If your goal is fat loss, the major upside of counting calories and macros is that, if done correctly, it’s virtually guaranteed to work. Though there are many other fat loss dieting strategies that are perfectly viable, none of them can really come close to making that same claim.
For many, that main benefit, among notable others, makes iifym worth the effort – but there indeed is the main and unavoidable downside, that macro counting is unavoidably extra work and hassle.
The work of calorie and macro counting, at least initially, is often an insurmountable hang up. A lot of people are 100% on board with it, and they’re legitimately excited that there’s something they can do, finally, that will get them the results that they want. But… they just can’t quite visualize how the strategy will feasibly pan out in the context of their real day to day lives.
What will I do for lunch during the work week?
What about social eating?
What happens when I have to meet clients at a swanky restaurant?
What about pre-made food that I like, but can’t really count accurately?
When counting macros is initially considered, the above such questions being inevitable, it’s not so obvious how it can feasibly work in real day to day life. This stops a lot of people, right at the gate, from even giving it an honest try.
Others have perhaps actually given macro counting an honest shot, in spite of this issue, only to get quickly overwhelmed and frustrated, then give up in a matter of weeks, or days. Even though I did eventually succeed with iifym, managing to get pretty shredded, I do admit I too got frustrated and gave up with the strategy a few times before I solidly got the ball rolling.
If anything described thus far hits close to home for you, you’re who this article is written for.
Because, here’s the actual truth: Effective calorie and macro counting can be reduced to a simple chore that takes a mere few minutes a day of work.
But you need the right systematic approach. Without that, as you might have already experienced, macro counting will quickly become something that makes you want to pull your hair out and hurl your smartphone through the window.
In my opinion, the single best way to make calorie and macro counting simple, easy, and feasible is to create a meal plan. I also think a predetermined meal plan is the single best overall weight loss strategy, by far.
This article is a full step by step guide on how to do it.
Clickable Table of Contents by Section
- Preliminary Assumptions
- Guideline 1 – A Pre-Set Meal Plan Makes IIFYM Dieting Orders of Magnitude Simpler and Easier
- Guideline 2 – Choose and Eat Foods That You Actually Like
- Guideline 3 – Use a Tracking Diary App
- Guideline 4 – Have An Explicit System For Situations Where You Can’t Actually Count Macros
- Guideline 5 – Consistency is of Primary Importance, Not Accuracy
- Guideline 6 – Get a Kitchen Scale Just to Have It, But Don’t Live and Die by It
- Step 1 – Construct the Weekly Meal Plan in a Calorie App
- Step 2 – Have a Plan for Real Life On-The-Fly Curve Balls
- Step 3 – Log and Maintain Your Food Diary
- Step 4 – Find Rhythm in a System and Routine
- Conclusion and Further Reading
For the sake of establishing a starting point, I’m going to assume the following:
- You’re already familiar with what iifym is, basically at least (read this article if you’re not).
- You already know how to calculate your macros, basically at least (read this article to learn how if you don’t).
- You’re already on board with giving iifym a try, more or less – whether or not iifym is “right” or “optimal” is certainly a discussable issue, but it’s not pertinent to this article specifically (read this for starters, if you’re not sure).
- You’re capable of implementing iifym – this basically requires that you, more or less, have full control of your diet, and can choose what you eat and when. Also, that you’re at least somewhat willing to purchase/cook/prep your own food, for the most part.
If you can say yes to those conditions, then you’re ready to get started.
Or, if you realize that calorie/macro counting isn’t feasible for you, for whatever reason, you can still absolutely make progress and succeed. Consider checking out my definitive guide on how to lose fat without counting calories/macros here.
Before we get into the actual strategy, we need to establish a few general guidelines so you fundamentally understand why the strategy is what it is.
Guideline 1 – A Pre-Set Meal Plan Makes IIFYM Dieting Orders of Magnitude Simpler and Easier
The biggest mistake that people make when they first attempt iifym is to try and count everything up and hit their targets completely on the fly.
Trying to learn, cook, and assimilate new recipes to your arsenal is stressful enough on its own. Trying to do that and hit your calorie and macro targets on the fly is a surefire recipe for overwhelmed failure if you’re new to all this.
Instead, just setting up a meal plan ahead of time that you know is on target, then simply sticking to the plan as you go makes the whole process monumentally easier.
When you get some experience and familiarity with common foods and their macros, you’ll then be able to, at least somewhat, count macros on the fly. But, I strongly recommend against doing that, at least when starting out. It’s much better to just have your food pre-planned so all you have to do is follow that plan when the time comes.
The best pre-planned meal schedule, I feel, is the weekly meal plan. That means you have the same weekly eating schedule that just repeats each week. You eat the same foods every Monday, Tuesday, ect. The weekly schedule is simple enough to routinely stick to fairly easily, but also has enough variety to prevent you from going insane.
You might think eating the exact same food, week after week, is a little boring and peculiar. There are a few things I have to say in response to that sentiment:
- If most people audited their diet, they’d realize they mostly eat the same foods over and over again anyway on a weekly basis.
- You’ll still get some intermittent variety with cheat/off/restaurant/social meals – we’ll cover that issue eventually.
- Most humans throughout history (and most still) didn’t have a Prius they could drive to Wholefoods to buy globally diversified foods 365 days a year, and they got by perfectly fine. It’s not actually all that hard to hit 100% of your nutritional requirements with just a few foods.
- Yes, it is admittedly a little boring, but the upside of boring stuff is that it’s easy to do. What do you care about more: your diet being a little boring and repetitive, or actually getting the results?
So, to be clear, you’ll be creating a weekly diet that you’ll rinse and repeat, week after week, for however long you need to. Also, again, as you get some experience, you’ll be able to open things up to randomness a little bit eventually.
Guideline 2 – Choose and Eat Foods That You Actually Like
A lot of people think that adopting a new weight loss diet means they have to eat bland and boring food.
Not true at all – There is no such thing as a “clean” albeit disgusting food that’s magical. As long as your calories, macros, and micronutrition (essential vitamins, minerals, etc.) is on point, you’re good. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t eat the foods you most enjoy as long as all that’s on point.
Guideline 3 – Use a Tracking Diary App
Calorie apps make planning and logging your foods significantly easier. Any of the popular one’s are perfectly decent, but my favorite and recommended app is Cronometer. It’s free.
Don’t worry about the nitty-gritty of using it yet – we’ll get to that.
Guideline 4 – Have An Explicit System For Situations Where You Can’t Actually Count Macros
The biggest initial hang up, I feel, with macro counting is that people don’t see how it can work in situations when they can’t count – restaurants, holiday dinners, etc.
Understand – it is absolutely possible to enjoy social eating where you can’t *exactly* count macros while still being 100% compliant to an effective iifym diet. All you need is a pre-set plan to get things “close enough” and keep the margin of error within an acceptable range. If you count things up 80-90% of the time, and make sensible choices 10-20% of the rest of the time, that’s still plenty good enough to get the job done.
Having a pre-set plan for social occasions will also remove on the fly decision fatigue so that you can, oh yes, actually relax and enjoy the meal with your friends rather than agonize how to get 37.8 grams of protein with your entree.
Guideline 5 – Consistency is of Primary Importance, Not Accuracy
A lot of new iifym-ers get hung up on the frivolities, like whether the grilled chicken breast comes out to 318 or 346 calories.
Here’s the thing – macro counting that’s *truly* accurate isn’t remotely possible, and attempting to do that will quickly drive you insane.
Also, the exact accuracy of what’s *actually* going on is not actually all that important. What is important is that you’re consistent with however you do things.
When you’re consistent, you’ll establish a clear baseline of behavior off which you can make meaningful adjustments. That’s the key – to be able to tweak and adjust as you go, little by little, until you start achieving optimal progress. This is also important because what works initially might stop working eventually, so you have to be able to apply running assessments and subsequent adjustments as needed.
Guideline 6 – Get a Kitchen Scale Just to Have It, But Don’t Live and Die by It
Eyeballing portions is prone to too much inaccuracy. When you actually measure out that glob of peanut butter on a kitchen scale, you realize that you’re actually eating 280 calories instead of 130.
A kitchen scale runs around 20 bucks or less, and you should get one to have it. But, you don’t need to meticulously weigh everything out all the time with the due diligence of an IRS auditor.
For example: let’s say you eat a cereal you like everyday, what does 300 calories actually look like in a bowl? That’s when the kitchen scale comes in handy. However, once you see what it looks like, then you can safely eyeball it from then on out. Maybe today you pour 318 calories of it, but maybe tomorrow you pour 287 calories of it – plenty close enough.
Preliminary Wrap Up: So now you roughly understand how the system looks and works, as well as what you need to get started. Now we’re going to actually get into the nitty-gritty. I’ll show you how to assemble a weekly meal plan from scratch, as well as how to make it work and fit with common real life scenarios.
Step 1 – Construct the Weekly Meal Plan in a Calorie App
* Update: The old post “How To Use Cronometer For Fat Loss” now redirects to this section of this article, which shows you how to plan out a calorie counted fat loss meal plan with a calorie app. Cronometer is still my food tracking app of choice.
This is the easiest and best way to do it, I think. Once the template is already logged in the calorie app, you can just duplicate the respective day to today’s calorie diary, and logging your food becomes a cinch.
We will be using Cronometer in this guide, which as I said is my calorie app of choice.
Let’s set the stage by defining our hypothetical iifym dieting specimen:
- John Doe, male, age 28.
- Full time office job as an entry level accountant, 40-50 hours/week.
- Trains with weights twice a week, Monday and Thursday evenings.
- Random weekend activities: hikes, biking, ect.
- Goal: lose fat, get ~10% lean, build/maintain as much strength as possible.
- Calorie targets: 2200 kcal on training days, 1700 on off days, comes to ~3500 weekly kcal deficit of ~15-20%.
- Macro ratios: flexible, not critically important, 100+g/protein per day, rest reasonably partitioned to carb/fat.
- Eats lunch out by the office every work day, otherwise buys/preps his own food.
- Usually eats out with friends or coworkers at least once a week.
The idea for our John Doe is to think about foods he likes and normally eats, then plan them into Cronometer such that his daily calories and rough macro ranges are hit.
His go-to breakfast that he likes is greek yogurt with a granola bar, so he logs that for seven days in a row. He doesn’t bother with coffee/creamer since it’s basically negligible.
John’s also a man of routine, so it’s almost always either Subway or Chipotle for lunch. He get’s a 6 inch turkey sub with double meat or a beef burrito bowl. He looks at the macros of each online and pre-programs a recipe into Cronometer:
Chipotle on training days, Monday and Thursdays, since John eats more calories on that day, and Subway on Tues, Wed, and Fri, his rest days where he’s eating less calories.
Then, for dinner, it’s one of a few simple recipes that he likes. His training day indulgence is Ben & Jerry’s Froyo.
Saturday night he’s usually going out with dinner and drinks with friends, so he does an intermittent fast, skips breakfast, eats a small lunch, and saves the bulk of his calories for dinner.
Sunday is his decided free day. Instead of counting macros, he follows a few simple rules that will keep his calories roughly in check:
- three meals max
- no snacking in between
- meals are decently balanced, stop eating when 80% full
- that should keep daily kcal intake under 1700-2000, which is close enough
Here’s what his meal plan now looks like, day by day:
Sunday as we said is a free day with common sense, so there’s no log.
And there you go, John now has his pre-set meal plan system and all has has to do is follow it. The key here is that it’s realistically feasible – John makes food that he likes and normally eats anyway work with his meal plan.
Also note the permissible degree of flexibility. The idea is that he’s *close enough* to his target, not smack on it with deadpan accuracy. If you hit your weekly deficit within 5-10%, it will even out over the long run. Most of us aren’t training for a bodybuilding competition, so a little loosey-gooseyness is perfectly alright.
It mike take a little time, tinkering, and effort to make things right, but just remember that you only have to do it once.
Step 2 – Have a Plan for Real Life On-The-Fly Curve Balls
“Hey John, we’re gonna hit up O’Malley’s after work and watch the game, want to come?”
“Real sorry, but I’m on an IIFYM diet so I cannot partake in normal social situations. I’m going to go home and sit on the couch by myself.”
“Sure! I’m not doing anything, sounds fun.”
The reason these situations stress macro counters out is because they don’t have a contingency plan for such inevitable scenarios. John does though:
John’s Impromptu Restaurant Meal Plan of Action:
- I know I have a ~1000 calorie buffer for dinner every day
- I know what ~1000 calories “feels” like, more or less
- I’m going to eat a reasonably balanced meal and stop when I’m satisfied, not stuffed
That’s it – it doesn’t matter if he’s 138 calories over or 76 calories under his target that day, because, it’s just one day, and one isolated dietary “incident” isn’t going to derail the whole thing.
So now, his Wednesday meal plan changes to this:
“but, but… what if my macros are wrongggg that day!?”
Answer: doesn’t matter, so relax – all those issues and then some are addressed in my post that’s specifically a full guide on how to handle restaurant meals on an iifym diet. read it here.
And if the game happens to be on John’s gym day? Then, he just trains tomorrow instead, and it’s not a big deal.
Step 3 – Log and Maintain Your Food Diary
Doing this takes all of 5 seconds in Cronometer – you can copy/paste the day from your weekly meal plan template that you just made into today’s day:
Step 4 – Find Rhythm in a System and Routine
The beauty of the pre-set weekly meal plan is that, once the initial one time effort of creating it has passed, it will quickly put fat loss dieting on autopilot:
John gets his groceries for the week every Saturday morning, and he knows exactly what he needs each time.
John hits the gym every Monday and Thursday and does a 2x/week full body split. He likes the flexibility because he can always move the days around if he needs to accommodate for real life.
It take’s John less than five minutes a day to measure out his food portions and log them. He rarely uses the kitchen scale because he knows what the right portions looks like since he eats the same things each week. Logging the day’s calories takes 5 seconds with Conometer’s copy/paste feature.
Conclusion and Further Reading
That’s all there is to it, really. Hopefully you can see that with a modest one time pre-planning effort, sticking to an iifym meal plan that’s simple, easy, flexible, and effective is totally feasible for the average person.
It doesn’t have to be hard. It just has to be consistent. Good enough long run macro counting looks like this:
Once the ball is rolling, the next task is to periodically check in, assess your progress, and apply an adjustment if it’s not quite working as intended. Adjustments at the outset to iron things out are an expectable occurrence, so don’t worry too much about it.
- The Complete Guide on How to Set Realistic Weight Loss, Strength, and Fitness Goals
- How to Track and Assess Your Weight Loss Progress (And Why Doing That is Vital for Success)
That should cover it. I’ll be sure to keep this guide current and updated – how to make macro counting actually feasible in real life is a very important yet very underdiscussed topic.