So you couldn’t be bothered tacking every gram of chicken and rice that passes your lips. I get it.
We know tracking your macronutrients isn’t ESSENTIAL, in order to hit your performance and body composition goals. After all, we’ve all seen people who are in great shape and never give a second thought to how many grams of carbohydrate are in the meal they’re eating. (If you’re lost at this stage, and don’t know what these these “Macronutrient” things are, read this article before reading on)
That said, usually these people have developed a set of habits that allow them to get close to their optimal intake, whether they mean to or not!
There is more than one way to skin a cat. Tracking your macronutrient intake is one method of managing it and it's usually the one I recommend on my GAA Online Coaching Program (knowyourselfnutrition.com/gaaleanathlete), but if this isn’t sustainable for the individual, then other options are available, and should be used. Remember, following an 80% optimal plan consistently is better than having a 100% optimal plan and not sticking to it!
With that in mind, let’s get into some of the other options that are available to you.
1. Partial Tracking
Tracking Calories Only
The most important nutritional concept when it comes to body composition and performance is energy balance. In eating less energy (or in other words, fewer calories) than you are expending, a calorie deficit is created, which will lead to weight-loss and potentially a detriment to performance. Depending on your goals, these two things can be weighed up and balanced in order to allow for slow weight-loss and minimal loss of performance.
The inverse is also the case, where a calorie surplus, whilst providing enough energy to fuel performance, will lead to weight gain, which may be good or bad, depending on your goals, and whether the weight gain is in the form of muscle or fat.
In tracking your caloric intake, and making sure it is in the right place, you ensure that your performance is fuelled, whilst allowing you to make body composition changes, where needed.
However, since carbohydrate is a better fuel source than fat in high-intensity activity, where we get our energy from will play a role in our performance, so by only tracking calories, performance probably won’t be optimised (but this will still be better than not having sufficient energy intake). We may also be consuming a less-than-optimal amount of protein, which bring us to a slightly more optimal method…
Tracking Calories and Protein
When we’ve taken care of our energy demands, the next step is to begin optimising macronutrient intake, firstly by ensuring we are getting sufficient protein intake in order to facilitate the recovery of muscle tissue.
By tracking both calories and protein, you are providing the body with enough energy, as well as enough protein for recovery. The potential downside is that you may not be optimising the energy sources since carbohydrate vs. fat intake is not being optimised. The only accurate way of doing this is to track all 3 macronutrients, so, as with all the alternatives in this article, some accuracy will be lost, and therefore progress may not be completely optimal. Again, its about being as optimal as you can, without making it so complex as to cause poor adherence.
Tracking Bodyweight and Protein
Since, as mentioned before, energy balance is correlated with changes in bodyweight, by simply tracking bodyweight, we will be able to adjust our daily intake in accordance with bodyweight changes. In this case, since calories aren’t being tracked, the increase or decrease in intake will be done subjectively (eating ‘less’ as opposed to ‘100 kcal less’), in order to push our bodyweight in the direction we want to go, if body composition changes are a goal. On the other hand, for someone is optimising for performance, if bodyweight is decreasing, this may be a sign that they are not providing enough fuel for the training they are doing and therefore, they may need to increase their intake and focus on ‘eating more’. I suggest tracking protein along with bodyweight, since bodyweight is only indicative of weight lost and not necessarily whether that weight is coming from fat or muscle. By consuming enough protein, there will be a better chance of muscle being repaired and maintained, and therefore there is a better chance that any weight lost will be in the form of fat (provided that fat-loss is the goal obviously). This is especially important, since usually protein is the macronutrient that is under-consumed.
2. Meal Planning
The “Perfect Day of Eating” Method
This is a method I learned when going through Mike Vacanti’s online coaching program. Even though I was going to be tracking my intake during the coaching process, Mike set me a homework task of putting together what a perfect day of eating would look like based on my recommended intake. This forced me to think about what foods and quantities of food I would have to eat to meet my intake, and also forced me to create an eating schedule that would fit around my life. I found this exercise very beneficial, since it saved me thinking-time before putting together each meal, having already planned them beforehand during the exercise.
This method could be used to simply create your own perfect day of eating, and stick to that as a meal plan. The danger here is the lack of flexibility. However, this can be helped by simply creating two perfect days of eating, where the meals are interchangeable.
The obvious downside here is that there is a couple of hours of work required in the short term in order to come up with your ‘perfect day’. However, I do feel like this is very much worth it, whether you are planning on tracking your macronutrient intake, using any of the above variations, or simply using it to create a meal plan for yourself.
3. Developing Intuitive Eating
A funny thing I’ve found with myself and some of the clients I’ve worked with is that after a couple of months of tracking intake diligently, one begins to develop an intuitive sense of how many calories and/or grams of each macronutrient might be within a meal. When you get to this point, it may be worth experimenting with not tracking for a period of time, whilst using your learned awareness of what’s contained within your food, and observing if you are making progress in the same way you would be with tracking.
For some people, this abandonment of tracking is a relief, and if they can make progress without tracking, then it is a real advantage, saving time and hassle on a daily basis. Then there are other people who would rather have some numbers to refer in order to ensure they are close to their recommendations.
The downside here is that it can take a few months of tracking intake everyday in order to develop this ‘intuition’.
The other potential downside is the loss of accuracy that is the case in all of the alternatives. But as I said before, the imperfect plan carried out is better than the perfect plan not carried out.
4. Making Rules
Making rules can also be an effective method of making sure you are close to your recommended intake. I’ve outlined some example rules below, but there will certainly be others that work. These are just examples of what might work for some people, but are, by no means, meant as recommendations to everyone!
- Each meal should contain protein, healthy fats, veggies, and some carbs
- No liquid calories
- No sweets until after dinner or training
- Carbs at night only
- Add a portion of carbs to each meal
- Add extra carbohydrates on training days
All of the above can be effective ways of controlling calories, either in cases of weight-loss, muscle gain and/or fuelling performance. Confusion often ensues when people confuse correlation with causation. For example, if someone sees weight-loss results by keeping their carbohydrate intake to night-time only, they may mistakenly say that eating carbohydrates during the day leads to weight-gain, when in fact, limiting their carbohydrates during the day may have just meant they stayed away from the donuts at tea-time, and opted for salad instead of pasta at lunch-time. This change may have, in turn, created a caloric deficit, and therefore led to fat-loss.
As mentioned in other articles, for those whose goals necessitate them being as accurate as possible, tracking macronutrients is probably the way to go, but for those who don’t need to be that accurate, or are simply tired of tracking, but still want some accuracy, the methods outlined in this article presents some decent options, of varying utility and accuracy.
It’s worth experimenting in order to discover what works for you. The aim is to find a method that gives you enough control to achieve your goals, without being so complex, or time-intensive as to lead to you not sticking to it for the long-term.
Conor O'Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition
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