Calories vs. Macros – How To Pick The Most Nutrient Dense Foods

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In the past year and a half, having become a professional bodybuilder and fitness nutrition specialist, has opened my eyes to an entire new realm of eating. Most people who pay attention to their health would agree that what has been preached to them has always been to watch those calories, calories, calories! Cell phone apps and trackers galore exist to keep this count in check. On the other hand, macronutrient counting (tracking your carbohydrates, protein and fat) is a science when it comes to diet, especially when trying to acquire a certain aesthetic. There are two forms of tracking, both with pros and cons, but ultimately it is still a necessary component of awareness on our fitness journeys.

What Exactly is a Calorie?

A calorie is a unit of energy. In relation to nutrition, “When discussing how many calories are in a particular food or drink, this is referring to how much energy is released by the nutrients in that food once the food has been digested and absorbed” (NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, 5th Edition, Mcgill, Erin & Montell, Ian, 2017). The amount of calories one should consume daily is based on age, gender, weight and level of activity. The tricky catch here is that not all calories are created equally. A 100 calorie bag of potato chips doesn’t equate to a 100 calorie apple in terms of nutritional wholesomeness. The false perception is that if I’m told I can have 1,500 calories, does that mean I can eat whatever I want as long as it adds up to or under my total? That is wishful thinking, for sure. The body doesn’t use or process different food the same way.

What are Macronutrients?

This leads us to macronutrients. These are the nutrients within the calories which include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Beginning with carbohydrates, these nutrients are either complex or simple in their makeup. This classification is based on the carbon/water units they have. Which means, a complex carbohydrate has more than 10 carbon/water units and “include the fiber and starch found in whole grains and vegetables”. On the contrary, a simple carbohydrate has less than 10 carbon/water units, which then gets further labeled as disaccharides and monosaccharaides. According to NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness (2017), examples of complex carbs include grains, wheat, rice, corn, oats, potatoes, pasta and peas. Simple carbs include candy, sodas, table sugar, milk, ice cream, beer, and molasses. Most processed foods would be considered simple carbs.

Carbohydrates have been under years of scrutiny and one day they’re good and the next day they’re terrible according to the latest trends for weight loss. Low-carb or no-carb seem to be the favorites. But carbohydrates are our #1 fuel source. Our brain needs them for functioning and our body needs them for energy. According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine (2005), adults are recommended to consume 45-65% of their total intake from carbs. It’s definitely important to consider activity level as well. Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram.

Protein is another form of calories. They’re chains of amino acids and nitrogen. The easier part to understand is that, “Amino acids are found in animal sources such as meats, milk, fish, and eggs. They are also found in plant sources such as soy, beans, legumes, nut butters, and some grains (such as wheat germ and quinoa)” (reference). But science isn’t that simple and the amino acids are also broken down into three types. The first are essential amino acids that our bodies don’t make and must receive through food. The second are nonessential aminos that are made by our bodies automatically. The final type are conditional and these aminos come into play when a person is sick. Protein has 4 calories per gram.

High protein with low-carb has been the diet buzz for years. Protein is favorable because, “Hair and nails are mostly made of protein. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood” (reference). So how much protein should we eat? Mathematically, we should consume 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight, which leads to about 56 grams per day for men and 46 grams per day for women (reference). As a female, that is about two, 4-ounce servings of chicken or fish per day. It really isn’t that much.

As much negativity as fats have received, we actually do need them in our diet. In fact, we need about 10% in our diet, which isn’t a major amount, but of course it depends on which type of fat you’re consuming. Unsaturated, monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the good types and can actually help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Avocado, nuts, and olive oil are great choices for healthy fats. Omega 3s are an example of good fat which includes fish like salmon. Saturated and trans fatty acids are the bad fats. As such, “Saturated fats are found in animal products (meat, poultry skin, high-fat dairy, and eggs) and in vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as coconut and palm oils. Trans fat was a popular term of many diets that preached avoiding them for obvious reasons: “The real worry in the American diet is the artificial trans fats. They’re used extensively in frying, baked goods, cookies, icings, crackers, packaged snack foods, microwave popcorn, and some margarines (reference). Fat has 9 calories per gram.

Tracking Calories vs Macronutrients

Keeping track of calories versus keeping track of macronutrients is actually very different. Calorie tracking is the less complicated approach, and is much more convenient now with the many apps that are available on your smartphone. The downfall would be selecting the incorrect types of calories, not just plugging in the numbers and making sure the total is equal to or less that what your goal is. Whereas, counting macros is a whole new ball game. This is the approach I use as a bodybuilder. Why do I do this? Because I know exactly what is being put into my body, gram for gram. It’s so specific that it is time-consuming. Based on how many grams of carbohydrates, protein and fat I should be having as my totals for the day, I have to mathematically make all of my selections fit into the plan. For example, if I said I’m having 100 grams of protein and 80 grams of carbs and 10 grams of fat, whatever I pick has to add up to this while taking into consider the macronutrients of each food selection I make. For me, eating the same foods over and over works well because I know what fits and what doesn’t fit and I’m not doing math every night to figure it all out.

As a non-math person, the calculations for how many calories a person should have per day is beyond me. I have tools at my fitness studio that calculates the numbers for me. But for those who are curious, calories are based on a person’s Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), their physical activity and the thermic effect of food. BMR is the amount of calories your body burns at rest and the thermic effect refers to the energy your body uses to digest the food.

Here’s the BMR formula below. You can add back calories based on your goals and physical activity level, followed by adding .10 back to your total calories based on the thermic effect (yeah, it’s way over my head) (reference):

  • Adult Male: 66 + (6.3 x body weight in lbs.) + (12.9 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
  • Adult Female: 655 + (4.3 x weight in lbs.) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)

When I was in school, the macronutrient calculation was about a page long of math equations. Online tools and calculators are a major time-saver when it comes to this. I encourage macro-counting because it really does make it clear what works and what doesn’t work when tailored to your own personal goals. There is very little room for guessing because not all calories are created equal. Clean eating of course is the ultimate and trumps either of these two factors, but combining clean eating with macronutrien tracking has personally provided me with great success and also for my clients that I have helped with this method.

Change takes effort and time. Many of my clients are blown away when they start tracking their food and realize how much of certain items they have blindly been consuming. We live in a world of portion distortion, so the reality check hits hard. For example, acai bowls have been a popular Southern California craze. Between all the sugar in the fruit, both fresh and dried, and then all the granola piled on top, the totals are astounding! If a ¼ cup is one serving of granola and has about 200 calories, I’m pretty sure at least 1 cup or more is dumped on top. And that’s just the topping. It’s misleading for sure and that’s the benefit of mindful eating. The reduced fat, fat-free, gluten-free, soy-free, sugar-free era we live in doesn’t mean calorie-free. The chemicals in all those foods still add up.

Be it calorie or macronutrient counting, we all know our own selves the best. For the person who when told exactly what to do, likes to rebel, then macro isn’t for you. Calorie counting would allow some judgement and control. For the person who thrives with structure, macro counting is perfect. Sometimes having options means doing exactly what you were doing before. Be adamant about your goals, but trial and error can be used in your plan to reach them. If one approach doesn’t work, try the other. Meal prepping makes this process easier, and even easier than this, is using services that prepare all the food for you. I guess all the excuses run out when you think about it. So fuel your body the right way, with the right amount, and ignite your inner athlete to be active, and soon enough, your goals will be crushed!

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About Author

Megan Johnson McCullough

My name is Megan Johnson McCullough and I have a Master's degree in Physical Education and Health Science. My motto is that every BODY deserves to become the best versions of themselves. I have been a trainer for 12 years and have accumulated many certifications, but most proudly becoming an elite NASM Master Trainer. I am also a professional natural bodybuilder and member of Team USA. See my profile page for more information!

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