Why All Macro Prescriptions Are Wrong, and Why You Still Need Them
This is going to sound strange, but our macronutrient prescriptions are wrong. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say ALL macro prescriptions are wrong – but that doesn’t mean you don’t need one! If you’re confused at this point, let me be more specific.
We know that the biggest factor in changing body composition is a calorie deficit or surplus. While other factors play a significant role, like timing of food, food quality, sleep, hormonal state, etc, by far the biggest influencer is whether you’re taking in more or less than you burn. This is one rule of thermodynamics that we just can’t get around.
So how much am I burning you ask?
That’s a good question, and there are a lot of ways to estimate it. There are plenty of formulas devised by researchers that give a solid guess as to how much energy your body needs at rest throughout the day just to get its bodily functions done. By the way, this is called your basal metabolic rate. Without some pretty fancy science equipment, these are, at best, a good guess.
As I said, your basal metabolic rate is how much energy you burn at rest. To get your total calories needed for each day, we have to add your activity. This includes your exercise, getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, standing up to present at work, etc. Again, there are some pretty neat ways to estimate this, but we’re back to the problem above…we’re guessing.
So if we’re guessing at your basal metabolic rate, we’re guessing at how many calories you burn during activity, then you’re right to think that it’s almost impossible to figure out how much you actually need to eat to match your calorie needs for the day.
But this is only half the equation. Let’s assume for a minute you were able to estimate your energy needs very accurately… There’s still the issue of matching the foods we need to the intake you’re trying to achieve.
First of all, God (or more likely farmer Joe) didn’t make chickens to a uniform specification. The chicken breast you have painstakingly measured out may or may not have 8.61g of protein per oz. There’s lots of variation in nature. (I use natural foods as an example since that’s what our program is based around. We find lots of nutrient dense natural foods provide better results.) But even if you avoided whole foods and purely used supplements, there are variations in product content that do not adhere to what’s on the nutrition label.
Second, you’re not that good at measuring your food. How tightly did you pack that cup of rice you just measured out? Did you calibrate your food scale down to the gram recently? The weight and volume units of measure we use to match our foods to our body’s needs are subject to some variation and margin of error.
Lastly, your body may or may not be getting all the energy out of the food you eat before it passes completely through your digestive system. Issues with digestive efficiency, permeable gut problems, food sensitivities, and even meal composition can affect whether or not you’re getting all of the energy from the food you’re eating. If food is moving through your body too quickly, you’ll probably get all the energy from carbs, and even from most of your protein, but the fats might just pass you by. That could be a big block of energy you’re missing!
So what do we do? Just give up and resign ourselves to a life of mediocre body composition and performance?
Hardly! The issue we find is one of accuracy versus precision and consistency. I’ll be the first one to tell you that off the bat our meal plans for you are wrong, and we don’t even know by how much we’re wrong – at first. But it doesn’t matter that we’re wrong, because we can calibrate how much we’re wrong by and adjust accordingly.
Let’s use an example to help us out here. We have a 150 lb. athlete named Lucy who would like to lose weight. We know that 1-1.5% of total bodyweight a week is a great range for weight loss, so for simplicity, let’s just call it 2 lbs. a week that Lucy would like to lose.
If we use the analogy of a car driving down the highway, Lucy’s weight loss goal (2 lbs. a week) is the speed limit, her meal plan is the pressure of her food on the accelerator, and her body weight measurements are the speedometer.
Lucy gets a meal plan that prescribes her a certain amount of food – call it 2000 kcal a day – to lose weight. Is this the right amount? From reading above you should be thinking “maybe not… but we don’t know.”
She starts weighing and measuring her food and sticking to the plan. Already she’s taken control of her situation by being consistent with the inputs to her body. She can feel her foot pressure on the gas pedal of the car. While her measurements may vary some, there’s far less swing in her calorie intake day to day with her sticking to the meal plan than her just winging it and “eating clean.”
Additionally, if she’s eating similar foods every day, rotating occasionally to keep things interesting, deviation of food from published nutrition facts can easily be adjusted for. Imagine driving a car with your foot completely asleep, not being able to feel how hard you’re pressing on the accelerator. Scary, right?
So Lucy has her foot steady on the pedal, and she knows she wants to hit her goal of 2 lbs. lost per week (speed limit) so she starts taking her bodyweight. She doesn’t want to go too fast and go over the speed limit. Like in a car, there’s a cost to speeding in weight loss. But she also doesn’t want to go too slow because it would take longer than necessary to get everywhere. We all know body weight fluctuates a little bit day to day, so Lucy weighs herself regularly and averages her measurements throwing out any outliers she sees. This is Lucy’s speedometer.
Oops, Lucy sees that two weeks have gone by and she hasn’t seen a change in her weight. What does she do? She eases a little more pressure onto the accelerator by adjusting her meal plan template to reduce calorie intake. The initial calorie prescription was wrong, as we had anticipated, but that’s ok. We can correct for it!
A couple more weeks go by, and due to Lucy’s adherence to her meal template and her adjustment to reduce calories by a specific amount, she starts to see weight loss of 2 lbs. per week. If she had seen 3 lbs. per week, she knows she’s going too fast, and instead of pressing harder on the gas she can ease off in a measured way to get back in range.
In summary, calorie prescriptions are just educated guesses, and our food may or may not conform to the calories we ascribe to it. To help manage that variation, consistency of intake and measurement of your body’s reaction to that intake is absolutely critical to effectively managing weight loss or gain.