Most people use calories as the main tool to measure their food intake and progress. It’s the first thing we look at when reading a food label and it’s all over social media, food menus, and restaurant information sections. Most people are familiar with macronutrients (macros) as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Macros are growing in popularity and more people know what they are, and the importance of how much of each to get. Or at least they think they do.
Today we are going to compare using macronutrients as a measuring tool vs. using calories. There are some very interesting contrasts between the two and as usual, I have my bias.
Counting calories has been popular ever since the industrial revolution really took over, and our food changed forever. It’s fair to say that for the last 30 years it has been an extremely popular way to measure what we put in our bodies. You might say that losing weight is a simple equation of calories in vs. calories out. While at its core that is true, it’s just not that easy. Just because its popular doesn’t mean it’s the best way, in fact it has many downfalls.
To start, research has shown that calorie labels can be off by about 25% because of incorrect labeling, laboratory measurement error, and food quality. Then, of course, there’s the “calories out” side. Estimating your calorie expenditure each day comes with another 25% measurement error because of the equipment you’re using, laboratory measurement errors, and individual differences. The individual differences consist of gut health, the differences in the thermic effect of food, bioavailability, caloric output amount, among many other factors. Factor in both ends and you could be off by up to 50% with your well intended measurements!
So if you consider the above points, is it really worth getting out your food scales, measuring cups, or downloading that handy app that tracks everything for you? Probably not. The more likely scenario of you losing weight – and keeping it off – is that you have some success at the beginning but get frustrated and stop. The success is usually from the fact that you have chosen to measure your food, so it’s likely that you will make better decisions since you’re keeping yourself accountable. However, the downfall is usually because when you look at it as a simple equation, you start to think “well, I have 1500 calories to eat today, I might as well enjoy them!” A calorie is a calorie right? They are all created equal, right? <Insert game show buzzer here>. Nope. Not even close.
First off when you look at the long known facts about the calories per gram, you might think you’re onto something. Fats have 9 calories per gram while carbs and proteins have 4 calories per gram (alcohol has 7 if you’re still counting). OK, so all I have to do is whip out the calculator and multiply the grams times the respective number and now I have my calories! “Now I know the difference and I’m all set.” It’s easy to say to yourself “theres no way I’m going to eat any fat, the calories are way too high!!” At the end of the day, this doesn’t matter all that much either. Huh. What gives? In this example you’re still looking at calories as the main guide to what you eat.
There is good reason that you can’t eat 500 calories of Twinkie’s and lose weight. Well actually theoretically you can, but it’s going to come with a whole host of health problems followed by results that won’t last. That is the big difference – when we fail to identify the importance of nutrients over the energy that we get from food. Calories are an expression of energy and that is it. They don’t tell us the the all important, rest of the story. Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients are more important variables to our vitality, health, and expected results of changing our nutrition. Let’s have a look at the alternative.
If we look at the ratio of carbs, fats, and proteins and forget calories all together we can start to make some progress. The likely hood of you selecting healthy nutritious food based on the macronutrient breakdown becomes easier than using calories. It’s not a no brainer but it certainly starts you off on the right foot.
As a starting point you can use the breakdown of 35% protein, 30% carbs, and 35% fats. Typically, most clients I have coached have more of a 15% protein, 60% carbs, and 25% fats breakdown.
Generally most people eat way too many carbohydrates and not nearly enough protein. It is very easy to overeat carbs because they are often over processed (which strips the fiber out, helps us digest them faster, and make us feel less full), engineered to make us want more, and cheap to purchase. On top of that they are all of those delicious snack type foods like chips, cookies, and crackers. They are the ever desirable pastas, breads, and baked goods.
The big problem with carbs like this (other than the previously mentioned reasons) is the fact that if we do not use the energy from the food then we store it as body fat. Our bodies are made for survival, and at times of feast, we store excess carbs and fats. Yes, carbs turn into fat. So unless you are extremely active and constantly burning calories you tend to gain weight.
At this point you may ask, if calorie counting has its errors and potentially accounts for 50% misdirection, then is the same not true for macros? Great question. That’s why I use Precision Nutritions guide rather than relying on food labels of any kind. Use your palm to measure protein, your closed fist to measure vegetables, a cupped hand to measure carbs, and your thumb to measure fats. Now you have a proportioned way to measure your food that is with you at all times. Just like the above breakdown percentages this is merely a starting point. You will need to make adjustments but it is a great starting point and is relative to your body size. Consider choosing whole foods over processed and know that naturally fed animals are far superior to the opposite (ex. grass fed cows vs. feed lot cows).
If you can identify what a food is comprised of in terms of its macronutrients, you can easily figure out what percentage of your nutrition is coming from which particular macro. From there, you can use your hand to measure how much of each type of food is going on your plate. As you can see you will start to look at actual types of food instead of just calories, as a generic tool to umbrella every food on the planet.
Chicken – protein. Rice – carb. Avocado – fat. No longer is it just a caloric number that’s likely wrong. You can get specific and look at food as food instead of numbers. You can make smarter choices and make adjustments very easily based on your results. You can focus on nutrients rather than calories. There are massive differences in results when we take this approach.
If this all sounds a bit overwhelming or confusing, you’re not alone. There are so many factors to individualized nutrition that sometimes it’s best to consult a professional nutrition coach. Consider booking a complimentary consultation with a Walinga Fitness professional that includes a nutrition assessment. Ask questions, get answers. Get answers, get results.