Should you count your calories and/or macros?

Written by Elly McGuinness

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Nutritional approaches are a widely debated and often polarising topic in the health and fitness industry. There are endless diets and lifestyle approaches on offer. As a result, it can become overwhelming when you’re deciding what’s going to be right for you.

Essentially, that’s the bottom line. There will be philosophies that will work for you and others that won’t. There will be some that may work for you in the short term but aren’t a sustainable option in the long term. Maybe they’re not enjoyable or practical for your lifestyle, or they’re just not right for your body.

Today we’ll take a look at two commonly used nutritional approaches, calorie, and macro counting. First, let’s define what they are. Then we’ll look at the instances where they can be useful versus the reasons you might opt out of them altogether.

What does calorie counting involve?

You have probably noticed that the calorie content is listed on food and beverage products. It’s a way to measure the energy in these items.

Your body uses calories for everyday functioning such as walking and talking. There is a baseline number of calories that your body will burn at rest, without doing anything. This number varies between people. There are a number of apps and calculators that will estimate your daily calorie requirements based on simple statistics such as your body weight, gender, and activity levels.

A simplistic approach to weight loss

People who want to lose weight sometimes opt for a calorie counting approach. This is because (in a basic sense) if you consistently eat more calories than you burn off, you’re likely to gain weight. If you create a calorie deficit on the other hand (eat less than you burn off), in theory, you should lose weight.

There are numerous apps that have been designed to help you count your calories and work towards weight loss goals. We’ll soon look at the reasons this may be helpful, and contrarily why it might be best avoided altogether.

What does macro counting involve?

All food is made up of one or more macronutrients, which you’ve no doubt heard plenty about:

  1. Carbohydrates (carbs)
  2. Proteins
  3. Fats

Some foods are primarily made up of one macronutrient. Others have a mix of two or all three macronutrients. Alcohol, water, and fibre can also be considered as macronutrients. Let’s keep it simple by looking at carbs, protein and fat, especially since water and fibre don’t have an energy value.

Adjust your macro intake to reflect your goals

Macro counting involves tracking how many calories come from each of the three main macronutrients. Some people use a “low-carb” approach to count their macros. This means that the ratio of carbohydrates they eat will be lower than what is considered to be a standard intake.

Others may use a “low-fat” or “high-protein” approach to counting macros, depending on their goals. Overall, the percentage of each macronutrient is adjusted accordingly. Again, there are many apps available to accurately track your macros.

Mindful Eating. What it is and how to practice it. Table full of food

Recognising the similarities between these two approaches

When you’re counting macros you’re essentially counting calories, with an extra layer added. You’ll first work out your overall calorie requirement and then fit your macro needs into that equation.

You might go with a traditional recommendation of macronutrient ratios, or an adjusted recommendation. It’s still based on an overall calorie approach. This is because if you eat more calories from one macronutrient you’ll eat less from others to achieve the desired number of calories overall.

Carbohydrates and protein both contain 4 calories per gram, and fat contains 9 calories per gram. This is perhaps one of the reasons that the “low-fat” approach was popularized a few decades ago.

Pros of counting calories and/or macros

  • You’ll go through the learning curve of what a “portion” or “serving size” actually is. This can be eye-opening since its common to overdo it when it comes to portion sizes of certain foods. Overall it can help you gain an understanding of how much you’re really eating
  • It can help with weight loss and other health and fitness goals. Macro counting can be especially helpful for specific goals such a building muscle mass (e.g. by increasing ratio of proteins to carbs and fats)
  • May work well for some people, especially those who thrive on structure and enjoy the accountability features of the app

Cons of counting calories and/or macros

  • You’ll need to spend time measuring and weighing food using tools such as scales and cups. You also need to keep a record of what you’re eating
  • It’s not an exact science. You could make measuring mistakes, which can hinder your progress. Maybe you’re not even absorbing all the calories that your app says you are
  • Macro counting might help you to focus on food quality more than calorie counting alone. However, both approaches can still allow you to add plenty of unhealthy foods into the mix. It’s very important to recognise how significant healthy food choices are when it comes to optimal health and achieving the results you’re after

Are you after a long term approach?

  • These approaches alone don’t usually address all the barriers that need to be considered for a sustainable lifestyle change
  • It’s unlikely you’ll want to continue counting calories and/or macros indefinitely. If you’re relying on exact intakes to help you achieve or maintain goals you may find it’s hard to maintain this once you stop measuring and recording
  • Neither of these approaches considers other crucial areas to consider when it comes to weight loss or optimal health in general. Other important areas include mind-set, good quality sleep, hormones, and stress levels
  • May not be suitable for those with a history of disordered eating and could also create unhealthy eating behaviours and food obsessions (e.g. “I ate too much today so I’ll do a longer, harder workout to make up for it”)
  • Doesn’t encourage the person to follow their own hunger signals or learn to eat intuitively

The bottom line

Calorie and/or macro counting may work well for some people, as a short term approach. Overall, focusing on high-quality whole foods and finding an approach that is both enjoyable and sustainable in the long term is extremely important.

Try these healthy lunch ideas as well as these healthy eating tips for busy people. And be sure to contact one of our at-home personal trainers for more healthy eating tips and accountability towards your goals.

Have you tried calorie and/or macro counting? Did it work for you? Please leave a comment below!

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