Clean Eating Can Still Make You Gain Fat: The Importance of Macronutrients

“SCREW.THIS. I have been eating nothing but chicken and broccoli for 6 months. I lost 15 pounds in the first couple months, and then everything stopped. It doesn’t matter how hard I push in the gym, or how little I eat, or how many hours I spend grinding on a treadmill, NOTHING makes a difference. I look terrible and most of the time I feel even worse. I just want to see some results, what the hell is wrong with me!?! It must be my awful genetics, I’m just not built to look good, I’ll always be unhappy with how I look.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Have you been here before? Maybe more than once? Are you sick to death of being miserable only to achieve mediocre results? Do I sound like an obnoxious infomercial right now?

Ok the last question is definitely yes, but I’d be willing to bet most of you can say yes to the rest of those questions as well. This guy included. I’ve been there. Yes, eating “clean” all the time is not the exclusive piece of nutritional goodness that will lead you to the promised land of shredded abs. For the record, neither will starving yourself. So now you think WTF!? What do you mean eating clean can make you fat?! That’s impossible! Who is this jackass and what the HELL is talking about? And if this is true, what on earth am I supposed to do if I want to shed some body fat?

All fair questions. I’ll start by telling you a little bit about myself and my own fitness journey, which includes YEARS of wasted effort eating impeccably clean and not seeing the results I wanted. As a kid I was always super active, playing multiple competitive sports all the way through high school, but I was somehow ALWAYS the chubby kid in my group of friends. My nutrition was absolute garbage and I was wildly insecure about how I looked. I lacked both the knowledge and discipline to make any sort of real change. During my senior year I was accepted for admission into the United States Naval Academy, and the reality of becoming a military officer and entering one of the most physically demanding collegiate environments on the planet lit a serious fire under my ass.

Over the next several years I worked with several different trainers, and experienced a number of different styles and methods. Some were far more effective than others, and although I have been in very good functional shape for the better part of a decade, it wasn’t until 2015 that I finally “looked the part.” I found an awesome coach who showed me a new and far more effective way to attack my nutrition, and for the first time in my life I was FINALLY freaking shredded.

So what changed? Or as everyone loves to ask, what’s the “secret”?

  • For starters, maturity and discipline – I had finally reached a point where I was so insanely sick of mediocre results that I found the stones go the distance and go ALL IN on a process. If you’re not in a place mentally where you HAVE TO HAVE something, the odds of you achieving the success you’re looking for are very low.

 

  • My lifting and cardio was highly structured, and I stuck to the plan set forth for me with ruthless discipline. Seriously, NOTHING, including cancer, kept me from getting in my workouts. We’ll get more into the specifics of the programming piece but to paraphrase, a progressive and structured plan that I adhered to with disgusting dedication (which is actually not as difficult as it sounds).

 

  • Nutrition. Nutrition. I trusted my coach, put in the work, and remained patient…and you know what? In six months I saw more progress than I had seen in the previous 6 years. I learned a system of flexible, macro based “dieting”, commonly referenced by the acronym IIFYM – If it Fits your Macros. I put dieting in quotes because frankly if you do it correctly, it just becomes how you eat and you simply make adjustments based upon your goals. The real difference with an IIFYM approach to nutrition is that it’s WAY more important to ask “HOW MUCH should I eat?” rather than “WHAT should I be eating?” This is what we’re really going to dive into.

What is a Macro?

 

  • “Macro” is short for the term Macronutrients – Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat. Finding the correct balance of these things is the most critical part of healthy, sustainable eating. Once you have this baseline of HOW MUCH you should consume every day, based upon your activity level and changes in body composition you can make adjustments from there.

 

Why food quantity is so important?

  • Your body has a Basic Metabolic Rate (BMR) which indicates how many calories your body will burn at rest (i.e. sitting and breathing). This rate is influenced by a number of things (like lean muscle mass, how many calories you’ve been habitually consuming, etc.), but at any one time you are either in caloric excess (taking in more calories than you are burning), or caloric deficit (taking in fewer calories than you are burning). Extended amounts of time in either phase will inevitably lead to weight gain or weight loss.

 

  • This is where the ‘clean eating can make you fat’ concept becomes very real – you can eat “perfectly,” choosing the most basic, clean whole food available – but if the caloric excess is too extreme for too long, you’ll end up adding body fat. The same is true for a caloric deficit. If it’s too extreme for too long, eventually your survival mechanisms kick in and the body throws the brakes on your metabolism to preserve body fat and prevent starvation (i.e. you lost a bunch of weight at the beginning of a diet and then stalled out).

 

  • The quantity of food you consume in terms of a caloric load will determine whether or not you gain or lose weight, but “how much,” or distribution of the Proteins, Carbs, and Fats (Macro Profile) within of the calories you consume is how you’ll affect your body composition. You can be gaining or losing actual body weight at the same time you’re either building/destroying muscle mass or burning/adding body fat.

 

Why is my body sabotaging all of my effort?

 

  • On the one hand, its super fortunate that the human body is a complex and fascinating machine, designed to ensure a maximal opportunity for survival. It’s why we’re all here when so many other species are not. On the other hand, it sucks because most of the time looking sexy on the beach (i.e. having a low body fat percentage) is in direct conflict with our long established, genetically evolved methods for survival.

 

  • I’m staying very high level here, but broadly speaking your body has two desired sources of energy – fat and carbohydrates – carbohydrates being the first choice of the two. Make no mistake, most people NEED carbohydrates for their body and brain to function at their optimal level. There are exceptions and specific ways to manipulate your body into behaving differently, but again, staying high level here. When it doesn’t have enough of one source for energy output, it draws from the other. This is why “depleting” (reducing) your carbohydrate intake can be incredibly effective when it comes to reducing your body fat. In the absence of enough carbs, your body turns to fat reserves for energy. If this happens for too long however, eventually the survival mechanisms I mentioned kick in. Without a regular intake of carbohydrates for energy, your metabolism slows down drastically to STOP the loss of body fat and maintain its reserves. Eventually your body will start “eating” muscle mass to support itself (yes – we’re genetically wired to need fat more than muscle to survive – awesome for surviving an austere environment, NOT awesome for looking dangerous around the pool). Remember when I said starving yourself doesn’t work? This is why. This is how people lose weight but end up looking “skinny fat.” The long term absence of carbohydrates kills your ability to build lean muscle, properly recover, regulate hormones, and obliterates your strength and performance. I’ll rant more another day on how much it bothers me that so many people demonize carbs.

How do I determine my proper macros levels?

I’ll be honest, I’m reticent to even answer this question in broad fashion. If you’re actually serious about making a change, find a good coach because it REALLY varies from person to person. Your gender, body composition, age, height, overall activity level, style of fitness all play a part in determining proper macro levels. With that being said, there are guiding principles that I can give you.

 

  • Protein: For we bros, if you’re getting into the gym 3+ times a week, a good starting point is 1.0 gram (g) per pound of body weight – i.e. if you weigh 185lbs, you’re need roughly 185g of protein across the day. If your job requires heavy labor, or you’re in the gym more often that, up to 1.25g per pound of bodyweight. If you’re REALLY getting after it, like I mean 6 days a week with multiple cardio sessions in addition to heavy resistance training, up to 1.5g  per body weight. And that’s it. Unless you’re taking steroids, this is usually the limit for the amount of protein that the human body can effectively use – anymore that can start contributing to your caloric excess. So eating 12 lbs of chicken every day is not going to get you jacked and shredded.

 

  • Carbohydrates: Please, for the love of god, DO NOT be afraid of carbs. You probably NEED them. The only reason to fear them is if you can’t control yourself around them – and even then, time to man up and start learning some discipline. When properly harnessed, I have found carbs to be a HUGE part of my success. When consumed consistently at the proper levels (we’ll get to carb cycling another day – but it’s awesome) you will both look and perform at your highest levels. Again, if you’re getting into the gym 3+ times a week and weight loss is your goal, a good starting point is 1.0 – 1.5 gram per pound of body weight. More than that, i.e. 5 times a week, maybe add 20g to your daily total and consume it right after your resistance (weight) training. That’s all the more number guidance I’m comfortable giving at this point as again, it gets very specific depending on the person. I’ve had clients who had stopped losing weight, and after more than doubling their carbohydrate intake, starting losing weight again.

 

  • Fat: I’ll keep this simple – roughly .3g / lb. So for our 185 lb male, that’s roughly 55g of Fat across the day.

 

In wrapping this up, let me again say I would recommend you find calculations that are more tailored to you specifically – either via a coach or calculator. My go to for Internet calculation is found via the nutrition company 1st Phorm (whom I will proudly tell you I represent). If you go to their website and check out the “TransPHorm” tab, you can get access to it for free. That’s one option – there are other great ones out there, but this is what I trust so that’s what I’m going to tell you about.

 

Ok so all of this is great dude, but how do I track all of this? And I STILL don’t know “what” to eat even if I know how much?

 

  • As you’ve surely gathered by now, none of this information will meaning anything unless you have a mechanism for tracking your intake. There are several great resources for this, but I prefer something I can keep on me at all times (i.e. on my iPhone) and track my food as I consume it. Actually, I prefer to build the day ahead of time, and then stick to a plan that I know will help me achieve my goals. My favorite app for this is MyFitnessPal – there are free and paid versions – the free version is great, but if you want more versatility in terms of saving meals and making things easier on yourself I think it’s well worth the few bucks.

 

  • Also worth noting here, the more you meal prep and prepare ahead of time the easier this gets. I realize this style isn’t for everyone, but I eat more or less eat the same things every week. This makes simple adjustments very easy and effective, as well as setting myself up for success by having quality, clean whole food or snacks available and removing the temptation for easier, less macro friendly options.

 

  • The bottom line is that when your diet is macro based, the MOST important thing is that you hit your macro numbers once you determine the proper ratio. Think of it as budget, and the food you consume is the currency…healthy foods (i.e. lean meat, veggies, whole grains, etc.) are much less Macro “costly,” meaning you can eat a lot more of them and stay within your budget. Pizza and ice cream are far more calories dense and “costly”…you can have it, in fact from time to time I ENCOURAGE IT, but it will blow your budget at lot faster. This is where the flexibility comes in – you can fill your budget however you want, and your results will always be faster if you stick with healthier choices, but it allows for you to have a “treat meal” and still move forward towards your goals. I call it a “treat meal” vice a “cheat meal” – it’s not cheating if its part of the plan and you EARNED it. You can have 4 or 5 satisfying clean meals in a day, OR you can bust it all at once on whatever your treat of choice is…just be prepared that once you gorge yourself, that’s it.

Let’s summarize

  1. Eating clean is ALWAYS the most expedient way to achieve the best results, but if you’re not taking into account HOW MUCH you should be consuming according to your body metrics, activity level, and your goals, you’re wasting a lot of time and effort. Also, for the record, healthy eating does not have to suck – its 2017 – there are A LOT of great options.

 

  1. Have a Pop Tart. Eat some Pizza. Crush some Ice cream. This stuff is delicious, and you only live once – BUT, have a god damn plan and guidelines to keep it from derailing your results. I have seen many people, myself included, continue to make progress on their physique WHILE maintaining their sanity on this type of plan because it allows you to still eat your favorite foods. Maybe not all of the time, and maybe not as often or in the same amount as you’re used to, but anything worth having requires some sacrifice, discipline, and growth. You only live once – so why spend it walking around in body you don’t fucking love and are proud of?

 

  1. Build a baseline (again, I highly recommend finding a coach to help you) and then track it. Religiously. The tighter you are with your macros and nutrition, the faster you’ll see results.

 

  1. If you’re feeling overloaded with all of the macro madness, try this to start – control your portion sizes. A rough guideline is the Palm/Fist/Fist method (get your mind out of the gutter). A well portioned meal should contain a serving of lean protein the size of your palm, a carbohydrate source the size of your fist, and a serving of veggies also the size of your fist. If you’re currently eating like absolute crap, and you simply make the shift to that, I suspect you’ll experience an immediate difference in how you feel, and probably not long after how you look.

 

If you’re relatively new to the fitness the world, I hope this information gives you some actionable guidance, but it probably left you with more questions. I’m always open for feedback, questions, concerns, limited shit talking, and I’ll consider the occasional complaint…probably not though. Seriously though, my goal is to get you the information I wish I had had 10 years ago.

I can’t do the work for you, but I can for damn sure help make it as efficient as humanly possible. And if you are new to the fitness world, gym, whatever….welcome brother! It’s great to have you!! Good for you for making the choice to grow, to become a better version of yourself. It won’t be easy, in fact a lot of the time it will suck but I can look you dead in the eye and swear to you it’s worth it. I’m here to help. Now go get to work.

 

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Shane O’Connor
Shane is a fitness and nutrition coach and the founder of Alchemy Fitness. He is a cancer survivor and will soon be completing eight years of service as an active duty Naval Officer. Several years of his military time was spent within the U.S. Special Operations Command, supporting the U.S. Navy SEALs and other Special Operations units. He is also a licensed Realtor and real estate investor, and the Founder of Alchemy Real Estate LLC. Fitness Inquires: AlchemyFitnessOC@gmail.com