Paleo and Macros: Better Together

If you have spent any time on the internet researching food and/or diets (which I assume you have because I'm guessing that's how you got here), I bet that you've heard of both the Paleo diet and macros. There are no shortage of blog posts out there telling you why one is better than the other and why you should do one instead of the other - I just typed "paleo macros" into Google and got 415,000 hits, including an article about how Paleo made someone fat and how they got "shredded" on Pop Tarts. 

I'm definitely not going to tell you that you can lose weight by eating nothing but Pop Tarts because, while it might be possible, you'll be lacking in a lot of really important nutrients. You might get your six-pack abs, but you'll end up dying from scurvy because you didn't eat any fruits or vegetables. 

What is Paleo?

The Paleo diet was originally defined as a diet based on the types of foods presumed to have been eaten by early humans, consisting mostly of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit, and excluding dairy or grain products and processed food. While I think that still holds true, I believe that the greater Paleo community has done an excellent job of adapting and expanding on this framework to make this way of eating work for them. I'm not going to get into the nitty gritty details, but I will say that at the heart of the Paleo diet is the focus on high-quality, real foods.

Yes, some people who are Paleo eat rice or dairy, but they have adapted their diet to work for them. Remember that there is no one size fits all approach and any dietary recommendations from anyone, no matter how knowledgeable, should be adapted to work for you. I think folks that follow a Paleo approach have gotten really good at this concept. Right now it seems less about debating what cavemen actually ate and focusing on non-processed foods and foods that make your body feel good. You feel fine when you eat dairy from grass-fed cows? it! White rice fuels your workouts with no stomach upset? Excellent! All of these adaptations are great for individuals, but the root of the diet remains the same - eat real food. 

What are macros?

Macronutrients refer to the basic building blocks of all of our food - protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Counting your macros refers to tracking the specific amounts of each of these molecules that you consume on a daily basis. This is a dietary approach that bodybuilders have mastered and it is starting to gain popularity outside the gym. Many people like this approach, often referred to as "if it fits your macros," because they can eat whatever they want so long as it fits within your prescribed macronutrient count for the day. 

The problems with these approaches

While I don't think that there are any problems inherent to a Paleo diet, many people see it as very restrictive. There are arguments that it's too low carb for most people as your only sources of carbs come from vegetables. 

For me, the problems with an if it fits your macros approach (IIFYM) is that it provides the illusion that a diet of Pop Tarts and pizza is healthy.  It is not. No, those things are not bad to eat on occasion, but as I said before, if you eat nothing but Pop Tarts and pizza, you'll be missing out on a lot of vital nutrients and while you might have met your physique goals, you will not be healthy. 

Better together

When you look at the problems of each of these approaches, it seems obvious that if put together, they would be better. However, it's taken me almost a year to see that! Paleo + macros = a nutrient dense diet that allows you the flexibility to have a treat every once in awhile (paleo or otherwise) while simultaneously making it almost impossible not to meet your weight loss (or maintenance or gain) goals.

Think about it, you've "done paleo" or something similar and not had any results, but why? Not because Paleo doesn't work (it's just food) but probably because you were either eating the wrong combination of food or the wrong amount. Macros work for everyone. Seriously, they do. It might take a little bit of time to find your magic numbers, but they will work for you if you stick it out.

When it comes down to it, counting macros is very similar to counting calories (at a basic level they are the same thing). However, if calories were the end of the story, there would be no difference if a diet was made up entirely of calories from sugar and a more nutrient-focused diet such as Paleo, but we know this is not the case.

We also know that people who eat Paleo with no regard for portion control and who don't exercise, often don't find the success they were looking for with a Paleo diet (i.e. weight loss). Just because the calories are coming from nutrient-dense sources doesn't meant that they don't count.

This is where these two approaches are better together. Eating real, unprocessed foods in the right proportions for you body and goals. While the Paleo approach of eating whatever you feel like you need to nourish your body may work for some, the rest of us need to work within some parameters. I will also say that sometimes counting macros is only a temporary situation until you learn how much fuel your body actually needs. There are countless stories of people who switched to a Paleo diet and gained weight. Why did that happen? Probably because they added in extra fat without taking away something else (remember, calories do matter, but they are not the end of the story). 

The other thing I think of when I hear people tell me that they've tried everything and nothing works when it comes to weight loss, is that they probably haven't tracked the right things for the right amount of time. And if you aren't measuring or tracking something, there is absolutely no way to know whether it works or not. This is why I suggest changing nothing about the way you eat but just start tracking everything to begin with. Then once you've done that for a couple of weeks, make adjustments or get some prescribed macros and go from there. I'm not going to get into specific macros because they vary widely depending on what your goals are. Because I'm an endurance athlete, I'm eating more carbs than someone who is more focused on weight lifting. 

One thing I definitely don't recommend is using an online calculator because those do not take into account many things (current metabolic situation, activity level. I'll definitely do a post where I outline how to calculate macros for yourself. In the meantime, if you are interested, I'll do it for you! Just leave a comment or send me an email {}.

While some may see the combination of these two approaches as increasingly restrictive, I see it as freeing. Let me tell you why. First, it gives you parameters to stick within when you have a goal to meet (athletic performance, weight loss, etc.) so that you know whether or not eating that extra cookie will get you closer to or farther away from that goal (side note: if you want the cookie, eat the damn cookie not matter what, but with macros it becomes a choice not an arbitrary thing where you think you need to spend an extra 20 minutes on the treadmill because you ate a cookie - you know that you ate a cookie and it either put you outside your macros or it didn't, no punishment or guilt, you just know where landed because of it). Second, it does give you more flexibility to enjoy treats (see above note about cookies) because you have actual numbers to measure and can plan accordingly. Eating out for dinner? Add more veggies into your meals and skip a few other carbs (more broccoli, fewer potatoes) to allow yourself more leeway when ordering your dinner. The Paleo/real food aspect? Well, that's just good nutrition. Sure you can "get ripped" by eating Pop Tarts IIFYM, but you'll probably have a few nutrient deficiencies to overcome...