There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this, unfortunately.
But you may enjoy and be able to adhere to one diet versus another. Some people may enjoy quantitatively tracking their nutrients and exercise, while others prefer tracking qualitatively.
The biggest difference is this:
Those who track QUANTITATIVELY will want to see numbers, be able to compare the current data to previous data, and are more likely to want to fit a variety of foods into their diet that can meet said numbers. Those who track QUALITATIVELY will want to choose their meals and snacks wisely, care less about the numbers and more about how their food makes them feel, and maybe go for a higher quality of food while consuming less or just enough to make them feel satiated. None of this is set in stone, though!
Who says that you need to fit within those confines? There are other ways to track what you’re eating and that being said, is tracking even the best option for you? What if you just want to eat and feel healthy. What if you need to lose or gain 20 pounds? There are so many things you need to question before assuming one method is better than another.
However, today we’re here to find out the difference between counting calories versus tracking macronutrients. Who will benefit from counting/tracking? Why might someone choose one over the other? Can you do both? Read on to find out more!
What are Calories?
Calories are units of energy. Counting calories is the same as counting the energy that we get from food. If we consume more calories, we technically have more disposable energy, which is either exerted (through exercise or breathing) or stored as fat. However you use it, every cell in our body requires this energy to function in its optimal state.
When you consume 2,000 calories, you can look at it as consuming 2,000 calories of energy. Therefore, where it comes from is not important. Or is it?
If your goal is to lose weight or gain lean muscle mass, you don’t want to be eating 2,000 calories of ice cream. Is it possible to gain muscle and lose fat this way? Sure. Is it healthy? Not at all. I guess that’s where some people prefer macros: you can eat ice cream, but you simply need to limit yourself to your macro profile.
Depending on your goals, your daily calorie count will differ. There’s conventional wisdom that men shouldn’t eat fewer than 1,500 calories and women 1,200 calories to ensure that they’re getting a balance of major nutrients and micronutrients. Realistically, if you are moderately active, you should be consuming no less than 2,000 calories, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Understand the difference between nutritious calories and empty calories. Many typical American foods have a lot of empty calories, such as ice cream, sodas, cheese, pizza, and processed meats like hot dogs and sausages. That doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in them, but it means that you should know the difference between calorie-dense foods like nuts and healthy fats (avocado), versus low-calorie (low-nutrient) foods like energy drinks and candy.
If you are trying to lose weight, try not to constantly lower your calories. You need them for energy and for your body to function. Instead, try adding some exercise or changing up the foods that you eat. This leads me to Macros…
What are Macros?
Macros, or macronutrients, consist of 3 categories of essential nutrients known as Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fats. Counting macros means you are gathering data about the number of grams of each of these 3 you are consuming.
Tracking your macros is a great way to plan or make smart healthy food choices. On the contrary, it can also help you sneak in the foods that aren’t so healthy but still fit in your macro breakdown. You may recognize macro tracking as IIFYM (If it fits your macros). Basically, if a food fits your macros, you can eat it!
Technically, calories still count here, since eating fewer calories will lead to a deficit and in turn, weight loss (if that is your goal). Unlike counting calories, tracking macros will give you a better idea of where your calories are coming from and that they are not all created equal. One gram of Protein is 4 calories, one gram of Carb is 4 calories, and one gram of Fat is 9 calories.
Counting macros can help you lose stubborn body fat, maintain lean muscle mass, and is a great way to incorporate balance in your diet. I say balance because you can still fit lots of “unhealthy” food into your diet, like pizza, cake, and ice cream, while maintaining/losing weight or gaining muscle. Some may argue that this is a problem, and not a great way to get essential vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, and also doesn’t help address any behavioral or emotional aspects of overeating. It simplifies a lot, but leaves a lot out in the open, as well. Others may say it is too aggressive for those just starting and it makes you overthink your food when all you need to do is put nourishing food into your body.
With strict goals, macronutrient tracking can really help, but if I was just trying to eat healthily, it wouldn’t be my first choice.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recommends adults try to get 10-35% of their calories from protein, 45-65% from carbs, and 20-35% from fats. Macro calculators can be found all over the internet, but I specifically like the Precision Nutrition calculator and this one from Calculator.net. You can play around with these numbers a little, so don’t worry, it isn’t set in stone. As usual, I’d like to advise you to consult a dietitian or naturopath if you plan on tracking macros so you can get a second opinion and see if it will work for you!
What’s your goal?
All of this information may be useless if you don’t know why you’re counting calories or tracking your macros in the first place. I’ve been there. Working in a gym for almost a decade, and hearing from coaches, health care professionals, and clients what to do and what not to do, can be super confusing. That confusion may lead to you wanting to try them all. And that is not at all a bad idea.
Do you want to lose weight and get healthier?
Do you want to understand your eating habits a bit better?
How does your diet affect your Athletic Performance?
Do you want to improve your physique?
Do you want to achieve a specific body fat percentage?
Do you want to improve your relationship with food?
Do you want to work on your eating behavior and food awareness?
I personally want to get healthier, understand my eating habits, improve my relationship with food and change my eating behavior. I’ve tried every diet under the sun. Those diets led me to lose weight, and feel good temporarily, but never addressed the issues that led me to diet in the first place.
In the past, I wanted to look fit, achieve a 12-15% body fat percentage, and improve my physique. Doing these crash diets helped for a month or two. Then my body would catch up to my brain everything would feel much more difficult – I was burnt out and could no longer keep up my work schedule while also working out and eating as “additional full-time jobs”.
Answer the question: What is my goal? Knowing what you want to achieve can lead you to one method of eating over another. For example, if you want to achieve a low body fat percentage, be ready to track your food meticulously. You could choose to track your macros, as well as weigh your food, and eating mindfully. See how I chose 3 different methods of tracking, but they all sort of even each other out? While some people think that weighing food can be obsessive, it could also be a great way to learn what 4oz of protein looks like. No one can judge you for your choice – only you can choose a method and test it out to see if it’s right for you.
Other options you may want to consider if you want to track your food
Intuitive Eating: Intuitive Eating is similar to Mindful Eating below. While both involve paying more attention to what and how we eat, intuitive eating is more of a response to unhealthy trends and fad diets. You can check out my blog post on Intuitive Eating here. There, you’ll learn all about the 10 principles of Intuitive Eating. I tried it for a month and haven’t looked back since!
Mindful Eating: Mindful eating is a lifestyle change that accompanies greater overall mindfulness. Think of it as therapy for your body. This is a great way to create a more meaningful relationship with your body at any size and pay attention to your body’s signals and cues. Mindful Eating has 4 distinct characteristics.
- Stay aware of what you are doing and the effects it has on your body (regardless of whether it is good or bad)
- Use all of your senses when you choose and experience food. This will help you understand when food is satisfying and nourishing for your body.
- Acknowledge your response to food based on your senses without judgment (don’t say you like a certain aspect or hate a certain taste – just feel it!)
- Practice awareness of your emotions, physical hunger, and cues that let you know you’re satiated (no longer hungry)
Hand Portions: I learned this one when I took my Precision Nutrition (PN) course a few years ago. It helps answer the age-long question of: How can we help people eat the right amount of food, but without the burden of having to weigh and measure every morsel? PN teaches you that the hand portion system allows you to use your own hand as a personalized, portable portioning tool. That way you can remember how much to eat whether you’re at home or traveling! I love this one because it means you don’t actually need to measure or weigh your food. Instead, you use your hand to gauge portion size. “It’s highly effective for food tracking because your hand is proportionate to your body, its size never changes, and it’s always with you. Our research shows hand portions are 95 percent as accurate (or better) as carefully weighing, measuring, and tracking,” says John Berardi, author at Precision Nutrition. Anything that requires substantially less effort and time involved is the right kind of food tracker to me!
This is another one of those blog posts that sometimes leaves people with more options than they asked for. The information may seem like a lot, but the longer you practice one, two, or all of the above, you’ll find the method that works best for you. You may even be able to time it out so that sometimes you are counting calories, while other times, you switch to tracking your macros. Find what works best for your goals. Try to track quantitatively and qualitatively so you have all the facts and know which method should stay and which one should go.
I personally stick to Intuitive Eating and Hand portions. I have a food scale, but I can’t be bothered to weigh out my food when I’m in a rush, and it requires some level of consistency. I love the way Intuitive Eating makes me feel – it allows me to eat mindfully, eat what I want, and when I want. I never thought that I could have balance in the past because I was on fairly restrictive diets. When you track what you eat, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on a diet, but it can help you quantitatively and qualitatively make informed decisions for your own health!
Chelsea has been active most of her life, which led her to become a Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor for the past 7 years. Health and Fitness are not solely dependent on movement, though, and with that understanding, she addresses her client’s other needs, such as diet, mindfulness, and stress management.
When she is not training clients or teaching Yoga, she is finding new activities that keep her mind and body active, such as hiking, photography, listening to podcasts, or playing video games. She is constantly working toward finding natural solutions to live a balanced lifestyle, inclusive Yoga for all body types, and aiming to find mindfulness in everything she does.