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If you have ever tried to lose weight, you have undoubtedly come across many different types of diets that promised the best results.
They include but are not limited to: the Atkins diet, Paleo, the banana diet (unfortunately I’m serious), Zone, and the list goes on…
Before coming across this article, chances are you have also heard of Flexible Dieting as an alternative to the above food-restrictive diets.
Flexible Dieting, also known as IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) is a method of calorie-counting that is tailored to each individual, based on their own daily macronutrient and caloric requirement.
This concept has grown in popularity within the last few years, thanks to bodybuilders and athletes who have grown tired of having to stick to “clean” foods during their contest preps.
The main idea behind Flexible Dieting is that, in the context of overall caloric intake (and macronutrient partitioning), the kinds of food you choose to eat don’t matter. In other words, if you stick to the required calories and macros for your goals, you can eat whatever food items fit into those specific categories.
Don’t feel like having chicken breast and rice every day? Have a shake and some fruit instead. As long as the macros match up (I’m talking carbs, protein and fat content), you’re good to go.
Who benefits the most?
Flexible Dieting isn’t just for those seeking fat loss. In fact, if you’re looking to gain muscle, you could greatly benefit from tracking your macros as you could then limit the amount of fat you put on in the process.
Now I’m going to let you in on a “secret”. The secret all these fad diets ‘gurus’ will never tell you.
You don’t hear this very often (if at all), but it makes a lot of sense once you really let it sink in.
The following piece of information can single-handedly dictate the outcome of your fat-loss or muscle-gain endeavours, so keep it in mind for the future.
Ready? Here it is:
The best diet is the one you can see yourself sticking to in the long run.
Do you know why most dieters fail to keep their lost weight off? Because the ‘diet’ they chose to do isn’t practical or realistic for the long-term.
When you think about cutting a specific food group (say, carbs for example), you might initially be very motivated to do so… but as time goes by (and family events and your social life start getting in the way), you’ll soon realize that it’s not the best way to go.
The reason why Flexible Dieting works is because it is sustainable, enjoyable and relatively easy to implement once you’ve figured out the basics. The learning curve isn’t too steep, and it is a habit that can be maintained for as long as you’d like.
Counting calories is made simple with apps such as LoseIt and MyFitnessPal. By logging your macros on your smartphone, you can easily keep track of how much you are eating throughout the day and adjust accordingly.
This allows for choosing exactly what you want to eat, regardless of the situation.
Sounds great, huh? Before I show you exactly how you can calculate your required macros (based on your age, height, activity level and goals), I want to talk a little more about what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’.
Macronutrient refers to protein, fats, and carbohydrates. They are nutrients that are consumed in large quantities, hence the term “macro”, and are used to carry out bodily functions in living organisms.
Arguably the most important macronutrient when it comes to muscle building, protein is found everywhere in the body.
It is used to produce new tissue for growth and tissue repair, as well as regulating bodily functions. Enzymes that are used to regulate digestion, for example, are made of protein.
Protein is made usable by its breakdown into amino acids. The human body needs 21 amino acids, 9 of which are called essential since they cannot be made by the body and must be ingested from food. High-quality proteins are those that contain all nine of these essential amino acids, and they tend to come from animal sources.
It is easy to see, then, how protein is the building block of muscles. Being in an anabolic (building) state is essential for muscle growth, and that is made possible by ingesting an adequate amount of protein and overall calories.
The primary role of carbohydrates is to provide the body with energy. At the same time, it is not a required macronutrient in the sense that one can survive without eating it at all.
Recently, carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap as being the culprit for fat loss. The truth is, as you will see in a bit, maintaining a caloric deficit is the true determinant of weight loss.
In strength training, carbohydrates play the role of providing the body with the energy it needs to power through high-intensity workouts, as well as assisting in muscle synthesis.
At nine calories per gram, fats provide the most concentrated fuel for the body.
Fats also provide the body with essential fatty acids that are crucial for proper bodily function, and these can only be obtained from food. They are used in the building of cell membrane, for example, and in the production of hormones.
Another role of dietary fat is to aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin A, D and K.
Calories in, calories out… what does that even mean?
The whole premise of Flexible Dieting lies in the concept of energy balance, which comes straight out of thermodynamics.
Energy balance refers to the relationship between calories consumed through food (energy in) versus calories burned by your body (energy out).
When we eat enough calories to maintain our current bodyweight, without gaining or losing weight, we are said to be at a ‘maintenance’ caloric level. Think of it as level zero, or a neutral ground from where you can make changes in your body weight.
Since the body requires calories to carry out daily activities, unused energy (extra calories consumed) is stored in the body as excess weight (this could be fat, muscle or both). The state of ingesting more calories than you burn is referred to as being in a caloric surplus.
When we burn more calories than we consume (thus putting us in a caloric deficit), we lose weight. Note that we can also be in a caloric deficit by ingesting fewer calories than our bodies require for maintenance. (Calories in < calories out)
What is a calorie, anyway?
A calorie is a unit of energy, which is found in food and is used to fuel the body. The specific breakdown of calories per macronutrient is listed below:
– Protein – 4 calories per gram
– Carbohydrates – 4 calories per gram
– Fats – 9 calories per gram
The body requires a certain amount of energy in order to maintain its current state. We refer to this as Resting or Basal Metabolic Rate (RMR/BMR), which is the amount of calories you would require if you were bedridden.
When you factor in your daily activity level, from working out to running errands, your daily caloric requirement is now called TDEE, which stands for Total Daily Energy Expenditure.
Calories can be burned, or used up, in a number of different ways. It is consumed in the process of digesting the food you eat, which is called Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).
It is also burned during exercising or any activity that requires higher than usual energy outputs, known as TEA (Thermic Effect of Activity).
Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) refers to the calories burned during all activity outside of exercise. This includes things such as fidgeting and any other type of subconscious, spontaneous movement throughout the day.
Your TDEE (which is what we’re after) is calculated as a sum of all of the above factors: BMR + NEAT + TEA + TEF.
As you can see, the above equation is not static and it points to one of the most obvious but sometimes forgotten things when it comes to weight maintenance: there are various factors at play, and they are always changing.
In order to be successful with Flexible Dieting, you need to understand the importance of your overall caloric intake.
If your goal is to gain muscle, you should aim to be in a caloric surplus. That can only be achieved by consuming more calories than your body requires.
In order to lose weight, you should aim to be in a caloric deficit. You can achieve that by either consuming fewer calories than required for maintenance, or by burning the extra calories through exercise.
In the second installment of this article, I will explain exactly how you can calculate your own macros, and also how to measure and log your food.
Until next time,
Mifflin, M., St Jeor, S., & Hill, L. A new predictive equation for resting energy expenditure in healthy individuals (1990). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/51/2/241.abstract
Henley, S., & Misner, S. (n.d.). Fats and Cholesterol in the Diet. Retrieved from http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/health/az1126.html
Nordvist, C. (n.d.). What Are Calories? How Many Do We Need? Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/263028.php