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Macros vs Calories: Which is Better to Track for Weight Loss?

By Tami Smith

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When you’re ready to lose weight and change your body competition, figuring out where to start is often the largest hurdle. You’ve been bombarded with every diet under the sun and you’re constantly being pulled in different directions on social and mainstream media.

You’ve heard that counting macros can help you lose weight, but what about just tracking good old-fashioned calories? What’s the difference? And, what are macros and why count them?

Let’s clear up some confusion and uncomplicate an overcomplicated subject; calories vs. macros.

In this article, we’ll give you the rundown on calories, macros, and which one provides you with the most effective way to lose weight.

What Are Calories?

calories

A calorie is simply a measurement of how much energy is in food. Calories are based on the energy it takes your body to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree celsius. In lamens terms, calories are the measurement of energy we need to fuel our bodies.

Everything that you eat contains calories. When you consume calories, you’re giving your body units of energy to then be put to use somewhere in your body.

Calories and Weight Loss

There’s a good chance that you’re already aware of calories and have “counted calories” before. It’s hard not to be aware when the majority of the foods we eat and purchase from the grocery store come with a nutrition label that tells you the calories inside the food.

If you’ve played around with counting calories before, you probably did a quick Google search to find out how many calories you should be eating. Or, maybe you jumped into a fitness program or diet that assigned an allotted amount of calories to you (based on what, I don’t know). 

Regardless, you were given a caloric target and you did your best to hit it or stay below it each day. You might have seen success here with this simple (and effective) equation of calories in vs calories out. However, there’s a good chance that you weren’t able to sustain and maintain your results or that you didn’t look and feel the way you thought you would when you achieved them.

The Problem With Just Tracking Calories

While it’s true that, if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you will drop weight, there’s so much more to our bodies than just energy in vs energy out. When we take into account the type of calories we’re eating (yes, there’s a difference), we will begin to understand that not all calories are created equal.

When we take a deeper dive into the foods we’re eating and what those calories are comprised of, we can get more granular about our goals and be intentional about consuming foods that contain the calories that are conducive to us achieving them. Doing so will not only help you get better results, but you will gain a deeper understanding of your body, nutrition, and your mindset as it relates to both.

Tracking and being mindful of calories is a great place to start, but peeling back the layers and looking beyond just the calories is the key to reaching your individual goals. Common goals are losing body fat, building lean muscle, increasing energy throughout the day, feeling fueled and strong for your workouts, and developing a better relationship with food and your body. 

What Are Macros?

macros

Macros, or macronutrients, are what calories are made of and they include protein, carbohydrates, and fats and they each play an important role in your body. Additionally, they are each made up of a specific amount of calories. Here’s a breakdown of macros to calories:

  • 1g carbs = 4 calories
  • 1g protein = 4 calories
  • 1g fat = 9 calories

All three macros are important to have in our diets, but the amounts will vary based on our unique bodies and goals. Next, let’s take a look at how each macronutrient works in our bodies and the role it plays in our overall health, wellness, and performance.

Protein

Protein is found in every part of your body. From your organs and muscles to your tissues and hormones, protein is incredibly important for all body functions. Here are a few key reasons why prioritizing protein will be vital to your weight loss and body composition goals:

  • It has the highest thermal effect of food of all the macros, which means that it requires the most amount of energy to digest. Essentially, your body needs to work hard and expend energy to digest protein, so the more you consume, the harder your body will work to digest it and the more energy you will expend (calorie burn).
  • It helps you to maintain your muscle mass when you are trying to lose weight. This is called body recomposition, which is the conception of losing body fat while maintaining or even building muscle. This is what we want when we lose weight as muscle gives us the shape and “tone” that we want and allows us to shed the excess fat.
  • It supports muscle protein synthesis, which means that it helps us to build muscle when paired with strength training workouts. Additionally, it helps repair our muscles on recovery or rest days.
  • Proper protein will help keep your body healthy, strong, and in a constant state of repair, allowing you to show up and perform during your workouts and recover properly during rest. This will help minimize soreness and keep you feeling able-bodied enough to continue to show up and make progress in the gym.

How Much Protein Should You Aim for Each Day?

The general recommendation for daily protein intake is anywhere between .8-1.2g per pound of bodyweight or goal weight. For example, a 200 lb person whose weight loss goal is 150 lbs, would want to eat anywhere between 120-180 grams of protein per day. 

Common Protein Sources: Where to Find It

There are plenty of protein-rich foods available, the most common sources are as follows:

  • Meats (beef, poultry, eggs, game meat, etc.)
  • Seafood (salmon, tuna, white fish, scallops, shrimp)
  • Bone broth
  • Dairy products
  • Veggie/soy burgers
  • Protein powders
  • Tofu
  • Beans and legumes

When consuming protein, the goal should be to consume as much lean protein as possible, keeping fatty proteins to a minimum. Lean protein sources include egg whites, chicken breast, pork tenderloin, protein powder, protein bars for macros, nonfat yogurt, cottage cheese, tuna, and tofu. Fatty proteins include steaks, bacon, chicken with skin, ribs, hot dogs, or any meat that has a lot of untrimmed fat or skin.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are your body’s preferred source of energy. Carbs are stored in your muscles as glycogen which then provides the energy your body needs to function and perform. Focusing on eating carbs in the right proportions can help to keep your brain and muscles feeling strong and fueled. Here are a few key reasons why carbohydrates are important:

  • When working out or training, carbs are the macro that is most readily available for your body to use as an energy source.
  • After a hard workout, consuming carbs immediately after can help to replenish your depleted glycogen stores, aiding in recovery and reducing muscle soreness.
  • They taste great and make a great addition to our diets from an enjoyment standpoint!

How Many Carbs Should You Eat In a Day?

Current dietary guidelines recommend that between 45% to 65% of your total daily calories should be carbohydrates. For example, someone who eats around 2,000 calories a day would aim to get between 900-1,300 calories a day from carbs, which translates to about 225-325 grams of carbs per day.

Common Sources of Carbs: Where to Find Them

  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Cereals
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Greens
  • Broccoli and Cauliflower
  • Potatoes
  • Squash
  • Carrots
  • Sweet peppers
  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Oranges
  • Mango
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Fats

Fats

Fats play a vital role in our survival. Humans are evolutionarily hardwired to consume high-fat foods as they give us the most bang for our caloric buck (remember, they are worth 9 calories per gram as opposed to 4 for carbs and protein). Back in the day when food was scarce, finding fats was essential to our survival. However, these days it’s pretty easy to get our hands on foods, so we need to be careful with how much fat we’re consuming. That said, it’s vital to our survival, here’s why:

  • Fat helps to insulate your body, protecting your vital organs and assisting with brain function.
  • It facilitates the transport of nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and k. 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA support cardiovascular health, joint health, and digestion.
  • It helps keep you fuller for longer and it slows down digestion.

Common Fat Sources

  • Nuts and nut butter
  • Seeds
  • Fatty fishes (salmon and mackerel)
  • Oils
  • Avocado
  • Egg yolks

Which Is Better for Weight Loss? Counting Macros or Calories 

At the end of the day, being mindful of your calorie intake is going to help you reach your goals, however, macro awareness will ensure that you’re eating the right proportions of each macronutrient to achieve your unique goals.

When you have specific physique goals, calorie counting will only get you so far. Too often, we see people who want to lose weight, so they drop calories without paying attention to the specific foods they’re eating. The result is that the person does, indeed, lose weight, however, they are unhappy with their body still as it’s simply a smaller version of the same body.

What the majority of us want when we want to lose weight is really to lose fat and build some lean muscle tissue that will give us the shapely, defined, and “toned” look that we’re going for. Counting macros for weight loss will help us to achieve this as macros provide you with specific, unique macro targets that are designed to help you achieve your individual goals.

Not All Calories Or Macros Are Created Equally

If your goal is to lose weight, you need to be in a caloric deficit, that’s undisputed. However, you don’t want those calories that you’re consuming to just come from anywhere.

Think about it this way; let’s say we have two people who are eating in a calorie deficit of 1,500 calories each. Person A is eating only pizza each day but staying within 1,500 calories. Person B is eating in a macro-balanced way, prioritizing protein and consuming whole, fueling foods, and is also staying within her 1,500-calorie budget.

Both person A and person B will lose weight because they are eating fewer calories than what their bodies need. However, person A’s weight loss results will look vastly different from person Bs.

Person A will not have the nutrients needed to build and maintain muscle mass so when he or she loses weight, it’ll be a combination of fat and muscle, which will leave them looking like a smaller, weaker version of themselves, commonly referred to as “skinny fat.”

Person B, on the other hand, will be able to maintain her muscle mass, shedding predominantly fat from her frame. Plus, she’ll be well-nourished and will have not only the macronutrients she needs to achieve her goals but the micronutrients, too. She’ll have energy, a stronger immune system, and will feel more powerful in the gym.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that tracking calories will help you lose weight as long as you’re in a calorie deficit. Tracking macros takes things a step further, allowing you to gain a better understanding of the food you’re eating and how it relates to your body and your goals.

If you have a specific physique goal in mind, tracking macros is the best choice. Calories always count, but what those calories are comprised of will determine your ability to lose fat, gain muscle, and change your body composition.

About the author 

Tami Smith

Tami Smith is a certified Nutritionist and an ACE certified fitness trainer, specializing in pre and post-natal fitness. She studied business and earned her bachelor's degree in Business Economics. Tami is a mom of two and women's health advocate. Her passion is to help people live a fit, healthy life through proper nutrition and exercise!

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