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A calorie is a calorie, right? Or wrong?

Calorie counting has been a popular weight management tool for years but lately we’re hearing more about counting macros instead. So what’s this all about and why should you stop counting calories? Macros is short for ‘macronutrients’ and your macronutrients are protein, fat and carbohydrate. Watching your macronutrient ratios rather than counting calories is far more effective for the following reasons:

  • Calories are calculated using a bomb calorimeter in a lab. Your body isn’t a bomb calorimeter, so the calorie numbers obtained in the device aren’t the same ones you will absorb in your body.

  • A calorie from a carbohydrate based food and a calorie from a protein based food will have an entirely different effect once consumed, as each nutrient serves a different purpose in the body. If you’re aiming for fat loss, a calorie from the wrong sort of carbohydrate (eg. cereal) could hinder your goals, whereas protein (eg. fish) will help you to shed fat.

  • Calories on food labels can be as much as 20% inaccurate, so if you’re religiously counting your calories you may think you’ve consumed 2,000, but it could in fact be 1,600 or 2,400.

  • Soil quality, ripeness at time of harvest and the animals diet can all effect the calorie content, but this will not be reflected on the food label. Scientists can’t possibly test every individual food item, so lots of generalisations are made.

  • And I have saved the most important one for last. If you’re restricting your calorie intake too much you will cause harm to your body. Your body needs a minimum level of calories per day just to survive (approx 1400 for an average female). When you take your calories too low, your metabolism slows down to try and preserve energy for the important survival tasks, such as breathing. As your metabolic rate gets slower it becomes harder and harder to lose weight. This means you would have to continually cut your calories lower and lower to maintain the same rate of weight loss. And it get worse - after you stop restricting calories, your body will store as much body fat as possible in case you start restricting calories again - it heads straight in to survival mode. Hence the ‘Yo-Yo’ dieting effect.

So should I start counting my macros instead? Counting your macros is certainly a healthier way to manage your weight but it can be tricky and time consuming too. What I would recommend instead is an emphasis on food quality, in favour of natural whole foods, grass fed meat, wild fish, free range eggs and organic fruit and veg. Eat protein at every meal and don’t be afraid of healthy fats. If weight loss is your goal, reduce your carbohydrate sources and if muscle gain is your goal, increase your carbohydrates.

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