I want to lose weight but am confused about how to eat. Should I track macros or are calories king for fat loss?
I want to lose weight but am confused about how to eat. Should I track macros or are calories king for fat loss?
Samantha Lee/Business Insider
If you want to lose weight, it comes down to being in an energy deficit, consuming fewer calories than you’re expending.
Macros — or macronutrients — are your protein, carbs, and fat, and the most important one for fat loss is protein.
Calories always count, but you don’t have to count your calories.
Tracking should be a temporary educational tool, and even then, it isn’t for everyone.
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I feel like I’ve got my fitness down and I also don’t eat an unhealthy diet, but I know I’m a bit overweight so would like to re-educate myself around how much I should be eating, and what foods in which quantities, to lose some of my excess fat. I think tracking would be a good starting point, but I feel very confused. Is it better to track macros or are calories king when trying to lose weight? Can you explain macros in an easy to understand way? I’ve always been fine motivating myself to work out, but the idea of working out percentages and grams makes me lose interest in the nutritional side of weight loss and fitness. No matter how many articles I read (or PTs I speak to!) I can’t seem to understand macros. Please help!
I don’t blame you for feeling as you do — it can be pretty overwhelming trying to get your head around the different ways you can track your nutrition.
Doing so also comes a lot more easily to some people than others, and tracking certainly isn’t for everyone.
I have to admit, I love tracking.
When I want to trim down a bit (or build muscle), to me, it’s really satisfying to have targets to work toward, a structured plan, and set numbers that I know should provide me with a clear roadmap to my goal provided I stick to them.
It’s science, and I like it.
That said, logging everything you eat can be a hassle and quite frankly just add more stress to your life, which is the last thing you want if you’re trying to live a healthier lifestyle.
It sounds like tracking may not be something that fills you with joy, and that’s fine. You don’t have to do it.
I’ve spoken to three fitness and nutrition experts who’ll help you understand exactly what macros and calories are, the pros and cons of tracking them, and whether doing so is right for you.
Macros are protein, carbs, and fat
Most people understand what calories are — a calorie (technically a kilocalorie) is simply a unit of energy.
General guidance advises that women consume 2,000 calories a day and men 2,500, but obviously our daily energy requirements are actually incredibly personal, depending on our age, activity levels, metabolism, genetics, lifestyle, and more.
We often hear people in the fitness world talk about macros — this means macronutrients, and the three macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
Every food offers us a different amount of each macro, as well as micronutrients which are all the essential vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy.
The macros in a food makes up its calories: Protein and carbs are four calories per gram, and fat is nine calories per gram.
So if we take an average slice of bread as an example, it might contain 4g of protein, 15g of carbs, and 1g of fat. You multiply the protein and carbs by four and the fat by nine to calculate the calories: 85.
(There’s also alcohol which has seven calories a gram, but this isn’t a macronutrient because it doesn’t have any nutritional benefit.)
Energy balance is the most important factor for weight management
When it comes to fat loss, the most important factor is being in an energy deficit.
“Calories are always king,” said sports nutritionist and weight loss coach Scott Baptie.
“If you want to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit — this is when you consume fewer calories than you burn.
“The opposite happens if you gain weight. A calorie surplus is when you consume more calories than you burn.”
Make sure you avoid the common error of trying to speed up the fat loss process by creating too large a calorie deficit, which will then be unsustainable.
Baptie stresses that although calories count, you don’t necessarily need to count your calories.
“You can create a calorie deficit by following healthy habits but if, like you mentioned, you’re stuck in a rut, and you’re already eating fairly healthy, then tracking calories can help you to see how much you’re actually eating.
“This is often quite revealing as studies have shown we often underestimate just how many calories we eat per day.”
So a good place to start if you want to get your nutrition in check is to try tracking your calories — MyFitnessPal is a useful (and free!) app for doing so.
“Log everything: food, drink, sauces, snacks, booze, everything!” said Baptie.
“This activity in itself may help you to make some little tweaks to what you’re doing and shift the calorie balance in the right direction.”
Calorie counting helped me develop a healthier relationship with food
Personally, tracking calories was incredibly helpful for me.
When I lost 35 pounds last year, logging my calories (I used MyFitnessPal) actually helped me develop a healthier relationship with food and stop thinking of foods in terms of “good” or “bad” because I learned that eating a donut does not make you put on weight.
What makes you put on weight (or stops you losing weight) is eating too much of anything, and that’s where I’d gone wrong before, eating vast quantities of “good” foods like nut butters and avocados which, while “healthy,” are very energy-dense.
Of course, even though you could eat candy and junk food all day and still lose weight, it’s not advisable, for obvious health reasons.
“You can lose weight without being ‘healthy,'” owner and lead trainer of London gym Reach Fitness, Rich Tidmarsh, told Insider.
“Personally, I need about 4,000 calories a day to maintain my weight.
“If I consume 2,000 calories per day from chips and fizzy drinks will I lose weight? Yes. But would my internal organs thank me for it? No. Would I feel good? No.
“So understanding both the calories you need and where to source them from is important. The source is basically your macros: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. You need them all.”
Tracking your protein can be helpful when in a calorie deficit
Once you’ve got your calories down, you can think about assessing your protein intake, as this is the most important macronutrient for fat loss.
“Out of the three, the one we’re most interested in is protein as a higher protein intake can assist with weight loss by helping to regulate your appetite and keep the hunger pangs away,” said Baptie.
“So if you’re tracking calories, the next step might be to aim for a certain protein intake (say around 1.5 to 2g of protein per kg of body weight).”
This is what I do intermittently and personally I’ve found it really helpful, both for keeping me full and satiated if I’m in a calorie deficit, helping my muscles recover from training, and also for ensuring I don’t lose my muscle mass while losing weight.
Carbs and fats are less important
As for carbs and fats, this is one step too far for most average people, myself included. I just make sure I’m eating a balance of them both to keep my body and brain fueled (and my meals delicious).
“Some folks go the full hog and track carbs and fats too but in my experience, this isn’t really necessary if you’re tracking calories and protein,” said Baptie.
“You’re just making more work for yourself and it’s not going to really make a significant difference to your body shape how many carbs or grams of fat you eat — so long as you’re in a calorie deficit.”
If you do want to take things one step further and track your carbs and fat too, there are various online calculators that can help you decide the right numbers to start with — try this one from Mind Pump.
It’s worth stressing, however, that everybody is different — while some people thrive on a high protein diet, others find it messes up their digestion.
Some people feel great eating low carb and high fat, others find the opposite.
Tracking should be a temporary educational tool, not a lifestyle
When it comes to finding the perfect macro split and calorie count for you, trial and error for a little while will help you to find out what makes you feel good and also brings you closer to your fat loss goal.
And remember, tracking is only meant to be temporary and educational, not something you do forever.
“The key is to find the daily intake that works for you in terms of energy for training and the weight and body composition levels that you want to maintain,” said Tidmarsh.
“Once you know the basic levels, I wouldn’t track anymore.
“You know what a normal day is, try and do that for four or five days a week, without actually tracking, and don’t stress too much on a couple of days.
“Then you will maintain both the physique you want and have a positive relationship with food.”
Calorie and macro counting isn’t for everyone
If you’re going to track, you need to be careful. For some people, it leads to an unhealthy obsession with striving for the “perfect” diet, can be all-consuming, and can lead to inflexibility and thus zero social life.
You don’t want to feel like you’re a slave to MyFitnessPal, unable to live your life or go “off-plan” because enjoying a spontaneous slice of birthday cake in the office will mess up your macros and calories for the day.
“While it may seem like a good idea to be tracking your intake, it can actually lead to more disordered behaviors and increase your anxiety about food,” dietitian and eating disorders specialist Priya Tew told Insider.
“Instead, you could keep a food diary for a couple of days and look at your fruit and veg portions, reduce intake of sugary foods, look at your portions of carbohydrates and the balance.”
If tracking simply adds more stress and anxiety to your life, you really don’t have to do it.
“Set a few small goals that you know you can stick to long term rather than planning a restrictive diet,” said Tew.
“Think about what health behaviors you can add into your life rather than cutting things out. Can you walk more often or prioritize sleep? It all combines to a healthier lifestyle.”
Rather than tracking numbers, keeping a written food diary can make you more accountable and thus more likely to make nourishing food choices.
Or you could use a technique advised by online trainer and fat loss coach Jordan Syatt: Don’t track, but aim to follow a “plan” where you eat three meals (each fitting on one plate) and two snacks a day, and those can be whatever you want.
Ultimately, you don’t need to track macros or calories to lose weight. You need to be in an energy deficit, and tracking might help you work out how to do that.
Wishing you well,
As a senior lifestyle reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.
Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.
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