Changing your body composition is tricky business. Everyone’s body is unique and it takes a great deal of knowledge and a fair bit of experimentation to find out what’s going to get you to your goals.
Along the way, many people find themselves hitting this brick wall: do I count macros or calories?
Here’s the run down on calories, macros, and which one deserves your utmost attention while you’re working your way to that dream bod.
People talk about “calories this” and “calories that” all the time – but what is a calorie?
A calorie is simply a unit of measurement for energy. When you eat anything, it contains calories. From that super delicious steak to that light bite of celery, everything contains calories.
Eating a calorie means you’re giving your body one unit of energy to put to use somewhere in your body.
Depending on your age, height, weight, activity level, and overall health, your body needs a certain number of calories to carry out its day to day processes. The bare minimum number of calories that your body needs to function each day is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
This means that even if you spent the entire day enjoying a Netflix binge session sitting on the couch and not lifting so much as a finger, you’ll still burn calories – and that number will be your BMR.
Now, personally, I believe that someone with a lot of weight to lose or that is just starting a body shape transformation journey, counting calories only will (to a certain degree), suffice for a period of time. If this person focuses on remaining in a calorie deficit to lose weight initially that is all well and good, however, there will come a time when they will need to shift their attention to counting macro’s. This is usually when fat loss stalls or they need to focus on maintenance calories.
Having said that, those calories can’t just come from anywhere. You’re not going to get the same results eating an all-pizza diet while counting calories as you are if you eat a well-balanced diet and pay attention to your macros.
There can be a lot to understanding macros. The main thing to know, though, is that there are three different macronutrients – carbs, protein, and fat – and your body uses each one differently.
Carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy. When you eat carbs – think: veggies, fruits, starches, whole grains, sugar – your body breaks them down into glucose. Glucose is just a fancy name for blood sugar and is the driving force between a number of processes in your body.
For every gram of carbs you eat, you’ll get 4 calories. Because your body loves to use carbs for energy, excess carbs are stored as body fat in case your body needs more energy later.
Of course, we usually disagree with our bodies on this matter and prefer that carbs aren’t stored as body fat, so it’s important to eat just the right amount of carbs that your body can burn without storing the excess.
Your entire body is made up of crucial proteins called amino acids. When you eat protein, your body breaks it down into a variety of amino acids that can be used for anything from repairing muscle tissue to transcribing DNA to creating digestive enzymes.
Like carbs, for every gram of protein you eat, you’ll get 4 calories. The body can’t store protein for later use like it can carbs, but it can break protein down into different substances that can be stored. For example, a process called gluconeogenesis can transform protein into glucose for energy if necessary. However, your body will only resort to this process if needed.
The important thing to know about protein is that it is the only essential macro nutrient. While your body can potentially use carbs, protein, or fat for energy, your body absolutely needs protein specifically to form amino acids and all the cells in your body.
This is why it’s absolutely crucial that you make sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet above all else.
Now don’t be afraid! Fat is not a bad guy. Eating fat will not make you fat. Rather, when you eat fat, your body puts it to work in a number of ways.
First, fat can be used as energy if you’re lacking in carbs. Second, fats are used to form cholesterol (which is a good thing) and fatty acids. These substances serve as helpers throughout your body by ensuring proteins do their job, insulating your organs, and acting as messengers via hormones and neurotransmitters.
For every gram of fat you eat, you’ll get 9 calories – making fat the most calorie-dense macro. Eating healthy fats like avocado, extra virgin olive oil, and some animal products can also help you feel fuller longer, so adding just the right amount of fats to your diet can keep you on track and get you closer to your goals.
All three macros are made up of calories. But your body puts those different types of calories to use in different ways.
And the fact is, your body needs precise amounts of each type of macronutrient in order to fuel your workouts, repair muscle damage, grow stronger, and shed fat.
Instead of focusing on how many calories you’re eating in total, it’s best to look at the content of what you’re eating and ensure your body is getting the tools it needs to build a better you. If your goal is to have a poppin’ six pack and sculpted shoulders, then counting macros is the only way to prevent muscle loss and guarantee that the weight you’re shedding is unwanted fat.
This level of specificity is why someone on maintenance calories or someone that has reached their desired body shape, or even someone involved in a sport that requires them to maintain a certain weight, would benefit from tracking their macros.