Okay people, let’s talk “Paleo & Macros.” This is a blog post I’ve been intending to write for a few months now, but I was a little bit afraid to open this can of worms since traditionally the IIFYM/flexible dieting community and the Paleo community do not see eye to eye. But the tides are shifting, whether you realize it or not. Also this is a super long one, so if you want the bare bones, skip to the TL;DR at the end.
Before I get too far into this, I want to say that everyone is different and there is no one universally optimal diet! You have GOT to figure out what works for your body and taste buds. Only when you educate yourself and then experiment on yourself can you definitively know what is optimal for your body. Reading some article or blog post with the headline “The Perfect Diet!!!!” is not a foundation on which you should base your nutritional belief system. Knowledge is power, but experience is even greater power.
You do you. I’m not a purist. I don’t feel the need to subscribe strictly to one style of eating. And I’m certainly not here to bash anyone else’s way of eating. If you feel healthy and happy, great! I’m happy for you.
Okay so that being said, I’ll get into this Paleo & Macros business now.
WTF is flexible dieting and what the heck is a macro?
Most simply, macros=macronutrients=proteins, carbs and fats.
Flexible dieting involves tracking your food intake according to the macronutrient breakdown (not just calories) of the foods. You have target numbers for how many grams of protein, fat and carbs you should be eating in a day in order to achieve your athletic performance or aesthetic goals.
Flexible dieting has also been nicknamed IIFYM, or “If It Fits Your Macros,” which sounds like it means, “you can eat whatever the F you want as long as it fits your macros.” However, that’s not the true spirit of flexible dieting. Flexible dieting prioritizes nutrient dense foods (like all the foods us Paleo-ish folk eat) and the idea is that you should meet your micronutrient requirements (a.k.a. vitamins and minerals) with real whole foods. Sounds familiar, right?
Flexible dieting means that as long as you are eating primarily nutrient dense foods and meeting your micronutrient requirements, it’s okay for a small percentage of your intake (like maybe 5-15%) to consist of less nutrient dense “naughty” foods. As long as those naughty foods are things your body tolerates, then this won’t harm your overall health or athletic performance.
So… why would I count those macro thingies?
Generally, if you’re an athlete and you want to ensure that you’re fuelling yourself adequately to recover from your workouts, especially if you’re trying to cut weight or gain muscle mass.
Personally, I believe the concept of flexible dieting is good for essentially everyone, because it doesn’t have hard and fast boundaries on what you can and can’t eat. It serves more as an umbrella term, and the ideology can be combined with a number of eating styles. However, I don’t believe that tracking macros is good for everyone. Steph from Stupid Easy Paleo wrote a great blog post pointing out the problems with macros, and she makes several valid points. However, I’m going to challenge one of them.
To her first point that “quantity does not equal quality,” I agree. However, like I said before, flexible dieting and counting macros is not about eating pizza and poptarts as long as it fits your macros. When it’s taught correctly, flexible dieting preaches nutrient density just as much as Paleo does. You just have the added bonus of being able to treat yo-self in moderation without feeling guilty/fearing the Paleo police will come out of the woodworks.
To her other two points (“are you still hungry?” And “it robs your freedom”), once again I agree. But it’s important to note that she is not saying that counting macros is stupid and no one should do it. She acknowledges that it can be an effective way to shift body composition, and that’s really the only circumstance in which I would advise someone to consider tracking macros.
Even then, I wouldn’t advise it on the long term, because a) it gets exhausting, b) if you have a history of disordered eating habits, tracking can become a trigger, c) you might lose touch with your body’s natural satiety and hunger signals if you’re constantly eating according to a plan.
We don’t need extremes.
People love extremes, especially in the health and fitness industry. You have to be one camp or another. And if you’re not in my camp, you’re wrong.
But it don’t gotta be like that! Certain nutritional philosophies are appropriate in certain contexts for certain people. WE’RE ALL DIFFERENT AND OUR BODIES ARE DIFFERENT AND WANT DIFFERENT THINGS. So be pale-YOU! Find your shade of Paleo, or whatever other eating style suits you and your body, and don’t worry about what other people are eating. As Mary a.k.a. PaleoChef says, mind your own plate!
Danny Lennon from Sigma Nutrition wrote an AWESOME article titled “IIFYM vs. Paleo: How People Ruin Everything,” which actually isn’t about comparing the two eating styles, rather it’s about how people fail to understand that context (who/when/why) is really freakin’ crucial when it comes to nutrition. There’s a reason strict Paleo doesn’t work for power athletes… Grok wasn’t training to squat 300+ pounds or pull a 3-ton truck. Soooo context. Yeah, it matters.
Danny outlines the 3 W’s you have to consider when figuring out what your optimal intake might look like:
So take those things into account, do what you gotta do, and eat what you gotta eat to stay healthy and happy.
My experience with Paleo & Macros
I discovered flexible dieting way back in 2013 when I was recovering from a BED (binge-eating disorder). I had struggled with binge/restrict cycles for over a year, and I had lost all control over my relationship with food. I believed that certain foods were “clean” and certain were “dirty.” If I fell off the “clean eating wagon,” I would pretty much say screw it and I would spiral out of control.
Flexible dieting was a saving grace. It enabled me to overcome the clean eating myth, regain control, and find a balance again. I was able to eat the “naughty” foods in moderation instead of binging on them. But over time, constantly tracking macros became mentally exhausting. So I took a several month hiatus from tracking, and ate intuitively. Between then and now, I have tracked macros on and off; I track for a few weeks or months so that I can ensure I’m consuming adequate protein and carbs to recover from my workouts, and then when I need a mental break, I eat intuitively for a few weeks or months while still prioritizing my athletic performance and recovery. I have found that this allows me to stay in tune with my natural hunger cues while also ensuring that I fuel my body properly for health and athletic performance.
Right now, I’m prepping for a USAPL powerlifting meet in the Fall, and I’m ~trying~ to drop a few pounds so that I can sit at the top of the 72kg weight class instead of at the bottom of the 84kg class. I’m tracking macros so that I can slowly drop weight (like 0.5-1 lb/week) without losing strength. I eat mostly nutrient dense foods (a lot of meat and veggies), some grassfed dairy (butter, cheese, yogurt), some GF grains and other less nutrient dense foods (rice, oats, cereal, GF bread and waffles, ice cream/froyo, Quest bars) and occasionally a regular ol’ donut from Revolution Doughnuts. I cycle my carbs so that on squat/deadlift days I eat higher carb (those are the days that I sometimes eat GF treats or indulge in a doughnut or froyo), and on bench/press/conditioning days I eat lower carb and slightly higher fat. This is what works for me. It keeps me sane. It keeps me healthy. It keeps me fuelled. And hopefully, it will allow me to achieve my athletic goals.
So I’m pretty serious about my athletic performance and/or aesthetic goals… How do I start flexible dieting?
First, you need to educate yourself more about the science behind macronutrients and nutrition for sports performance. I suggest you buy and read Krissy Mae Cagney’s eBook FD 2.0: A Flexible Nutrition Philosophy for the Modern Athlete. It’s packed with pretty much all the information you would need to understand flexible dieting and to calculate your own macros. This was my starting point for educating myself and Krissy’s formula is the one I used to calculate my macros.
Alternatively, I suggest you buy and read the RP Strength eBook The Renaissance Diet. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard good things about RP Strength. If you want a coach to calculate your macros and provide a diet plan, RP Strength does that as well. It’s pricey, but if you’re a serious athlete looking to optimize your performance and/or shift your body composition, you might want to consider being coached through the process. You can find all the RP Strength services here.
I DON’T suggest using the calculator on iifym.com or any other website like that because they aren’t very scientific or personalized. Same goes for just plugging things into MyFitnessPal. Your body is way more complicated than whatever algorithm those little apps use, so educate yourself, calculate your macros using a more nuanced formula like the one in FD2.0 and tweak them as needed to suit you and your body. It might take a few weeks for your body to adjust so don’t freak out if you don’t see or feel any changes in the beginning. Try it out for a few weeks and then you’ll know for yourself if flexible dieting and tracking macros is for you!
Alright folks, that’s all I’ve got for ya! I’d love to hear about your experiences. Do you/have you tracked macros? Do you follow a Paleo/flexible dieting hybrid like me? Comment below!
- Everyone is different. Context (who/when/why) matters when determining optimal nutrition. There’s no single perfect diet or cookie cutter plan to help you reach your athletic or aesthetic goals.
- Just like if you eat Paleo, if you’re a flexible dieter then nutrient density should comes first. Hitting your micronutrient requirements is crucial. Only then should you work in the fun foods in moderation.
- If you aren’t attempting to shift your body composition or optimize athletic performance, you probably don’t have a need to track macros.
- Tracking macros is not sustainable long term (for *most people*). Cycling your diet/eating style is a good idea.
- Check out FD 2.0 or The Renaissance Diet for more in depth science behind flexible dieting.