Let’s discuss two major schools of thought in the diet and fitness world today: one argues that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, and the other argues that not all calories are created equal. So, who is right? Should you count calories or should you count macros/flexible dieting.
The answer is a little bit of both.
Why Counting Calories Is Important
You cannot lose body fat without some kind of a caloric deficit – you need to be aware of your caloric intake in some manner for weight loss. Depending on the source of the food, a calorie can be nutrient rich, nutrient poor, or even devoid of any nutrients. The fat and fiber content (or lack thereof) will also contribute to how filling the food is and how long it will be before you’re hungry again.
Nutrient rich foods include most fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and lean meats. What is not on this list: sweets, soft drinks, alcohol, and almost all processed foods.
What makes calorie counting harder? The vast majority of Americans have no clue how to estimate their caloric needs. Here is where counting macronutrients, or macros, has a leg up on calorie counting right out of the gate.
Someone can estimate their caloric needs using only their age, height, and weight. The problem here is that this calculation does not take into account your activity level, body fat, or muscle mass – all of which have a major impact on your metabolic needs. It also doesn’t help that most people significantly overestimate their activity level.
Calorie counting doesn’t take into account protein requirements either. Protein (regardless of the source) is hugely important for cellular function at every levels of the body’s structure, regulation, and function of all of your organs and tissues.
Macros: A More Complete Way of Counting Calories
There are three major macronutrients that food sources contain in various ratios: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Also important to counting macros is fiber intake, and we’ll address that shortly.
- Protein has four calories per gram.
- Carbohydrates have four calories per gram.
- Fat has nine calories per gram.
In order for you to figure out your macronutrient intake for the day, you’ll first need to estimate your body fat percentage. The best methods are through a DEXA scan (done in the hospital), underwater dunk tanks, or a Bod Pod, but calipers and handheld body fat scanners are both fairly accurate. Using body tape or estimating based on body appearance are extremely inaccurate.
Knowing your body fat percentage allows the calculators to estimate your muscle mass, which is how your protein intake is determined. The more muscle mass you have, the more protein you need to maintain it. Also, more muscle translates into a higher metabolism and a better overall body appearance (less cellulite, more toned).
Generally, both men and women need around 0.8-2+ grams of protein per pound of lean body mass (muscle) for optimal health and energy, depending on their unique needs. The older an individual, the more protein they need. Also the more active an individual, the more protein they need.
Also of note: studies show that when additional caloric intake comes from protein alone, study participants don’t put on fat or gain much weight overall (the small amount of weight gained was lean muscle, and they lost fat mass).
That leaves carbohydrates and fat requirements. It is important to remember that carbs and fats are GOOD. You’re body needs them for energy and to support the same metabolic processes that also require sufficient levels of protein.
Fat intake should ideally be between 0.3-0.6 grams per pound of lean body mass. Exactly how much you need is again based on your unique needs. If you enjoy foods higher in fat, you could increase your fat macros and subtract from your carbs (accounting for the difference in calories/gram). It all depends on how your body works, what your fitness goals are, weight loss goals, etc.
Carbohydrates are the last to be figured out. For these calculations, you’ll need an estimate of your BMR (basal metabolic rate) and your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). After your calories from protein and fat are accounted for, the leftover calories are reserved for carbohydrates.
Fiber is the other important part of counting your macros that is sometimes missed. Fiber is not only necessary for good digestion and bowel function, but keeping cholesterol in check as well. For those that count macros, meeting their fiber intake (usually between 10 and 40 grams daily) also ensures they are getting enough fruits, vegetable, and micronutrients in their diet.
That being said, I will note that counting macros can take considerably more time, planning and patience than counting calories, because you are tracking 3-4 variables instead of just one (calories). Many people who count macros are more willing to eat the same meal prep plan for 4-5 days in a row because they know the meals are effective and they have very specific goals. They would rather have the results, so they may sacrifice variety.
Final thought: If you’re looking for a good diet plan, the best diet is the one you, as an individual, can stick to. Do your research and do what works for you.