So often are we inundated with new, trendy diets that promote quick and easy results that it is increasingly difficult to know what method may be best for healthy, sustainable weight loss. Some of these methods may work, and others may be much more difficult to implement and therefore may not yield long-term weight loss and weight loss maintenance. Here we take a glance at two better known strategies for weight loss - counting macros versus Weight Watchers (WW reimagined).
Quick Summary of Weight Watchers vs Macros Counting
Old school macro counting
Very Easy in One App
DIY (write it down, use other apps, bring out the calculator)
Weight Loss program
(have to join a program)
(You'll have to find your own)
9.5/10 because they make it super simple
9/10 because counting macros on your own works
Macro Tracking 101
Counting macros is increasing in popularity and touted for helping individuals to lose weight as it increases the awareness of food choices and can help you reach various health goals, including weight loss. Some individuals note that counting macros may be a more flexible method to weight loss, but it certainly does require intention - and math skills. Dust off that calculator!
What Are Macros
The food and beverages that you consume contain macronutrients (also referred to as macros) and are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. These are the nutrients that your body utilizes in the largest amounts and it is important to recognize that no healthy diet should exclude or seriously restrict any macronutrient.
Protein provides 4 calories per gram and is imperative to help your body repair cells and make new ones. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are categorized into three groups including: essential, nonessential, and conditional.
Essential amino acids cannot be made by the human body and therefore must be supplied by food.
Nonessential amino acids are made by the body and conditional amino acids are increasingly demanded in times of illness and stress. Protein needs are contingent on an individual’s needs but the daily minimum is 0.8g/kg of body weight (example: for a 150 pound female, this would be at least 55g of protein per day) and needs are increased based on factors such as physical activity level, pregnancy, and specific medical conditions that may require more.
Protein-rich foods include animal-based sources such as poultry, fish, red meat, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese and also plant-based sources including beans and lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, whole grains, and in smaller amounts fruits and vegetables. It is recommended that 10-35% of your daily calorie intake comes from protein.
Also providing 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates are necessary for energy, protecting against disease, and also helping to control weight. It is recommended that for most individuals, carbohydrates make up 45-65% of your daily calorie intake and nutritious carbohydrate-rich foods including fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, grains, seeds and legumes are a majority of your carbohydrate intake. Other foods such as desserts, sweets, treats, pastries (hey, we all need a treat once in awhile) are composed of carbohydrates and ideally should be consumed in small amounts on an irregular basis.
Fats provide 9 calories per gram and are an essential part of an individual’s diet to help give energy, maintain cellular function, and to help absorb nutrients. Heart-healthy fats are unsaturated fats from foods including olive oil, safflower oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, among many other foods. Saturated fat from foods such as butter, cheese, lard, red and processed meats should be limited to ideally less than 6% of total calorie intake as these fat sources can increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, and also inflammation. It is recommended for most individuals that fat makes up 20-35% of your daily calorie intake.
How to Count Macros
There are many people who want to learn how to count macros, and I wanted to provide a simple solution, so that you can reach your weight loss goals. It's also important to note that doing something like this takes time, accountability and a commitment. Results vary (see our post on how long it takes to see results counting macros), but the following tips and calculations will tell you exactly how to do it.
First it is important to calculate your calorie needs based on your weight loss goals. The Mifflin-St. Jeor (MSJ) equation provides a valid estimate of daily calorie needs but there are also online calculators that are equally as valid and available if your math skills are mediocre, at best (perhaps we won’t need to dust off that calculator after all).
To calculate with MSJ:
Men: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
Women: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161
This result will yield estimated basal metabolic rate (BMR), in other words your metabolism at rest not accounting for any activities, so it is imperative to account for activities of daily living and also planned physical activity. Therefore, you must multiply your result by an activity factor — a number that represents different levels of activity. A few adjustments:
x 1.2 (limited exercise; relatively immobile and currently not participating in any regular physical activity program)
x 1.375 (light exercise less than three days per week)
x 1.55 (moderate exercise most days of the week)
x 1.725 (hard exercise every day, typically at least 60 minute exercise sessions)
x 1.9 (strenuous exercise two or more times per day; typically ultra endurance athletes)
The end result gives you your total daily energy expenditure TDEE. If you are looking to lose weight, calories must be subtracted from your TDEE, typically starting with a 500 calorie/day deficit though this can evolve contingent on your weight loss goal.
After you have calculated your TDEE, it is important to calculate your macronutrient distribution. See example below for an individual aiming to consume around 1800 calories per day (an estimated 500cal/day deficit) with a weight loss goal of ¾ pound per week, on average (which is healthy, sustainable weight loss):
50% of total calories (1800 x .5)= 900/4cals= 225g of carbohydrates per day
25% of total calories (1800 x .25)= 450/9cals= 50g of fat per day
25% of total calories (1800 x.25)= 450/4cals= 113g of protein per day
*Keep in mind that these recommendations may not fit your specific needs and are variable depending on each individual.
This sounds like a lot of work. Fortunately there are many mobile apps including Cronometer, My Fitness Pal, and My Macros+ among others that help to easily track macronutrient breakdown for meals, snacks, and also for an entire day so you do not need to carry around that dust-covered calculator and paper journal with you all day long trying to do the guesswork, and the math.
Many of these apps also boast technology such as a barcode scanner if you are consuming any packaged food items and will also save you time tracking your macros.
Benefits of Counting Macros
Counting macros is not a one-size-fits all plan and gives an individual autonomy to choose which foods they want to include in their weight loss meal plan - brownies and fries included though does emphasize healthy foods as well. Individuals who follow a macro counting-centric approach to weight loss often refer to it as IIFYM (if it fits your macros) because really, most any food can fit into macronutrient distribution ranges and therefore some say this is not at all a restrictive dieting plan.
For individuals wanting to lose weight, it does emphasize high quality nutrient-rich foods in order to fulfill these pre-set macronutrient ranges. Furthermore, counting macros may help facilitate controlled weight loss, allow for an occasional indulgence (or two), and help keep one accountable in working towards weight loss goals.
Drawbacks to Counting Macros
It requires math (gulp!), time, and intention which can deter some people from adhering to this approach for a long period of time. Furthermore, for dining out or consuming any mixed dishes (for example, a slice of homemade lasagna), it can be very difficult to accurately estimate the macronutrient breakdown of a given meal which can lead to under or overconsumption or pre-set macronutrient ranges.
It is also imperative to recognize that just because an individual is counting macros, it does not imply that person is adhering to a nutritious well-rounded meal plan. In theory, one could “spend” all of their macro budget on foods without ever consuming a non-starchy vegetable and therefore may not be consuming important micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.
Weight Watchers (WW) Points Tracking 101
The basis of Weight Watchers points is that it assigns every food and beverage a numerical value and servings of food are based on four criteria: calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein.
According to Weight Watchers, you are assigned a personalized “SmartPoints” budget based on factors such as age, gender, height, weight, and also physical activity level to help you reach your weight loss goals.
Research has shown that following the Weight Watchers approach to weight loss can precipitate weight loss and weight loss maintenance (meaning, it is possible to maintain the weight that you have lost off versus gaining it back).
How to Track Smart Points
Fortunately there is a Weight Watchers mobile app which does the grit work for you, assuming that you are moderately tech savvy. The app offers a barcode scanner to scan any packaged food items in addition to a photo capability which allows you to photograph your meal and track the point at a later time. You can also pre-plan your meals and budget SmartPoints in advance, for example if you know you will be dining out with friends or wanting a much-needed glass of wine in the evening.
Benefits of Using Weight Watchers Points
As with any tracking mechanism, Weight Watchers points increase self-awareness around food choices. It increases an individual’s awareness around factors such as portion size, adequacy of fruit and vegetable intake, and also limiting discretionary calorie sources from foods high in added sugar, saturated fat, and also alcohol.
Drawbacks to Counting WW Points
If you are not moderately tech savvy and are not using the mobile app, keeping track of SmartPoints in a paper journal can be overly cumbersome for those individuals who are busy or short on time.
This can yield decreased participation and program dropout in the long-term. Furthermore, similar to the macros approach, calculating the number of points can be complicated if you are eating out or consuming a mixed dish (such as the homemade lasagna example).
Weight Watchers ZeroPoint foods include foods such as lowfat cottage cheese, eggs, popcorn, avocados among many other foods that can be high in calories. If an individual is overconsuming ZeroPoint foods, it may be difficult to lose weight simply because you are consuming too many calories.
Which is Better for Losing Weight: Macros or WW?
The answer you have been waiting for (drumroll please): it very much depends on the person (a tad ambiguous, I know). Please remember that each and every individual is truly different in how they want to approach weight loss and it is important to recognize that lifestyle factors such as family demands, travelling, frequency of dining out, among many other variables all play a role in which method works best for you.
Macro Counting Might Be Better For You If...
You are needing a very structured approach to weight loss and enjoy the accountability that counting macros offer. It may also be for you if you enjoy utilizing a mobile app such as Cronometer, My Fitness Pal, and My Macros+ as all of these apps make it easier to track macros.
Counting macros is also advantageous for those individuals that enjoy a more flexible weight loss approach as you are able to include sweets, treats, and the occasional indulgence in your meal planning without having to eliminate these foods completely. For many, this flexible approach can be very sustainable in the long haul.
WW Might Be Better For You If…
You have used the Weight Watchers program before and are familiar with the SmartPoints system it is likely going to be much easier to adhere to this program than re-learning another approach such as counting macros. Weight Watchers may also be better for you if you consume a large amount of packaged food items as it is extremely easy to utilize the mobile app and the barcode scanning feature.
Because the Weight Watchers SmartPoints system allows many ZeroPoint foods, it may be helpful for weight loss if you are just starting your weight loss journey and are experiencing an overwhelmingly large appetite because you can consume foods such as lowfat cottage cheese, eggs, popcorn, avocados among many other foods for “free”.
Regardless of which route you decide is best for you, I always encourage individuals to choose a program that is realistic to follow for the long-term and will therefore yield long-term successes.