There is a distinct difference between counting macros and counting calories. The main one being that tracking macros involves counting calories, but counting calories doesn’t involve counting macros. But there’s plenty more reasons than that to count macros over calories – let’s take a look!
THE BENEFITS OF A MACRO TRACKING APPROACH
Let’s first start by considering all the benefits of macro tracking. A macro tracking approach offers structure and guidance regarding how much you should eat, while allowing for choice and autonomy over which foods you would like to eat. This can be a superior strategy to traditional calorie counting, or simply providing a list of “allowed foods” or a rigid prescribed meal plan. By learning how to eat to your unique and individualized needs, gaining a basic understanding of nutrition and seeing how particular foods impact the way you feel, macro tracking can truly be a long-term approach to health and nutrition.
Tracking macros also puts you in the driver’s seat of how you want to feel, look and perform. By controlling the protein, fat and carbohydrate content of your food you’re giving your body gentle direction for how to function.
Put another way: If macros are like the language your body speaks, tracking macros is like using that language to give your body clear instructions. Contrast that with counting calories, which just affect the measure of gravity against your body, i.e. your weight.
Simply tracking your food (with or without regard to the amount of calories) increases awareness and influences your eating behaviors. Tracking macros does this and influences body weight, health markers, body composition and athletic performance. Tracking calories does not have this same impact.
HOW MACROS AND CALORIES ARE DIFFERENT
Calories refer to the overall energy a food contributes. Counting calories and manipulating intake influences only body weight gain, loss or maintenance.
Macros refers to the composition of a food i.e. how much of that food is made up of protein, fat or carbohydrates. Manipulating macro intake influences many things such as:
- Lean muscle gain and loss
- Body fat gain and loss
- Hunger and fullness feelings
- Blood sugar balance and stability
- Hormone balance
- Sleep quality and duration
- Energy for high intensity activity
- Energy for strength training
- Cravings for sweet, salty or crunchy foods
- Stable and consistent energy
- … and so much more!
If calories are king for determining changes to body weight, macros are king for determining changes to body composition. So you’ll need to ask yourself if you care about changing a number on a scale or, if you care about changing your body shape and size. And, if you’re already willing to log your food, counting macros simply has so many more benefits than counting calories!
TRACKING MACROS VS COUNTING CALORIES FOR WEIGHT LOSS
You’ve likely heard advice to “eat less, move more,” which centers around a calories-in, calories-out model for weight loss. What happens when you eat less? You get hungry. What happens when you exercise more? You get hungry. How long does that model last before you’re elbow deep in the box of your kid’s Graham Crackers or gnawing off the cheese block?
Dieting feels awful. It’s a pretty universal experience. You resign that you’re probably going to feel a mix of hungry and tired. You know you are going to have to sacrifice and your success lies in how long you can “just hold on.”
Imagine a world where, when you set out on a weight loss endeavor, that doesn’t happen.
By counting macros and getting enough protein, fat and carbohydrate to support your body, you can eliminate hangry feelings, cravings and low energy even as you lose weight.
When you track macros, you’re basically tracking calories already. So while you’ll need to eat less calories overall, those calories can come from big, satiating meals composed of food you actually like to eat. That’s because you can eat to your personal macro targets with any protein-, fat- and carbohydrate-rich foods you want.
Here’s an example. Which sounds better to you:
- Coffee + dry toast for breakfast
- Snack of 8 almonds
- Iceberg salad + 3 ounces cold chicken breast + fat free dressing for lunch
- Tilapia + green beans at dinner
- 3 egg omelette + mushrooms + peppers + spinach, side of roasted red potatoes
- Snack of greek yogurt + 8 almonds + chocolate chips + ½ a banana
- Big field green salad + 5 ounces chicken breast + black beans + corn salsa + ½ an avocado,
- Salmon + green beans + large sweet potato with butter
Both meal plans could produce weight loss if they are a calorie deficit for you. However, you tell me which would feel more satisfying? Which would support your active lifestyle better? Which would you look forward to eating? Tracking macros puts you in the driver’s seat to build meals and snacks for yourself composed of foods that you love, while pursuing your weight loss goal.
If you’re following closely, you might have picked up on the fact that many people actually need to eat more to lose weight. Yo-yo dieting and weight cycling does a number on metabolism and hormones. Most people who are jumping in and out of drastic calorie deficits, whether they are created through restrictive meal plans or through programs with really strict food rules, are diving head first into metabolic and hormonal disaster. By eating more, especially more protein, you’ll effectively increase metabolism. Combine this eating pattern with challenging strength training and you’ll lose fat by burning more calories all day long.
I always make the important distinction between “weight loss” and “fat loss.” Usually when people set out on a weight loss journey, they intend for that loss to be extra body fat — maybe from their love handles, belly, butt and thighs. Unfortunately, slashing calories (with no thought to macros) to see weight loss means you could lose weight from your lean, strong muscle — or even just water! As a result, expect a lower, slower metabolism and unhappy hormones. By focusing on eating enough whole foods, especially protein and healthy fat, you effectively encourage your body to lose body fat and hold on to that lean, strong muscle.
This may or may not result in scale weight loss. But ask yourself: Do you care about what your weight is when you are leaner, see more muscle definition and feel great? Do you really care about that number on the scale when you have better energy for your workouts or to play with your kids, your focus is laser sharp at work, your skin is looking clearer, you have your sex drive back and you’re not cranky all the time?
To be very direct, the benefit of counting macros for weight loss is that you can better influence where that weight loss comes from i.e. body fat stores instead of lean muscle mass and actually create an enjoyable weight loss journey.
THE BEST MACRO PRESCRIPTION FOR WEIGHT LOSS
Weight loss occurs when you are consistent with your habits. Whichever eating pattern you can stick with consistently is the best one for you.
So, if a high fat, low carbohydrate eating pattern includes the foods you love, and you feel great while eating in this way, your macro prescription could reflect it and you could lose weight. Similarly, if a high carbohydrate, low fat eating pattern supports your lifestyle best, your macro prescription could reflect it and you could lose weight while following it.
Macro prescriptions are unique to the individual and their goals. They can be tailored by nutrition experts like Registered Dietitians who could collect details about a person’s health history, hormone status, food preferences, etc. in order to create a highly personalized macro prescription.
To be very direct, no, there is no particular die or macro prescription that is superior for weight loss. An individual can craft the best eating pattern for them from any foods that they like to hit their prescribed macronutrient targets.
There is no doubt that if you have goals for changes in your body composition or athletic performance, tracking macros will be superior to tracking calories. In my opinion, since racking macros means you’re ALSO tracking calories, it’s worth giving a shot!