I’m a Dietitian and This Is Why I Track Macros Instead of Calories
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I’m a Dietitian and This Is Why I Track Macros Instead of Calories

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I’m a Dietitian and This Is Why I Track Macros Instead of Calories

Posted 3 months ago

SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD

SaVanna Shoemaker, MS, RDN, LD

Calories. They do matter, but sometimes in pursuit of our weight goals, we can actually get too focused on them.

Calories don’t tell the whole story. By focusing solely on calories, you’re missing out on two key factors that could have a huge impact on your health: degree of processing and macronutrient content.

While I could write for ages about processing, this article is actually going to focus on macronutrients or “macros.” Counting macros instead of calories can help you meet your overall calorie goal, and also make it way easier to achieve your health goals too — it’s a win-win.

I’m a registered dietitian, and here’s why I think tracking macros is more important than tracking calories.

What Are Macros?

Macros, short for macronutrients, are where the calories in our food come from. There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. In addition to providing calories, each of these macronutrients also has some specialized roles in the body — making a balance of the three important for optimal health.

In addition to the three macros, alcohol also provides calories. However, it’s not considered a nutrient. Alcohol provides seven calories per gram.

Carbs

Carbohydrates provide four calories per gram. The defining characteristic of digestible carbohydrates is that they break down into glucose or other sugar molecules, which can then be easily converted to glucose by the body. For this reason, carbohydrates provide quick, easily accessible energy.

In addition, indigestible carbohydrates are known as fiber. While we can’t digest fiber directly, the bacteria in our guts can. As they digest fiber, they produce short-chain fatty acids — which can help support immune health, brain function, blood glucose management, and digestion [*].

Carbs aren’t necessarily bad, but they are limited in some instances, with many positive effects. Keto and other low-carb diets limit carbohydrates to support weight loss, blood sugar control, anti-inflammatory activity, and brain and nervous system function [*].

Carbohydrates include grains and flour-based foods, sweets and desserts, potatoes, and sweetened drinks. Additionally, vegetables provide carbs and fiber — even if the amount they provide is negligible enough that they can be included in low-carb diets.

Protein

Protein provides four calories per gram. The amino acids found in protein are also necessary to help the body synthesize new tissues, including muscle. Protein is critical for muscle growth and maintenance and recovery from illness and injury. 

Additionally, protein is helpful for weight loss and weight maintenance because it’s filling. It digests slowly, making it easier to eat fewer calories without feeling hungry [*].

Protein is found in meats, eggs, dairy products, beans, nuts, seeds, and vegan proteins like tofu, tempeh, and hemp.

Fat

Fat provides nine calories per gram. Because of its high-calorie content compared to protein and carbs, fat is often the first thing to get slashed when people are on a low-calorie diet for weight loss.

However, this can actually be counter-intuitive. Fat helps to make meals more filling, and also provides a number of beneficial health effects — like supporting brain health and hormone production. Additionally, conventional wisdom from years past — that associated saturated fat with heart disease — has been proven wrong. There doesn’t appear to be any link between saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and heart disease [*][*].

Fat also makes food taste better, especially low-calorie foods like non-starchy vegetables.

Healthy sources of fat include avocado, avocado oil, full-fat dairy products, olive oil, coconut oil, butter, animal fats, and nuts and seeds. It’s best to avoid refined vegetable oils like corn, soybean, and canola oil because they have been linked to inflammation and heart disease [*].

Macros Vs. Calories

Why track macros? Understanding the purpose, functions, and benefits of each macronutrient illuminates why counting macros can be more helpful than solely counting calories.

Sure, calories matter, but by counting calories alone you may find yourself eating in a way that actually makes you hungrier — making it more difficult to lose weight, if that’s your goal.

Additionally, by counting macros, you will naturally keep your calories within a set limit that’s appropriate for your goals.

How Macro Counting Can Help You Reach Your Health Goals

Here’s how tracking macros can help with certain specific health goals, like weight changes or even body composition changes.

Weight Loss

Weight loss is definitely a calories game. However, you can use macro-counting as a valuable tool to help prevent or minimize muscle loss, maximize the satiety factor of your meals, or even to get you into a metabolic state that makes it easier to shed excess fat (ketosis). 

A Keto diet consists of roughly 20-30% protein, 5-10% carbs, and 60-75% fat. Being in high fat and protein, it’s extremely filling, and it helps prevent muscle loss. Additionally, at such a low level of carbohydrate intake, your body will enter ketosis and burn fat for fuel rather than carbs. For many people, this makes Keto an excellent choice for weight loss.

However, even if you don’t go Keto, the following macro tweaks can help set you up for weight loss success:

  • Increase your protein intake. Keeping protein intake high will help you stay full and can promote muscle growth, or at least help prevent you from losing muscle alongside fat.
  • Reduce your carb intake. Simple carbs that break down quickly into sugar can rapidly increase your blood sugar levels, setting you up for appetite and mood swings that may lead to you eating more. Aim to reduce your intake of simple carbs like sweets and breads, or at least to replace them with fiber-rich alternatives.
  • Consume at least 30% fat. This level of intake provides the benefits of fat, enhances the flavor of food, and can help make meals more satisfying.

Weight Gain

If you’re wanting to gain weight, it’s still a numbers game — you’ll just need to increase your total calories rather than decrease them. The absolute best way to do this without accumulating excess fat is to use macro counting principles, rather than just eating as much calorie-rich fast food and ice cream as possible.

By ensuring that you’re increasing your protein intake in addition to carbs and fat, you can ensure that you’re building muscle alongside fat. This is a healthier way to gain weight than through gorging on fatty, sugary foods. 

In addition, to target muscle growth specifically, be sure that you’re consuming plenty of protein and calories alongside regular strength training sessions [*].

Body Composition Changes

Finally, you may want to change your body composition, even though you’re already at a healthy weight. Many times, people refer to themselves as “skinny-fat” when they’re at a normal weight but they are carrying excess fat [*].

This is a case in which counting macros becomes essential to meet your goal, because you’ll want to keep your calories at maintenance level.

To reduce fat while building muscle to slowly make your body composition more favorable, you’ll want to focus on increasing protein intake, regular resistance training, and limiting simple carbs that break down into sugar quickly and ultimately increase hunger levels and food cravings.

Macro Counting Tips

Here are a few tips to help you succeed at macro counting.

Choose the Right Eating Pattern

First, you’ll need to decide on an eating pattern or a macro pattern that is the most well-suited for your lifestyle and goals. This could be Keto, low-carb, moderate-carb, high protein, balanced… whatever works best for you!

And don’t feel like you’re stuck once you choose one either. If you find something isn’t working, you can simply adjust your macros and keep on moving in the right direction.

Calculate Your Macros

Next, it’s time to calculate your specific macros. You can do this easily using an online calculator, or you can do hand calculations based on your overall calorie goal. 

It may be worthwhile to work with a registered dietitian to help you choose the best eating pattern for your goals and to calculate a calorie goal and macro goals that are the most suitable for you.

Use a Food Scale

Once you start following your plan, accuracy is key. Although you can be fairly accurate using measuring cups, weighing your food out on a scale will drastically improve the accuracy of your food logs regarding both macro content and calories.

Fortunately, basic food scales are very inexpensive.

Use a Macro-Tracking App

Finally, you’ll need a way to keep track of everything. You can go low-tech with a notebook and paper, but it will involve lots of tedious calculating, and you’ll need to go online to reference nutrition information regardless. That’s why I recommend using a food-tracking app, and there’s none better than Carb Manager.

Carb Manager’s huge library of foods, easy-to-use food scanner, and meal plan generator make it extremely easy to track your intake and progress. The app’s built-in Getting Starting Wizard and Macros Calculator can also help you choose the best macro pattern for your goals and calculate your calorie needs and macros in seconds.

Best of all? You don’t have to be on a Keto or low-carb diet to take advantage of Carb Manager’s suite of tools and resources. We’re here to support you and your health goals, regardless of your macro breakdown.

Comments 1

  • Robyn

    Robyn 11 days ago

    This was very informative,thank you I love carb Manager App