Confused by terms like "flexible dieting", "macro counting" and "reverse dieting"? Read about my experience with the popular macro counting plan -- IIFYM -- before you give it a try.
Are you a sucker for before and after stories like I am? Are you hoping you’ve clicked into this post today and are about to be amazed by pictures of the transformation I’ve undergone as a result of my macro counting?
Sorry to dash your hopes.
I guess I'm just an old fashioned Gen Xer, but I still believe there are some things that don’t need to be shared online.
And by "some things" obviously I mean me in a bikini-clad before/after picture collage.
Instead, I am going to share in this post and the next few that follow it an account of what it was like to sign up for a “flexible dieting” plan, what happened with my weight, how I felt adopting a higher calorie eating plan and what I learned from a registered dietitian who specializes in flexible dieting about how this type of eating plan can be the right fit for some people.
But first, a disclaimer and then, a bit of background.
There are a number of RDs associated with this site who advocate for a diet-free approach to healthy eating. Nothing about my experience or this post is meant to undermine the validity of their approach. In fact, as you read this series you’ll eventually learn more about how this experiment actually helped me personally get in touch with my own intuitive desires for what I want to eat each day.
I’d also add that if you personally struggle with obsessive eating thoughts and behaviors, I don’t recommend a self-guided plan like this. Seek out the support of someone who specializes in disordered eating. Nobody is better equipped to help you with your health goals than a registered dietitian.
The goal of this series is not to endorse IIFYM per se, but rather to expose you to a very popular eating plan and share my personal experience. None of it is a substitute for the tailored advice a registered dietitian can offer you one-on-one. (If you're looking for an RD to work with, check out our SHOP page where we've handpicked some of our personal faves.)
Now, The Backstory
A few months ago as I was doing some prep work for this blog and looking at some trending topics on Instagram, I stumbled across a cluster of hashtags that all centered around macro counting. Known by many different names (flexible dieting, IIFYM, reverse dieting), macro counting has been popular in the body building ranks for years. But recently, it seems to have made an upswing in mainstream popularity. Without knowing much about what it exactly it entailed — I already understood it meant counting the basic dietary macronutrients of Protein, Fat and Carbohydrate — I asked Lindsay to pull together a round up of “macro” focused recipes.
She was completely clueless what I wanted.
And so was I.
Knowing nothing about the community of folks devoted to macro counting, neither of us had an idea about what recipes macro-counters were looking for. So I decided to do something totally outside of my comfort zone. I found the most popular macro counting site I could, signed up, ordered their “blueprint” and have been tracking my macros based on their recommendations daily for the past two months.
An RD signing up for a non-RD developed eating plan. It's a little weird, I know. But I wanted to experience a mainstream plan to better understand what IIFYM fanatics were really looking for.
The Sign Up
It wasn’t hard to find a community to join. One of the most popular hashtags being used among macro counters is #IIFYM ("If It Fits Your Macros"). The central premise of most macro counting plans is “flexible dieting,” where you can “eat whatever you want” as long as it works into your daily set of macros (hence the “If It Fits Your Macros” moniker.) This freedom of choice wasn’t exactly new to me. In my job as an editor at Weight Watchers Magazine years ago, I learned the Points system, which at that time heralded a non-diet approach to “allow” you to eat whatever you wanted as long as your Points allowed for it.
Note: If you’ve ever tried a plan like this you know drinking Coke and eating Little Debbies, Pizza and Doritos meal-after-meal is never an option, even if it’s being sold to you that way. The structure of Points or macros or whatever parameter you’re tracking simply won’t allow it. The numbers won’t add up. But there is a “freedom” factor that can be a psychological benefit to folks who fear indulgences without structure and have a hard time letting go of the idea of “good” and “bad” foods. In a macro-centered approach, there is no good or bad. There’s simply food, which contain macros and the requirement to count those macros.
So I visited the IIFYM site, input my info, used their free “macro calculator” and it spit out a set of fat, protein and carbohydrates numbers that I should track each day.
And then came the up-sell.
For $67 I could get a “custom” blueprint, tailored just for me. Their "coaches" would use “30 points of information” to generate a personalized plan. I thought “Hey, If I’m gonna try this, why not go for the gold?”
So I took the bait, answered a bunch of questions about my goals and my current exercise regimen and waited…
…but not long. Almost immediately I got an email — from an actual human; that was a bit of a surprise — wanting to clarify about my goals. The “coach” who was reviewing my goals noticed that I’d said I didn’t want to gain weight, but that I wanted to gain muscle.
She basically called me out on this (in a nice way) and said I couldn’t have it both ways. If you’re gonna gain muscle, you’re gonna gain weight.
Fair point, well made. I’ll just be sitting over here with my RD credentials wishing I’d thought that through a bit before I answered the first time. (Face palm)
So I said “Okay, sure. I’m up for a weight gain” and waited again.
A few days passed and my blueprint arrived. All 2000 calories of it. And I got scared.
With the exception of my two pregnancies, I’ve never estimated my own calorie needs anywhere near 2000 calories. Never. In fact, at this point it’s probably worth giving you a little background about my struggle with a healthy view of my weight.
I’m 42 years old and have been trying to lose weight 30 of those years.
I started “dieting” as a 7th grader. I was always a chubby kid growing up. Then in 7th grade I lost a lot of weight eating a diet mostly of oatmeal and baked potatoes. (Don’t try that at home, kids.)
First, I won a beauty pageant.
Then, I made the 8th grade cheerleading squad.
And subsequently, I adopted a thinness = success mentality.
I’m not particularly proud to admit these things, but I think it’s worth understanding where I’ve been in my mental journey to healthy eating.
My weight and eating habits normalized a bit in high school. (Although there was the time my high school majorette coach told me that I’d need to drop a few pounds over the summer if I wanted to stay on the squad in the fall. “Healthy At Any Weight” wasn’t a concept on anyone’s radar circa 1990.) I would cycle in and out of seasons where I was hyper focused on my weight and where I wasn’t. Eventually I left for college, discovered a nutrition career path and never really fell back into any dangerously restrictive eating habits, but my weight was always on my mind.
I’ve been trying to lose “a little” weight all my adult life. And truthfully, I’ve always believed that losing weight (or being lean) meant restricting. Not restricting to the point of an ultra low-calorie diet or major health risk, but restricting in a way that meant focusing on fewer calories in and more calories out — the traditional diet mentality. It’s sort of like being a teacher and focusing on the importance of reading. As an RD, it just seems to go with the territory.
But it’s a territory I’m less happy occupying than I ever have been. Not to get ahead of my post where I’ll share the things I’ve learned since starting this macro counting experiment, but the biggest benefit I’ve seen is in how much better my workouts feel when I’m not “restricting” my calories and how much more I want to work out. I can’t say if I’d feel the same had I chosen a plan that was geared toward "cutting" (a more calorie restricted version of their macro plan aimed at fat loss). But since restricting’s never been my problem, trying out a plan that was fairly calorie-rich by my standards was an awesome change of pace.
My Macro Experience
Remember when I said it was a 2000 plan? Well actually, the blueprint as I first received it told me to eat the following each day (and track accordingly. I used MyFitnessPal to track my macros):
Protein = 110 grams per day
Carbs = 230 grams per day (30-35 of which should be fiber)
Fat = 60 grams per day
If you know your macro math, this totals out to be 1900 calories per day (Protein and Carbohydrate provide 4 calories/gram and Fat provides 9 calories/gram). This info was included in a 12 page plan that discussed all the basics about what macros are, how many calories are in each macro, makes suggestions about healthy choices for each macro, details the importance of each macro, gives menu plans suggestions and on and on.
The big “hook” in macro counting, especially IIFYM is the idea that by eating more than on a traditional restrictive diet, and especially more carbohydrates than many “dieters” may have been eating before, you’re boosting your metabolism, fueling better workouts and helping you eat enough protein to build the muscle that’s so crucial for a more efficient metabolism (and build muscle for all those millions of before/after photos that are as much a part of the #IIFYM culture as are photos of what they eat. While participants aren’t told to post those pictures publicly, they are encouraged in their blueprints to take before/after photos to help see their progress beyond a number on the scale.)
I can’t say how all macro counting and flexible diet plans allocate their ratio of carbs : protein : fat. But I will tell you IIFYM as an eating plan eschews the notion of low-carb and/or low-calorie eating to achieve a healthy weight. I actually found this very refreshing since so much of what’s out there today in popular diet plans is all about restriction and cutting something out.
In terms of the actual info contained in the blueprint, none of it was “education” that I needed as an RD. But I read it all and tried to put myself in the position of the average blueprint buyer. And honestly, it was pretty good info. Other than the requirement to drink 3 to 4 liters of water per day, I don’t recall reading anything I thought was completely off-base.
There was no sugar ban. No call to ditch dairy. No prohibition of foods that ended in Y or started with a W or whatever the most popular dietary restriction of the day is. The blueprint discussed the importance of healthy fats, carbohydrates as fuel and protein for muscle building. It was basically balanced. And I'll admit, I was a little surprised.
The part of the blueprint that caught my attention most was the recommendation to increase my macros if I was "the same weight” after 4 weeks. Recall how I said I’ve been restricting calories for 30 years? I was CERTAIN that this uptick in calories, well over what I’d been eating for years, would cause me to gain weight. I was prepared for it and had already decided whatever I gained on this little experiment would easily be trimmed off when I went back to my normal diet.
Four weeks came and went. I gained weight. I lost weight. Two pounds, to be exact, that I gained right before my period and lost right after. So by the end of 4 weeks I was the same weight as when I started.
Not gonna lie. I wasn't expecting that.
Either I’ve been grossly underestimating the calories I’ve been eating each day — which is hard for me to believe since my entire career is based on understanding how many calories are in a food/recipe — or this upswing in calories did actually dovetail with a boost in metabolism. It’s also possible that the set-point weight theory is coming into play here. You can read more about that here.
So at one month in with no weight gain, I did what the blueprint said and added 15 more grams of carbs and 5 more grams of fat to my diet. It’s hard to say if those extra macros have amounted to permanent weight gain since I’m still cycling 2 pounds up and down from where I started. (I always knew my weight fluctuated a lot over the month, but in tracking my weight every day I can see how drastically it goes up and down.)
You’ll recall that my original goal of “weight gain” wasn’t to gain fat, but rather to gain muscle. With no appreciable amount of weight gain (or loss) to report, you’re probably wondering what exactly this macro counting experience has meant for my overall body composition.
Because muscle doesn’t simply build itself based on whatever combo of macros you’re tracking, I’ve of course kept up my workout routine throughout this experiment. Time will tell if the exercise plan I’ve been doing combined with this new level of protein/calorie intake will translate into more muscle. I have at least one friend who says it won’t. (I know… If you have friends like that, who needs enemies, right?) But I'm keeping at it -- BodyPump 3-4 days per week, Run/Walk 2 - 3 miles 2 - 3 days per week (this is less about exercise and more about Netflix watching) and a HIIT type class 1 day per week.
The run/walk and HIIT won’t amount to much muscle, I know that. I just enjoy those. But my hope has been that BodyPump will (which I also enjoy tremendously), especially as I’m focusing on "pumping" heavier weight in each BP class. Anecdotally, friends and family tell me they notice a difference, but it’s not likely I’m gonna be busting out of my workout shirt in any type of Hulk Beast Mode anytime soon.
And that’s okay by me.
The benefits I’ve seen in trying something new, getting in touch with hunger in a way I haven’t known before and fueling my workouts have made this experience totally worth the $67 I sunk into it. Plus, it's given me an insight into a whole community of folks who are looking for recipes that fit their macros.
Would I rather those folks be working with an RD to achieve those goals? Absolutely.
But I understand that not everyone can afford a personal consult with a dietitian. And while some in my profession bristle at the thought anyone other than an RD would be giving nutrition advice, I think my energies are better placed highlighting balanced nutrition advice, even when it doesn't come from an RD. At the end of the day, I just want people to eat healthier, be more active and live a healthier, happier life.
But this isn't where the story ends. Up next, I’ll share with you what a registered dietitian who specializes in “flexible dieting” told me about how it’s impacted her practice and then, reveal the things I've learned since starting this macro plan (Yes, even as an RD I learn new things about food and my health each day).
Thanks for reading this far. Read my next post for the rest of the story!
Ever thought about trying out a macro counting plan like IIFYM? Read about this RDs experience first. @ReganJonesRD Tweet this