Which is Better: Tracking Calories or Tracking Macros?

Shannon Miller

January 20, 2022

Accountability comes in many forms. For some, building and keeping nutrition habits consistent means checking in with a friend or coach, or scheduling time each week to meal prep. For many, writing down all food and drink consumed each day helps in staying mindful of meals and snacks to better understand eating tendencies. In addition to assisting in accountability, tracking food is also beneficial in staying within calorie or macronutrient thresholds to reach a weight loss or body composition goal. However, it can be confusing to know which to choose to track: calories or macros.

When embarking on a weight loss or body “recomposition” journey, understanding the basic concept of energy expenditure is important, especially as it relates to your unique resting metabolic rate. Typically, weight loss can occur when daily caloric intake falls below a caloric threshold based on metabolic rate, i.e. energy expenditure is greater than energy intake. While online calculators are available to calculate calories per day to reach a weight goal based on basic body measurements, determining caloric thresholds accurately, a resting metabolic rate test is often required. Once a daily caloric intake level is established, creating a nutrition plan that aligns with a calorie range is the next step. A lot of times this involves (you guessed it) tracking.

Tracking Calories

Often times the best way to stay true to a nutrition plan that includes a daily calorie amount means measuring and recording foods consumed to stay within a range of calories per day. Tracking calories can be relatively simple with the right tools, like an app (MyFitnessPal, Cronometer or Lose It! are good options). These automatically calculate calories per servings of food entered into the app and can alert you when daily caloric levels are reaching their max for the day. The downside to just counting calories is not considering what type of food each calorie is from and at what proportion. This is when tracking macros can be beneficial, especially if you have specific health goals in mind.

Tracking Macros

Macronutrients are the main components of food and consist of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. A typical healthy well-balanced meal for most includes a relatively equal proportion of each macro. When macronutrients are balanced, hunger and satiety signaling hormones can function properly and the body receives adequate amounts of nutrients to function well. Tracking macros involves keeping tabs on the percentage of each macro eaten each day and/or staying within certain measurements of macros (e.g. on a ketogenic diet, carbohydrates are typically under 20g per day). It can be difficult to track macros but most food tracking apps have the capability of measuring macros per entry and calculating ranges per day.

The Verdict?

It depends if your goal is general weight loss or if you have a specific body composition goal in mind like gaining lean muscle mass while losing fat mass. Weight loss is more likely to occur if you are maintaining a caloric deficit over time and tracking those calories can help keep you honest and accountable. However, the “weight” you lose may be a mix of muscle and fat depending on what types of foods you eat and how low your caloric intake remains consistently. To illustrate this, consider this example: weight loss may occur if you strictly eat a low caloric amount of vegetables (we do not recommend this). However, this may risk muscle mass depletion due to atrophy from lack of appropriate calories from protein.

On the other hand, keeping in mind the type of calories you are eating (a mix of proteins, carbs and fats) will support muscle synthesis and keep hormone levels steady to allow for healthy fat loss over time. Also, many who are bodybuilding or have specific muscle growth goals may choose to consume a higher proportion of protein, so tracking this amount per day is crucial. It is helpful to track calories within the framework of macros to ensure the body receives proper nutrients and remains in a slight caloric deficit if fat loss is the goal.

Ready to get your nutrition “on track?” Reach out to schedule a consult with our Nutrition Coaches to learn how you can reach your body composition goals through a precision nutrition plan unique to your body.

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