Let's face it--nobody exactly thrills to the idea of counting calories, and while this dieting method has its merits, many people find it difficult to escape the tendency to succumb to a restrict-and-binge cycle when the inevitable cheat days begin to emerge. If you've been seeing little to no results using a calorie-counting method, perhaps it's not so much the number of calories that you should be concerned about, but rather the kind of calories you're consuming that deserves your attention. This is the concept underpinning the "If It Fits Your Macros" (IIFYM) diet, a method of controlling your eating that focuses on counting macronutrients (a.k.a. "macros") instead of calories.
What Are Macronutrients?
No matter what foods you choose to eat, they're going to fall into one of three major categories: Protein, carbohydrates, and fat. These are referred to as macronutrients, because they are the substances that make up the caloric content of your food. Each of these macros has a certain number of calories assigned to them, as follows:
- 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
- 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories
- 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
The emphasis of the IIFYM diet is to focus more on the type of calories you're consuming instead of just an amount. Put another way, counting macronutrients emphasizes quality over quantity, which is extremely important if you're looking to incorporate more balance and nutritional value into your diet.
Think about it: What good is setting a calorie limit when the foods you're eating are devoid of vital nutrients? Even on a very restrictive diet of only 1,200 calories per day, consuming an imbalanced proportion of macronutrients will ultimately fail to leave you feeling satiated, which can lead to those infamous cheat days that can derail your dieting efforts.
By focusing on counting macronutrients instead of calories, you can discover what combination of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates works for you. This allows you to develop a well-rounded diet that typically offers more balance than others that tend to vilify or favor one macronutrient over another.
Counting Macronutrients: A Basic Guide
So how exactly does the IIFYM diet work? Below are some key points about each macronutrient, followed by a simple formula that demonstrates how to divide your calorie intake among them.
- Protein - Comprised of amino acids, protein plays an important role in building muscle, which is why it is arguably the most popular fitness nutrient of the three macros. Protein has the ability to make the body feel more satiated than fat or carbs do, causing you to feel fuller for a longer period of time after eating. Gram-for-gram, protein requires your body to expend more energy to digest than the other macros, which makes it a highly efficient nutrient for dieting and weight loss. Some common sources of protein include meats, dairy products, eggs, and fish.
- Carbohydrates - This macronutrient is commonly stored in the brain, muscles, liver, and blood as glycogen, a storage container for glucose (a fuel source for your cells). The health and fitness industry has definitely had a love-hate relationship with carbohydrates, with low-carb diets falling in and out of favor on a regular basis. Common sources of carbs include breads, fruits, vegetables, and practically every snack that's worth eating when you're on a cheat day.
- Fat - Perhaps the most vilified of the three macros, fat is absolutely required for the body to survive, as it aids the body in regulating hormone activity, brain function, vitamin absorption, nerve insulation, and a host of other critical duties. Fat is the most calorie-dense of the three macros (9 calories per gram), which is part of the reason why it's gotten such a bad rap over the years. Common sources of fat include meats, nuts, fatty fish, butters, and oils.
And Now...The Formula
While calorie requirements can vary greatly based on factors such as age, weight, gender, and physical activity level, you should strive to identify a target calorie intake that will allow you to lose weight at a moderate pace (e.g., about one pound per week). Once you've identified your target calorie intake--we'll say 2,000 calories per day for example--then you can begin to divide up your calories across the three different categories of macronutrients.
While the specific ratios used to divvy up the calories can vary, many IIFYM adherents favor a 40/40/20 percentage split, which means that 40% of your calories will come from protein, 40% from carbohydrates, and 20% from fat. For a 2,000-calorie diet, the percentage split would look like this:
- 800 calories from protein (40% of 2,000 calories)
- 800 calories from carbohydrates (40% of 2,000 calories)
- 400 calories from fat (20% of 2,000 calories)
Now how do you determine how many grams of a nutrient you can eat based on the allotted calories? Simply divide the total number of calories allotted by how many calories per gram that nutrient contains. For example, we know that carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, so if you are allowed 800 calories of carbohydrates, that would be 200 grams of carbs you could eat in a day (800 divided by 4 calories per gram). Repeat this same process for the protein and fat, and you're good to go!
While the above guide is far from comprehensive, it does provide you with a basic overview of how to count macronutrients, so that you can begin emphasizing quality over quantity in the calorie department. If you've been frustrated or dissatisfied with the results of a basic calorie-counting regimen, it would probably be worth it to give the IIFYM diet an honest try.