I'm a CrossFit Athlete But I Refuse to Count My Macros


Photo: Yutthana Teerakarunkar/EyeEm/Getty Images

There’s a diet filling your social media feeds with images of chocolate doughnuts with sprinkles, entire pints of HaloTop, and massive mounds of Chipotle, accompanied by the hashtag #IIFYM. It stands for “if it fits your macros” and it has become the buzzword of flexible dieting.

The concept is pretty simple: You can eat whatever you want, as long as it fits into your caloric and macronutrient (carbohydrates, protein, fat) allowances. The IIFYM breakdown of carbohydrates-protein-fat can be altered based on your goals. For example, if you’re working for the #gains, your breakdown will emphasize protein and carbohydrates. In general, though, counting your macros usually means getting about 40 to 50 percent of your calories from healthy carbs, 30 percent from protein, and the remainder from healthy fats. (You can learn a ton more about this way of eating in Your Complete Guide to the “IIFYM” or Macro Diet.)

Throughout the last year, I’ve become more ingrained in my own CrossFit community, WODing twice a day at the box, hanging out with my CrossFit buddies outside of training, and honestly, getting pretty good at this sport. But every time I look to one of the popular diets I hear buzzing around my box—counting macros, paleo, Whole30, BCAAs—I always come away thinking it’s just not for me.

Boiled down, IIFYM is really just what dietitians do for their patients every day. “First we figure out someone’s total calorie needs, then adjust their macronutrients based on their clinical needs or performance goals,” says Julie Upton, R.D., cofounder of Appetite for Health. “Then we recommend a certain amount of protein, fat, and carbs. Sometimes we’ll have them literally count their macros [in grams], other times we’ll focus on what a healthy plate looks like.” So when you look at it that way, IIFYM is really just a trendy acronym for calorie-counting on a balanced diet, she says. (Food for thought: The #1 Reason to Stop Counting Calories)

Regardless, counting macros does have its place for some athletes. IIFYM might help if you have a very specific body composition goal (e.g., more muscle, less fat) that you and a registered dietitian or nutritionist think is best for improving your performance, says Jonathan Valdez, M.B.A., R.D.N., C.S.G., C.D.N., C.C.M., owner of Genki Nutrition, and media representative for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In that case, you can even invest in a customized template that tells you not only exactly what to eat, but when, plus what percentage of your daily macros each meal or snack contains.

The thing is, all of that takes a lot of effort, time, preparation, and money. Not to mention, if you’re busy AF or have a job that requires you to travel often, counting macros can get really tricky, says Valdez.

All of the above is exactly why I refuse to count my macros. I remember the moment I made the decision: I bit into an apple post-WOD, and an IIFYM athlete came over to me and said, “You know that’s all carbs, right? Like 10 percent of the carbs you need for the day.” She’s not wrong. While it varies depending on varietal, apples are in general higher in carbs and sugar (but also fiber and water). But I was taken aback by the judgment and the demonization of both of my lack of post-workout snack prep and the number of carbs within it. The problem with counting macros is that everything you eat becomes part of a larger mathematical equation, so food turns into a number instead of emphasizing whole foods, micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, and feeling good, says Keri Gans M.S., R.D.N., certified yoga instructor and owner of Keri Gans Nutrition.

Anyone who knows me knows that not only are apples my favorite food, but I’ve eaten like three apples a day since I was probably 8 years old. I love other fruit, too, but there’s something about the crunch and accessibility of apples, not to mention the way they keep my digestion healthy. And we can’t forget all the other health benefits of apples such as lowering cholesterol, keeping you full, helping you lose weight, and boosting your immune system.

Everyone is different, with unique bodies, genetics, and lifestyles—all of which play a role in how the food we choose affects us. And I have spent the last two and a half decades learning exactly which foods my body responds well to and which foods to avoid. For example, if I eat too much fat I know that my skin breaks out (although, I’m not alone here as trans fats have been linked to breakouts), and I feel way more tired if I don’t eat enough protein. I know that a tablespoon or two of almond butter helps me stay full before a workout, and that after a workout when I’m dehydrated and my blood sugar has dropped, a fruit or vegetable with high water and sugar content is just what I’m craving. Plus, I’ll have some kind of protein shake or protein bar within an hour. I didn’t learn all of that from counting my macros. It wasn’t methodic or systematic. It was trial and error.

After 15+ years playing and fueling for competitive sports, I have a really solid understanding of what works for my body, and guess what? Apples make me feel good. It feels absurd to think about an apple as 10 percent of my daily carbohydrates instead of as a clean, naturally sweet fruit that I love and crave after a good sweat. Not only do I think that counting your macros is an unhealthy way of thinking about food because it unfairly criminalizes certain healthy foods that are higher in carbs or fat than you might expect (for example, apples, avocados, raspberries), but also because it favors a calculator over the intuition I have about my own body.

Turns out, I’m not alone. “The downside with counting and tracking macros is that it can make you preoccupied with food,” says Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., a mindful eating pro. “You’re eating for external reasons, based on numbers, rather than internal reasons like hunger, taste, fullness or satiety.” Plus, because IIFYM is a prescribed diet, which means it has rules and restrictions, it could eventually lead to diet backlash like overeating, losing trust in yourself regarding food, or feeling guilty if you don’t hit your macros exactly, she adds. (This is actually part of a sad trend that’s ruining our relationship with food.)

Counting macros may make sense for professional athletes, but for the average active woman, it’s enough to simply know what healthy portions and variety of foods should look like, says Gans. Do this, and you’ll feel your best, she says, no math required.

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