Harleen Kaur, an Illinois-based finance professional, has found it a challenge to stick to her ideal weight all her life. “I grew up in a Punjabi household,” she says. “Food was your family’s way of showing love to you.” Through most of her 20s and early 30s, she found herself going on and off diets, losing weight and then regaining it, over and over again, says Kaur, who moved to the US in 2011 after getting married.
In December last year, she found herself at the heaviest she had ever been. She had recently had a baby, and while she had not gained much weight during her pregnancy, she did while breastfeeding her child. Suddenly, she found herself slowing down and dealing with mobility and movement issues. “My daughter was eight or ten months old, and I wanted to do the best for her. That was the motivation,” she says. So, she finally bit the bullet and reached out to a health coach who helped her plan a diet, taking into account macros or macronutrients, basically, those food components that the body needs in large quantities to survive.
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"They give you a calorie-managed diet chart with the foods you eat and a substitute list with 25-30 options that would be the same calories and similar macros,” she says. She began measuring her food on a food scale instead of estimating quantities, as she had earlier, eating what she liked but ensuring that she kept to the right amount of calories and macronutrients. “I like that there is no restriction on what you can or cannot eat,” says Kaur, who has lost 15 kgs in the last eight months.
Anyone who has tried to lose weight knows that being in a calorific deficit is crucial to weight loss. However, multiple studies over the years have indicated that it is not just how much you eat but what you eat that matters. For example, a January 4, 2021 article in Prevention points out that serious athletes have always paid attention to their macronutrients to optimise performance. “But more recently, macro-focused diets (also known as flexible dieting or the IIFYM--if it fits your macros-- diet) have become popular among fitness enthusiasts and other health-conscious eaters who are trying to keep their weight in check,” says the article. An August 2020 article published in Nutrients journal confirms this--“from ecological observation to sophisticated laboratory techniques, proportional macronutrient intake is inextricably linked to health,” it says.
So, what are the major macronutrients? “Carbohydrates, protein, and fats,” says Ryan Fernando, a Bengaluru-based nutrition coach. “Every macronutrient is essential for the body to work efficiently." For example, carbohydrates provide energy to the body and brain; proteins are the building blocks of our body and aid the immune system; fats help with vitamin absorption, hormone production and brain development, says Fernando.
On average, you should consume about 45-60% of calories through carbohydrates, 20-25% of proteins and 15-20% of fats, says Jaipur-based Rajat Jain, a certified weight-loss expert and sports nutritionist. However, the ideal macro split varies considerably from individual to individual, taking into account lifestyle, age, gender, activity levels and dietary preferences. “For example, a person who wants to obtain better blood sugar control and lose excess body fat may excel on a meal plan consisting of 35% carbs, 30% fat and 35% protein,” says Jain. On the other hand, someone pursuing a ketogenic diet would need much more fat and fewer carbs, while an endurance athlete may require a higher carb intake, he adds.
The biggest advantage macro counting could offer is flexibility and convenience--you can eat anything provided it fits into your daily macro goals. For instance, on average, one cup of ice cream contains around 275-300 calories, 44 gms of carbohydrates, seven gms of protein, and a whopping seven gms of fat, the majority of which is saturated (the bad sort). If you are on a 1500 calorie nutrition plan, where 40 % comes from carbohydrates, 30% from protein and 30% from fat, you ideally need150 gms of carbohydrates, 113 g of protein and 50 g of fat, per day. All you need to do is adjust your intake so that the calories and macros for the day are maintained, even after eating a cup of ice cream. If I wanted to eat ice cream—and yes, I always want to eat ice cream—I would drop a cup of rice (44gms of carbohydrates), two teaspoons of butter or oil (8 gms of fat) and two large egg whites (7 gms of protein). Do remember, however, that since the latter keeps you more satiated and is better for you overall, choosing the ice cream should be a treat, not an everyday occurrence.
"IIFYM is a great way of following a controlled eating regimen while still being flexible with the food choices which can make meals enjoyable and stress-free,” agrees certified nutrition and fitness consultant Poonam Vichare, Faculty, Institute of Nutrition and Fitness Science (INFS), Pune. “All types of macro splits can be effective as long as one can adhere to the energy balance set for the desired goal,” she says, adding that one should select a macro split that is convenient, sustainable and meets the minimum requirements. And no, you don’t have to sit down every day with a calculator and pen-and-paper to do so. There are plenty of apps and online tools, including MyFitnessPal, MyPlate and My Macros, that take care of it for you.
This doesn’t mean that you eat chicken tikka and ice cream every day to meet your macro requirements. As Jain points out, macros aren't enough; micronutrients, basically your vitamins and minerals, are also critical for optimum body functioning. Unfortunately, the body does not produce them. “If not taken in proper quantity, their deficiencies might lead to severe disorders,” he says, pointing out that the only way to get those is by eating a lot of colourful, whole foods. Essentially, the bulk of your nutrition should come from whole grains, legumes, lean protein, some dairy, good fat, fruits and vegetables, with the occasional treat.
And yes, do think of going to a qualified nutritionist to determine the right macro split for you. “Each person has varying nutrition needs; the ideal macro split will be different for all individuals,” says Fernando, who firmly believes that it is important to follow a diet customised for your specific needs after consulting with a nutritionist. Kaur agrees that this made the most significant difference for her—having a coach to keep her accountable while she followed IIFYM. “Motivation will come and go but what gets you to the other side is consistency,” she says.