A Beginner’s Guide to Counting Macros (Fats, Carbs, and Protein)
Pop Tart Diet…
Eat What You Want (If It Fits Your Diet) Diet...
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of them before.
You know, those fancy diets that you just don’t quite understand...
...the diets used by those same friends of yours who post (daily) pictures to their social media with, what looks like, about 147 pre-made meals for the week ahead.
Here in 2016, and soon to be 2017… there are several different names floating around the fitnessphere for this type of diet.. err, lifestyle… but they’re all referring to the same general idea:
More specifically, “If It Fits Your Macros”.
We’ll dive into this IIFYM Diet shortly, but real quick…
How many of you have heard of a “macro”?
If you have, great!
If not… keep reading while we give you the low down over the next couple minutes.
Regardless of where you’ve heard the term, whether it be in a health or nutrition class, or from overhearing some squat rack chatter in the gym…
The term “macro” is actually a shortened version of the word “macronutrient”.
And can be defined for all intents and purposes as:
“Any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts by living organisms for the use of energy, growth, and bodily functions, in particular: carbohydrate, protein, fat, and minerals, such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.”
The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Carbs and proteins provide 4 kcal per gram, while fats provide 9 kcal per gram, which is almost twice the energy density of the other two macros.
For the sake of this guide, we’re going to focus on these three primary macronutrients:
- Proteins; and
Simple enough, right?
All-in-all, the concept of IIFYM, or “Flexible Dieting” as it used to be called, is simply a method of dieting that revolves around the objective of consuming daily macronutrients intake goals.
It’s not so much focused on what you eat to get there (hence, the “Pop Tart Diet” name above).
To elaborate, the goal is to plan your daily meals in a way that provides you with the exact number (in grams) of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, based on your goals.
In a sense, IIFYM is a form of calorie counting, where “All Calories Are Not Created Equally”.
It’s this all calories are not created equally concept that has the nutrition and fitness worlds in a fuss over whether or not the IIFYM diet is really effective or safe.
Well, the notion is that:
As long as you hit your daily macro “targets” every day, the foods you eat to hit those targets won’t negatively affect your body composition (or health).
In other words, your carbohydrate source could come from sweet potatoes or potato chips, your protein from lean ground turkey or fatty ground beef, and your fats from avocado or cookies, so long as “it fits your macros”...
...you’ll still be able to reach your goals of losing fat or building muscle.
If this sounds crazy to you, you’re not the only one.
Welcome to the world of IIFYM
At face value, the very thought of being able to trade sweet potatoes, lean turkey, and avocados for potato chips, fatty ground beef, and cookies…
... and doing so in a way that allows you to lose fat or build muscle… should be enough to pique your interest.
Before diving more into how to build your IIFYM diet, we’re going to backtrack a few steps, to help you to better understand how all of this works in such an efficient and flexible way.
First, the topic of energy expenditure.
All weight loss and weight gain, in its simplest form, comes down to “calories in vs. calories out”.
Makes sense, right?
If you take in more than you burn off, you’re going to retain more each day… causing weight gain.
However, if you’re burning more than you’re taking in every day, you’re going to see a calorie deficit… resulting in weight loss.
A “calorie” can be defined as:
“The amount of energy required to heat up one kilogram of water one degree celsius”.
When your objective is to lose weight (fat, in particular), you need to feed your body less calories (energy) than it burns every day.
When this happens, your body must get the energy it needs from another source.
That source is the body’s fat.
So, for the sake of discussing fat loss: “a calorie is a calorie, regardless of where it comes from”.
Which means, yes… you could literally lose fat, effectively, by eating nothing but Hostess cupcakes, Little Debbie snacks, Doritos chips, sugary cereals and Oreos.
Don’t believe us?
Just ask Professor Mark Haub, Professor of Human Nutrition at Kansas State University, who lost a total of 27 pounds in two short months by eating one of these sugar-packed snacks every 3 hours, instead of hearty meals.
The science is clear. If you want to lose weight, simply follow these simple steps:
- Calculate how many calories you burn each day, on average
- Eat 20% less than that each day; and
- Keep yourself in a caloric deficit
If that’s all there is to it, then why count macros in the first place?
A calorie may be a calorie when we’re talking about weight loss, but when it comes to “body recomposition”, the idea of losing fat, while maintaining (or even gaining) lean muscle mass, it’s a whole different story!
It’s when your fitness objective gets a bit more complex, that the macro counting plays more of a factor.
Why should you track your macros?
We'll go right out and say it…
...counting your macros is more effective than counting calories.
Sure, cutting 500-1000 calories out of your diet may help you lose weight.
But, if you load up on fats and carbs in those calories that you can still eat, your weight loss efforts will be very tedious and slow.
A calorie counter will tell you if you’ve eaten 400 calories, while a macro-counter will help to decipher whether those 400 calories were from a piece of pizza or from a bowl of fruit.
Counting macros is much more specific than calories.
In fact, counting macros is what all those magazine articles and internet ads that claim, “Eat all your favorite foods, while still losing fat every week!” come from.
What Can You Eat on the IIFYM Diet?
This is where IIFYM gets more interesting.
Some people swear by this acronym, while some people think it's ridiculous.
Either way, it works, if you establish your baseline, and stick with it. Consistently.
To explain it simply, by counting your macros and fitting them into whatever your needs are, you can maintain a diet filled with more of the foods that you love to eat.
BUT, take that with a grain of salt.
Yes, this can mean that you’re able to crush those pieces of pizza or that rice Krispy treat or that pop tart that you love so much.
However, only if those macros are available within your daily limit.
It’s also important to remember that:
“Not all fats and carbs are created equally.”
To expand on this, let's break down the 3 macronutrients:
“Carbs” are the macronutrient required in the largest amount by the human body.
When broken down, carbs provide the largest source of energy to fuel daily activities.
Carbohydrates can also be stored as glycogen, which is a converted starch stored in the liver and deep muscle tissues.
This glycogen can be accessed later as a source of energy whenever needed.
Carbs help to:
- Provide energy to the body
- Keep blood sugar low
- Help in the removal of bad toxins through body waste
Carbs can be broken down into two simple groups; complex and simple.
Complex carbs take longer to break down.
They are much more nutrient-dense and are primarily found in fruits, veggies, oats, potatoes and whole grains.
Simple carbs, on the other hand, are basically sugars that break down very quickly.
They can be used as a quick pre-workout snack or post-workout snack to replenish the body after it has burned through the stored glycogen stores.
Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram.
After digestion, protein is broken down into amino acids.
These acids are the building blocks of proteins that help to then produce new protein enzymes.
Various proteins are arranged in varying combinations of up to 20 amino acids.
Amino acids help to:
- Grow and repair muscle tissue
- Support optimal immune function
- Provide energy to the muscles; and
Proteins contain 4 calories per gram.
Not all fats are bad.
Actually, some of them are required for certain human functions.
Fats help to:
- Supply the body with fatty acids, such as omega-3 acids (used to promote heart health)
- Absorb vitamins and minerals digested from food; and
- Regulate hormones that control blood pressure
There are also three basic types of fats that you should be familiar with.
It’s this information below, where we expand on the notion that “not all fats are created equal”.
The three types of fat include:
This type comes from animal products, for the most part, such as:
- Milk; and
- Certain oils such (coconut oil)
When counting your macros, it’s best to limit your saturated fat intake as best you can.
These fats are often found in:
- Vegetable oil; and
- Nuts and seeds
Unsaturated fats help to lower heart disease and promote blood flow, primarily.
When counting your macros, unsaturated fats should make up the majority of this section.
Now… onto the “bad fats”.
Trans fats are commonly known as the worst type of fat for you.
They are most commonly found in processed foods and have been shown to be correlated in the development of multiple different heart diseases, health symptoms, and increased cholesterol levels.
Limit these fats as much as possible.
Dietary Fats contain 9 calories per gram.
So, How Many Carbohydrates, Protein and Fats Do You Need?
Well… it all depends on what your goals are.
- Do you want to build muscle? or;
- Do you want to lose fat?
It’s important to note that everybody requires a 100% unique set up when it comes to IIFYM Dieting, because everybody is coming from a different starting position, with completely different end results in mind.
But, here’s a starting guide:
If you are trying to lose weight, the recommended starting point is 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body mass throughout the day.
For example, if you weigh 200 pounds: you should eat 100 grams of protein per day.
200lbs x 0.5 grams = 100 grams of protein per pound of body mass.
If you are trying to gain muscle, consider eating 1.0 - 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body mass.
For example, if you weigh 200 pounds: you should eat 200-300 grams of protein throughout the day to build lean muscle.
200lbs x 1.0-1.5 grams of protein = 200-300 grams of protein per pound of body mass.
If you are trying to lose weight, the recommended starting point is around 0.5-0.75 grams of carbs per pound of body mass.
For example, if you weigh 200 pounds: you should be eating 100-150 grams of carbohydrates throughout the day to build lean muscle.
200lbs x 0.5-.75 grams of carbohydrates = 100-150 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body mass.
If you are trying to gain muscle, consider eating 1.0-2.0 grams of carbs per pound of body mass per day.
For example, if you weigh 200 pounds: you should be eating 200-300 grams of carbohydrates throughout the day to build lean muscle.
200lbs x 1.0-2.0 grams of carbohydrates = 200-300 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body mass.
If you are trying to lose weight, the recommended starting point is right around 0.4 grams of fat per pound of body mass.
Remember: fats are still required so you can't just completely cut them out.
Your body needs them.
For example, if you weigh 200 pounds: you should be eating 80 grams of fat throughout the day to build lean muscle.
200lbs x .4 grams of fats = 80 grams of fat per pound of body mass.
If you are trying to build muscle, consider eating 0.5-0.75 grams of fat per pound of body mass.
These fats will help as stored energy, but also will help with better blood flow within workouts.
For example, if you weigh 200 pounds: you should be eating 100-150 grams of fat throughout the day to build lean muscle.
200lbs x 0.5 x 0.75 grams of fats = 100-150 grams of fat per pound of body mass.
Measuring Your Macros
We listed the desired macros for each macronutrient, depending on whatever your health goal is.
To better measure, count, and track your macros, we recommending finding an online macro-Counter.
We have created an extremely helpful and simple IIFYM calculator you can use to better go in depth about the numbers you should try to hit each day.
Macro Counting Conclusion
There you have it, the basics of counting your macros!
We are all human here, so we understand that you may not always perfectly reach your macro goals every single day.
This is okay.
Stay disciplined, but also realize that it’s okay to fall short or go a little over on your macros every now and then.
For best results, do your best to shoot for a range of +/- 5-10 macros of each daily goal for each macronutrient.
The process will become much easier over the span of a week, as you'll see a specific food and think to yourself:
"Oh, I can totally eat that. It's about 68 grams of carbs, 14 grams of protein, and 8 grams of fat."
With all this newfound “food freedom”, comes the responsibility of not just going out and replacing any and all “clean” foods, with unhealthy replacements just because you can!
At the end of the day, your long-term health should always be your first priority.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, we would love to hear about your experience with the IIFYM Diet after reading this article!