Should I count macros instead of calories?
Most of us have been taught early on to look at calories on the packaging of our foods. The amount was relevant of how much we could eat depending on our daily activity. This applied whether we were sedentary or active. Added up, calories would let us know if we would be more likely to gain, lose or maintain weight.
Counting calories is the basis of any weight loss diet, whether it's low carb, low fat, or high protein.
The keen interest for health and well-being these past few years with the emergence of a variety of new types of fitness classes has induced the popularity of macro diets. Everyone including gym members can count their macros and witness results. Does it really work and what kind of results can we expect from counting macro nutrients?
Macro counting: definition
There are three types of macro nutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. The range of each macro an individual needs each day is determined by either a certified coach, a doctor or a calculator which can be found online. For instance, CrossFit recommends that for 4 to 5 sessions per week the range equals 30% of protein, 40% of carbs and 30% of fat. This means that the body is primarily fed from carbohydrates, replenishing glycogen stores by the end of the day.
Foods are all comprised of one or two, sometimes all three macronutrients. For example, a piece of grilled salmon has mainly protein but also a high rate of fat compared to a piece of grilled chicken which only contains mainly protein.
Counting macros reveals how much of each macro is included in foods. It's an eye opener in terms of nutritional value for the body. All three macronutrients participate each in their own way to the accomplishment of different goals whether it is maintenance, gains or fat loss.
Why should you count anything in the first place?
The most efficient way to know if you are losing, maintaining, or gaining weight is by adding up the total number of calories you eat per day and compare it to the Total Daily Energy Expenditure, or how many calories you burn a day. If the caloric intake is higher, you are gaining weight. If it is below, you are losing weight.
When you count calories versus macros, you have a general idea of the energy you supply your body with but it doesn't allow you to be precise enough to reach your goals faster.
For instance, two people might be eating the same exact number of calories but because the composition of their macronutrients is completely different (One eats more protein, the other more carbs for example), they will get radically different results.
It could be nerve racking especially when hitting a plateau. You wonder why you are not successful at reaching your goal and often the reason lies behind the type of macronutrients you ingest.
Not counting is ok too
Calorie counting is essential when beginning a diet whichever that might be (gain or loss) but it can also be detrimental if the individual develops an unhealthy relationship with foods. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests to "consider quality, not just calories", and favour "High-quality foods include unrefined, minimally processed foods such as vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and healthy sources of protein".
Weighing and measuring
The idea behind this suggestion is similar to the one of counting macros. With each food you are about to eat consider its protein, fat, and carbohydrate value measured in grams and not in calories. The ideal scenario for a high leveled athlete would be to weigh and measure each food before eating it. Although it is advised to do so in the beginning especially with high risk foods such as rice, mashed potatoes, or peanut butter, it is also possible to fill in an app like My Fitness Pal with the numbers inscribed on the packages and get a close estimate of the total number of grams we eat.
Examples of calories and macro nutrients
The aim when counting macros is to understand how food is made and just because social media and magazines say that a certain type of food is good for you, it doesn’t mean that it really is.
For instance, let’s take the famous avocado toast recipe. Avocado is agreed to be a healthy fat supply, but it’s caloric density is high. When it’s combined with eggs, olive oil and smoked salmon as a breakfast dish it can ruin an entire macro counting day because by 9am you already reach a high level of fat.
Half a medium avocado: Fat 10/Protein 1.5/Carbs 6g - 120 calories
A slice of bread: Fat 0.8g/Protein 3.4/Carbs 15.3g - 84 calories
A sunny side egg: Fat 5/Protein 6g/Carbs 0g - 70 calories
A slice of smoked salmon (30g): Fat 3g/Protein 7g/Carbs 0g - 55 calories
Half a tablespoon of olive oil: Fat 6g/ Protein 0g/Carbs 0g - 60 calories
Total fat: 24.8g Calories: 389
For a person trying to maintain leanness, they would be better off balancing a less fat focused meal. Without adding up the fat, this person would have thought that 400 calories for breakfast fits perfectly into their day.
A different perception of foods
Counting macronutrients can seem exhausting especially when numbers add up. An app helps get a clearer vision of the entire day, meal by meal. Macro counting enables the individual in search for a healthier lifestyle to choose carefully the foods based on their composition. It becomes a real eye opener when processed foods are scanned with an attentive eye. It also becomes easier to swap foods not because of their caloric content but of the prevalent macro they contain.
For example, in order to balance the macro ratio of your day you need your body to be fed with a protein dominant type of meal. Will you reach for a plate of pasta, or a fish and pasta dish? In both cases, you have introduced pasta and are therefore not deprived while sticking to your macros and feeding yourself with the energy supply your body needs.
Action plan for 30 days
Here is a simple plan below for those of you who wish to get started on macro counting instead of calorie counting.
Step 1. First download a macro tracker app such as: My Fitness Pal or Lifesum. Implement the three main macronutrients percentages: carbs, fat, and protein and the total calories you wish to eat a day. Like mentioned above standard numbers for an activity like CrossFit or HIIT 4 to 5 times a week are 40%carbs, 30% fat and 30% protein. There are a lot of calculators online but it’s best to evaluate these numbers by asking a nutrition coach to avoid mistakes and disappointment.
Step 2. Enter the foods which you are used to eating daily and plan a day with the app. When you enter the portions, you will need to go back to the packaging or even weighing some of the foods for better precision the first week.
Pay attention to the macros and test out different options depending on your tastes and how easy it is for you to access the foods. You don’t want to be promising yourself you will eat a complicated dish at lunchbreak when you will most likely grab something from the supermarket.
Are you already surprised by your dominant macro?
Step 3. It’s a good idea to plan the day ahead. Waiting to make choices on the spot can only lead you to over or under eat your macros. The most common difficulty is to reach the protein intake. Protein is not is easy to grab and go. It usually comes in the form of meat, fish, or egg and when found in stores is usually mixed with an undesired amount of fat which is not what we want!
Step 4. In the beginning don’t worry too much if you go over 4 to 7 grams over your macro goals, it will take time to adjust.
The great new about macros is even if you are disappointed by not eating your favorite food during the day you can always find another appetizing food to replace it with. For instance, if you are keen on snacking on Greek yogurt and peanut butter but are conscious of your fat intake of the day, you can replace the nut butter with a scoop of protein powder, banana, or cereals depending on the macro you need to reach.
You are still getting you snack in a very similar form but you are now aware that although you will miss that peanut butter you are feeding your body with the foods it needs.
Step 5. Don’t forget to take a break with perhaps a meal a week especially when starting counting macros! It’s not about indulging and overeating but rather trusting your eye and your instinct now that you have a better idea of the portions.
Step 6. At the end of the month, the size and quality of your meals should have shifted slightly to what you were used to before.
Macro counting is not constraining, that is the general feeling you should get. There is no obligation to meal prep (although it makes it easier) nor to give up on your favorite foods. It’s about loving your body and giving what it needs to function in a healthy manner.
I challenge you to try counting your macros for a month and noticing the changes in your plates and your perception of calories! What's your dominant macro?
Please comment below and share your opinion on macro counting VS calorie counting!