The notion of calorie counting has been mainstream for decades. In fact, you can date it back over 100 years, to 1918, when American physician and author Lulu Hunt Peters published her book, titled ‘Diet and Health,’ which popularised calorie counting, and gave people simple ways to estimate their intake.
Ever since then, calorie counting has gone in and out of fashion, with diets like Weight Watchers relying on calories as the basis for their system, with other diets - keto, Paleo, South Beach, etc. - relying on food or food group restriction, and actively dissuading people from counting calories.
The bottom line is, we know calorie counting works.
Weight loss is governed by calorie balance. If you eat more than you burn, you’ll gain weight. If you eat fewer than you burn, you’ll lose weight. It’s as simple as that.
Our bodies count calories, so we may as well, too.
But what about macro-counting?
Recently, people have become more and more interested by macronutrients - proteins, carbs, and fats - and their effect on bodyweight and body composition, giving rise to the idea of macro counting in the general population.
So what’s best - Counting calories or counting macros?
They’re (Almost) The Same
By counting macros, you’re pretty much counting calories by proxy.
A gram of protein always has 4 calories, a gram of carbohydrate also always has 4 calories, a gram of fat always has 9 calories, and a gram of alcohol always has 7 calories.
This doesn’t change.
Therefore, if your macros are, say, 200g protein, 300g carbs and 70g fat, you’re eating 2,630 calories.
If you track your macros, and aim to hit close to these target macros every day, you might not actively be counting calories, but you’re still going to be on-track and eating more or less the same number every day.
There’s no possible way you could be on target to hitting your macros, but not on target to hitting your calories.
The Hierarchy of Importance
Leaving the above section to one side for a moment, if we look at things in terms of how important they are for bodyweight and body composition, calories are always going to play a bigger role than macros.
Obviously we need protein for muscle growth and muscle retention, carbohydrates for energy, and fats for general health and hormone production, but none of that matters if you’re grossly overeating or undereating calories.
Your diet could be 100% protein, but if you’re a 100kg guy who’s only eating 1,000 calories a day, you’re going to lose muscle mass, despite the muscle-sparing effects of protein.
Similarly, you could eat the healthiest diet in the world, full of unsaturated fats, high-quality protein, and unrefined, fibrous carbs, but if you’re eating too many calories, you’re not going to lose weight, despite your food choices being regarded by many to be healthy.
When Macros Matter
For someone who just wants to lose weight, or is currently obese or very overweight, the macronutrient composition of a diet probably doesn’t matter that much.
Sure, they’d want to make sure they got enough protein so they didn’t go hungry, and enough fibre and fats for digestion and general health, but aside from that, macros aren’t that important.
For someone who’s competing in a sport, or looking to get very lean however, that isn’t the case.
A male bodybuilder for example, who’s a couple of months out from competition, and on, say, 2,000 calories a day would need to ensure adequate protein intake to aid with muscle preservation. Similarly, he’d want most of his carbohydrates to be fibrous ones to aid fullness, and he’d need at least a minimal amount of fat, to aid the prevention of too big a drop in certain hormones.
He’ll experience some negative effects from being this lean anyway, but making sure he’s carefully counting his macros is going to mean he stays a little healthier, and better preserves his muscle mass and training performance than if he were just counting calories.
Another example would be a female athlete. Let’s say she’s a CrossFitter, training at least a couple of times a day. While calories are still the most important factor, if she were to only eat protein, with minimal carbs and fat, she’d definitely find a drop in performance and recovery.
For her, it’d be vital to get enough carbs to fuel her training, and to help her recover quickly between sessions.
Generally, the leaner you are, and/or the greater emphasis you place on training performance, the more important it is to not just count calories, but count macros, too.
Do You Need to Count Macros?
Most people probably don’t, but they should at least count their calories and hit a minimum protein intake.
That way, you ensure you’re feeling full enough and preserving/ building muscle, but also that your calories are in-line for whether you want to lose or gain weight.
However, seeing as you're reading this, it's very likely that you don't fall into the category of most people - you want more control over the way you look, and tracking your macros gives you exactly that.
Tracking macros really isn’t that difficult, or any more time-consuming, and likely will give better results long-term.
If you’re new to tracking, you’re travelling, really pushed for time, or on the road and having to guesstimate a lot of your meals, then count your calories and aim for a minimum protein intake.
But if you want maximum progress, and to keep getting stronger, fitter, and building (or preserving) muscle, it probably makes sense to count macros, ideally in line with the numbers we've calculated for you & given you the opportunity to tweak inline with your personal preferences.