We’ve all heard the hype, right?
Macros are LIFE!!!
If you’re still following a meal plan, you’re so behind the times
I can eat whatever I want and still drop body fat!
If you haven’t tried macro-based dieting (IIFYM, flexible dieting, etc) you’ve probably heard a friend or 3 who has spout off these kind of claims and statements. And if you are on the macro train, maybe you’re guilty of saying some of these yourself!
The Better Option?
To be perfectly clear: I am a huge fan of macro-based dieting. When I’m working with a new client, it’s one of the first questions I ask: meal plan or macros? And unless they are seriously challenged numerically, I always push them towards macros. It’s a very practical application of the “give someone a fish vs. teach them to fish” adage. I find the flexibility inherent in this dieting structure to be more sustainable in the long-term, it does de-stigmatize certain foods, and since you create the plan you can’t blame your coach for building a meal plan that you don’t like. Everyone wins!
Now that being said, let’s be very clear folks: it ain’t a free for all, either. There are some guidelines I put in place for clients to help steer them in the right direction and away from excess crap and garbage foods. Some is ok – depending on the phase you’re in – but it’s really easy to go overboard.
But food selection is just one way you can take a perfectly good macro-plan and turn it against you. Here are some of my big things to watch out for when following a macro-based diet.
Screw-up #1 – Not Logging the Correct Entry
This seems super obvious, but it’s not only a problem that new macro loggers experience – I’ve seen people who have been doing this for a long time use a wrong database entry in MyFitnessPal and it can take them weeks to discover it, if they ever actually do! This can take on several different forms:
- Cooked vs. raw proteins – always use an entry that corresponds with how you measure it (if you mass prep your proteins, you’ll use a database entry for ‘cooked’)
- Cooked vs. dry carbs – specifically for oats and rice, as the macro difference between experience WILD swings during cooking
- Just plain bad database entries – you can log some zucchini and accidentally select an entry from the database that corresponds with a restaurant portion without realizing it. If your cup of veggies clocks in at 150+ calories, your BS detector should be going off and you should be looking for another entry
- Incorrect label from the food producer – I’ve seen some labels that are just plain wrong, that apparently slipped by the FDA’s quality control teams. If you look at something and say “wow I can’t believe this is so low in carbs!”, compare it against different brands of the same product and see what the average is (Kroger’s individual serving sweet corn, I’m looking at you).
Screw-up #2 – Not Measuring Your Portions
Yeah, I get it – it’s flexible dieting, but it’s not THAT flexible. The flexibility comes from your food selection, not with being willy-nilly when it comes to portion sizes and accuracy. Bust out your food scale and keep yourself honest.
Screw-up #3 – Not Enough Clean Stuff
Say “IIFYM” and what’s the first thing 80% of bodybuilders think about? Pop-Tarts. This is a scientifically proven fact (citation needed). Many people view macros as a path to unlimited protein shakes and junk carbs. Just keep in mind: you get out what you put in. Focus on high quality foods first and foremost, and work in some occasional stuff on top of that. But plan on having a fairly clean diet set up as your baseline.
Screw-up #4 – Not Utilizing Freebies
“Freebies” are calorie-free (or close to it) foods, condiments, and spices that you can add to meals to make them tastier. Things like mustard, hot sauce/sriracha, any kind of spice, salt, stevia/splenda, calorie-free veggies – all of those things will either make your meals taste better or, in the case of veggies, bulk them up a bit which is great if you’re running a caloric deficit. Greater food volume = less debilitating hunger!
Screw-up #4.5 – Counting Something as a Freebie When It Isn’t
So yeah, you knew we were going to have to mention this as well. Lots of things fall into this “gray area”, and typically it’s a judgment call. My recommendation: if it isn’t 0 calorie, log it just to be on the safe side. Even if it’s low calorie, you can use enough of it that it can still have an impact – and be honest with yourself on the amount! Things in this category would include some of the staples that I use regularly (and log) like salsa, sugar-free Jell-O pudding (GREAT additive to a protein shake), ketchup (sugar-free is a freebie), vinegar, and low-calorie veggies (onions, peppers, etc).
Screw-up #5 – Winging It
If this list was in order of importance, this would be number 1 – if you wake up for a day without a plan other than “I’m gonna start eating, log stuff, and hope it all adds up” you have already failed. Some people can do that, most can’t. Those who can will still fail to hit their targets enough times that – especially during prep – they’re leaving potential results on the table.
A better strategy is this: take your macros, sit down and log a typical day – make it what you want, log everything that counts, and then play around with portion sizes until the numbers come out right. Make sure it’s full of stuff you enjoy and can get excited about. Then just plan on repeating that day until you tire of things and then just swap them out, or if random circumstances come up then adjust the plan immediately so you can account for any cascading effects that require additional adjustments.
As an example: your spouse wants to go out for lunch on a Saturday – you oblige, order something relatively friendly but still different from what you had planned. Your totals will be off, but if you adjust your log now you can make changes to portion sizes on later meals and still hit your daily targets. This is a great strategy for making a little spontaneity a realistic thing, even on prep!
Screw-up #6 – Overuse of Artificial Sweeteners
Let’s be clear – some of this stuff is ok! But as with anything, you can overdo it. I tell people that raw spinach is a free vegetable, but if you back a dump truck load of it to your table and chow down it’s absolutely going to make a caloric impact. Same thing here – use in moderation, especially when cutting. Excess artificial sweeteners can cause bloating and water retention and slow down digestion as well. So if you’re adding a billion splenda packets to your day, using Walden Farms products on every meal, and basically doing everything in your power to make every meal taste like dessert, chances are you’ve taken it too far!
Screw-up #7 – Too Much Margin of Error
If your macros are off by more than a couple grams in either direction, you aren’t precise enough. When I create my plan, I get within a gram on all 3 targets and if it’s outside of that margin I make adjustments. If that means reducing a protein serving from 6oz to 5.5oz or throwing in an extra 15g of rice to make it work, that’s what I do. Keep in mind if you’re working with a coach, they may only change your numbers periodically by a small amount – so if your carbs drop by 15 grams but you’re already working with a margin of error that’s wider than that, the change from your coach won’t have any real impact that will register in a reasonable time. For fats especially (since they are typically the smallest number), try to hit that exactly on the nose.
Screw-up #8 – Letting Yourself Get Away with Crap
I feel guilty actually counting this as tip #8 because frankly it’s obvious – but I also need to say it – if you’re eating stuff that you’re not logging, this doesn’t work. You’ve got to be 100% honest and transparent with yourself about your successes AND your failures when macro dieting if you’re to be successful with it. So yeah – if you reach into the pantry and grab 3 Oreos, or feel you can get away with an extra spoonful of peanut butter…who knows? Maybe you can! BUT – log that crap, hold yourself accountable, and don’t leave it to chance that you’ll forget it and wonder why your progress has stalled.
Full honesty and disclosure, all the time!
Bring it on home
Flexible dieting, macro-based dieting, IIFYM, whatever you want to call it – it’s here to stay, and when you do it correctly, it WORKS. This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive detailing of the ways in which you can screw the system up, but in my experience working with clients and following it myself these are the most common pitfalls.
Did I miss something important? Comment below!