Tracking macros has become very popular in the past decade, and for a very good reason.
People tend to lean towards extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes diet and training, and IIFYM (if it fits your macros) was the answer to extremely restrictive contest prep diets.
Many in the bodybuilding world thought that you needed to eat a very strict meal plan of fish, broccoli, and rice to get lean. But then flexible dieting or IIFYM emerged, showing them that if you just account for quantity without eating strictly “bro foods” you can get lean with more variety and while still including some processed foods.
But as IIFYM gained popularity, it got more and more extreme… to the point where you’d see people fitting in as many pop tarts, ice cream treats, etc. in their diet as possible, as long as they hit their protein, carbs, and fats.
The reality is, there’s somewhat of a spectrum of the perception of clean eating vs. flexible dieting vs. IIFYM:
→ Clean eating meal plans take a much more strict approach to food quality and food choices, with very little room for substitution or processed foods.
→ IIFYM is more of a free for all as long as you hit your macros.
→ Flexible dieting tends to be viewed somewhere in the middle.
Now, in the short term IIFYM is great because you can still get lean. And for many, it’s freeing to be able to include these foods that you didn’t think were an option for so long.
But it’s important to understand that we should swing too far towards this end of the spectrum, becuase eventually there are repercussions to a low quality diet.
There’s an important balance that needs to be struck between quality and quantity.
You still need to hit your macros, even with perfectly “clean” foods to lose body fat… but you’ll eventually pay a price with your health and physique if you don’t also have a good of quality foods, and hit your body’s micronutrient needs as well.
Believe it or not, the sources of your calories can have an impact on the “calories out” side of the equation, and make a difference in your fat loss.
One reason for this is the thermic effect of food (TEF). Each macro has a range of percentages of its calories burned through digestion.
Whole, unprocessed foods tend to actually burn more calories while being digested, while processed foods tend to burn fewer.
In this study, the thermic effect of food was compared between two meals, one “whole foods” meal vs. one “processed foods meal”.
The processed foods meal burned 10.7% of total calories in digestion, whereas the whole foods meal burned 19.9% of calories in digestion.
Another similar anecdote is that peanuts or almonds will have a higher thermic effect than peanut butter or almond butter, respectively.
The processing (grinding) of the nuts means your body just does a little less work to break the food down during digestion, and requires less energy output (calories burned) to do so.
This definitely isn’t to say that you should avoid processed foods, but focusing on mostly whole foods can equate to burning a lot more calories through TEF over time (and make getting/staying lean easier).
Getting a little too flexible with nutrition can also lead to slow fat loss progress is due to tracking inaccuracy.
→ PERSON 1: Tries to fit lots of exciting meals into a fat loss phase… so they make an oatmeal dish that has 15 separate ingredients and requires several steps to make. (If you’ve seen the IIFYM instagram accounts you know this isn’t a stretch.)
→ PERSON 2: Has the same macro target for the meal but is eating oatmeal, blueberries, and egg whites.
In this case, person 1 has 15 chances to mis-measure an ingredient. Person two has 3.
Another factor is the variability in packaged foods vs. whole foods.
Anything in a package has allowance of up to 20% to be off on their nutrition label.
That means if each thing you eat is underestimated by 20%, a day you thought was 2000 calories could actually be 2400, which is plenty to take you out of a calorie deficit, or from maintenance to a surplus.
Higher calorie dense food is also just easier to get off by a significant amount of calories.
If you mis-measure your broccoli by 10% that’s a difference of 1-2 calories. If you mis-measure your peanut butter by 10% that’s 20 calories.
Multiplied over the course of the day that can start to add up to a significant amount.
One of the most common culprits for mis-measurement on a diet that’s a little too flexible is eating out.
Meals out are just never going to be as accurate as a meal made at home.
The main objective of a restaurant is for the food to taste so awesome that you want to come back. The way they make it taste awesome is…sugar, fat, and salt.
These things aren’t bad, but sugar and fat are highly palatable and highly calorie dense. The more calorie dense, the more difference it makes to your macros when the cook doesn’t measure out the oil and butter exactly (which they rarely do). Even at the most highly controlled restaurants like a chain, each person will make the food differently.
The most popular example is Chipotle, where one day Stephen can give you a tiny scoop of rice (Dammit Stephen) and the next day Stephanie gives you a heaping scoop. They don’t care about your macros.
Now, we’re absolutely not saying to never include calorie-dense food, processed food, or completely avoid meals out. Just that you need to be aware of these things, so if you aren’t seeing results that seem to match with what you’re logging, you can strip things back to a more simple meal structure and start to see progress again.
The most obvious downside to a highly processed diet is you’ll be hungrier than necessary, especially when dieting. If you include plenty of nutrient-dense whole foods you will get more food volume per calorie, as well as more fiber (both of which will help keep you full, longer).
Alongside the missing fiber content in a nutrient-poor diet, a lot of highly processed foods are actually created to intentionally make us crave more and more of that food.
In fact there’s an entire book written on this subject called The Dorito Effect.
Makers of the Dorito and several other similar foods employ food scientists that work hard and spend lots of money to find just the right ratio of crunch, salt, sweet, etc. to make your brain tell you to keep eating.
Being more hungry on a consistent basis in a fat loss phase makes it harder to adhere to the plan.
With our online clients we encourage them to work foods in here and there when there is a craving or a special event, but for the most part to keep things to 80-90% whole foods.
That way you have the satiety of more filling whole foods, but the flexibility to include reasonable amounts of other things for satisfaction.
On the other hand if you go to the extreme end of eating only whole foods, you may be more full but you can lack satisfaction in your diet which also makes adherence more difficult.
You probably could already guess that eating more nutritious food leads to improved health.
While just creating a calorie deficit and living at a healthy body weight goes a long way in improving certain health markers like cholesterol and blood pressure, there is more improvement when comparing an diet with calories equated that also has plenty of the right kinds of foods.
You also might not know that improving your health status will improve body composition, even at the same macronutrient intake.
One reason for this – your food quality has an affect on things like performance and sleep.
If you are eating something that makes you feel great, you will have better training performance which over time leads to better body composition.
Eating something that makes you feel sluggish or impairs recovery won’t have the same outcome in training performance and recovery even at the same macro numbers.
The same principles apply to sleep. There’s a whole blog post on sleep here, but as a recap of the blog, the better you sleep, the more fat you’ll lose and the less muscle mass you will lose.
Micronutrient status and food choices also play a large part in hormone production which has a downstream effect on blood markers and body composition.
For example, if you are not taking in enough potassium you will have higher blood pressure.
If you aren’t getting enough zinc, iodine, or selenium you will have impaired thyroid hormone output.
If you have lowered thyroid hormone output or conversion you will have negative effects at every cell since every cell has a thyroid hormone receptor.
You will also have a lower basal metabolic rate than expected, which can lead to either weight maintenance when you’re trying to lose fat, or weight gain at what you would expect to be a maintenance intake.
So once you understand you need to include plenty of micronutrient dense foods while still hitting your macronutrient targets, you can start to build your flexible meal plan to reflect that.
When you’re building your own flexible meal plan (full blog post on how to build your own here), you can make sure you are hitting all your macronutrient and micronutrient needs by following this step by step:
1: Start out by setting the number of meals that work best for you – For most people that will be between 3 and 5. If you’re focusing on performance be sure you’re having a meal before and after training.
2: Plan protein sources first – Protein tends to be the hardest thing for people to hit.
If you plan this piece in first you know you’ll be hitting that number. Plug in your protein source for each meal, and then check your protein total for the day. If it’s short, look at each meal and see where the weak spot (the meal with the least protein) is so you can increase the portion size there.
Use protein sources that digest well for you. For some that may exclude dairy or red meat, for some that will exclude chicken or eggs (but these are absolutely not things that need to be avoided for most). Try to get a variety but focus on what works for your body.
3: Plan in vegetables and fruit next – If you go for produce next you’re prioritizing micronutrients in these foods. We see a lot of people skip fruits and veggies after they fit in the other foods they prefer the taste of they “don’t have room.”
Build these into the foundation of your meals. We like to recommend the 5 ‘S’ meals (borrowed from Dr. Jade Teta):
→ Stir Frys
All of these meals start out with a foundation of protein and produce, and have at least 2-3 servings in each meal. If you’re having a hard time including plenty of produce in each meal I highly recommend using some of these each day.
4: Fill in the rest of your carbs – Once you have your protein and plants in the flexible meal plan, check how many carbs you have left to fill in your macros. Similar to protein, use carbs you digest well. Some great options are oats, potatoes (any color), rice or any rice product like rice cakes, cream of rice, or puffed rice cereal.
5: Fill in the rest of your fats – This comes last for two reasons:
a.) Fat is usually the smallest proportion of your macronutrients
b.) Fats can be mostly filled up with just the trace fats in protein and carb sources.
With whatever fat macros you have leftover you can add sources like nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish oil, or avocado.
6: Make sure you’re using salt, herbs, and spices that give your food good flavor and nutrients such as sodium and potassium, plus other compounds that improve health i.e. curcumin in turmeric.
Upon working through these steps, you’ll have a set of meals that:
→ You enjoy the taste of
→ Digest well
→ Hit your macros
→ Hit your micronutrient needs
I like to just stick to this flexible meal plan I have set until I get sick of it, with rotating dinners to have with my family. For some you may want to have options a. And b. For each meal slot, OR you may want to create a new meal plan each week that you’ll stick to for 7 days.
However you choose to do it, having this planned out ahead of time will help you make sure you’re getting in plenty of high quality food in the right quantity for your goals, and you’ll know which proteins and plants to grab from the grocery store because you know what meals you’re cooking.
If you’re currently stuck in a cycle of searching for the most palatable foods and disregarding nutrients, you will notice a significant difference in how you look, feel, and perform after a couple months of eating this way.
If you need help setting up a meal plan for yourself, understanding what could be missing from your diet, or just getting consistent enough to see the results you want, click here to schedule a free discovery call with our coaching team.
Andrea Rogers is a certified nutrition coach, personal trainer, and coach for BairFit. Follow her on Instagram for more helpful training & nutrition content.