A strength coach’s advice on flexible dieting

We chat to strength coach Daine McDonald of Clean Health Personal Training about the buzz word, flexible dieting. Here’s what he had to say.

Macros v calories

Recent research seems to suggest that, at least from a body composition standpoint, the macro ratio has a much lesser impact than we previously believed – provided that calories are being controlled. A 2009 study comparing the macro compositions of various weight-loss diets published in The New England Journal of Medicine affirms this.

Where the macro ratio becomes particularly important is in managing hunger and cravings, energy levels, and personal taste preference. These are all important factors in dietary compliance, which is paramount for long-term success. A number of recent studies have shown that carbohydrate quantity or the glycaemic index have little impact on body composition in those with normal insulin function provided you create an energy deficit.

Previous studies that showed greater fat loss on a low-carb versus high-carb diet for a given deficit didn’t control for protein. When matched for protein there is no difference and in fact higher-carb diets usually perform slightly better.

This is due to the thermic effect of protein. So the metabolic advantage previously associated with low-carb diets was due to the higher protein intake, not the carbs.

The issue with sugar and most other high-GI carbs has to more with satiety, as they are very easy to overeat. This is especially true for insulin-resistant individuals who tend to overeat by 50 to 80 per cent more after a high-GI versus low-GI meal.

It becomes much harder to stay on your diet when you are constantly hungry and have cravings. Also, if you don’t manage blood sugar levels effectively, your energy and mood will be like a roller-coaster, which again will make it much harder to stick to your plan.

For this reason, for most people I recommend moderate carbs with an emphasis on low-GI sources.

Going too low-carb, especially in a deficit, can make you go catabolic in muscle tissue. This is especially true for ectomorph body types or leaner individuals.

What real-world advantage is there to counting macros rather than following clean eating?

I think human beings and all animal species for that matter have a very poor ability to self-regulate appetite. Years ago when food supply wasn’t so overly abundant – especially such high density, high-calorie foods – this wasn’t so much of an issue.

But today it really has become an issue, which is why we have an obesity epidemic. There is a whole stigma attached to counting calories and macros and when I started as a trainer, I steered clients away from macros, believing they’d find compliance too hard, but once you get used to it you can just eye-ball your portions; it’s no harder than brushing your teeth or feeding your pet. It just has to become habit and routine. 

In reality I have found that the more vague you are, the worse compliance tends to be. 

What are the basic rules for setting a goal-appropriate macro ratio? 

For one, macro counters may get too caught up in paying attention to macros at the expense of food quality. 

Short term this can cause cravings due to lack of fibre and micronutrients, thus making it harder to stick to the plan, and long term it may lead to micronutrient deficiencies.  

Other times dieters may tire of measuring their food and resort to eating the same foods all the time as the path of least resistance. This can lead to food sensitivities or micronutrient deficiencies. 

What’s a general guide for balancing macros?

The macronutrients ratio actually plays a much lesser role in body composition than we previously thought, and is much more related to how you feel.

Ultimately, the macro ratio on which you feel best will most likely work best for you simply because of better adherence to your diet.

The 40/40/20 ratio or 30/40/30 is a good start for most people. In my experience, that ratio works well for about 70 per cent of the population. However, there are exceptions. 

Who doesn’t suit the going macro advice? 

Some genotypes, which are typically ectomorph body types, tend to do very poorly on higher protein and fat intake and need to increase their carbs. High protein and fat usually tends to make them feel very sluggish and/or constipated.

Other genotypes, which are typically endomorph body types, tend to do very poorly on high carbs and need to go lower carb. Higher carbs usually make them crash or gives them sugar cravings. I think the optimal macro ratio is more specific to a person’s body type rather than to their goal.

The only exception is protein, which I tend to base on lean body mass rather than as a percentage of total calories. As a percentage of total calories, protein will increase when in a caloric deficit even though the absolute amount will remain the same. This not only ensures minimum protein requirements are being met at all times but protein is also the most thermogenic macronutrient and has the greatest effect on satiety, both of which are important factors when dieting.

The change in calories will typically come from fats and carbs; however, the ratio of these macros relative to each other will remain similar.

Doesn’t counting macros circumvent the tyranny of food rules? 

I advise all my clients to stick to clean foods 90 per cent of the time. Firstly, whole, unprocessed foods contain a much broader spectrum of micronutrients, and they do a much better job at keeping you satiated. 

Secondly, if you give someone too much flexibility, studies show that dietary compliance actually goes down. This is especially true for new dieters. 

The fewer decisions a person needs to make, the better their compliance – at least in the beginning. This is because until it becomes automatic, decision fatigue is likely to lead to poor dietary choices and so-called ‘falling off the wagon’.

What are the drawbacks of selecting foods by macro count? 

As well as the effect of foods (is a food choice going to cause cravings or extreme hunger?), macro-based eating needs to be paired with awareness of portions. I’m a big believer in always keeping an eye out on portions. Even in my off season when I don’t weigh out my food, I still have a pretty good idea of what’s going into my mouth.

In the modern Western world, we are always within 90 seconds’ reach of food, and human beings – or any animal species for that matter – have a poor ability to self-regulate appetite. Put an overabundance of food in front of any animal and they will over-consume it. 

It’s normal to measure out food portions and serve them at the same time each day for our children and pets, why should it be any different for us? 

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