If you’ve been around the fitness side of the internet for any length of time, you’ve heard of macro counting, also called IIFYM (if it fits your macros).
Once you know how it works, it’s not too hard to follow. The biggest thing is finding the right numbers for your body and your goals, which we’ll cover.
What are macros?
These are the three major macronutrients (“macros”) your body needs.
Every food label has these counted on the package, and the general premise of IIFYM is that you have a daily allowance of carbs, fats, and proteins that you must hit every single day.
1 gram of carbs = 4 calories.
1 gram of fat = 9 calories.
1 gram of protein = 4 calories.
When you have the right number of macros for your body, it equals the right number of calories for your current goal (weight loss, maintenance, muscle gain).
Let’s just cut right to the chase:
Does macro counting work?
Yes and no. (Helpful answer, I know.) I’ll explain.
We’ll talk about the problems first:
- Labels aren’t always correct.
Calorie counts on food can be off by 20%. 20%! The FDA also doesn’t check the accuracy of food labels before they are sold to you. You could be consuming two hundred extra calories (or more) that you didn’t even know you were eating. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that on average, packaged food contained 8% more calories than their label claimed, and restaurant meals were closer to 18% more (You can read more: here). So, this means you could count your macros perfectly every day and still be baffled on why you aren’t getting the results you want.
- The apps that track macros can be wrong.
I’ve tried MyFitnessPal a lot and it doesn’t want to play nice. If you make your own food and don’t eat packaged foods for every meal, expect it to be slightly off compared to if you figured it out yourself.
Plus, if you have any food allergies (I do), the data on these apps for substitutions will drive you nuts.
- People quit too early.
If you want to try macro counting, you need to stick with it for at least two weeks if not longer. Too many people try it for a week, don’t lose weight, and quit. Plus, sometimes you picked macro numbers that aren’t right.
- Macro counting does not consider other health factors.
This is the biggest personal problem I have with IIFYM. People eat fast food because “It’s in my macros, bro!”, but here’s an article from a professor at Harvard University about why processed food makes us fatter. Yes, of course it’s mostly calories in vs. calories out, but I’m not going to pretend like all processed foods are just wonderful.
There may not be enough studies for the internet science nerds who barely even lift, but I’ll continue eating organic forever even if other people find it a waste of money.
If you have thyroid issues, metabolism problems, needing to avoid salt, prefer to eat less sugar, or just don’t want to eat a bunch of processed shit food, you can still count macros but just know you have to figure those other things out yourself.
Also, if you’re a 24/7 ball of stress (like I can be with a huge deadline for work), that absolutely throws everything to shit. Stress/anxiety/depression/sleep deprivation all completely throw off important factors in your body that can negatively impact your results.
- Macro counting does not account for micronutrients.
I always have used the analogy that macros are like a car: it’s the whole shell, the seats, the great color, basically the whole external part. Then, micronutrients are like the gas and the oil in that car. You can drive on almost empty for both of those, but the damage will catch up with you.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that your body needs to thrive.
These are not counted in a macro-counting diet. That’s why I think so many of these “fitness professionals” suffer endlessly from fatigue, soreness, bad moods, inflammation, and a long list of other issues, because their cars are running on empty.
Now that you know some of the major problems, here are some reasons you might want to try macro counting:
When we just count calories (the common weight-loss approach), there’s no determination on where we specifically get those calories. Getting all your calories from carbs in a day is much, much different than getting a balance from protein, fats, and carbs.
So, macro counting helps you get those calories from the three most essential areas.
I know, I know, everyone always says it’s simply calories in vs calories out, but if you want a much longer post on why that’s not always accurate, here you go.
Essentially, your lifestyle has more to do with your calories than you think. This is why Michael Phelps eats thousands and thousands of calories a day but he’s not morbidly obese whereas the rest of us eat a few extra hundred calories here and there and see it in our bodies.
However, most of us sit for the entire day (whether we want to admit it or not), so we’ll assume that our macros fit within the average recommendation.
How many macros do you need?
This is a complicated answer. Through years of testing, the best thing I have found is to simply experiment with your own diet.
I know, that’s a super frustrating answer, but every time I’ve tried someone’s “set” macros, they don’t work well and I wouldn’t want to just tell you some numbers and you take them as the only possible numbers.
Macros can change depending on your activity level, metabolic type, body fat percentage, goals, and personal preference.
Mentioning metabolic type, there’s a book called the Metabolic Typing Diet that’s absolutely fascinating around the idea that our diet today is heavily influenced by where our ancestors came from. In today’s modern world, we can eat food from a grocery store that comes from anywhere on the planet whereas our ancestors could only eat locally. Depending on where they lived, his claim is that we have a certain preference toward certain diets.
That’s just a side note, and not something you need to know to count macros, but if you’re determined to learn, it’s worth a read.
But generally this is a decent macro break down, or at least somewhere to start:
1 gram of protein per pound (although I gained size eating less than that).
0.5 gram of fat per pound.
0.5 – 2 grams of carbs per pound.
Of course, there’s so many people out there who get shredded and look great on a completely different set of numbers.
Some people go completely zero carb, some have high carb, some have low or high fat, etc.
If something isn’t working for a week or two, change the numbers, especially in the fat or carb section (going low protein isn’t really helpful), but be sure to do one at a time. Don’t just drop both fats and carbs from your diet.
The BIGGEST Tip
It’s not sexy or fun like a cool app, but I highly, highly highly recommend keeping a food journal.
Just go to the store and get one of those cheap, big notebooks like you used in school.
It’s annoying at first, but after a few days you’ll be able to see your health from a larger picture.
Instead of just writing what you ate and your macros each day, also track things such as:
- How you feel
- How much sleep you had
- How each meal makes you feel (your mood, your digestion, etc)
- Your focus
- Your productivity and energy
- How stressed you feel throughout the day
Of course, you don’t have to track all of those categories, but I do and it’s been the biggest lightbulb.
For example, I thought I functioned better with higher carbs, but I realized through my tracking that I was always much happier and way more productive with a protein and veggie lunch. I’m also not such a raging bitch when I actually make the time to have a huge breakfast, not just a light meal or skipping it all together. It seems obvious when I write it out, but when you’re so focused on other things it’s not always that obvious.
I learned my natural flow of energy and what my body preferred to eat at certain times of the day, what foods were not working, what foods were working, how much sleep I needed each day, and I’m sure there’s still so much to learn as I keep this up.
I just quit my macro counting apps and switched to paper a few months ago, but it’s been the best tool yet.
If you have any macro counting tips or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below!
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2 thoughts on “Should You Count Macros? A Beginner’s Guide to IIFYM”
Love it. Health and fitness can come in easy steps. Not just going crazy and paying tons of money to join gyms and get fancy gear. I love your emphasis on how easy it can be to take simple steps.
I think you’d find my new blog has very similar posts. I encourage you to check it out! Like. Subscribe. Whatever. We are all in the fitness blogging game for the same thing. To spread healthy lifestyle as far and wide as we can. I am trying to build my network one comment at a time!