-eating carbs can lead to less energy and focus.
  • Fats. The “F” word. Uncover your eyes and ears, because fat helps us feel full after a meal. After eating foods that contain fat, our bodies have a harder time breaking down the food, so the process of digestion in the stomach is drawn out. This helps to control hunger between meals. Healthy fats also give your metabolism a boost. Your metabolism helps to break down body fat. This may seem counterintuitive, but without healthy fats, our bodies would burn more lean mass. You want lean mass.

So we now have a general idea of how to calculate the amount of calories you need for your specific fitness goals. However, we still haven’t gotten you away from counting calories and into counting macros! A macronutrient has a calorie value to it. Generally speaking, a gram of fat contains about 9 calories. A gram of protein or carbs will contain roughly 4 calories.

This doesn’t mean that a person who needs 2,000 calories should just consume 200+ grams of fat. The key here is balance. Let’s explore the target levels you should be aiming for, specific to your fitness goals.

  • If you are trying to slim down, eat about 1.2 grams of protein, and about 0.2 grams of fat, per pound of body weight. Get the rest of your nutrition from carbohydrates.
  • If you are trying to bulk up, instead eat about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, and about 0.3 grams of fat. Again, carbohydrates should make up the rest of your diet.

Do not forget about vitamins and minerals.

You want to be at 100% of those recommended numbers daily. You might shave a minute off your mile run time, but you aren’t any good to anyone if you get the flu. Eat those fruits and vegetables. They’re good for you!

Now, we get to the best part. You can cheat. You can cheat often. Each day, make sure that about 80% of the food you eat is healthy and clean. If you want to cheat with an item or two daily, that is completely acceptable. You can lose weight while eating cupcakes. Keeping yourself happy with one or two less-than-natural items per day will help you avoid cravings and stay on track to achieving a better body. Avoiding losing your mind is just gravy. Speaking of which, you can now eat gravy again.

This wouldn’t be the CHOMPS Official, Comprehensive, All-You-Need-To-Know, Killer Blog for Everything Nutrition and Healthy Living if nobody mentioned how paleo, grass-fed meat snacks fit into all of this. You want to eat protein before and after a workout. This helps your body maximize everything you’re doing for it in your fitness regimen. Have you ever gone for a long run only an hour or so after a burger? What about a sweet powerlifting session with a sausage pizza in your stomach from earlier? You want the dead weight outside your body and up in the air, not sitting in your belly. Grab a CHOMPS on the way to the gym. They’re good, good for you, natural, and won’t slow you down.

Use your cheat meals on something else. You have more room for that now. For the rest of your day, there’s CHOMPS.