The purpose of a good diet and macro-bros
The older I get, the more I want to eat for health and longevity; for improving the way I feel and function day to day. Performance or aesthetics that leaves health secondary is of no interest to me. And I do believe there is a point at which increased fitness or further cosmetic improvements entail compromised health. (Don’t worry: chances are you haven’t reached that point yet!).
I’m becoming increasingly impatient with all the excitement about tracking and targeting macros (macros being macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein, fat). I don’t care how dialled-in your macros are, if your micros are off-piste you’re digging yourself a hole and leaving huge potential benefits on the table. Different macronutrient splits may work better or worse for you but evidence suggests that you can give your body the energy it needs with a huge range of combinations. People have thrived on high fat diets, high carbohydrate diets, high and low protein diets. All of which is to say that your macro breakdown and indeed your calorie intake are not the most important factors in your diet. The quality of the food you are eating, the micronutrient content, the density of other health protecting compounds, the diversity and quantity of vegetables and fruits you are eating: these are the critical criteria by which a diet should be measured. And this holds, in my opinion, even if fat-loss is your primary goal.
The ‘if it fits your macros’ philosophy of dieting is just a contemporary version of weight-watchers style calorie-counting. It is a lazy approach that sacrifices long term outcomes for short-term cosmetics. The deficiencies you develop now in your vitamin and mineral intake may not cause any severely adverse effects for years to come. But they will result in complications down the road and they may well be serious. We’re talking really big picture here. We’re talking about significantly increasing your risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, heart disease, diabetes. If you follow a macronutrient-centric approach and pay little attention to your micros, you’re a bit like the smoker who believes for no good reason that he won’t get lung cancer. Don’t be this person. And for God’s sake don’t be the person who takes out a digital scale at a restaurant to weigh their sea bass fillet so they can update their MyFitnessPal. This macro approach is weird, unhealthy and misguided.
Triage Theory: the science of micronutrient deficiency
If you think I am mired in hyperbole here, let me just reference Bruce Ames’ Triage Theory briefly. The triage theory hypothesises that as an evolutionary adaptation, when a micronutrient is in inadequate supply, the body preferentially uses that vitamin or mineral in processes that promote short term survival. It does this at the expense of processes that protect against longer term damage. The result is that deficiencies in micronutrients don’t show up until much later when they are involved in causing chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. This theory has been supported by a number of trials. To touch on just one example, it has been shown (Ames et al (2007) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) that mice deficient in vitamin K1, preferentially use what little supply they have to synthesise proteins needed for coagulation, without which the mice die. This was found to be at the expense of other process in which K1 is involved that concern maintenance of bone and artery health as well as blood glucose regulation. This provides a plausible mechanism for how vitamin K1 deficiency in humans leads to atherosclerosis, osteoarthritis and diabetes over longer terms. The moral of the story is that neglecting your micronutrients now is just a way of taking a loan out against you future health in order to obtain surface-level results.
I’ll put my hands up and admit that I was caught up in this myself at one point. For a while I was tracking my macros, obsessed with hitting certain numbers to improve my performance in training. I was opting for chicken and rice because I could get my protein and carbs without much fat. I was prioritising the quantity of fuel I was ingesting over the total quality and range of the nutrients in my diet. I put all my effort into strategising how I would get sufficient carbohydrate and how I would get just the right amount of fat. I mean, I was eating tubs of Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream regularly in order to meet my carbohydrate target! And yet I expended almost no effort on working out how to consume enough veggies. I thought because I ate some kale at night that I had that bit down pat. This is all as laughable as it is counterproductive. Did I improve my performance in the gym? Sure. How could you not on 500g of carbs a day? But in a similar way, cocaine will improve your concentration in the short term. It’s longer term effect on cognition are perhaps not quite as positive. And I have no doubt that if I had carried on like that, I would have been making big long term sacrifices in order to obtain trivial short term gains.
If it fits your micros: micro-max eating
So I’m proposing you take a different approach: the “If it fits your micros” approach, the Micro-Max diet. In this way of eating, you attempt to maximise nutrient density first, before you worry about quantity. Your first concern should be: how am I going to get adequate vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, oily fish etc.? Once you have found a way to include a diverse range of micronutrient-rich food in your routine, then you worry about figuring out overall protein, carbohydrate and fat intake. The bonus is that if you are eating lots of fibrous veggies, you will be hard pressed to overeat. Indeed if you are training hard, your most pressing challenge will then be to include enough energy-rich foods to meet your calorie requirement.
This approach will do more than just maximise your chances of longevity. It will also optimise your day to day physical and cognitive function. It will keep you recovering well, even if you aren’t hitting the exact number of carbs and protein your coach says you need. It will keep your body young and your mind sharp. It will keep your hair thick, your eyes fresh and your skin clear. I don’t care how old you are, if you commit to this approach you will soon find you are your best ever self. If your priority is to feel and function optimally now and long into the future, next time a bro asks you how many carbs you get a day you’ll snigger and say, “I don’t know. But I’m getting one hell of a lot of magnesium brah!”
Next week I am going to dive into practical tips on how to execute a successful micro-max diet. Until then, if it fits your micros, get stuck in. Don’t let anyone tell you there is too much fructose in chard!
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