Can something we do every day be hard? For people who have trained regularly for years, it’s easy to forget that it can. The fundamentals may seem obvious to the person doing it (or to their trainer or dietician), but what’s simple on the surface can often mask serious depth.
Case in point for diets, which are on one level, a routine or rut of meals, and on another, the product of hundreds or thousands of cues and positive reinforcements. Take the Macros Diet, in vogue for its relationship to weight loss and its flexible approach to calories counting. But the math that it’s based on reveals severe complications when food science, and its misunderstandings, are involved.
Eating healthy seems a simple enough idea from afar — like Michael Pollan says, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” — but in practice that mutates into a mess of terminology that can complicate things. Look up a diet or a vanguard nutritional hack and you’ll be hit with big, prohibitive words. What exactly are volumetric foods, what is “nutrient-dense”? The specialized language is never-ending, and calls to mind the Michael Lewis line about “the triumph of language over truth,” the complicated financial wordplay that serves as both a barrier to entry and a smokescreen.
While the stakes in nutrition science are not as profitable as the bond market’s, the logic behind dieting could be as complicated. Stress, lack of sleep, and gender all throw wisdom for a curve; making a diet work is a lot of trial and error. Still, the principles of weight loss are fairly universal: pounds shed when people burn more calories than they take in. That calorie deficit can be counted by the day or week — by week is easier — and is best achieved through both diet and exercise.
How many calories do we need? Numbers vary, but the basic metabolic rate — the amount of calories we need to get through a day on the couch — for most of us is between 1,200 and 1,600 a day; our calorie requirements, which take activity into account, are higher. As for exercise, different movements burn different amounts of calories in different ways. Ten minutes on the treadmill burns 140 calories, which is a can of Coke. Weight training, which has been shown to increase metabolism in the long run, may be the ideal protocol for people trying to lose weight; lifting is better than jogging for those reasons.
Dropping weight, like finding pants, gets complicated when there’s muscle involved. Crash diets, like Karl Lagerfeld’s, can shed belly fat, but get rid of everything else too. Maintaining muscle mass is a constraint, one that macronutrients address.
That word refers to carbs, fats, and protein: the three building blocks of food. A gram of each has a specific calorie amount (four for protein and carbs; nine for fat), which makes focusing on macronutrients a more specific form of calorie-counting. It’s also a form of bodily upkeep, as macros play more specific roles than providing energy: fat lubricates joints and keeps vital organs running; protein feeds our muscles and carbs fuel our activity. They all add up to our calorie requirements, but are more specific.
Different ratios exist for different needs, and plugging vitals into an online macros calculator — this one is the most precise I’ve found; use the US Marines Corp body fat calculator for that number — will have a different ratio depending on the goal: a cut, or diet, a bulk or controlled weight gain, and maintenance.
Protein is kept constant during maintenance and bulking, at around 0.7 grams per pound of body weight a day, and fat should run at around a quarter of daily calories or more; carbs make up the rest of the calories.
On a cut, fat stays constant, carbs drop and protein increases, up to around 1.4 grams, to keep muscles intact. Cuts and bulks are best handled at a 10 percent range of maintenance — higher can be aggressive — and macro ratios can be modified for high-fat Keto diets if need be. The numbers explain why low-carb diets caught on: it’s that macronutrient which can determine weight loss.
Flexible dieting’s strength is less in its results than its demystification of food.
On a flexible, macros-counting diet, food is a building block, and the numbers are scarily precise: Fifty extra grams of carbs a day — 200 calories or a bag of Skittles — can be the 10 percent difference between maintenance and a bulk.
Hitting a total is a zero-sum game, like building a player in NBA 2K, with its fallout about as real: too much fat or carbs means not enough protein, and maybe muscle loss, and too much protein could mean too few carbs, and exhaustion.
Macros, which are best hit with a kitchen scale, create an education that can’t be replicated. A few weeks of macros counting is like a graduate class in food composition: trail mix is macros poison because it is nutrient-dense; french fries ruin a day’s worth of numbers because they’re fat and carb-dominant; foods without protein don’t lead to satiety.
But the real rude awakening is in the measurement: where a serving of cereal, like it says on the box, is not a bowl but half a cup, and that we eat twice as much rice as we think, and not enough protein.
Macros counting turns food into math, with apps like Cronometer providing food databases, eventually turning the dieter into Predator, able to eyeball the grams of protein in a restaurant meal with ease, and become literate at hitting totals with declining effort.
But flexible dieting can also lead to unhealthy eating routines, as static calorie counts can devolve into lack of variety — sticking to a total — or lazy hacks, like switching brown rice for Pop Tarts. Macros counting’s focus on ratios and totals can leave micronutrients and greens on the backburner, with some dieters picking the unhealthiest options available — fast food — due to those restaurants listing nutrition labels with macronutrient breakdowns.
It’s ironic: the restaurants that don’t post nutritional profiles on their menu likely use better ingredients, though it’s fair to assume that everything is sauteed in butter, and a meal at one will put any diet at its daily fat limit.
Flexible dieting’s strength is less in its results than its demystification of food. By creating knowledge that doesn’t go away, we can take those precepts to any other diet. Only competitive athletes need to hit a weight mark, but all of us use food for fuel.
Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.