Summer has started, beach weather is in full swing, and you’ve decided this is the year that you finally get that beach body you’ve been dreaming of. After buying a gym membership and some stylish new workout clothes you’ve started exercising regularly to get that lean, muscular physique. Now it’s time to improve the other half of the physique building equation, your diet.
Focusing on a healthy diet for the first time can seem overwhelming. What are these “macros” all these bodybuilder and fitness models keeping talking about? How can I get more protein in my diet? You mean there are healthy fats? This article is going to decode some of the most common dieting terms and provide some of the basics to get you started toward a more healthy and productive diet.
What are Macros?
The “macros” that many bodybuilders and fitness professionals can be heard referencing are the three macronutrients that are found in foods. These are essentially what give food calories and provide our bodies with important tools for optimal health, energy and muscle growth.
Of all the macronutrients, carbohydrates get the most attention. Low carb, high carb and even no carb diets make it difficult to decide what sources of carbohydrates are best, or if they are even necessary. Carbohydrates are an energy source for the body. They can be divided into two basic categories. Those categories are complex and simple carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates are just that – more complex. This type of carbohydrate takes longer to fully digest inside the body which gives us more sustained energy. Complex carbohydrates also tend to have more vitamins and fiber which makes them great for not only energy but also our overall health.
Simple carbohydrates are just the opposite. This form tends to give a more rapid, short term boost in energy as it breaks down and digests much faster than complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates spike insulin more intensely than complex carbohydrates. Spikes in insulin occurring too often over a long period of time can result in additional fat gain and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. That being said, it’s important not to fear simple carbs as some foods have several health benefits but are categorized as containing simple carbohydrates. Here are just a few examples of foods that contain simple or complex carbohydrates:
- White bread/pasta
- White potato
- Candy bars/soda
- Whole grains (Wheat bread, oats etc.)
- Sweet Potato
- Beans etc.
Fats are the long term energy source of the body. Like carbohydrates, fats can also be thought of in two general categories. Note that this is somewhat oversimplifying fats as there are other subcategories; this is a great start however. The two broad categories of fats are saturated and unsaturated fats.
Saturated fats are found most often in animal food sources. Our bodies need some saturated fat to maintain daily functions, however, an overabundance of has been shown to increase risks of heart disease and cholesterol (Mustad et. al 1997).
Unsaturated fats have been shown to provide many health benefits for humans including improved HDL or “good” cholesterol, improved heart health, and even better skin. This type of fat is normally liquid at room temperature (“Dietary fats:” 2011). Even though unsaturated fats provide several health benefits, it’s important to remember that an overabundance can still lead to unwanted fat gain. Keeping within your macronutrient goals for the day while focusing on using unsaturated fats to meet that fat goal can help you receive those benefits while still staying on track with your physique goals. Here are some sources of saturated and unsaturated fats:
- Dairy sources
- Red meat
- Olive oil
Anyone that has ever worked out has heard of the importance of protein! By helping the body repair and grow muscle as well as perform numerous other bodily functions, consuming adequate amounts of protein is essential for reaching your ideal physique. Proteins are considered either complete or incomplete; the difference being the ratio of essential amino acids found in each type.
Complete proteins as you may have guessed contain the complete amount of essential amino acids while incomplete proteins are lacking one or more of the 8 essential amino acids. It’s important to get plenty of complete proteins to ensure optimal muscle growth. Some people that may have limited food choices or choose a vegetarian diet can still get complete ratios of essential amino acids by properly combining different types of incomplete protein sources.
While there are a lot of protein sources available, it’s good to choose lean sources. Lean sources make it easier to consume the necessary amount of protein without eating excess amounts of fat in your diet. For example both whole and skim milk are good sources of protein but whole milk contains a significant amount of saturated fat while skim milk is fat free. Both are fine in moderation but it’s good to decide which will work better for your current diet. Here are some examples to give you an idea:
- Animal meat
- Dairy products
- Whey protein
- Grains (Bread, oats etc.)
- Nuts, seeds
Now that we have the basics of macronutrients covered, a brief explanation of the importance of tracking macronutrients is in order. There are several tools that may make tracking your diet easier. The first, and potentially the most important step in finding the correct diet to fit your body type and goals, are to decide on an amount of each macronutrient to eat each day. By tracking macros consistently each day you can get a better understanding of what works best for your body and what does not.
Choosing the right amount of each macronutrient can be a little challenging at first and even a bit of guess and check. This is where hiring a physique coach or visiting a dietitian can be of great help. If this isn’t currently an option for you, likely the best way to decide your macro goals is to set a reasonable number for each, consume that amount for a week, and then use a bodyweight scale, photographs and your overall energy levels to assess what changes may be needed in order to continue progressing. That being said, it’s good to remember that less isn’t always better when trying to lose weight. Our bodies need a certain amount of each macronutrient to repair and grow, and also to maintain a properly running metabolism.
There are a lot of great resources available to help you track what you eat without bringing a notebook, pencil, and calculator with you to the next neighborhood cookout. If you have a smartphone there are some great applications that can help you track your macronutrient goals. These applications often have enormous databases of common foods to make looking up nutrition information very easy. Many even have custom meal inputs, and can help you track your workouts and bodyweight. My top recommendation is MyMacros+. This application is highly customizable and user friendly.
Dining out: Decision Time
A huge misconception that I want to address is the idea that just because you are eating out it’s impossible to track your caloric intake and continue making progress. The rise in obesity over the past several decades has prompted the majority of major restaurant chains to include more healthy options in their menus. Items such as grilled chicken sandwiches, potatoes without the loads of sour cream and butter, and lean cuts of steak are just a few healthy options commonly available to customers.
Another great tool for dieters that many fast food chains have made available is online nutrition labels and meal calculators. Now you can simply visit the website on your laptop or smartphone to find nutrition information for any food the restaurant sells. Subway and Chipotle are both great examples. Both websites have a “meal builder” section that makes it easy to add into your diet log. With a little planning and modern technology, you are just a few clicks away from enjoying a meal with friends while sticking to your diet and reaching your fitness goals.
Flexible Dieting (IIFYM)
As important as a good diet is to physique progress, it’s equally important to understand a healthy diet doesn’t have to mean being miserable and sacrificing all the foods you enjoy. A relatively new term to dieting and bodybuilding (but not a new idea by any means) is IIFYM (If It Fits You Macros) or more recently called flexible dieting. At its basis, flexible dieting is simply using portion control to enjoy the foods you enjoy while still meeting your macronutrient goals. Just as you would for any other “healthy” food all you have to do is find the nutrition information for your favorite foods and track the amount you plan to eat, making sure that at the end of the day you are still meeting your macronutrient goals.
Here is an example that may help bring this idea home. Two slices of whole wheat Nature’s Own loaf bread contain 20 grams of carbohydrates. Two snack size Almond Joy candy bars also contain 20 grams of carbohydrates. Aside from the obvious difference in the other macronutrients and vitamin/mineral content, they both will provide the same amount of carbohydrates. Whether you choose to eat the almond joy bars or the slices of loaf bread to meet your allotted carbohydrate amount for the day is up to you. While flexible dieting can let you enjoy foods you crave, it’s still wise to make sure you get in enough fiber, vitamins and minerals from a variety of “healthy” foods for health benefits. Although these benefits are important, as long as you are able to hit the same amount of macronutrients, both ways allow for the same amount of fat loss or muscle gain.
The frequent comment against flexible dieting is that people use this as an excuse to stuff their face with low nutrient foods all day and forsake the importance of nutritious foods and their health benefits. This is true, but only for the people that aren’t looking at the big picture. These people try to use this type of eating habit as a way to get results without putting as much effort into being healthy. For others like me and the clients I coach, as well as many top coaches that see the importance of balance, this is a way to enjoy life events with family and friends without sacrificing our goals. Often times coaches like myself will suggest that a majority of foods (maybe something like 85-90% if we were to quantify it) come from nutrient dense foods; leaving clients able to fit in lower quality foods 10-15% of the time when things like celebration dinners, date nights, or other life events arise when it’s just nice to enjoy a good meal with great people.
Now Go Hit Those Macros!!
Even though it may seem too difficult are first, making the decision to eat a more healthy diet can be one of the best decisions you can make. As you continue to learn more about diet and nutrition, keeping track of your diet will become second nature. By taking control of your diet and hitting it hard in the gym, you’ll reach your dream body in no time!
*This is an example of a simple carb that has tremendous health benefits.
About the Author:
Andrew Pardue is the marketing and content contributor for Top Supplements Online and also a sales representative for Core Nutritionals. Read more about Andrew by visiting our Sponsored Athletes section and also feel free to follow his personal journey in natural bodybuilding and the supplement industry at the social media links below:
Dietary fats: Know which types to choose. (2011, February 15). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fat/NU00262
Mustad, V., Etherton, T., Cooper, A., Mastro, A., Pearson, T., Jonnalagadda, S., & Etherton, P. (1997). Reducing saturated fat intake is associated with increased levels of ldl receptors on mononuclear cells in healthy men and women.Journal of Lipid Research, 38, Retrieved from http://www.jlr.org/content/38/3/459.long
Walk through a nutrition panel. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/search?q=macronutrients&um=1&ie=UTF- 8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&authuser=0&ei=HNvNUdD_BYHq8QTt14GAAw& biw=1366&bih=649&sei=INvNUbnFMYjo9AToiICgAw