Macro based diets are pretty common inside of the nutrition world right now (have been for the last few years, at least).
But is it “The Key” to transforming your body composition? Go to any fitness influencer’s instagram, shuffle through our blog or podcast, and even check out our testimonials… you’ll likely hear or see some talk about macro based diets, in some way, shape, or form.
Is there a reason for that? Absolutely. They work. Macro based diets create success.
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And realistically, everything does boil down to macros (or calories) on some level, whether you realize or purposefully organize your’s or not.
Which is why today, I’m going to break it down for you so you can finally know, understand, and implement a macronutrient specific diet that will create a successful transformation (be that fat loss, muscle growth, or performance enhancement – macros will help you achieve it).
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
What Are Macros? Do They Over-Rule Calories?
Macros, short for macronutrients, is a combination of 3 major nutrient groups that comprise our calories. As in, these 3 nutrients literally build up our energy balance and food intake. These 3 nutrients are Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats.
Our energy balance, more commonly known as calories, is the biggest contributing factor to physical change. This is what determines whether we’re in an energy (calorie) deficit or surplus; deficits lead to more energy going out then coming in, creating fat/weight loss, and surpluses lead to more energy coming in than going out, creating fat/weight gain (also, muscle growth).
“So if the real key is having the right energy balance… why do macros even matter?”
Common question and the honest truth is that in some scenarios, they actually do not matter. Many studies have shown that if calories are equated, macros do not matter. More often, if calories AND protein is equated/set at proper levels, carbs and fats do not matter.
This means that someone can follow a low fat/high carb diet or a low carb/high fat diet and see amazing fat loss results, assuming they’re adhering to a caloric deficit over time.
So they do not over-rule calories by any means. But they make up calories, which is why it’s important to understand what they are, where they’re found within food, and when you may need to consider paying more attention to them than just overall calories (more on that shortly).
The big key here is that you need to know what they are:
PROTEIN – Protein is the macronutrient that is primarily required for tissue repair across the whole body. It’s arguably the most important nutrient we consume, given that it’s not only an essential nutrient (required for life) but it’s also the most satiating, has the highest TEF, helps build and maintain muscle mass, supports performance recovery, and is the most difficult (often literally almost impossible) nutrient to store as body fat, even when in a surplus. For more on protein, read this free article here.
CARBOHYDRATES – Carbohydrates are the primary nutrient requirement for performance, energy, and most forms of work output. This means that your body and brain use carbohydrates to support the nervous system, muscular system, and even the brain – yes, the brain requires glucose to think. Carbohydrates also have some added roles within the hormonal system, metabolic system, and all forms of performance, as they’re literally our body’s stored fuels source to train. To learn some more things about carbs you probably didn’t know (but should), read this free article here.
FATS – Fats are here for far more purposes than storing on our body as a source of insulation, so you don’t need to avoid them! Fats are here to support our endocrine system (hormones), nervous system, and bodily inflammation (especially joints). Like carbohydrates, they also contain micronutrients that are very important. Carb sources arguable have more, given that produce (fruit and veggies) are carb dominant foods. But fats have some of the most vital nutrients for total body inflammation.
I look at these 3 macros, like this: Protein is here to help us recovery, Carbs are here to help us perform, and Fats are here to help us live long.
Do Macros Actually Work? If So, Why?
Short answer – Yes.
Long answer – Yes, because they take your personal caloric intake (energy balance), which is required in order to see serious physical change, and individualize it to your personal needs; training, metabolic history/makeup, adherence/preferences, timeline, social life, and more.
This is why I often tell people, “Macros are not a diet, they’re a dietary individualization tool.”
Tracking macros works extremely well as a dietary protocol because of these 5 main things:
Flexible dieting is a popular buzzword and oftentimes it’s mistaken with IIFYM (“if it fits your macros”), which is more of a free-for-all in terms of food selection and quality, as long as your macros and calories are met by the end of the day.
Flexible dieting is the principle of choosing your foods, in order to hit your macros, without ruling out the undeniable fact that whole foods hold more micronutrients within them and they’re of high demand to the body in order to promote health, longevity, and adherence to the diet.
But that’s the key, we can accomplish both health AND freedom of food when practicing a flexible dieting approach, which is basically saying “tracking macros”.
If we track our macros, aiming to hit specific targets laid out for us personally – we can fill our protein, carbs, and fats with foods we enjoy, that still help us create health and longevity. Now this may seem obvious, simple and obsolete – but many people chasing fat loss assume that there is a specific list of food groups required in order to achieve success. They often have already followed a restrictive diet plan, requiring them to eat boiled chicken, white rice, and green beans, out of plastic containers, on a daily basis – assuming that THOSE foods lead to success.
The reality? Those foods allow them to hit their macro needs.
Meaning, if they switched the chicken for turkey, fish or steak… they’d be fine. And if they wanted oats or potatoes, or even wonder bread for that matter, instead of rice – they’d also still be fine and achieve fat loss.
Flexibility is choice and using a macro-based diet allows us to have that.
The more you train, the more likely you’ll need carbs.
The more sedentary you are, the less carbs you’ll need.
The more muscle tissue you have, the more carbs you’ll need to maintain that muscle mass.
The more body fat you have, the less carbs you’ll need (really, just calories) to support losing that fat.
The point here is simple and can be looked at as a scale of fuel demands – pushing your body physically, requires energy (calories). But within that caloric/energy-demand theory, we know that it preferentially desires carbohydrates for that fuel and energy.
Why? Well, because carbs are glucose and glucose is converted into glycogen, which is stored within the muscle cells and the liver in order to be used as fuel for the body and muscular system.
This means we may not literally need carbs to survive or train… but we damn well will thrive with it! So if we want to train harder or increase performance and strength, carbs are the go-to source and answer for that.
If we want to change the way we look, but truly don’t care about how fast, strong or explosive we are in the gym… guess what? We still need those carbs! Because fueling training to be faster, stronger, and more explosive is exactly how we will burn more fat and build more muscle.
Add to all of this, if we want to mentally perform better – we also need carbs, because glucose is the brain’s main fuel source as well. Some will argue that fat is a better fuel for this, and this can be true. However you oftentimes have to practice fasting or very low carb dieting in order to become fat adapted and achieve this.
That’s totally fine and can be done, but you also have to be willing to sacrifice performance and muscle. So it’s a game of pro’s and con’s, to decide which style of dieting fits your life and goals, more. Which goes back to the whole point here; macros allow individualization.
The least scientific and most overlooked, but without a doubt the most important within successful coaching practices.
YOU need to follow what YOU will be able to follow, long term.
So if you jump into a macro split that just doesn’t feel good, is hard to consistently adhere too, and you just tend to prefer the opposite (i.e. high carb vs. low carb or vice versa)… you need to switch things up and find something you can adhere too.
The reality here is simple; consistency is the biggest key driver in long-term success within dieting, therefore the most important factor in dieting (which macro-based plans allow) is adherence.
Inside of a smart coaching program, there is experience and knowledge on what macronutrients do. Not only from the start, but also how adjusting those things along the way change and dictate the results we see – and that’s the big key here.
There is a level of predictability inside macro-based plans. As a coach, I know what’s going to happen when we play with the different macros week to week and month to month.
It’s never a guarantee, because the metabolism and an individual’s body is different every time. So each adjustment is different and often produces a different results.
However, coaching hundreds and hundreds of people, while also studying and researching thousands of methods, research papers, and case studies, will give you a very solid way of tweaking to predict progress made.
This means that I can have a plan for this week, next week and next month. I can predict what will happen as consistency is nailed down and adjustments are made.
This is a massive key to success, because it allows us to create the path your body will take (towards success), rather than eating intuitively and crossing our fingers that it’ll work (because we’re guessing on intake, every single day).
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
Simple. Just like a budget plan or making investments, money doesn’t lie. Well, currency within nutrition is macros – it’s our way of tracking, recording, and analyzing the metrics that change physical change.
So tracking macros can allow us to eliminate the guess-work and determine not only WHY something is working well for you, but also why it may NOT be working – which gives us the information needed in order to tweak things and get it working again.
As long as you’re not lying to your coach about what you’re tracking, the system of numbers doesn’t lie and will allow us to dictate progress effectively.
What Is Ad Libitum Eating and Does It Work?
Ad Libitum means “at one’s pleasure” or “as one pleases” in latin. Within the dietary space, this basically means intuitive eating or eating as you get hungry.
It’s listening to your hunger cues and body’s biofeedback signals in order to determine what your intake should be.
In research, it’s often used as the control group. Meaning, we may have one group following Diet Protocol X while other is Eating Ad Libitum.
We control one group with a specific diet plan, while we let the other group eat as they please (or feel they need to eat). This allows us to better determine if the specific group’s diet plan is working or not, in some scenarios. In some studies this would have the opposite effect and we’d need more control than eating Ad Libitum.
But you get the point, it’s eating as you “feel” you need to eat, rather than having metrics and specific targets to hit.
So, does it work?
In most cases, no – not at all.
Think of it like this….
If someone is overweight and wants to lose weight, do you think they’re already following a tailored macro-based diet that puts them in a guaranteed caloric deficit?
No way, because they’re not losing weight. It’s obvious, right?
Eating Ad Libitum is literally what created obesity or being overweight in the individual in the first place.
Now, there are other cases where an individual is healthy and maintaining weight. If that’s their goal, to just keep maintaining their weight, then eating Ad Libitum is working perfectly well. But that’s also because they do not need to change anything, since they don’t desire to see change physically.
The last case to bring up is in the very advanced individual who can eat more intuitively and achieve successful physical change; Dr. Eric Helms is a great example here as he went through a successful bodybuilding prep while almost solely eating intuitively.
The caveat here is clear – here’s VERY advanced and has also tracked macros for YEARS, consistently. So the numbers of what he’s eating run through his brain like the matrix on a screen. So it’s unfair to say intuitive eating works generally, since this is a very specific and individual circumstance where his ability to be more aware of what is coming in is much greater than the average individual.
I’ll get into this more in the next section but the key in this scenario is that prior education and present self awareness is required.
Is Intuitive Eating The End-Goal? How Do We Get There?
This is how I look at tracking macros, theoretically, for about 50% of the people using them as a tool to see weight loss.
I say 50% because it’s common that about half of the people who embark down the macronutrient path, actually enjoy using them and it is not a stressor that is intolerable. Therefore macro-based diets actually DO become a lifestyle for them.
This is how I myself tend to be. Macros aren’t a burden for me and although I don’t track every single day, because there are times where I let go of the app and allow myself to enjoy my time being social with food – it’s not neglected for more than a single date night out or vacation away.
For myself and others who enjoy macro-based diets, as a lifestyle eating plan, it’s due to the control it provides you with over your diet.
And remember, this DOES NOT mean we’re dieting chronically – it means that we use macros to control how our body’s change over time. It allows us to better control our body composition, strength and performance, energy levels, and biofeedback (stress markers).
This means we use them to lose fat, maintain body weight, and build muscle. Goals change just like the seasons do, over the course of a year’s time. Therefore using macros continuously can be a lifestyle choice to make, which ALLOWS you full control over your body.
Now, no matter how much that makes sense logically – there are just always going to be individuals out there who do not like tracking macros and that’s absolutely fine. That’s exactly where the infographic above comes into play.
As you can see, it goes through stages:
→ Track Macros To Achieve Results
This is where you integrate the macro-based plan, in order to see drastic changes in your physique. You’ll follow this for a predetermined time, give or take a few months for hiccups along the way, that leads you to your end result.
→ Track Macros To Maintain Result
Ok, you achieved success… can you just throw tracking in the can? NOPE. You need to maintain that result, now, which means continuing to control and manipulate your intake.
→ Track Macros To Reverse Diet
Now you’ve achieved the goal and have maintained it for a short while, without making drastic changes – now it’s time to eat more, because you can’t stay in a deficit forever. At this point, we begin to slowly increase calories to what can be your new maintenance level intake while holding onto the result you achieved.
→ Transition To Intuitive Eating
This is the point where you slowly remove macros, because you’ve LEARNED how to fuel your body and what that actually takes for you to do, individually. This is usually best done by going from full macros, to just calories and protein, to just calories, to just tracking once a week, once a month….
So… is intuitive eating the end goal? For some, absolutely. I’d even go out to say, for most it is. For others, who are pretty engulfed into the fitness lifestyle or profession, tracking macros may continue to be a lifestyle plan.
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter… I always say, “What you eat doesn’t make me shit.”
Kind of a vulgar statement, but it’s true! If you want to follow X diet, by my guess. If you want to order the salad, do you. It doesn’t shouldn’t matter what each individual does as long as they’re happy and seeing progress.
Does intuitive eating work? As mentioned inside the discussion on Ad Libitum eating, no – it really doesn’t work effectively while trying to change the current state of your body composition. That’s the big key… to maintain what you already have? Yeah, it can work. But to create change, takes change – macros allow that change to not only occur, but to be systematic as well.
In the only contexts that intuitive eating really does work effectively, it’s after one has had prior self-education and awareness around macros, because it allows them to understand their intake on a much deeper level. That level is required for creating physical change without tracking your intake; but it comes from tracking your intake.
What Is The Validity and Accuracy of Tracking Macros?
The last thing I want to cover in today’s article, is just how accurate and valid macro tracking is.
First by saying that everything truly is an educated guess and estimation, if we’re being completely honest.
Is there incorrect data inside myfitnesspal? Yes, so don’t pick the first thing you choose.
Do food labels round? Yes, it’s quite large actually – about 20-25% margin of error on most. Because of this, it’s likely best to choose mostly unprocessed foods (foods without food labels).
Do all measuring tools equate? Not at all. 1 cup doesn’t always equal 128g or 4.5oz, which is why if you enter in a cup on myfitnesspal – use a cup to measure. If you want the most accurate measurement, use a food scale to measure in grams and select that in the app, too.
Are restaurants reliable for macros? No shot! But that doesn’t mean you should never eat out, it just means you should probably error on the side of measuring more than you actually intake to account for extra calories coming from unknown ingredients, oils, etc.
Do we know exact metrics on everything we consume? Nope. Think about that… is it logical to think that every 4oz chicken breast actually has 2g fat and 26g protein? That every scoop of whey is 25g of protein? No, but it is the absolute closest metric we can have – without a doubt – therefore it still trumps intuitiveness.
Do most people hit their numbers on target? Not really, in fact research often shows that ~30% of people mistrack their calories, even when consciously tracking their macros. Meaning it really is important to pay attention to what you’re measuring and taking in.
At the end of the day, nothing is perfect.
We know this.
But we also know, backed by hard evidence in countless research studies, calories matter and macros are the absolute best way to individualize an intake to create specific change in someone’s performance, recovery, biofeedback (stress/hormones), and body composition.
And it’s because of this that the vast majority of our clients DO use macros, at least at one point in time to ensure they’re seeing the desired outcome they’re after.
The last recommendation I’ll leave you with, is to download our free nutrition guide – The Nutrition Hierarchy. It’s the ‘All Inclusive Guide To Mastering Your Diet’ and goes much deeper than I can take you in this article. Click Here to Download and comment below if you have any questions.
Cody McBroom is owner and head coach of Boom Boom Performance. He’s a Strength and Nutrition Coach located in Seattle WA, but coaches people and other coaches internationally. His passion is helping individuals change their lives through body composition transformation, as well as creating content across all platforms to help individuals and other coaches learn more about how to apply the science of training and nutrition. Click Here Now to Apply For Coaching with Cody.