Welcome back boys and girls. Today I want to go back to the basics to make sure that we understand the fundamentals of calorie and macronutrient tracking. I try to focus most of my articles on how we can apply healthy dietary and exercise related ideas in our life, but understanding the principles behind those applications is extremely important and will allow us to have more success long term in our fitness endeavors. So today I’ll be focusing more on those principles.
I also want to point out that counting calories is not the only way to lose weight, there are plenty of other reasonable and healthy ways to lose fat. I will be going over those in the future also, giving my opinion about how, when, and if we should use them. Now back to calorie tracking.
Calories And Macronutrients
So first I want to define what a calorie and a macronutrient are. A calorie is a measurement of energy which is equivalent to 4,184 joules. Whenever we eat food it is converted into usable forms of energy for our cells so that we can function as living peoples.
A macronutrient on the other hand is a nutrient that makes up a large amount of our calorie intake (macro = big, nutrient = nutrient). There are 4 main macronutrients that most people pay attention to: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and alcohols. I only pay attention to the first three because I don’t drink alcohol.
1 gram of protein has 4 calories in it and when it’s consumed it is converted into an amino acid. Protein’s use is paramount in the structure of your muscles and many other tissues. For that reason it is very important for people who want to increase their muscle mass. At the same time people who eat more protein often report feeling less hungry then people who eat less protein, especially while trying to lose weight. When it’s absolutely necessary protein can be converted to glucose and used as energy. Almost everyone loves more protein.
1 gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories in it also. If our body were a car than in most cases carbs would be the gasoline. When carbs are eaten our body converts them to glucose so that they can fuel cell functions all throughout our body. Your muscles and liver store glucose as glycogen, this stored form of glucose is very important and is used as fuel for moderate and intense bouts of exercise, while in lower intensity workouts your body will rely more on glucose and FFAs (free fatty acids) that are already in your blood.
1 gram of fat has 9 calories in it, when we consume fats they are converted into triglycerides. Fats get a bad rap because of the high calorie-to-gram ratio that they possess, but they are vital in our diet. Fats are extremely important in structure on a cellular level and healthy amounts of fat in a diet help maintain hormones at normal levels. Fats are also used to fuel the body between meals once the body is finished burning the carbs that were consumed. It also is used as fuel in lower intensity bouts of exercise.
Calories Vs. Macronutrients
Calories are always going to be more important than macronutrients. If you’re trying to lose weight but you’re consuming too many calories it won’t matter what your macronutrient split is, you’re going to get bigger. If you’re trying to gain muscle but aren’t consuming enough calories you will not put on weight. It’s just the Law of Thermodynamics. That’s how it works.
Having said that, it does not mean that the macronutrient content of a diet is unimportant. It just means that we need to make sure that we’re setting our priorities in the right place. And when it comes to nutrition, the first priority will always be calorie intake.
Now, controlling your macronutrient split is very important because if you have too much or too few of your calories coming from a particular macronutrient than that may make your diet more difficult, or it may make the type of exercise that you decide to participate in significantly harder. For example, I tried two times to eat a ketogenic diet, which is a diet very high in fat and extremely low in carbohydrates. However, I was playing rugby at the time and because of the intensity of the sport I needed carbohydrates to fuel the short bouts of intense activity that make up a rugby match. Because I had almost entirely eliminated carbohydrates from my diet I played significantly worse in practices and scrimmages. If I had been a long distance runner than I may have been able to have similar or even better results in my sport on a ketogenic diet in comparison to eating a diet with more carbs, but alas, I love rugby.
Generic Calorie Tracking Techniques
I want to talk a little bit about how to track calories. There are a bajillion different calorie tracking apps out there and if you’re going to count calories than I advise that you use one of them. Many of them are very good and if they’re popular there’s a reason for that.
There are approximately 3,500 calories in 1lb of fat. This means that if you burn 500 calories per day than you will lose 1lb of fat in a week. If you burn 1,000 calories in a week then you’ll lose 2lbs of fat. Most people are familiar with this idea.
Before you can start counting calories you need to establish your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) this is the total of how many calories your body burns in a single day. This number is really a moving target and will change day to day, but it’s going to be pretty close to the same as long as your days are pretty similar.
Because there isn’t really a cheap and quick way for you to establish what your exact TDEE is I think it’s a good idea to use whatever tool your app has and see where that puts you. Go ahead and start using the calorie amount that your app suggests and weigh yourself regularly to see if there are weight changes. Do this for about 2 weeks and if you start moving in the right direction than the TDEE that the app gave you was accurate. If not then adjust as is necessary by increasing or decreasing the amount of calories that you consume in a day.
Knowing what we now know there are 3 different ways that we can track calories/macronutrients that I think are effective. We’ll go from most simple to most complex. Your goal is to choose the one that fits the best into your lifestyle.
First, you can simply count your calories. This is good, counting calories will help you to ultimately determine how many calories you need to eat to lose or gain weight, and it will also allow you control the rate of weight change. Counting calories is good because it allows you to simply track the food that you eat and you only need to focus on one thing. It’s great for people who are just starting out with tracking their food because they can simply focus on calories and this requires the fewest dietary changes. For a long time I just counted calories so that I could better understand the different attributes that different foods have. Altogether, this method is perfect for educating yourself and starting out.
Second, you can try counting calories and protein. This is better because you now will not only be controlling how many calories you take in, but also how much protein you’re eating. This is better than counting calories because of how important protein is in any diet, especially people trying to lose fat or gain muscle. Protein will help you eat less if you want to lose weight because it’s such a satiating nutrient. Altogether this method is great if you’ve got some experience under your belt and are willing to start making more drastic dietary changes, like buying protein powder, and eating more foods like chicken breast, fish, or lean meats.
Third, you could straight up count calories and each macronutrient. This is the most difficult of each of the methods to incorporate into a normal lifestyle. You have to start making serious dietary changes that may make life hard because of how strict your nutritional goals are. Obviously this is the most effective method because of the fact that you get complete control. You can tailor your diet to your personal preferences and goals and apply numbers to each macronutrient. I really don’t feel like this level of stringency is necessary for the vast majority of the people who aren’t professional athletes or at least amateur bodybuilders.
Now, even though I’m really trying to focus on helping people who are trying to get down to a healthy weight rather than people who are trying to get gluteal striations, I’m going to be covering how you can use each one of the methods mentioned earlier so that you can have the tools that you prefer to use. I’ll be making that article in a few weeks, but between now and then I’ll be diving into my methods for fat loss and the progress that I’ve made, how we can make a habit out of exercising, and what type of workouts we should be doing.
Until next time…