Calories; to count or not to count? That IS often the question. But, my friends, calorie counting is not what I am referring to today. You see, there is another lesser-known nutrition tracking method making a name for itself in the health game. It’s called macro counting! But what is macro counting, and when we’re comparing calories vs macros, which is actually a better method?
First, we must revisit the calorie
Scientifically speaking, calories refer to the units used to measure the energy value stored in a substance. I say substance here because anything that can ‘burn’ can technically contain calories. This includes lightbulbs or a computer, for example.
BUT in the nutrition world, when we refer to calories, we do so usually to explain the amount of energy contained in different foods that provide our bodies with usable energy. Knowing the calories in foods allows us to calculate the exact quantity we need to eat each day to gain the energy we need to survive.
Calories are an important calculation. But as a measure, the calorie count tells us nothing else about the food we are consuming. Not its effect on our hunger, the speed as to which that energy is utilised, how much is really digested OR what other essential nutrients are also present.
This is the moment that the Macro (more accurately the macronutrient) makes its way into the discussion.
There are three main macronutrients that make up all foods, each having its own specific role in the body and each providing our body with specific amounts of energy (calories).
The three macronutrients are:
1) Protein – The building blocks for all of the body’s cells and tissues. Protein is essential for muscle repair and gain, and protein intake will alleviate satiety and stabilise blood sugars. Contains 4 calories per gram.
2) Carbohydrate- Essential for energy and fibre, both of which assist with gut health and our energy levels. Contains 4 calories per gram.
3) Fat- Healthy fats support brain function and help us absorb fat-soluble vitamins, keeping us satiated and providing lasting energy. Contains 9 calories per gram.
Each macronutrient tends to be higher in certain micronutrient concentrations (i.e. vitamins and minerals). Varying and balancing your macronutrient intake helps to ensure your micronutrient requirements are also met.
So what exactly is macro counting?
Macro counting is a method of nutrition tracking where you count the number of grams of each of the macronutrients you consume from food. Usually, you are aiming to hit macro targets that are based on health or fitness goals. Australian dietary guidelines provide insight into the portion of each macronutrient that we should be aiming to consume to reduce chronic disease risk and maintain health. There are also other scientifically-supported recommendations on how to best reach health goals, or manage certain medical conditions.
Fundamentally, calories and macronutrients are inseparable from one another. The energy that calories measure comes directly from that food’s macronutrients.
However, the counting (and use of the two strategies) differs considerably.
So what are the pro’s and con’s of each counting method?
PRO’s- A simple, first step, energy-only tracking tool. You add up your days’ calorie intake (aka one number) and compare with a single calorie target (based upon your own body’s calculated energy requirements). A higher than requirement target is necessary for weight gain, lower for weight loss or ‘equal to’ target for weight maintenance.
CON’s- Even if you meet your calorie targets each day this doesn’t mean your body will maintain its health. Calories can come from energy-rich foods with very little nutrition. The quality of the diet cannot be assessed by calorie counting.
PRO’s- If you know your macro intake you can easily calculate your energy (calorie) intake. By hitting medically guided targets you are more likely to safely achieve health goals (eg. diabetes management, muscle gain or weight loss). Macro counting also requires you to take a closer look at the nutrient make-up and quality of your foods.
CON’s- A lot more complex and time consuming to track.
Both counting methods are simply different strategies used to track food intake against our set food and nutrition goals. We know that consistency is key, but to stay consistent you really do need to track intake (at least short term) using at least one tracking strategy.
As to calories vs macros, and which is better?
We’ll leave that up to you, and what works best for your mindset and your schedule. BUT remember: the quality of your calories really does matter. So while your weight loss ‘success’ may come down to a simple calorie deficit, your health certainly doesn’t. REAL food matters, and it’s important that your calories are coming from as many nutritious wholefoods as possible.