Living That Macro Life: A Guide to Macronutrient Splits and Other Nutritional Strategies That Work

When clients come to me for nutritional coaching I don’t typically start them right away on a macronutrient split. And many of them never get to this advanced strategy for body composition management. Why? Frankly, because most people don’t need this strict of a program to improve their diets and to see results.

Eating to your macros can be overwhelming and unless you’re extremely committed to losing a specific amount of body fat or gaining a specific amount of muscle in a specific amount of time it can be overkill. For the novice this can lead to serious frustration, yo-yo results and loss of resolve to continue with a health and fitness regime.

What does it mean to “eat to your macros”. Most folks assume that body composition is based on calories in and calories out. To lose body fat, for instance, one must burn more calories than one consumes. To burn one pound a person must achieve a 3,500 calorie deficit. Well… increasingly this oversimplification has come under fire and it’s now generally understood in the medical and fitness world that “a calorie is not just a calorie”. Our bodies are unique with unique needs and various macronutrients and micronutrients affect us differently. “Eating to your macros” means not only determining your daily caloric needs but also how those calories are ideally broken down into protein, carbohydrates and fats (and further divided into types of fat) as well as sodium, sugar, fiber and various micronutrients to achieve your desired body composition goal.

Typically those who successfully eat according to their macro split pre-plan their daily menus, food prep like champs or use a meal delivery service, and track everything they eat using a mobile tool like MyFitnessPal. It’s not for the faint of heart. Why do people do this? Results. Speaking from personal experience and from the experience of my clients who do this religiously, it helps quickly and safely lean out or bulk up, usually makes you feel great physically and even allows for “flexible dieting” (hence the popular hashtag #iifym). But it can be challenging. You have to get used to sometimes being hungry and saying no to delicious treats and drinks. You must have the time and money to commit to healthy food prep. And you have to be willing to weigh and track your food on a daily basis.

I don’t discourage clients from attempting this advanced strategy. I myself eat to my macros on a regular basis when I want to lean out or during a bulking phase. But it’s not a sustainable, 365 days/year approach for me. I find I’m able to take what I learn during my macro tracking phases and apply my same meal prep strategies and portions during my “off season” for long-term lifestyle change. That’s the benefit of eating to your macros beyond the short-term results: knowledge and long-term behavior change.   

If you are interested in eating to your macros, AWESOME! Let’s do it. I suggest working with a nutritionist, dietician or a certified nutrition coach (like me) to help you determine your ideal daily caloric needs and how that breaks down into ideal grams of protein, carbohydrates and fats based on your body type, fitness program and desired results (body fat loss, maintenance or muscle gain). There are online calculators you can certainly find to help with this, but I recommend the minimal investment in working 1/1 with a trained professional initially to ensure the right split for you, help you with meal plan ideas and to keep you accountable.

I highly recommend the free version of MyFitnessPal for tracking. My clients who use it can easily send me weekly outputs from the tool that we review together to monitor adherence and progress, make tweaks based on results and to discuss meal prep strategies and challenges. The tool is integrated across desktops, mobile tablets and phones (I have it on my PC, my iPad and and my iPhone). It provides a robust database, the ability to add your own food and easy to understand graphical breakdowns (see examples at the bottom of this post). Full disclosure: It’s a bitch to get started, but once you enter something for the first time it remembers and it becomes increasingly easy to use the more you use it. Check out the Help Center for tips and forums.

Overwhelmed? Scared sh*tless? Don’t worry. As I said, this is a very advanced method of eating and is something only a small percentage of fit folks do when they really want to get to the next level. If you can do it, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t less intense yet still effective ways of improving your diet, becoming fitter and being healthier. Let’s discuss a few other possible ways of getting started that have helped dozens of my clients over the years. These strategies are a great entry way and more attractive to busy professionals who don’t have the time and attention to weigh, track and measure every single thing that they eat.

Periodic Food Journaling and Small Changes

Most of my clients achieve long-term and sustainable results by periodically jotting down what they eat (either in MyFitnessPal or just on paper) for three consecutive days every few months and we review it together. Based on what we see we usually add something important that is missing (water, a little more protein, an extra serving of veggies) or slowly reduce the things that are causing the greatest harm (reducing alcohol, sugar or processed foods by a unit or two). We tackle a small, manageable change one at a time and as those small changes become habits we achieve sustainable body composition change AND lifestyle change.

The “I Don’t Cook” Meal Plan

I work with a lot of busy professionals who simply have no time or desire to cook and many who are required to eat out for client lunches and dinners regularly. For these folks, I teach them which restaurants to go to and we review all the menus together. They have copies of these menus in their desks with our notes about what to order. So they know the healthiest options for them at all of their normal places. This helps us minimize the damage of chronic eating out to their waistlines and then slowly over time we integrate more advanced strategies like breakfast smoothies, occasional meal prep or food delivery services.

Optimizing Your Pre- and Post-Workout Plate

For those petrified of weighing and measuring food and for the visually inclined, check out this better version of the classic USDA “My Plate”. Read the entire article but be sure to scroll down and review the graphics which show how to plan your meals (and particularly your starches) around your workouts. There is also a section for plant-based eating for vegetarians and vegans.

Eating to Your Body Type

Part of eating to your macros is based on your natural body type or “somatotype” (ectomorph, mesomorph or endomorph). Ryan Andrews from Precision Nutrition does a great job in this article explaining how these various body types respond differently to macronutrients and strategies for eating to your body type, that while not at all easy for most, is less strict and involves less math than religiously eating to your macro split.

Interested in integrating some nutritional changes into your life? Contact me and let’s chat about these and other strategies that have helped dozens of my clients achieve success. There is no one size fits all solution so let’s find the right approach for your body and your life.