Should we be counting calories or macros?
Dieting and weight loss have long been associated with calorie counting, and the general consensus goes that, if you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories. Latching onto this popular belief, food manufacturers often advertise products as “only” containing a set number of calories to seem more appealing to dieters.
But what if we told you that counting calories doesn’t actually mean anything?
Weight loss and maintaining a healthy diet should be more about where those calories are coming from – something that can be tracked by counting macronutrients, more commonly known as macros.
What is the difference between macros and calories?
To really understand the key differences between macros and calories, you need to understand what they actually are. Macronutrients are made up of three parts: fats (20%), carbohydrates (40%), and proteins (40%). Counting macros relates specifically to what you’re eating, and in what quantity, to maintain a balanced diet and provide better fuel options for your body.
On the other hand, counting calories tracks how much you’re eating, rather than what. A calorie, in relation to food, is a unit of energy defined as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C. This system is considered obsolete in science, but calories are still widely used as a unit of food energy.
To maintain a healthy body weight, the average female requires around 2,000 calories per day, while the recommended daily intake for men around 2,500. These recommended intakes of course vary depending on the individual’s lifestyle and fitness goals, but the figures provide a general rule of thumb. The recommended amount of macros to consume each day depends on your age, gender, weight, and how active you are. If you’re more active, you need more macros, while those with a more sedentary lifestyle will not need as many.
You only need to look at the packaging of the foods you eat to figure out the calories per serving, and easily count your overall daily intake. To count your macros, you need to put in a little bit more work. First, you need to calculate your base metabolic rate (BMR), which is how much energy your body uses up while in a state of rest. Then, determine your activity level on a scale between 1.2 (sedentary lifestyle) or 1.8 (extremely active lifestyle), and multiply this by your BMR to find your recommended calorie intake. Once you have this number, multiply it by 0.20 to figure out your recommended daily fat intake, and by 0.40 to find your recommended protein and carbohydrate intakes.
Calories behave differently depending on the food source
Your body needs a balanced diet in order to function correctly. Failing to provide it with enough nutrients or vitamins can result in physical conditions and diseases, not to mention negative impacts on sleep, energy levels and mental health. Eating the right foods ensures that your body is getting everything it needs to function. While calories can give an overall idea of the amount of energy within a given food, they do not take into account the different types of nutrients required by the body.
Calories also do not account for the fact that different food types metabolise differently in your body, going through chemical reactions known as metabolic pathways. The more efficient the pathway, the more of the food’s energy is used for fuel. The metabolic pathways for protein are less efficient than those for carbs and fat, as large parts of protein calories are lost as heat when metabolised. That said, protein is also the most filling macronutrient, reducing your appetite and making you eat fewer calories as a default.
Counting macros is healthier for your body
All three macronutrients are crucial for your body. Proteins are used for growth, repair, and immunity, carbohydrates are used as the main energy source, while fats support cell growth and help your body absorb crucial vitamins and minerals. If your food doesn’t have the right amount of these macros, from the right foods, you run the risk of falling ill.
“Diet” foods, such as fat-free yoghurts, are often packed with sugar to replace the taste that the fat initially provided. Many people are attracted to these diet foods as they contain fewer calories, but the decreased fat and increased sugar levels can actually be counteractive to weight loss and generally detrimental to your health.
On top of this, the three macronutrients can be broken down to even more specific food groups. For example, trans fats have no health benefits and are linked to heart disease, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are good for you, and saturated fats are found somewhere in the middle.
Similarly, you can find whole and refined carbohydrates in your meals. Whole carbs are unprocessed and full of fibre. These carbs are absorbed slowly into our systems, avoiding spikes in blood sugar levels. Whole carbs can be found in vegetables, fruits, legumes, potatoes, and whole grains. However, processed or refined carbs strip away the beneficial fibre and are found in white bread, white rice, white pasta, pastries, and fruit juices.
Are calories or macros more important for weight loss?
To lose weight you need a calorie deficit. Generally speaking, to lose 1-2lbs per week, you need to reduce your daily calories intake by 200-300 per day. If this is your only focus you could, in theory, eat four slices of chocolate cake at 1,500 calories a day, and still be within your caloric intake to lose weight. Likewise, you could consume around 400 strawberries, which won’t be as filling, nor would it be any healthier.
Counting macros promotes a healthier and more balanced diet, which explains the popularity of the hashtag #IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). As long as you’re getting the right amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrate per day, you’re not technically restricted with what you can eat, unless you’re training. For example, bodybuilders need to adjust their macro intake depending on what days they’re training in order to provide enough energy during a workout and to promote muscle growth afterwards. It’s important to recalculate your macros as your weight and BMR changes, to ensure you’re consuming the right amounts.
While you can lose weight by focusing on calories, this could also lead to unhealthy imbalances in the amount of important nutrients being consumed. Instead, counting macros in accordance with your daily calorie intake provides a more healthy approach, ensuring you’re not damaging your health while also losing weight.