An “IIFYM” (If it Fits Your Macros) style of eating was popularised by bodybuilders who were seeking a way out of the trend of eating only a small set of foods that were seen as “Clean”.
The realisation that they could replace a piece of turkey with a piece of chicken, or 50g of carbohydrates from potatoes with the same quantity from rice, and still make the same body composition progress, it allowed more flexibility to an otherwise restrictive diet.
Down the line, this developed into the practice of fitting as much junk food as possible into their diet, whilst still making body composition improvements, which might have meant, for example, leaving out your potatoes at dinner in favour of donuts later on, or forgetting about vegetable intake completely, as they don’t significantly contribute to one’s macronutrient intake.
From a body composition point of view, this “worked”. Some of the top bodybuilders at the time followed this way of eating. Whether this was good for health or performance, however, is definitely up for debate.
Regardless, the process of tracking your macronutrient intake is a useful one for many people.
“Can I Eat Whatever I Want, as Long as I Hit My Macro Targets?”
You’re an adult, so you can do whatever you want. But is it optimal to forget about the quality of food that you’re using to hit your macronutrient targets? Of course not.
However, given the fact that the biggest contributor to successful dieting is your ability to adhere to the given diet, then including some of your favourite foods, regardless of their “healthiness”, can help, and fitting these into your macronutrient targets for the day will allow you to still maintain body composition and performance progress.
Aside from the flexibility side of things, the idea of tracking your food and aiming to hit macronutrients targets allows a level of accuracy around optimising performance, recovery, and body composition, that could otherwise be left to chance.
The three main macronutrients (Protein, fat, and carbohydrates) make up your daily energy intake (find your how to estimate your calorie requirement as a GAA Athlete here), meaning that by manipulating your macronutrient intake, you are also manipulating your energy intake/caloric intake. Alcohol is technically a fourth macronutrient, but we’ll get into that topic in other articles, and not talk much about it here, as it makes up such a small fraction of most people’s daily intake.
Do I Have to Track all This?
Of course, you don’t have to track your macronutrients. However, for most GAA athletes I work with, I recommend tracking for at least a period of a few weeks. If nothing else, this will give you an insight into what macronutrients are contained within the foods you are eating, as well as giving you an insight into how different your current intake might be to a more optimal one. From there, you can continue to track and maintain that level of accuracy, or you can simply make habit based changes to get you closer to a more suitable macronutrient intake.
Whether you regularly track your food or not can depend, in part, on how it fits into your lifestyle and your relationship with food. Some people find it quite constricting and impractical, whereas others find it frees them up, knowing that they can fit in some treats, whilst fuelling their training and achieving their body composition goals.
Either way, having a good knowledge of what each macronutrient does, and having a good idea of how much you, as an individual, should be consuming daily, is likely to lead to improved performance, recovery and body composition.
Macro #1: Protein
When we eat protein-rich foods, the protein is broken down into smaller particles, known as amino acids. These amino acids are the building blocks of protein structures such as muscle tissue, but also things like hair and nails.
Our muscles are constantly in a state of flux, meaning that they are being broken down (and not just through exercise) and built back up simultaneously.
In order to ensure the building up (or synthesis) of new muscle equals or exceeds the breakdown, it is important to supply the body with sufficient amino acids, by eating enough protein.
Generally, the amount of protein you require will rely on how much training you are doing, and how much muscle mass you have (which roughly correlates with your body weight.)
Given the level and types of training involved in GAA sports, a recommendation of 2g per kg of body weight is a good target.
For example, for an athlete weighing 80kg, this will be:
80 x 2 = 160g of protein per day
To put that in context, here are a few common protein sources with how many grams of protein they contain:
Medium Chicken Breast: 30-40g
4 eggs: 24g
1 Scoop whey protein: 20-25g
Medium steak: 60-80g
Salmon Fillet: 30-40g
Pot of greek yoghurt: 20g
Let’s say this 80kg athlete had an estimated calorie requirement of 3000 kcal.
Given that protein contains 4 kcal per gram, we can say that this athlete is getting 640 kcal (160 x 4) out of their 3000 kcal daily total from protein.
Macro #2: Fat
When we eat foods containing dietary fat, the fat is broken down into fatty acids, which can be used for energy, or stored in adipose tissue for later use.
That doesn’t mean you have to do start jumps every time you eat some fat in order to avoid fat gain.
As with our muscle protein, our body fat is continuously in flux, with fatty acids continuously being both released to be burned as energy, and being stored. The balance of how much is released and burned vs. how much is stored is ultimately what determines how much body fat is gained overall.
This is almost completely a result of how much energy (calories) you take in vs. how much you have expended/burned (energy balance) over time.
Fat is also used in the regulation of hormones and the maintenance of cell structures, as well as the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A,D,E, and K.
In calculating how much fat you should be aiming to consume, it’s important to consume enough to cover these processes, and the other biological processes involving fat. Fat also contributes to the overall enjoyability of the diet, which is important when considering the sustainability of the diet. It’s also important to remember that the more fat you consume, the fewer carbohydrates you’ll be able to consume whilst staying within your calorie target and given the importance of carbohydrates, you may not want to have to reduce your intake of them.
With all these things taken into account, starting somewhere in the range of 1-1.5g per kg body weight would likely be close to optimal. You could go towards the higher or lower end of that range based on preference, but for those on relatively lower calories (in a fat-loss phase for example), it would likely be better to edge towards the lower end, in order to allow room for enough carbohydrates and protein to be consumed, within your caloric target.
For our 80kg athlete, that is 80-120g of fat daily (80 x 1-1.5), so 100g would be a good place to start.
To put that in context, here are some examples of how much fat is in various foods:
30g cashew nuts: 12g
30g Dark Chocolate:10g
1 egg: 5g
1 fillet of salmon: 20g
1 tablespoon olive oil: 14g
Given that fat contains 9kcal per gram, we can say that fat will contribute 900 kcal (100 x 9) to our example athlete’s the overall diet.
This means that protein and fat will contribute 1540 kcal out of the 3000 kcal this 80kg athlete needs, leaving 1460 kcal for carbohydrates.
Macro #3: Carbohydrates
When we eat carbohydrate-rich foods, the carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugar). This is true whether this carbohydrate comes from sweet potatoes or a mars bar.
This glucose is then circulated around the body, where it is either used to produce energy, or it is stored as glycogen, for when it’s needed (in high-intensity training, for example). In extremely rare cases, the glucose can be converted and stored as fat.
Given the high glycolytic (glucose-dependent) demands of GAA sports, where there is a lot of intermittent high-intensity running, for example, it is important to have high levels of glycogen stores in the muscles, in order to optimise performance. There can also be benefits to increasing levels of blood glucose immediately before and during training and matches.
This all means that you need plenty of carbohydrates in order to get the most out of your GAA performance.
In terms of calculating your recommended intake, we have done most of the work by calculating how many calories are left after calculating your protein and fat targets.
For the 80kg GAA athlete we’ve been using in this article, we calculated that there is 1460 kcal left for carbohydrates. Given that carbohydrates provide around 4 kcal per gram, this 1460 kcal is equal to about 365g of carbohydrate.
However, based on the scientific research, we also know that somewhere in the region of 3.5-6.5 g of carbohydrate per day is likely to be optimal for mixed sports.
For our 80kg athlete, this range is 280-520g.
Our original target of 365g does fit in this, but there may be case to increase that towards the higher end of that range, particularly in times of high training load. This may mean that you increase overall caloric intake as a result, or you may decrease fat intake in order to maintain the same caloric intake.
For context, here are some examples of carbohydrate sources with the amount of carbohydrates in each:
100g rice (raw weight): 75g
400g potatoes: 68g
100g pasta (raw weight): 75g
2 slices of bread: 25g
1 sports drink: 32g
3 rice cakes: 20g
1 large sweet potato: 30-40g
Summary of Calculations
For our 80kg athlete (for whom we calculated a target of 3000kcal/day):
Protein: 2g per kg bodyweight = 2 x 80 = 160g/day
Fat: 1-1.5g per kg bodyweight = 1-1.5 x 80 = 80-120g/day = 100g/day as a middle ground
Carbohydrate: The rest of the calories = 1460 kcal / 4 = 365g/day (should also be in the range of 3.5-6.5 g per kg bodyweight = 3.5-6.5 x 80 = 280-520g/day).
Using the article on calculating your calorie intake for GAA (HERE), you can now go ahead and calculate your own energy and macronutrient requirements to optimise your performance, recovery and body composition for GAA.
Conor O'Neill, Know Yourself Nutrition