How-To: Track Your Macros (IIFYM a.k.a. Flexible Dieting)

Image source: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-Sys5vdIVsJ4/Uh_StNxnLSI/AAAAAAAACwQ/-6XvxkVTZPk/s1600/fe480cea0cb211e3bd6322000a1fa42a_7.jpgAlright.  You’ve heard about it.  You’ve seen the acronym a few too many times, and far too many photos in your Instagram feed of “bikini athletes” mowing their way through deep-dish pepperoni pizzas as part of their show prep.  If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) is a food/nutrition/diet movement that looks at food at the macronutrient level: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. P-C-F, in IIFYM short-hand.

Image source: http://itsvmfitness.blogspot.kr/2013/08/a-closer-look-at-iifym-if-it-fits-your.htmlThere is no more “clean” food vs. “junk” food or “good” food vs. “bad” food.  No more cheat days or treat days; no “earning” carbs or calories.  Food is food.  From an apple to an anchovy, a chicken breast to a Cheez-It, all food is comprised of the same three basic macronutrients (yes, there are also micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals to consider, but we’ll worry about that later).  The idea is that your body needs a certain personalized ratio of these three macronutrients for optimal performance and body composition.  Figure this out and then make small changes over time and you can reap lasting changes in your strength, physique and body composition.

This post is NOT about figuring out YOUR personalized macronutrient ratios.  There are other websites for that and frankly, that can actually be the easy part.  The harder part (as always) is putting information into action and taking the steps to actually eat the desired/required macronutrients in the run of a day (or week).  The only way to know whether you’re actually doing this is to TRACK WHAT YOU ARE EATING.  Everything you’re eating and ALL of what you are eating.  THAT is what this post is about.

What You Need – Tracking Macros

In alphabetical order (because I couldn’t decide what was most important/useful – you’ll likely find this mix of requirements varies day-by-day):

  1. Calorie-counter (book, website, app –  doesn’t matter – pick one and use it consistently)
  2. Consistency
  3. Dedication
  4. Digital food scale
  5. Discipline
  6. Empathy
  7. Honesty
  8. Measuring cups (accuracy is imperative!)
  9. Measuring spoons (accuracy is imperative!)
  10. Motivation
  11. Tracking tool (journal, spreadsheet, app, quill pen & parchment – again, doesn’t matter – pick one and use it consistently)
  12. Willpower (in varying degrees)

I was also going to mention What You Need – Tracking Progress (because why on earth would you track macros if you’re not hoping to see progress with one or more of the following: weight and/or body composition, i.e. body fat percentage and/or lean muscle mass; body measurements and/or strength?).  But I’ll save that for a separate How-To: Track Your Progress post.

How-To: Track Your Macros

  • First of all, before you even TRY to determine your personalized “macro ratio” to achieve your goals, you need to figure out what you’re doing in the base case.  This can be harder than you realize.  Even something as simple as keeping (or trying to keep) a food journal can be challenging to get full honesty, either because you legitimately forget or don’t notice certain food choices or portion sizes over the run of the day, or because you grossly under- (or over-) estimate your portion sizes OR because you instantly start eating a bit differently than when you weren’t trying to keep track.  This change is usually for the better, but it doesn’t show you what your true “base” case actually looks like.  Try to be honest and realistic.  Remember, this is an important snapshot of a point in time and NOT what you’re aspiring to (and it will be fun to compare back to in the future, when you realize just how far you’ve come).  Consider enlisting the help of a trusted friend, family member or colleague (or all three) to accurately record your intake.  If you’d normally have that second (or third or fourth) serving, go for it!  Just make sure you record it.  It’s going to take Motivation, Dedication, Discipline and Honesty to actually do this, and a Tracking tool to record it all.  Note that you do not need to invoke Willpower (yet)!  Try to do this for at least 3-4 days, and ideally up to 7.
  • Once you have a rough food journal, it’s time to get a little bit more information.  This is still in advance of determining your personalized “macro ratio.”  Now that you know what and roughly how much you eat on a regular basis, it’s time to get a little bit more definition on the “how much” part.  I’m going to throw a random statistic out there without backing it up, but people can underestimate how much they’re eating by 20-50%.  Do you REALLY know how much a 4-oz chicken breast is?  Would you notice if someone served you a 5-oz chicken breast instead?  That’s 25% more!  Not much when it comes to a chicken breast, but if you made that same error with every food choice over the run of a day it could mean eating 2,500 calories instead of 2,000.  You’re still just in information-gathering mode but now you’re using a Digital food scale, Measuring cups and Measuring spoons.  Again, try to do this for at least 3-4 days, and ideally up to 7.
  • You’ve now invested 1-2 weeks of your time and you’re probably feeling really impatient to just DO THIS already.  Gear down, big rig.  How many years have passed in your life to bring you to this point (a.k.a. how old are you?).  How many years of healthful living do you have ahead of you (many, many now that you’ve found The Golden Graham Girl, amirite??).  This is a worthwhile investment of time!  NOW, dig out the Calorie counter and get a’crunching on the numbers.  What’s your average daily calorie intake?  Average daily grams of protein, fat and carbohydrates?  Do you see large swings in your numbers depending on training vs. non-training days, and/or type of training (i.e. cardio vs. strength)?
  • Armed with this information NOW you can head over to one of the “macro-calculator” websites to punch in your vital statistics, your activity levels and your goals.  It will spit out your “personalized” macro ratio/target(s) – these can vary for training vs. non-training days.  Compare this to your current actual levels (and also take it with a grain of salt – the computer doesn’t “know” you and there are myriad external factors that could cause your actual real-world ideal macro ratio to differ from what a computer spits out).  If there’s more than a 10% difference, you’re going to take it in stages to give your body time to adjust.  For example, if you were previously eating 400g of carbohydrates in the run of a day and your new target is 300g, that’s 25% less (100g) than before.  You’re NOT going to make this change overnight (repeat after me: “I will not make this change overnight”).  That would send your digestive system, metabolic processes and related hormones completely out of whack.  Try no more than a 10% change at first (i.e. remove 40g) and go to 360g as your target in the short term.  Try it for a few days.  If you feel hungry or weak, consider scaling it back slightly.  But remember, it IS change and change can be a little bit uncomfortable (including the sensation of hunger or even over-fullness if your goal is to bulk and/or increase strength).  This is where Willpower comes in.
  • Since all of the macronutrients work together in the body to carry out its various physiological procceses, try to make similar adjustments to all three macronutrients (i.e. if you cut carbs by 10%, also cut carbs and fats by 10% to get to your goals).  If you’re already on track in one area, or need to INCREASE to get to a target (common with protein), stay steady or INCREASE at the same rate as you are decreasing the other macronutrients.
  • Do NOT “ping pong” all over the place.  Once you have picked your target macros (either the final personalized macro ratio per the calculator or an interim step along the way, as above), STICK WITH IT for AT LEAST 1 week (ideally 2).  You need to give your body time to adjust and respond.  Plus, you’re going to need time to make this shift mentally, as well.  Now is the time for Consistency!  And figuring out what foods fit well together over the run of a day to actually hit those targets can feel like a highly complex algebra problem or 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle (one of those really hard ones of a famous water-colour painting where the colours are all muted and sort of blur together so you can’t really even sort the puzzle pieces into distinct piles).  Bring on the Empathy – you’re not going to get this “perfectly” right every day and having that expectation can set you up for all-or-nothing mentality pitfalls (“I’m going to track and meet my macros perfectly or I’m not going to do this at all” or “If I miss my target by even one gram I might as well miss it by 100g and just eat like crazy”).
  • This was the stage where I found it really helpful to use a mobile-friendly application – I went with the extremely popular MyFitnessPal (MFP).  It’s extremely popular for good reason – it’s in use worldwide, so you can scan a food label pretty much anywhere in the world and get a hit (although maybe not in English) with the nutrition information and serving size.  Of course, just how many servings you’ve actually consumed is why you need your Measuring cups and spoons and especially your Digital scale.  If 1/2 cup of dry oatmeal is 40g but your half cup measure holds 50g, you’re 25% off (again!).  Once you input your actual servings in MFP, it will calculate your total grams in each category AND can even compare it to your target for the day.  I found that my normal breakfast, lunch and morning snack all left me enough grams to plan for a satisfying snack and dinner (and sometimes evening snack).  And if you’re not sure what will hit the targets, you can punch in different foods and serving sizes and play around until you hit your targets for the day.  At first, you might find yourself eating strange combinations of food to reach/stay within your target levels (i.e. you’re out of fat and carbohydrate grams but you still need 30+ grams of protein – bring on the 10pm can of tuna or stevia-egg white meringue or whey protein mixed with water).  Or the strange experience of having excess fat grams but nothing else – swig a spoonful of oil or pop some extra fish oil capsules.  Over time you will get a better sense of what common meals and snacks “play well together” to get you close to your targets by the end of the day.
  • Measure EVERYTHING that goes into your mouth, including condiments and sauces (unless they are calorie-free).  Don’t eyeball an apple and say it’s 200g if it’s really 250g.  Cut it up and put it on the scale.  This can be a serious pain in the butt.  This can make you look like a weirdo at a restaurant (it’s great if they have a website where they publish nutrition info) or a friend’s house for dinner.  It’s only for the short term.  Would you rather be a short-term weirdo or spend the rest of the life stuck in a body you’re not totally psyched about?  P.S. – You can be psyched about your body RIGHT NOW and it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be any particular size or shape for you to love it.  But you can love something and still aspire for change.
  • If you are consistently over (or under) your target in one particular area, ask yourself why.  What workouts do you do on these days?  What mood are you in when this happens?  What food or foods are you overeating or undereating?  I realized that I needed to include a serving of nuts and/or nut butters almost EVERY DAY otherwise I started feeling deprived and eating up overeating them when I finally did have some.  When I just couldn’t stomach the idea of another chicken breast it was time to branch out with my lean protein sources – the genesis for a lot of the high-protein recipes on this site!
  • Once you’ve got a good eye/feel for portion sizes, you can get slightly less analytical about the measuring cups and spoons.  Now is the time to look at your progress.  Are you moving toward your goals?  Are you moving too quickly or not quickly enough?  You are in the driver’s seat and you now have the power, the tools and the information to make changes.  Go ahead and change your carbs by 10g and see what happens.  But only make one change at a time, otherwise you won’t be able to isolate what change brought about what effect.  So don’t change your workout regimen AND your macros in the same two weeks.
  • Over time, as you get to know your body and how it responds better and better, you can back off on the detailed tracking and measuring.  If you have worked your way down to a fairly low intake level to achieve a level of leanness that is NOT sustainable in the long run (i.e. for a competition), remember that the same principles of changing in small increments also apply when increasing macros back to “normal” levels.  Your body is highly efficient and will have started to reduce its metabolic processes in response to your reduced intake.  To jump back up to your “base” case intake would exceed your depressed (lowered, not sad!) metabolism, overload your system and cause you to gain weight at an intake level that previously was just maintenance.

Why I Like Tracking Macros

First of all, IT WORKS.  Calories really are still king and the old calories in / calories out equation does still matter.  Even though you don’t directly count calories with IIFYM, you do indirectly limit your calorie intake by prescribing your macronutrient intake for the day.  IIFYM is, however, superior to calorie-counting (in my opinion) because it ensures that you are getting the right mix of macronutrients to support/build lean muscle mass and to consume adequate fats for satiety AND proper functioning.  “Regular” calorie-counting can cause people to focus on less nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables which ARE part of an overall healthful diet but do not, on their own, provide the protein necessary to support lean body mass (important for strength and overall metabolic processing) or the fat needed for both satiety and key phsiological processes.

I’m not suggesting that other approaches don’t work.  Paleo is really popular and people are seeing good results with getting leaner and stronger WITHOUT any detailed tracking or measuring.  But they’re also eschewing entire food groups.  I don’t know about you, but restricting/eliminating foods from my diet eventually makes me crave them that much more (“forbidden fruit”) and when I do ultimately eat them, I over-eat them.  Restrict-rebel cycle at its finest!  Not to mention, my love of nuts and nut butters would make it very easy for me to consume far too many calories on the Paleo diet.  There’s a great quote from an IIFYM advocate: “What do you do when you hit a plateau with Paleo?  You can’t Paleo harder!”

Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail I wrote to a friend and also later shared with my Fitness & Nutritional Coach: I’m just wrapping up my first experience with serious food tracking (IIFYM) and on the whole it was a very positive experience as it taught me that foods themselves are not “good”, “bad” or “indifferent” but rather that they are all comprised of different macro (and micro) nutrient profiles – foods that were once “forbidden” for me as “junk” or “cheat” or “treat” foods (and therefore all the more tempting when I restricted them from my diet) no longer hold the same power over me now that I know that I can incorporate them as part of a balanced, varied diet and still make progress with body physique/athletic performance. My formative years were in the 1990s’ low-fat craze, and I have finally lost my fear of fats and learned how important they are for satiety and to reduce inflammation! I learned a lot about mindful eating, “urge surfing” when dealing with cravings/hunger, and specific personal eating “triggers” for me and how to overcome them (no baking when hungry! No preparing meals for others that I don’t intend to eat myself! Pre-emptive cheats!).

I was worried that I was starting to experience “metabolic damage” (without even fully understanding what that meant) instead of proof that my body, very wisely and efficiently, was most likely employing metabolic compensation. Instead of panicking and throwing more cardio into my workouts (my first instinct, which only makes hunger and cravings even worse and intensifies the metabolic resistance – just like you told me, Coach, the LAST thing I needed was more cardio!), I now know to actually exercise LESS and then plan to slowly increase both exercise and eating over time to get to maintenance mode. Lucky me, I have a history of athletic competition and I really enjoy performance-based training!

And, finally, I’m not the only one who feels this way!  Check out Josie Mai at itsvmfitness.blogspot.com for A Closer Look at IIFYM or Alyssia at MindOverMunch.com for Macros Say Whaaa?

*As always, I am NOT a nutritionist or a dietitian.  I encourage you to consult with your trusted health professional on any dietary advice or strategies that are unique to YOU as an individual, especially if you are dealing with food allergies or intolerances.

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Nutritious Noshes (Snacks)How-To: Make & Eat Healthy Snacks At Home and On the Go!
Science SnackingHow-To: The Science of Healthy Snacking
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6 thoughts on “How-To: Track Your Macros (IIFYM a.k.a. Flexible Dieting)

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