I guess I should start off this post with a preemptive clarification. It’s not that paleo and I don’t get along. In fact, paleo eating makes sense to me in a lot of ways. Paleo has also proven to work incredibly well with my body, especially during the Whole30 I took on around this time last year.
Here’s where paleo methodology and I aren’t compatible: portion control.
Every paleo book/website/blog/sermon I’ve ever come across talks about the importance of portion control on paleo but also preaches “eat as much [vegetable/meat/fat] as you want!”
For many, this isn’t an issue. For me, this was akin to a free pass to overeat. I get why this approach works, why it makes sense, and how a lot of people really can eat as many non-starchy vegetables as they want, because it’s actually quite difficult to eat your fill of them and make any sort of negative impact on your daily nutrition and/or goals. The problem lies mostly in the amounts of added fat consumed and how this gently winding road suddenly turned into a slippery slope of too-large portions of meat, too much fat, and overeating carbohydrates in general every day. It’s also easy to do when one non-paleo meal becomes two, then another, and of course the portions are off in those meals as well.
I don’t need to give you more background on my background, since by now you know I spent years training as a competitive swimmer, which translated to upwards of 20 hours per week in the pool at my peak. Since those days ended, I’ve always struggled to figure out how a normal person works out, how much a normal person works out, and especially how much a normal person eats. The formative years of my life were spent eating 3,500+ calories a day to maintain my energy levels, and I think my body and mind must view this as canon. I’ll probably always be someone with a large appetite and an immense capacity for food.
I know this because I’ve been battling it for 7 years.
Contrary to nearly all advice in the paleo community, I began to track my intake earlier this year, just as I was ramping up the squats, deadlifts, and bench in the gym. I realized how much I’d been eating slash overeating, and at my boyfriend’s suggestion, looked into If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) as a new approach to help me figure out nutrition in terms of numbers.
IIIFYM is simply this: eat the proper amounts of fat, carbs, and protein each day, based on your body weight/height/age/activity level, to help you meet your goals. For someone like me who’s lifting heavy things with occasional running and focusing on fat loss, this means a set of numeric goals that help me figure out exactly what I need to eat every day to reach my physical and training goals.
Initially, the most striking thing I realized was that I wasn’t eating enough protein, even at 0.8g/lb bodyweight (generally a good goal for women). In fact, my daily intake was probably around one third of recommended intake for someone my age, height, weight, and activity level, with the same goals I have. Wow. So what I was really eating, then, was too much fat and carbs to meet my body composition goals. Since then, I’ve tracked everything I’ve eaten for nearly every single day for a few months, and at long last I am seeing results. It feels good to know that my work in the gym isn’t going to waste. It feels good to learn what it feels like to eat proper amounts of food for fueling my body and reaching my goals.
It also feels great to know that I can eat a sandwich for lunch and not worry too much about bread—come get me, paleo police—because I can have a reasonable lunch that fits my macros instead of something that’s paleo yet blows fat and carb macros out of proportion for the day.
Here are some points I want to clarify about IIFYM and why I feel it’s a sensible approach.
What IIFYM IS
- Eating more than 1,200 calories/day
- Preventing me from getting skinny-fat
- Fueling my workouts and rest days with the same amount of energy
- Eating something I want or crave as long as it brings me toward reaching a macronutrient (protein, fat, carb) goal for the day without going over it—this normally means about one small thing per day, like a small scoop of ice cream
- Basically a framework for defining what most people think of as “moderation”
What IIFYM is NOT
- Restrictive in terms of what I eat, like dairy or grains, although I still eat mostly paleo because it helps me reach high protein macro goals
- Guilt about food
- Eating Pop Tarts, ice cream, and protein powder all day—it actually only works for my goals if I pretty much do the opposite and allow something like ice cream occasionally
- Counting calories and obsessing over them; while calorie (energy) intake is important, it’s almost like a game to make my intake fit the macro intake goals every day
- Exercising to compensate for additional food I’ve eaten*
- Justifying food with exercise*
*These last two, in my opinion, reflect both a dangerous mindset toward exercise and food and are mistakes that many athletes and casual exercisers alike make every single day.
In conclusion, tracking what I eat is the one thing that’s started to make a real difference in my routine and body. It took calculation and some trial and error to lose these first 15 lbs. I’m a more firm believer in the idea that you can’t improve if you’re not measuring what you’re doing and have no idea where you are.
I’m curious to hear from any of you who have played around with IIFYM or who have also experienced some pitfalls of paleo. I’m also happy to talk about this stuff via email if you prefer to keep it private.