Counting calories can help you achieve weight loss, but it won't necessarily help you build better nutrition. This is why the new, and best, method to achieve any fitness goal is by tracking macros. Counting macros, short for macronutrient, is a form of eating (some would say 'flexible dieting') that involves monitoring individual macronutrient intake instead of just calories. This means tracking the amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fats you eat every day. The idea is that there is no limitation on what foods you eat as long as you hit your daily macro intake. Thus challenging the old idea that calories in and calories out are all that matter.
Now, before you stop counting calories altogether, learn more about why tracking macros is more effective and how to get started on building better nutrition and achieving better results, be it weight loss or building muscle!
Why tracking macronutrients is beneficial
All the foods we eat have macro and micronutrients. Macronutrients are foods containing nutrients that your diet requires in large amounts, as we know now - protein, carbs, fats. Micronutrients are substances that are required in smaller amounts, these would be vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes. Both are important for our survival, but when you track macros using a health app it usually tracks the important micronutrients for you.
So, why should you track your macros, instead of only calories?
First, it allows you to dial in your diet to your specific needs, meaning you can set your macros for fat loss or to build muscle. To understand why it's superior to only counting calories, take a look at this example... Let's say your daily calorie goal is 1,800 calories, it's set for a slight surplus to achieve muscle growth. Where you get those calories from is up to you! You can choose to eat whole foods or fill up on mostly processed foods, you eat whatever you choose to meet that caloric intake goal. Protein is essential for muscle building, but how do you know you had enough protein if you're not tracking it? There isn't a way of knowing which is why keeping track of the number of macros is far more important than just calories. The same goes for weight loss. To achieve weight loss you only need to be in a calorie deficit, but if you're not getting enough protein in you might be losing muscle instead of fat.
Being able to dial into specific nutrients, instead of only calories, allows you to fuel your body with what it needs to take your results to the next level. Not only that, but macronutrients are essential for specific reasons. So, let's take a look at the three macros and how they work:
Carbohydrates - This is the most beloved and hated nutrient that is responsible for being the body's primary energy source. Carbs are sometimes seen as the root of all evil because in excess they promote weight gain, but it all comes down to the type of carbs being consumed and how much. There are two types, complex and simple carbs. Complex carbs contain an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and fiber which causes them to be digested slowly and provide a steady release of energy. On the other hand, simple carbs are digested quickly for a quicker energy source. Both types can fit into anyone's diet in moderation, so, tracking macros will help keep you in check. 😉
Protein - Consists of a combination of crucial amino acids that are responsible for aiding in muscle growth and recovery. Beyond building muscle, protein helps promote satiety, is a source of energy, helps keep the immune system, provides structure in the body, and so much more. Although a high protein intake is ideal for those wanting to build muscle, it's also necessary for weight loss because it can help keep you full longer and ensure that you're burning fat, not muscle.
Fats - Despite its bad rep, fats are an essential nutrient you want to get enough of for energy and to support cell growth. It also helps produce important hormones the body needs, and helps absorb essential vitamins (vitamin A, D, E, K). There are three types of fats, saturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat. Macro counting is important when it comes to fats because you want to ensure you're getting enough of the healthy fats, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. While keeping trans and saturated fats to a minimum. Fats are calorie dense, which is why most people who count calories avoid them, but adding them to your diet will help keep you full longer and help maintain balance in your body.
Second, and lastly, it allows you to be flexible - AKA no food is off limits! The best part of tracking macros is that it helps you stay on top of your nutrition, while giving you room for occasional treats. As you track your macros, you'll naturally want to prioritize whole foods in order to get enough protein, carbs, or fats for the day. Whatever's left for your daily macros can be met with anything you wish, as long as it fits your macros. This is also known as IIFYM, "if it fits your macros', a form of flexible dieting that started after many achieved success by tracking their macros. It makes it easier for you to take into account for dinner with friends, brunch dates, or any social gathering because you can simply adjust the rest of your day for whatever outing or special treat you have planned. The contrary to what people believe, restrictions can do more harm than good. They leave you feeling deprived which can lead to overeating and weight gain in the long run. By establishing no restrictions, and allowing yourself to indulge once in a while, will let you work toward your goals without the sense of guilt.
Those are just two of the main benefits to macro tracking, to understand the real beauty of it let's take a look at it compared to old dieting methods...
Tracking macros vs. other dieting methods
How is IIFYM different from any other old school diets? A calorie deficit is still an important part of losing fat, so what makes tracking macros any different than a diet like Keto? Well, let's look at the three main differences between these other dieting methods and macro diets to see!
Restrictive behaviours: Aside from strict calorie counts, many trendy diets are based around approved food lists, and certain require complete elimination of a food or food group (low-carb, keto, low-fat). This method is old, not sustainable, and can lead to a cycle of yo-yo dieting. Where tracking macros differs is that it does away with that restrictive mentality and instead promotes inclusion of all foods in moderation. This makes it so you can indulge regularly without feeling guilty, but also reducing your chances of going on a cheat binge. It'll still be thought of, but the macro diets moderation approach makes it much more bearable!
Social-situations: Following a specific diet like a low-carb diet with a list of forbidden foods, can make social situations difficult. You miss out on that slice of cake, or the bread basket at dinner. Although it's good to be careful with your food choices, avoiding certain foods altogether will leave you feeling guilty. And those who decide to indulge, result in punishing themselves later for eating a measly slice cake! This is not a healthy approach, in fact, it damages your relationship with food. Using macros as a guide will not only have you feeling less guilty, but also less stressed and worried about indulging during social situations. By tracking your macros you can account for a dinner outing with friends by looking at the restaurants menu, most also have their nutrition available! Doing this will help you determine what may fit, or what you need to adjust to make fit, so you can enjoy eating out with friends without worrying about overindulging.
Athletic performance: Low-fat, low-carb, or any strict calorie-restriction diet plan can make your workouts suffer a great deal! These types of diets tend to take a toll on your energy levels which makes it harder for you to muster up the necessary energy needed for high-quality, intense training. On the other hand, macro tracking places importance on macronutrients that are responsible for giving you the energy you need to train hard and recover.
Overall, it's a better approach to long-term, sustainable weight loss, and unlike other diet plans, it promotes building healthy habits that will stick with you in the long run!
How to start tracking your macros
If counting macros seems like the right fit for you, here are three steps to help get you started:
Step 1: Learn your daily macro goals
Your macros are based on your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) and your fitness goals. There are other things you should consider, like activity level, body type, current weight, and body fat. This is why although you can calculate your own macros using various formulas, it's more efficient to use a macro calculator.
These online calculators, like the Fit With Iulia macro calculator, ask a series of important questions that range from current body weight, gender, age, fitness goals, activity level, body fat, and body type. All these questions are to help get a better understanding of you and your goals to calculate the best macros. Most don't include body type (Fit With Iulia's does), but its quite important. Some people have body types with a slower metabolism, and others with more efficient metabolisms. So, a person with the same goal, but different body type (and other factors) will have different macros than someone with the same goal and different body type.
With that being said, the first step is to calculate your daily macros using a macro calculator. Once you do, you'll know exactly how many grams of protein, carbs, fats, and calories you need to eat for your goals.
Step 2: Get the right tools
Tracking macros requires you to stay accountable with yourself as well as being as accurate as possible. The best way to do that is to use the right tools, and luckily, it's easy with so many apps to chose from! You can do it the traditional way and create your own food diary, or you can download an app that makes it more convenient.
Food tracking apps, like MyFitnessPal, have a database of food readily available to you. They make tracking your food intake hassle-free by having features like a barcode scanner! With a barcode scanner, you simply scan the food you'll be eating and it will populate the information for you to input into your food diary! Obviously, this doesn't apply to foods without barcodes like fruits and veggies, but their vast database of food should have everything you need to track all the foods you eat.
Step 3: Log your daily macros
Once you have your tools ready, be it an old school food diary or a tracking app, the final step is to log your daily macros! To make this work, you actually have to keep track of every single thing you eat and drink each day... And we mean everything - healthy and unhealthy! Tracking even the unhealthy stuff will give you a better sense of the amount of food you eat that way next time you can adjust your approach to stay on track. You should try to be as accurate as possible by taking note of the serving sizes you eat. Also, make sure to include all ingredients, that means toppings, seasonings, cooking oils, etc. These might seem silly to track, but they can actually add a few grams of fat or carbs!
Tips to help to make macro tracking easier
Now that you know everything about macronutrients and how to get started tracking them, we want to give you a few extra tips to help make it even easier for you to start!
Invest in a food scale
Estimating your portion sizes is not the most effective way to track macros. Instead, invest in a food scale to help make your tracking more efficient. Fortunately, they are relatively inexpensive, you can find simple ones that range between $10-30. Once you have one, learn how to use it! Most have a tare/zero button which allows you to subtract the weight of your bowl.
After a couple months of using the food scale, you'll start to become familiar with portion sizes. This can be helpful when there's not an exact match for the food you're eating on your tracking app. You can roughly estimate with your hands, and based on experience, what the serving size is.
Have single-source macros on hand
Single-source macros is a term used to describe foods that have primarily one of the three macros. For example, having whey protein powder, yogurt, or deli meats in case you need to increase your protein intake. Or having mixed nuts handy when you need to boost your fats. Having foods to choose from that have one main macro will be extremely helpful when you're missing out on only one at the end of the day.
Plan your meals ahead
Meal plans are popular for a reason - they work! Some prefer to track their macros as they go, but that can increase the risk of either going way over your macros. Planning your meals either a few days or a week in advance can help you stay on track with what you've inputted already, it will also make it easier for you to account for treats and any social outings. And if meal planning seems way too stressful or overwhelming, here are tips on creating meal plans for your macros.
Double check nutrition labels
Although tracking apps have an expansive food list, sometimes the food entry might not match exactly, even when using the barcode scanner. So, double check the nutrition label and the entry on your tracking app to make sure everything matches as it says on the package. If the food doesn't have a nutrition label, look at other online sources to make sure you choose the entry that matches closest to the food and serving size you're eating.
Be conscious, not obsessive
Tracking macros can help people be more mindful about what and how much they eat. But it can get to the point were it becomes obsessive, tracking every little sip and bite, and constantly obsessing about going over your macros or not meeting them. Macro tracking is meant to be helpful, not stressful. And in case you didn't know, stress can derail your fitness efforts and health. So, be conscious about your consumption, but don't be afraid to loosen up on how strict you are with meeting the exact percentages.
In summary, tracking macros is a more effective way of eating because it helps make sure you're getting enough nutrients (not just calories) for whatever your fitness goals are - weight loss, maintenance, or building muscle. Regardless of fitness, it can help you build a better relationship with food to improve your overall health.