When it comes to meeting your health goals, perhaps no factor is more important than what you eat — as well as how much you eat. Counting calories and tracking macronutrient intakes are both viable ways to keep track of your food consumption, but the best option ultimately depends on your goals and preferences.
Counting Calories for Weight Loss
To keep running in tip-top shape, your body needs energy in the form of calories from food. While each of the three macronutrients contains calories — protein and carbohydrates have four calories per gram each while fat contains nine calories per gram — the concept of counting calories focuses more on the numbers than on the macronutrient makeup.
The calories that you eat on a daily basis do one of two things: They are either used for physical energy or remain unused and stored as body fat. Keep in mind that not all calories are created equally. Although you can track 1,500 calories of cookies, candy, alcohol, pizza and chips, it will not be nearly as nutritious or as satiating as 1,500 calories of lean meats, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
The concept of calorie counting revolves around the idea that if you burn more calories through physical activity than you eat through your diet, you will lose weight, according to the Mayo Clinic. Therefore, in most cases, losing weight via calorie counting is only one part of the puzzle; you will also want to increase your exercise to burn excess calories. When you are eating fewer calories than you burn, your body turns to that stored fat and uses it up for energy.
So, it's clear that counting calories is all about the numbers — and the magic number you want to hit is 3,500, which is the number of calories in a single pound of fat. To reach that number, take your resting metabolic rate — which is the number of calories you burn on a daily basis through simply living — and subtract 500 calories a day (or subtract 250 calories from your diet and burn 250 calories through exercise). If you stick to it, you will likely lose around one pound a week.
Resist the urge to cut back on calories so significantly that you feel deprived or weak. "Cutting calories needs to be done in the context of a healthy approved toward food and sustained weight loss," says Nicole Avena, PhD of Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of Why Diets Fail. "Severely restricting calories to lose weight will not lead to long-term results."
When counting calories — and particularly when you're doing so to lose weight — it's important to remember that you're only estimating the total amount you're consuming. "You can weigh food, you can measure it and get really geeky, but it's always an estimate," notes Erin Green, RD, a professional triathlete and dietitian. "Counting calories isn't an exact science, but it's much simpler than tracking macros."
Read more: Nutrient-Dense, Low-Calorie Foods to Eat
How to Track Macros
Macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates and fat — can be considered the "big three" of a healthy diet. Their smaller counterpart is micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals that don't contain calories but still are a vital part of a nutritious meal plan, according to Harvard Medical School.
In 1995, the Institute of Medicine released its Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR), which has remained in place ever since. The AMDR calls for healthy adults to consume between 45 percent and 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 10 percent to 35 percent of calories from protein and 20 percent to 35 percent of calories from fat. Whatever ratios are chosen, they need to add up to 100 percent.
These ratios can be tweaked based on your specific circumstances. For example, the American Council on Exercise recommends (ACE) that active individuals eat between 45 percent and 55 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, while those who are doing medium- to high-intensity training for one to two hours a day on four to six days a week should up that amount of 55 percent to 65 percent to provide fuel for both the body and the brain.
Like counting calories, the practice of tracking macronutrients has its pros and cons. "Most people understand the basics of what calories are and what it means to count calories. Macros are a step further into the math and the nutrition," Green explains.
However, tracking macronutrients can, in its own way, help you reduce the number of calories you eat without feeling deprived, Avena says. "If you are tracking macros and you hit your daily desired limit of carbs, you can still focus on foods that high in protein or fat," she adds. "Many people find this easier to do long-term than reducing calories."
This concept is the basis of the "If It Fits Your Macros" or IIFYM diet made popular by Anthony Collova. This particular diet plan requires you to calculate the amount of protein, fat and carbs you should eat per day and make food choices that stay within those macros.
Again, you'll need to figure out your resting metabolic rate before you can appropriately track your macronutrients. When you have that number in hand, do the math to determine how many calories each of protein, carbohydrates and fat you should eat per day by multiplying it by the appropriate percentages. For example, a person with an RMR of 1,850 calories should have between 832 calories and 1,202 calories from carbohydrates, between 185 and 647 calories from protein and between 370 and 647 calories from fat each day — as long as they're following the exact AMDR laid out by the Institute of Medicine.
However, Green notes that tracking macros runs the risk of focusing too much on foods that are high in carbs, protein and fat and ignoring those that don't contribute as much of any one nutrient. "For examples, vegetables don't necessarily contribute a lot of macronutrients," she says. "But we know they have beneficial phytonutrients, fiber and water content."
Read more: Get in the Zone With a 40-30-30 Diet Plan
Macros Vs. Calories: Which Should You Count?
Counting calories versus tracking macros isn't an either-or proposition. In fact, you might have the most success in both weight loss and muscle-building if you do both methods simultaneously.
If you want to lose weight, what truly matters is that you consistently track your food consumption — no matter which method you choose. A study involving nearly 1,700 participants published in the Journal of Diabetes Research found that only people who tracked their food most consistently lost an average of nearly 10 pounds.
If you're trying to build muscle, Avena believes that tracking macros is better than counting calories. "Focusing on a diet high in protein and healthy fats, with some carbs in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, is going to help more with muscle gain than eating 3,500 calories a day of anything."
Counting calories and tracking macronutrients are both acceptable ways to monitor your food intake. However, the most important factor is tracking consistently — no matter which method you choose.
- The Journal of Diabetes Research: "The Effect of Adherence to Dietary Tracking on Weight Loss: Using HLM to Model Weight Loss over Time"
- ACE Fitness: "How to Determine the Best Macronutrient Ratio for Your Goals"
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: "Exercise and the Institute of Medicine Recommendations for Nutrition"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- ACE Fitness: "Resting Metabolic Rate: Best Ways to Measure It—And Raise It, Too"
- Harvard Medical School: "Micronutrients Have Major Impact on Health"