Macro counting has become popular in recent years, but with it comes its own unique challenges and inadequacies. You might have seen some impressive before and after photos of clients who are counting macros and lose weight, see drastic transformations, or get ripped. It works for some people, but not everyone.
This blog is focused on detailing the problem around counting calories, and why it's not always the best option. Full disclosure - I have clients who count calories. They love it and see great results. But I also have clients who do not count calories and still see great results. Counting calories is a big commitment that is not conducive to everyone's lifestyle.
As a quick background, counting macros and calories means that you are counting and measuring all of your food intake throughout the day to hit certain goal numbers. Your macros are determined based on your weight, muscle mass, and activity level, as well as your body type and goals. For instance, those who are looking to lose weight won't eat the same as someone who is trying to gain muscle. The program is extremely personalized to determine how much of each macro (protein, carbohydrates, fat) you should be eating to reach your goals.
- Calorie counts can vary. When counting macros and calories, you become very familiar with reading food labels to find out what is in your food. Even if you're not looking at food labels, you're using an application to determine what macros are in your bacon (for instance). However, the calories on food labels and in these databases are averages. Research shows that the calories of the food you're actually eating can vary greatly with up to 50% error. Five different measurement methods exist for determining calorie estimation, and therefore the FDA permits up to 20% inaccuracy. This means that if the label says you're getting 100 calories, you're actually getting somewhere between 80-120 calories.
- We don't absorb everything we eat. Not all food we eat gets absorbed into our body. It actually varies from food to food, and scientists have known this for years. It's pretty common knowledge that 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories, 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, and 1 gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories, right? What if I told you that 1 gram of protein actually contains 5.65 calories, but we don't absorb 1.65 of them? It's true for all of the macros actually, and looks like this:
That isn't all. This doesn't apply to nuts and seeds, because we actually absorb fewer calories from them. For instance, we only absorb 68% of almonds and 95% of pistachios. When it comes to food high in fiber, we tend to absorb more than what's calculated. For example, We absorb 28% more calories from kale, 12% more from oranges, and 15% more from black beans. Similarly, we are able to absorb more calories from protein-rich foods that accounted for in those calculations. All in all, this means you're looking at around a 10% error in calorie consumption on average
3. We all absorb food differently. Depending on the type of bacteria in your gut, you may absorb more or less energy. Those with larger populations of Bacteroidetes (a species of bacteria) tend to absorb more energy as these bacteria are better at extracting calories from the cells of plants than other bacteria. Those who have a larger popular of Firmicutes (another specific of bacteria) can absorb an additional 150 calories per day, and these people often have weight maintenance issues.
4. Energy out varies a lot from person to person. We've covered how the calories you're taking in might be hard to calculate, but what about how much energy you're expending on a daily basis? There are four important pieces to this puzzle:
Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) - RMR is the number of calories you burn on a daily basis through just surviving - breathing, living, and maintaining basic bodily functions. It represents approximately 60% of your "energy out" and is determined based on your weight, age, genetic dispositions, and possibly your gut bacteria. RMR typically increases with body weight. For instance, someone who weighs 150 lbs might have a RMR of 1583 calories per day and someone who weighs 150 lbs might have a RMR of 2164 calories per day. However, RMR can vary up to 15% from person to person, even if they have the same weight without expending any more or less effort.
Thermic Effect of Eating (TEE) - Digestion is an active metabolic process that requires energy. Every had the "meat sweats"? That's TEE. TEE represents the amount of calories you burn through eating, digesting, and processing food. It's roughly 5-10% of your total "energy out." It require more energy to digest protein (~20-30% of its calories) than it does to digest carbs (5-6%) and fat (3%).
Physical Activity (PA) - This is where we commonly thing about energy output in our lives. It's how many calories you burned while running a mile or swimming a few laps. The only way to change this output is through physical movement and moving more.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) - NEAT is the amount of calories you burn due to activity that is not considered exercise but burns a significant amount of energy. This includes holding yourself upright, fidgetting, walking, doing a sit up in bed in the morning, etc. This naturally varies from person to person as well.
So here's the entire energy out equation:
So, while energy in and energy out sounds very simple, it can become very difficult to actually know not only how many calories you are consuming, but how many you are burning. Therefore, putting yourself in a deficit or gain can become complicated by following a calorie number solely. Here's the entire equation:
In addition to all of this, your body can often outsmart you. When you lower your energy intake, your body can naturally decrease its energy out to compensate for the loss of energy. Likewise, as you begin to increase your calorie intake, it may begin to burn more calories throughout the day.
All of these components to energy intake and energy expenditure create a complicated equation for determining that you're getting adequate macronutrients, calories and still creating change in your body. There are, of course, other ways to measure your food to ensure you're getting what you need to reach your goals outside of counting calories and macros.
I also want to take a moment to discuss some of the dangers of macro counting as they have become more and more prevalent in the fitness community as the program has become more popular over the past few years.
As far as physical health goes, sometimes macros can lead to negative effects on the body, particularly for women who have sensitive hormonal systems. Female clients can be eating a solid amount of calories, hitting their goals, and losing body fat (which is a common goal for all clients), and this can occasionally lead to the loss of a menstrual cycle. Any time that a natural pathway in your body disappears, this should be a red flag that something is not right. Lower body fat percentages can lead to the body's inability to produce sex hormones in women, which are comprised of fats, and this can lead to very serious health issues.
On the flip side, there can be some mental repercussions to counting calories. The people who usually do best counting calories are typically people with detailed-oriented mind, who are goal driven, and who have super analytic brains. They are also the people who tend to have addictive personalities with OCD tendencies, and for this reason can lead to some unhealthy habits for nutrition in the long run. As they reach their goals, they continue to push their bodies to new limits and lower calories, they become obsessed with getting their numbers perfect, and it can overtake their life in a negative way. Some people even experience that after they've decided not to count anymore, they also want to know how many calories they're eating. I think this has become a normal side effect in a society that says someone should eat XXX amount of calories daily, but gets take to a whole new level with macro counting.
Again, this is something that I do with my clients when it is a good fit for them. But I also recommend against it for clients on occasion, and many clients move away from calorie counting as some point. Sometimes they revisit it, and sometimes they leave it behind for good. It's important to chat with someone educated in the field to make sure you're getting the most out of the plan, and that the plan isn't getting the most out of you.