In the weight loss world, counting calories alone is pretty much flushing money down the toilet.
If you’re counting calories and hoping to lose weight without paying attention to the macronutrient amounts of the foods you are eating, you are wasting your time. Period.
Wait- you’re not supposed to count calories? But isn’t losing weight all about calories in versus calories out? Isn’t the key to burn more than you take in?
Energy balance/deficit is important, but in reality there is much more to it. Think of it this way: 100 calories of broccoli is not equal to 100 calories of potato chips. We all know this, right? Broccoli has a lot more benefits nutritionally than potato chips. What the body does with them is very different. The two are not equal, even at the same caloric value.
This tells us there must be more at play than calories.
There is. They are called macronutrients.
“Macros” are the three dietary elements that make up our food: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. All foods contain one, two or all of these macronutrients, and they each have a significant and unique effect on our bodies and metabolism.
The body’s “building blocks.” Used to build and maintain muscle and lean tissue, facilitate other important bodily functions.
- How much do you need: varies. A low range would be about .5 grams per day per pound of bodyweight (so for a 100 pound person, 50 grams a day minimum.) I usually recommend anywhere from .75 grams to 1.5 grams per pound depending on age, bodyweight, physical activity and goals.
- When to eat: I recommend a protein source with every meal. It breaks down more slowly than carbs or fats and keeps you fuller longer. Also protein is the one macro many people don’t get enough of so having some at each meal helps ensure you are not eating too little.
- Sources: meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, protein powders, soy products, some seeds such as hemp
The body’s most readily available energy source. Also can be stored for energy in adipose tissue as body fat. Provide much of the all-important fiber in our diet.
- How much do you need: again, this varies greatly by individual. Carbohydrate metabolism is affected by genetics, activity level, overall health and more. Some people can eat a lot of carbs and never seem to gain a pound while others will easily add body fat when eating a high carb diet. It is generally recommended not to go too low with carbs as they are essential, but what that means varies greatly person to person. Adults should aim for 25-35 grams of dietary fiber per day (many people don’t get enough.)
- When to eat: carbohydrates are best utilized first thing in the morning to replenish any glycogen that may have been depleted from the liver during sleep, and around times of activity such as a workout. Because carbs are the body’s preferred energy source, they provide fuel during periods of high activity and are used to replenish depleted glycogen stores after training. Generally speaking, the less active a person is the less carbs they need.
- Important to know: there are two kinds of carbs, complex and simple. Vegetables are complex carbohydrates and do not break down in the same way as starchier carb sources. Of course veggies are rich in nutrients and should make up the bulk of any healthy diet. For this reason I separate them out when referring to “carbs” with clients. You don’t want to put limits on veggies, they are hard to overeat. Simple carbs are broken down more quickly and spike blood sugar more than veggies. These are the ones you want to pay attention to.
- Sources of “simple” carbs: fruit, rice, potatoes (all kinds), grains, oats, sugar, packaged and processed foods, candy, cake etc.
The most energy-dense source of fuel for the body. Fats can be stored for energy, leading to the accumulation of adipose tissue (body fat.) Essential for many functions within the body.
- How much do you need: fat can be tricky, because while vitally important to health, there are good and bad sources. A healthy diet should be rich in “good” fat sources like polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and some saturated fat, while trans fats should be avoided or limited as much as possible. You want to be sure to include healthy fat sources in your diet (30-50g per day), but just like carbs, some people can eat more while others should stay in the low range to avoid gaining excess body fat. A very general rule is the higher your carbs, the lower your fats and vice versa. The one mistake many people make is following a diet high in “low-fat” foods which ends up leaving them with hardly any healthy fats in their diet at all, and too much trans fat.
- When to eat: fat, like protein can help keep you fuller longer since it takes a little longer to digest. Typically I recommend avoiding fat pre and post workout, and keeping it on the lower end when the meal is higher in “simple” carbs.
- Sources of “good” fats: nuts, seeds, nut butters, chia, flax, olive oil, salmon, beans (also a carb), coconut oil, butter
- Sources of “bad” fats: fast-food, restaurant foods, packaged and processed foods, vegetable oil
Understanding the different macronutrients can be confusing but the bottom line is this: optimal health and weight loss can only be achieved with a proper balance of each, and a calorie to a calorie is not necessarily equal.
Once you can easily identify which macro group a food falls into, you can use that information to build healthy, balanced meals that will fuel your body for optimal health and performance. Just remember, your body’s needs are very unique and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else.