If you’re new to the world of nutrition, you might be wondering where to start? You probably understand what calories are, and you might even recognise the word macros, but what do they mean for you personally? What do you need to track? Where should you be aiming?
First things first…some quick definitions:
Calories are the measurement of energy in food. There’s a whole bunch of science to what a calorie is and what it means, but you don’t need to know that. All you have to understand is that calories are an overall energy measurement and you need to intake a certain number to live. That number is variable, depending on your circumstances and your goals.
Macros, or macronutrients, are the 3 BIG things you need to worry about in food:
They make up the vast majority of most food, as opposed to micronutrients; vitamins, minerals and some other substances that don’t quite fit in any other category, which you only need in trace amounts. What you need to know about macros is that in general, you need to have some intake of all three, because they each perform vital functions in the body, and that the way you balance them, rather than the total number of calories you consume, is more likely to determine how your food intake affects your body.
And what do you need to count?
This depends on your particular philosophy. Some people count calories and macros, some people stick to a certain diet (raw food, paleo, etc.) and watch calories, but let the macros take care of themselves, and some people stick to worrying about their macro ratios and don’t worry about their calories. What you do will depend on your goals, your body and your personality.
However, if you want my advice (and I assume you do, since you’re still reading) focus on your macros and stress less about your calories.
Calorie counting alone is unlikely to help you and will probably leave you hungry and irritable at the end of the day. Your body needs as much fuel as it needs and that’s highly variable, even on a daily basis.
Did you know that reading burns more calories than watching TV?
That sleeping burns more calories than either?
If you get your macros right, your intake will naturally fall into line with what you actually need. Over and under-eating are problems usually related to obsessing over calories and both of these will stop you from reaching your goals.
Speaking of goals, let’s break down how to achieve yours and what you need to worry about regarding them.
This is the most popular goal by far, which leads to a truly astounding amount of misinformation. Old-fashioned advice said that if you just limit your calories, you’ll lose weight. Not only is this wrong, it can backfire dramatically and leave you with more excess weight that’s harder to shift.
Your body doesn’t like change, which is why drastic dieting (unless you stick to it forever) tends not to work.
The best way to lose weight is to cut your carbs to between 10-30% of your daily intake and boost your protein and fat to 40-50% and 30-40%, respectively.
Because carbs are more readily converted by the body into fat for storage if you don’t use the energy right away.
Most people will not use the energy they get from carbs right away, because we work desk jobs where we have a lunch hour and then several more hours of sitting and staring at a computer screen, and then eat dinner immediately before crashing in front of the TV at night. It’s much harder to change this than it is to change our nutrient intake.
You might feel as though this breakdown seems high fat, but don’t worry! Fat got an unfairly bad name in the previous few decades, but we’re finally coming round to the idea now. New research shows that consuming fat does not make you fat, nor give you high cholesterol. In fact, fat is essential to the production of hormones and you need your hormone production to be operating at full capacity if you’re going to lose weight.
Obviously, if you’re trying to lose weight, it helps to consume slightly fewer calories than you burn. You can find out how many that actually is by using a kind of reverse food diary. Download an app like MyFitnessPal and start counting your calories without trying to limit them for a week, eat until you’re satisfied (following your new macro breakdown) and then figure out the average number. It can be tempting to cut it by a significant amount, but this won’t help you in the long run and will leave you tired and cranky. If you really feel the need to count calories, try cutting it by 10% instead, but really the altered macros should do enough for you to notice results.
Okay, bear with me on this one…
If you’re bodybuilding, you’re basically doing the opposite of weight loss, right?
So, for this particular goal you need to boost your carb intake into the 40%-60% range, cut your fat down to 15-25%, and keep your protein at 25-35%.
Because carbs play a vital role in pushing all the other nutrients to your muscles, which you’re putting under a lot of stress.
People tend to go one or two ways with protein intake, especially when trying to gain muscle.
Try to consume a lot of protein to the exclusion of all else – but protein is a very slow energy source and if your body doesn’t have the necessary fuel to fix your muscles after a workout it’ll just start using them as fuel instead. This is the opposite of what you want.
They don’t eat enough. This can be a big factor in vegan and vegetarian diets. If you’re not a giant fan of meat and dairy, don’t worry, as there are plenty of ways to fit vegan protein powders into a healthy diet, especially if you like brownies, cakes, pancakes, cheesecakes, etc. Protein promo will have all the latest offers on protein powders and other baking goods.
It is absolutely essential to keep your food intake up if you’re trying to gain. Under-eating will undermine and even reverse your efforts. Keep your macros in line and always eat until you’re not hungry anymore.
If you do find your gains are slow, you may need to check your caloric intake. Keep a record of it and then try to boost it some, and see if that fixes the problem. However, if you’re reasonably in tune with your body, you shouldn’t need to pay attention to this too closely.
So, carbs (a combination of complex and simple), then protein, then fats.
This way, you provide the readily available fuel your body needs, plus the stuff it needs to build muscle, plus the amount of fat it needs to function. In many ways, this is the hardest ratio to maintain, but it’s also the one with the most dramatic results, as long as you keep building the difficulty of your workouts appropriately.
There will be a point in your life where you hit your goals – your ideal weight, your ideal body etc. When you get there, you can’t just keep going in a never-ending quest for weight loss or muscle gain (well, you can with muscle gain, but you really don’t need to unless you’ve got your heart set on becoming a bodybuilding champion).
It may seem obvious that the ideal macro ratio for maintenance is pretty balanced: 30-50% carbs, 25-35% fat, and 25-35% protein. This is pretty close to what most big, well-meaning, government-run health advisory bodies tell you too, so this should come as no surprise and a diet that conforms to it should look pretty familiar.
This is the tricky part, of course, because ‘maintenance’ by its very nature means you’re not moving in any direction. You’re not quite standing on a knife-edge, but it’s easy to think “well, I reached my goal, now I can ignore my diet entirely”. Not so, and if you do that, you’ll find yourself scrolling back up to start again. That said, maintenance ratios are fairly easy to stick to. Culturally, our meals tend to look more or less like this anyway. Once you’ve done this for a while, it’ll come naturally to you and you won’t need to stress over it.
This is where you should stop counting calories completely, unless you don’t have a good sense of your body and aren’t skilled in eating until you’re satisfied; not more or less. Turning your entire life into a spreadsheet of intake, even after you’ve reached your goals, is a detrimental habit that will leave you anxious and never truly happy with yourself. You deserve to be proud of your efforts, not to condemn yourself for every treat you consume for the rest of your life.
Body goals don’t stop with your food intake!
Obviously, this is only one piece of a larger puzzle. Your body type and exercise routine also play crucial parts in how you approach and achieve your goals. It can be easy to get caught up in worrying about what you’re eating and failing to take the larger picture into account. Maybe you’re not losing weight because you’re not getting enough sleep, maybe you’re not gaining because you’ve been using five-pound weights for a year and never stepped it up.
The trick to reaching your goals is taking a holistic approach to health and fitness. Once you learn to see it as a part of life, rather than a numbers game, you’ll not only be more at peace with yourself, but you’ll also find it easier to get to where you want to be and worry less about it.