Why counting macros is the new counting calories

  • Nov 30, 2023
  • By Anthea England
  • 0 Comment

Counting calories is so last decade! We find out why tracking your macros can get you real results – fast.

Healthy Portuguese chicken

How often have you flipped over a product to check the calories, then not looked at the numbers beneath? It’s completely understandable – we’re repeatedly told that calories are king, especially when it comes to weight loss. Just eat less calories than you burn and – voila – you lose weight. This is a really nice idea in theory, but in reality, it’s more complex.

“If your goal is to lose weight, you do need to burn more calories than you’re eating and drinking, but those calories can’t just come from anywhere,” explains nutritionist Shannon Young. “You’re not going to get the same results if you eat a high carb all-pizza diet versus a lower carb diet – even if you’re eating the same amount of calories. This is because your body uses each macronutrient (carbs, protein and fat) differently.” Basically, tracking your calories will only take you so far. By figuring out a good balance of macros, you can fast-track your results.

How does your body actually use macros?
Your body uses carbs, protein and fat in different ways. “Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy,” says Shannon. “Your body will use these calories first and any excess will be stored as fat. So, it’s important to eat just the right number of carbs that your body can burn without storing the excess.” This is why the all-pizza high carb diet doesn’t work – even if it is calorie controlled.

Protein is critical because you can’t function without it. “Protein is the only essential macronutrient, meaning your body absolutely needs it as amino acids are used for many important processes from repairing muscle tissue to creating digestive enzymes to transcribing DNA,” says Shannon. “Unlike carbs, any excess protein cannot be stored for later – it can, however, be broken down into different substances that can be stored.”

Then you’ve got the avocado lover’s favourite macronutrient: fat. “Like carbs, our bodies will use fat as a source of energy – especially if you are reducing your carb intake. Fat will also boost satiety and help promote healthy organs, hormones and brain function. Plus, fat effectively supports protein in doing its job. So even though fat is the most calorie-dense macro, eating the right fats can be beneficial for your weight loss journey.”

Why do macros matter?
Even if you stick to your calorie count, your success can be compromised if you don’t get the balance of macros right. Whether you’re looking to lose weight, gain muscle or simply maintain your current weight – macros matter for everyone.

“You want to make sure you consider your overall consumption of each macronutrient and tailor it to your goals,” advises Shannon. “Different foods and their macronutrient composition can influence how hungry or full you feel, your metabolic rate, brain activity and hormonal response.” Eating a meal packed with simple refined carbohydrates, for instance, may give you a quick burst of energy, only to leave you hungry and prone to overeating later.

Of course, depending on your goal – you may want to incorporate higher carb meals. “For example, someone who wants to build muscle and back up with another session might benefit from including quite a high complex carbohydrate meal right after training to help with recovery and replace muscle glycogen – so they are ready to train in a shorter amount of time,” Shannon points out.

It’s also worth remembering that the quality of your calories counts – not just the quantity. As much as we might like to survive on a diet of pizza and fries, you’re simply not going to get the nutrients you need to function. “Focus on filling your plate with healthy fats and lean sources of protein, while limiting your intake of refined carbs and added sugars,” advises Shannon. “Plus, make sure your plate has plenty of colourful veggies to ensure you’re getting the micronutrients you need, not just the macronutrients.”

What balance of macros should we be eating?
If you’re looking to burn fat, a diet that’s lower in carbs and rich in lean protein and healthy fats can be effective. “As a rough guide, for a lower carb diet, you want protein to make up 15-30% of your daily calories, carbs 10-15% and fat 55-75%,” says Shannon. “This breakdown of macros would work well for someone who would want to avoid dense starchy sources of carbs, but wants the freedom to eat more fresh vegetables than they could in a traditional keto-style plan. If your recommended daily intake is 1500 calories per day, this equals 100g of fat per day, 94g of protein per day and 56g of carbohydrates per day. If you’re wanting to build muscle, you’re going to have to tweak these percentages slightly – think about increasing your carbs and protein slightly and lowering your fat intake a little. However, this is a general guide – everyone’s needs are different, so it will vary person to person.”

Regardless, when starting any new diet, it’s best to check in with a health professional and get a nutritionist to give you a plan that is right for you. The real takeaway – regardless of your goal – is that we simply can’t judge foods on their calorie count alone. Macros do matter!

This article first appeared on Fitness First's Get There blog.