You might have heard your fitness friends talking about counting their daily grams of protein, but what is it really like to adopt this style of eating?
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When Samira Mostofi moved to New York City from Los Angeles, she felt like her diet was getting away from her. With endless access to the best restaurants, life in moderation didn't feel like an option. Still, she knew she needed to reel it in. A fan of CrossFit, she took after a lot of her friends at the gym and tried the paleo diet—but didn't like feeling so restricted and deprived. That's when she learned about counting her macros.
Macros, short for macronutrients, are protein, carbohydrates, and fat, the major nutrients the body needs to function properly and efficiently, and the concept of counting your macros is basically making sure you get a specific amount of each in your daily diet. Carbohydrates—the sugars, starches, and fibers found in grains, fruit, vegetable, and milk products—have 4 calories per gram. Protein, made up of amino acid chains essential for fueling the body, also have 4 calories per gram. And lastly, fat is a higher-calorie macronutrient at 9 calories per gram. Counting macros not only helped Mostofi lose 16 pounds in four months, but she says it enabled her to eat what she wanted without having to give up anything entirely.
And Mostofi is definitely not alone in her pursuit for the perfect combo of macros. The eating style (commonly hashtagged on Instagram as #IIFYM, or "if it fits your macros diet") is rising in popularity. The premise: You can eat whatever food you want as long as it has the right balance of macros. This means aiming for 45 to 55 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates, 25 to 35 percent from protein with the rest being healthy fats, suggests Liz Applegate, Ph.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Broken down, that's roughly 300 grams of carbs, 130 grams of protein, and 42 grams of fat for an active woman following a 2,000 calorie/day #IIFYM diet.
As with any diet, there are things to take into consideration before hopping on the macro-counting train. The pros: The tracking required to execute this plan can potentially help you lose weight, stave off poor eating habits, and amp up your gains in the gym by ensuring that you're fueling your muscles correctly with a more balanced approach to eating. Cons: All of the tracking could also encourage obsessive behavior and make it easy to lose sight of the quality and taste of your food (hello, do you even enjoy this?) because you're only focusing on the nutrition value. Also, being tethered to your phone constantly logging your meals can be a bit of a drain, for both your energy and, LBH, your phone's battery. "Not every person is cut out for this type of diet," says Applegate. "I usually consider a person's personality when they tell me they're interested in counting their macros. It's important to be cognizant that food is fuel, yes, but it's also got a social aspect, it nourishes you."
If counting macros sounds like something you still want to try, then you'll need a few crucial tools to get started. First up, a meal tracker. Apps such as MyFitnessPal make it easy to select and track foods, toting all of the calorie and macro details you need to stay on top of your game, so you don't need to know which foods constitute a carb, a protein, or a fat, or what ratio of the three a meal includes. You'll also need a food scale, because like other diets, portion control is important. Counting your macros comes down to the gram, and sorry, but you just can't eyeball that.
Ready? Here are four tips for success:
1. Mix it up. While counting your macros doesn't necessarily mean cutting anything out, there is a tendency to eat the same foods (like grilled chicken, brown rice, oatmeal) over and over. Also, you don't want to completely skimp on important micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, just because your body requires them in lesser amounts. Stock up on foods high in antioxidants (like berries) and essential vitamins and minerals (like leafy greens, dairy products, and bright-colored veggies) to make sure you're filling in your diet with the micronutrients your body needs. If you still feel sluggish or off your game, consult your doctor or nutritionist.
"There's more to life than grilled chicken on top of brown rice. People need to keep variety to stay healthy and get in essential vitamins and minerals. Even if it's swapping black for brown every once in a while, Simple swaps can make a major difference."
2. Eat the right kind of macronutrients. Not all fats or carbohydrates are created equal. The last thing you want is to eat all of your carbohydrates in the form of added sugar (which Applegate says you should cap at no more than 50 grams a day). When it comes to fats, look for healthy, unsaturated varieties like those in olive oil and nuts. You can also aim for two servings weekly of fish like salmon to get in essential omega-3 fatty acids and all the flavor.
3. Don't shortchange yourself. Some macro-counters have their ratios off, aiming for almost equal amounts of protein and carbs. While eating fewer carbs may make you think "weight loss," you're actually doing your body a major disservice. "You need carbs in your diet, especially if you're more active," says Applegate. If you're not eating enough carbohydrates to fuel your hardest workouts, your body will start to use the proteins in your muscles as fuel, instead of what it's meant for: to rebuild and repair muscles after activity. When that protein is used as fuel, your muscles may become weak, and growth and rebuilding (read: gains and recovery) will be compromised.
4. Touch base with a health expert. Make sure to talk to a doctor or nutritionist before diving right in. They can help you set smart, safe goals, and even tip you off to where your targets should be, based on what your goals are. Maybe you're hoping to lose weight, gain muscle, or simply maintain what you've got going on. Whatever that target may be, an expert can make sure you're getting the fuel you need in the right amounts.