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Hitting Your Macros: How Close is Close Enough?

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Imagine a world where you didn’t have to hit your macros perfectly.

A world where you could be slightly over or under your protein, carb, and fat targets, and still make progress.

One where you didn’t have to make up your numbers at the end of the day by drinking half a tablespoon of olive oil or weighing out 8 grams of cereal.

Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Well, it just so happens that this weird and wonderful world is not a myth!
You can still make incredible progress without perfectly hitting your macros.

Aim for Consistency, Not Perfection

The one huge mistake that many people make when first starting to flexible diet is that they think they have to hit their numbers to the precise gram every single day, and that any less than this is a crushing failure.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let’s say your target macros are 220 grams of protein, 180 grams of carbs, and 65 grams of fat.

Even if you record all of the food you eat in a day and your tracking app says that you hit those exact macro targets on the money, chances are you would actually still be off.

There are several reasons for this.

1. Food data on packaging may not always be 100% correct.  The FDA allows foods containing under 50 calories per serving to be rounded to the nearest 5 calories, and over 50 calories to be rounded to the nearest 10 [1]. If you’re shooting for 2,000 calories, that could be a discrepancy of as high as 400 calories.

2. Since foods containing a variety of ingredients may not be uniform throughout the entire serving, the macros can be listed as an average. Say you’re eating trail mix—two servings of the same weight could actually contain different calories and macros if one had a higher ratio of fruit, and the other a higher ratio of nuts and seeds.

This same scenario may also occur with a steak or piece of fish. While the nutrition data listed for these foods may declare a certain amount of protein and fat per serving, you will never know for sure if the piece you’re eating fits exactly with that, as the fat distribution isn’t uniform.

For these reasons, absolute perfection may not be possible when it comes to hitting your macros, and striving for this may not even be healthy. Becoming obsessive over hitting your numbers perfectly can have as negative of an effect on you psychologically as imposing restrictions on your food choices and seeing food as good or bad.

If you’re struggling like hell to get your macros perfect every single day, and this is causing you worry and stress, chances are you won’t stick to tracking very long and will fall off the wagon. Besides, research has shown that consistency, not precise accuracy is the key to losing weight and keeping it off [2,3].

So if you don’t need to be perfect, what DO you need to do?

Time to Throw Out the Scales?

Hopefully, you’re not losing your faith in flexible dieting just yet, or thinking that it’s time to throw out your kitchen scales and just ‘eat clean.’
While you will never be 100% accurate, tracking macros is still by far the most reliable dieting method for gauging progress. You get quantifiable data that can easily be manipulated when you hit a plateau, and it allows you to eat without banning any foods.

On the subject of accuracy though, you’re probably wondering if you don’t need to hit each macro on the dot, what you need to do instead.

At Avatar, our rule is that you need to be within 10 grams of your protein and carb targets, and within 5 grams of your fat target to be considered compliant. This allows for enough flexibility that you don’t need to be topping off leftover macros with weird meals late at night and gives leeway for days where you might be going out for a meal or eating with friends.

“Long term success is a matter of consistency in meeting your requirements – over time, the averages will be on your side… higher on some days, lower on others… evens out to right where you need to be!”

What Does This Look Like?

Using these recommendations, we can come up with a few scenarios. Let’s stick with the target macros from earlier—220 grams of protein, 180 grams of carbs, and 65 grams of fat.

Your macros can be between 210 and 230 grams of protein, 170 and 190 grams of carbs, and 60 and 75 grams of fat. All of a sudden, that gives you much more freedom than trying to be impeccable and hit everything to a tee.

It’s vital to add though, that if you’re over on one macro, then you will have to be under on at least one of the others, and if you’re over on two, then you will need to be under by a high degree of that range on the third.

To be on the safe side and optimize your progress, you will probably be best served by only going over on fat OR carbs, rather than both on the same day, as this can compromise protein intake.

The Closer You Are, the Better

How close you get within these guidelines depends on your goals.
For someone fairly new to tracking, then using the whole range of within 10 grams on protein and carbs and within 5 grams on fat will work just fine, and if you’re happy with your rate of progress, there’s no need to tighten things up any more.

If you’re gearing up for a contest prep or dieting with the aim of getting very lean, however, then the closer you are with your macros and calories, the better.

As with so many aspects of nutrition, avoid extremes. You don’t want to be the guy or girl who stays with friends and asks them to break out the peanut butter so you can get that last 3 grams of fat for the day, but at the same time, you do need to be consistent if you want to reach your goals.

References:
[1] Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide (7. Nutrition Labeling; Questions G1 through P8). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://1.http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm064894.htm.
[2] Gorin AA, Phelan S, Wing RR, Hill JO. Promoting long-term weight control: Does dieting consistency matter? International Journal of Obesity. November 2003. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802550.
[3] Wing RR, Phelan S. Long-term weight loss maintenance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005;82(1):222–225. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/82/1/222S.long.
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