It’s pretty commonly accepted that, if you want to lose weight or gain weight or do anything that impacts your relationship with the troublesome scale, you need to count your calories. Weight, as the general consensus goes, is the result of calories in versus calories out. If you want to lose weight, then, you simply need to expend more calories than you eat. To gain weight, intake has to exceed expenditure.
And that’s it.
Only, things may not be that simple. And a growing number of people are no longer counting calories but are, instead paying attention to their macronutrient intake. Why? What exactly does that mean and was are the benefits of counting macros versus counting calories?
What Are Macronutrients?
Put simply, macronutrients are nutrients that we need lots of and that are our primary source of fuel. This group includes protein, carbohydrates and fats. Every food you eat contains these three macronutrients, in varying proportions. Some foods are much higher in carbohydrates, for example, and contain almost no useful protein.
Getting adequate amounts of all three macros, however, is vital to achieving both overall health and your fitness goals. Why?
Carbohydrates are easily broken down and metabolized and as therefore a perfect source of fuel. In fact, once it’s converted into the useable form glucose, carbohydrates are used by literally every cell in your body for energy. Glucose is of particular usefulness to your brain, central nervous system, kidneys, heart and muscles. The glucose that isn’t immediately stored is converted into glycogen and tucked away into your liver and muscles for later.
Fats, although they are often viewed pretty negatively, are also extremely important to your body as a source of fuel. Since they are more calorie dense than carbohydrates and require a little more effort to break down, fats tend to be used more for longer-duration activities although they do get burn throughout the day in an ever-fluctuating ratio with carbs. In addition to providing energy, however, fats are also necessary for the creation of several hormones and the proper absorption of numerous vitamins.
Finally, we reach everybody’s favorite: Protein. Because protein are made out of amino acids – commonly called the “building blocks of life” – they aren’t generally used for energy. Instead, the complex structure of protein is pulled apart and their individual amino acids are reorganized to build whatever your body needs at the time. This could include cells, muscle, hormones and countless other substances. Although it isn’t your body’s first fuel choice, protein can be used for energy and does contain the same amount of calories are carbohydrates.
The Problem With Calorie Counting
You may have noticed, in the above descriptions, that each macronutrient also contain calories. So, then, what’s the problem here? Why can’t we simply count calories?
Because, as we learn more about nutrition and the way food interacts with our bodies, we are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that not all calories are the same. A calorie from carbohydrates is not the same as a calorie from protein. In fact, let’s stay with that example.
When you ingest carbohydrates, they create a spike in the hormone insulin – the severity of which is dependent on how fast your body is able to metabolize that carb. Fast carbohydrates create a dramatic rise and fall in blood sugar, which leaves you feeling tired and – more importantly – hungry for more simple carbs. But that spike in insulin also means that any nutrient kicking around in your blood stream will be stored, because that’s what insulin does. If that carb is eating along with fat, then, guess what happens to that fat. It gets stored.
As mentioned, protein is also not your body’s favorite source of calories and is not usually used for fuel. Not only that, but protein increase levels of hormones that make you feel full, speed up your overall metabolism and help to reduce your appetite.
And then there’s the issue of digestion. Depending on the way that the food is prepared and the complexity of it’s structure, your body may only be absorbing a fraction of the amount of calories that the food theoretically offers. Plus, research suggests that the health of your gut microbiome can also influence the amount of calories you can effectively extract from your food.
Counting calories, then, is a troublesome and likely inaccurate process. Instead of trying to muddle your way through it, however, you can track your macronutrient intake with much greater accuracy and make sure that you’re getting everything you need.