Around 2005 to 2006 I began to track macros. I already understood energy balance at this point, I knew that calories counted, that protein was important, and that fat wasn’t magically fattening. My long distance running had me thinking of food as fuel, with little emotional attachment to it. However, I’d always just looked at food and intuitively tried to decide what was “good” or “bad” without really knowing much about the food’s macronutrient composition.
Around this time, over on Lyle MacDonald’s “mean forum”, a kid called Martin Berkhan was eating boxes of cereal and ice cream, and getting absolutely shredded. This was motivating, to say the least, and after a day or so of thinking about it, I logged into FitDay and got going.
Like many people, this was highly beneficial to both my body composition and “good or bad” mindset; also like a lot of people, I found it impossible to stop.
This stage in my life was mostly spent touring, which believe it or not, is pretty stressful on its own, even without a food scale stuck in your backpack, or endless eye balling of macros at festival buffets. I’ve weighed aspects of my Mum’s Sunday dinner, given up the chance to eat food in hotels, and looked endlessly for the gas station sandwich with the calories on the packet, while the rest of the band ate whatever they wanted.
If you’re like me, then you loved the control knowing what was in the food you ate gave you. But, like the control freak benefits from just letting things happen sometimes, the long term macro tracker needs to learn how to eat again. The three methods below will show you how.
First up is the ad-libitum diet. As the name suggests, you eat “at liberty”, basically until you’re full, just like a normal person.
The very idea can freak you out if you’re a long-term macro tracker. Usually, eating until you were full is what got you fat in the first place, long before you discovered MyFitnessPal and the long path to Instagram approved aesthetics.
Hunger is seen as an untrustworthy acquaintance. The kind of “friend” that doesn’t really tell you what’s in the drink he just poured you, but delights in presenting you with the photographic evidence of your grind a granny, booze induced dance floor debauchery. In short, you learned a long time ago that hunger is not to be trusted.
“So I just eat until I’m full?”
Pretty much yes, but there are a few caveats. Your food environment and the food choices you make need to be controlled in order for this to work. It’s not a free for all. Creating an ad-libitum diet based around turkey Twizzlers and nachos will have you packed off back to fat camp faster than a Lindsey Lohan jail sentence. Which leads us to the diet’s first major issue; food restriction.
The bane of an IIFYMer’s life; restricting food choices will get you thrown out of an “evidence-based” Facebook group in the time it takes for your latest mug cake creation to ping in the microwave. Restricting any food is far from hip, but in this instance, you have no choice. If maximum fullness with minimum calories is the goal, overeating on broccoli rather than bread is no contest. You might be able to be quite liberal, to begin with, but as the scale weight drops and hunger heightens, you’re going to have to avoid certain foods.
Looking at the satiety index is a good starting point. You can create tiers based on what foods have similar ratings. With this knowledge, you can knock up a diet that averages a certain level of satiety, and adjust from there. If the scale stops moving, it’s time to consider leaving some of the other, least satiating, foods out. The good news is you don’t have to eat 7 meals a day or carry Tupperware with you at all times, even if you are eating chicken and broccoli, bro.
Having a plan
If there’s anything less cool than restricting foods, it’s meal planning. Often associated with rigid guidelines you can’t deviate from, the meal plan is bought from “fit pro” idiots in 1,500, 1,800, and 2,000kcal packages all over the internet. With no thought for individual likes and dislikes or different protein or fat amounts, it’s easy to see why the meal plan gets a bad rap. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Creating a rough plan for yourself can keep you on track when the jump from carrying around a food scale, to just eating until you’re full is too much to stomach. It needn’t be rigid. The first step would be to look at your usual diet, and then make substitutions.
For instance, you know you want to eat roughly 2,000 kcal’s a day, and let’s say you are happy to split those up into four 500 calorie meals. You then maybe create 3 different 500 calorie meals for breakfast, lunch etc. Once you’ve got this out of the way, you could swap different parts of the meals out for other protein sources, different carbohydrates, veggies etc. Although any avid macro tracker will tell you that the composition of the meals will change with the different food sources, the calories will be roughly similar. You’ve now got a tonne of different versions of meals as your go to’s whenever you need them.
The idea isn’t to weigh and measure the food, but just to have a rough idea of the portion sizes. You can take a photograph of the food next to your hand, or on the plate once to get an idea of what it looks like, but leave it there. After doing this for a while, you just sort of stop thinking about it until you’re not really paying attention at all, and this way of eating over time becomes automated.
The issue with this approach is, at first at least, you are still kind of tracking things. If you’ve created a few meals, but are afraid to eat anything different, then you’re not doing it right. The plan is to become much more liberal and open-minded to different foods and portion sizes over time, not to become fixated with the same 4 meals a day for the rest of your life.
I’ll keep this one short.
If you’ve been tracking macros for so long you’ve become some kind of food Rainman, chances are you can just wing it.
If you’re the kind of bloke that likes to look at his mate’s burger while you’re eating out, and impress him with your amazing accuracy in the “who can guess the macros” game, then you don’t need a macro calculator, you are one.
Sometimes, you’re so used to being a walking bomb calorimeter, that even during an intended ad-libitum diet you’ll spend most of your time thinking about how many calories are in the food you’re eating. In that case, just roll with it. If you’re a bodybuilder type during the offseason, at least you’ve got more room for error and a larger calorie buffer. Put the food scale away until the next prep and keep things simple.
You might want to give yourself some basic rules to follow at first so that you don’t stress out even more than when actually tracking macros. Plus you need a way to keep that nagging OCD at bay. Maybe just concentrating on eating for hunger, rather than any other kind of emotional reason, or perhaps something as simple as leaving some food on your plate when you feel full, rather than finishing it all despite being stuffed. If you’ve got no room for even a wafer thin mint, then you don’t need to keep eating just to “hit your macros”.
If you’ve just started on this journey, it might be an idea to skip winging it for now, especially if you’re fond of assuming that whole take out pizza has 700 calories rather than the real 2,500.
While “if it fits your macros”, was a game changer for so many people, and still continues to be; a lot of you, who jumped like a pop tart fresh from the toaster when they heard you could pretty much get cut by eating whatever you wanted as long as it’s tracked, are looking for more sustainable ways to do things long term. Hence, intuitive eating and plain old portion control will be more and more on trend in 2017.
If that’s you, then hopefully the above methods, a combination of all three, or combining tracking with not tracking some of the time, will help you out. Let me know!
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