Do I need to count calories or macronutrients to lose weight or stay fit?
Nowadays, the surefire way to lose weight and achieve and maintain a lean body seems to be counting every bite you put in your mouth. While counting calories can certainly help control your food intake, it might not work for everyone.
In my earlier posts about macronutrients I tried to point out the importance of Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats to nourish our body and achieve any fitness/ aesthetic goal.
Today, I would like to answer the question if counting macronutrients is necessary to live lean.
What does Counting Macros mean?
First of all, macros are macronutrients, so the big blocks your food consists of: Protein, Carbohydrates, Fats. Read more about each macronutrient in my earlier posts.
When you decide to count your macros, you need to track your food intake. That means that you either write down (which I don’t recommend) or type in your foods in a food tracking device.
There are tons of different apps in the internet that help you track your food but I favor myfitnesspal.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to fully customize your daily macros on myfitnesspal but you can get very near to the exact amounts.
As a side note, it does not really matter if you are 5g over or under your macro goals for the day anyways, because the body is not a calculator. Counting macros is just a way to control your food intake and should not cause you to stress over every single gram you ate (or didn’t eat).
Each food you eat has a specific amount of grams of Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats in it. There are some foods that contain only two macronutrients too.
In myfitnesspal, you type in the food you just ate (how many grams) and the app does the math for you. At the end of the day, you can check how many grams of Protein, Carbohydrates, Fats you ate and make changes to your food intake according to those numbers.
Here is an example of my lunch from yesterday:
I had black rice, eggplants (in german “Aubergine“), cottage cheese (in turkish “beyaz peynir”), green beans (in german “grüne Bohnen“) and cooked it all with Olive oil.
(As you can see my food diary is very international :D)
You do not need to weigh all your food. In the beginning, it is very beneficial to understand portion sizes but after a while you can eyeball your food intake.
What is the difference between Counting Macros and Counting Calories?
The biggest and most important difference between counting calories or macros is that most of the time, your body gets more nutrients overall with the latter.
If you are just counting calories, you are not taking into account the specific needs of your body. You can eat just carbohydrates and protein and stay within your calorie goal for that day, but your weight loss progress will stall because without healthy fats your metabolism will slow down soon.
As I already mentioned, the body is not a calculator. It does not pay attention if you went 100 calories over or under your goal.
With macros, you still track your food, but you pay attention to the needs of your body. You fuel your body with the right nutrients, so it can function properly and you will reach your fitness / aesthetic goals faster.
Also, I think that counting macros does not mess with one’s mind as much as counting calories. I see counting macros more as a way of „flexible dieting“, paying attention to your body’s signals and what it needs but still be in control.
In fact, my favorite method to increase the metabolism and thus be able to eat more food without gaining fat is reverse dieting. In a nutshell, you slowly increase your macros from week to week and let your body adapt to the increased food intake. That would not be possible with calories. If you increased your calories from week to week but didn’t have a balanced distribution of macronutrients, your metabolism would not respond and you would end up gaining fat.
How do I detect my specific Macros?
Again, there are many different calculators on the internet. I find the iifym calculator as most accurate. Visit the page and log in your information. It will calculate your TDEE (Total daily energy expenditure), which is the amount of calories you burn per day. Now you can decide if you want to maintain, lose fat/weight or gain weight.
If you are just starting out counting macros, I recommend to choose calories to maintain your weight. It may be possible that you didn’t have a balanced macro intake and your metabolism needs to speed up first before you start to cut to lose fat/ weight.
After that, you can choose how many grams of protein and fat you need. Read more about that in my previous posts.
I chose Protein as 1-1.1g/lbs of bodyweight, fats as 0.40g/lbs of bodyweight and the rest is carbohydrates.
Remember that your specific macros might change after a while. Since I started lifting heavier and incorporating more HIIT, my body gets lean faster when I eat more carbohydrates. If I cut down on carbs, I feel weak and cannot push as hard during my workouts.
Is it necessary to count Macros?
You need to decide for yourself, if you want to count macros or not.
Sohee Lee explains who should count macros and who should not in her article.
Generally, you can stick to the following:
- You need to lose a lot of weight (in a healthy way)
- You don’t know what healthy eating means, you are just starting out this new lifestyle
- You would like to make sure you don’t under/overeat
- You have an upcoming event, like a photo shoot, competition you need to be fit for
No/ not necessarily:
- You stress over every gram you eat and cannot think about anything else than the numbers.
- You just want to maintain your weight.
- You don’t have specific aesthetic/ fitness goals.
- You have been eating healthy for a while and are able to listen to your body’s signals.
In the past, I have under-eaten and lost weight / muscle when I stopped tracking macronutrients. As that is not my goal, I am tracking my food intake to make sure I get enough Protein and Carbohydrates (fats are not a problem).
I try to listen to my body’s signals and eat when I am hungry. As a guideline, I always have Protein in each of my meals, I eat a big serving of carbohydrates in the morning and evening (post-workout) and try to spread my fats evenly throughout the day (exception is pre- and post-workout).
So far, it has worked well for me and I have maintained my weight while increasing my food intake.
In the past, I have struggled with counting calories. It seemed to mess with my mind and I ended up underweight.
That does not mean that everyone counting calories will end up malnourished but this is my experience. Once I started counting macros, I learned how to properly nourish my body and pay attention to hunger signals instead of following a pre-made plan.
For anyone who has struggled with restrictive eating and counting calories, I recommend switching to counting macros. However, track your food at the end of the day, after dinner, when you feel like you have eaten enough. That way you will learn to listen to hunger signals and not just eat according to a plan or because „it is time to eat“.
Ask yourself, “could I eat this way forever”? I could not count my calories or macros every single day my entire life.
Living a healthy lifestyle is about caring for your body and health and not controlling it. Counting macros is a great tool for people who do not know much about a balanced intake of food and what healthy eating is. You should enjoy your food and I find that stressing about macros ruins that.
If you have a little treat like ice-cream, you can log it in myfitnesspal but don’t stress if you went over your fat / carbohydrates or sugar intake for the day. You don’t eat ice-cream every day (at least you shouldn’t), so if you have it enjoy it! Oftentimes, I don’t even log a treat meal.
To sum it up, you need to find out what works for you. Every body tolerates a different amount of fats and carbohydrates and this also changes with time and aging. If you are sedentary most of the time, you do not need huge amounts of carbohydrates and should keep your protein and fats higher. If you lift heavy and workout intense, you might benefit of eating more carbohydrates and protein.
Try it out and find your own balance. Balance is a very subjective term and nobody can exactly tell you what your body needs.
For me, finding my balance means to nourish my body with the right amount of macronutrients but also enjoying treats along the way. Being in med school I come home fatigued most of the time. If I would not fuel my body properly, I would not be able to workout as intense as I like to.
I hope this serves you as a general guideline to counting macros and you find your own balance!
Do you count macros or calories? If yes, what are your thoughts on it?