More than a Number

My Perspective on Calorie Counting and Macronutrient Tracking

Calorie Counting, a tale as old as time…

If the relationship between the Calorie and the Counter is the 1991 VHS original Beauty and the Beast, macronutrient tracking – and specifically If It Fits Your Macros, otherwise coined IIFYM – is the 2017 remastered remake starring Emma Watson. In either case, I’d say that both the Calorie & the Macronutrient, and the Counter and Tracker, play the part of Beauty and Beast interchangeably as the plot thickens and chorus crescendos.

A quick browser search or scroll through Instagram’s native Explore page will prove, without pause, that calorie counting – a dietary approach that emphasizes the input and output of total energy – is still quite relevant and that it’s cool-kid cousin, macro tracking – a dietary approach that emphasizes the input and output of total energy plus added specifications – is gaining ground.

Before digging in completely, allow me to clearly state that both calorie counting and macronutrient tracking can contribute to a holistically healthy, nutrient-dense diet. Key word, contribute. I won’t argue that calorie counting and macronutrient tracking “don’t work,” but I will argue – or rather, politely express my personal and professional opinion – that when implemented in isolation, failing to factor in the points outlined below, the two practices fall short when it comes to nutrition, performance, and health.

The concept of tracking macronutrients – particularly from an IIFYM point of view – is that once you’ve “figured out” how many calories you “need” per day along with which portions of them should come from each macronutrient, that is – protein, carbs, and fat, you can eat whatever you want, whenever you want – so as long as you stay within the confines of your designated macro split.

I’m using quotes around figured out and need here to represent the air quotes I’d be using if I were speaking about this topic instead of writing about it. You see, although there are formulas we – and by we I mean everyone from Registered Dietitians to that Instagram Influencer – can use to estimate ideal caloric intake, it’s not a perfect science. No matter what the online calculators want you to believe. Many factors influence an individual’s caloric needs from genetic predisposition, to goals, to activity level, to biological blueprint, and beyond. This last point, biological blueprint, is most important. It tells us that two people with the exact same body weight, waist measurement, and even exercise routine, will have different caloric and nutrient needs based on their individual ability to process and absorb specific nutrients.

While Calorie Counting and Macro Tracking certainly can have their place in a holistically healthy, nutrient-dense diet, I believe that the two practices fall short on their own.

In general, both Calorie Counting and Macro Tracking reduce food to a series of numbers – sums, differences, ratios, and percentages – that describe diet as a quantitative experiment rather than a qualitative experience.

I write reduces, because science supports my personal belief that quantifying food into just four compartmentalized components – caloric value and percentages of protein, carbs, and fat – is an extremely narrow way to view what you put into your body. Imagine having to describe yourself only in a set of four quantitative classifications – your age, weight, height, and pant size. What do these numbers actually say about you? About what you do and believe? How you think, talk, and live? Your likes and dislikes, fears and dreams, skills and passions? Absolutely nothing. Not unlike the way categorizing food only by calories or macros eliminates the many, many qualities that make food so much more than “fuel”.

Sure. Calories, or rather the breakdown of macronutrients, supply our bodies with the energy we need to survive, much like fuel supplies an engine with the substance it needs to run. However, that’s about where the car analogy crumbles. Fuel doesn’t turn the wheel, push the peddles, or initiate windshield wipers. Fuel may provide the option – the potential – to get from Point A to Point B, but it contributes little to if, when, and how that journey unfolds.

Beyond calories and macronutrients, food offers countless compounds that influence individual health without directly providing energy. Think micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and phytochemicals, and compounds like fiber and water. These substances may not provide the potential for life on their own, but they dictate the way in which we live. In sum, calories allow us to survive, but nutrients allow us to thrive.

Furthermore, each individual responds differently to food. Without dismissing allergies, sensitivities, illness, think even of sensory preferences like flavor and texture. And let us not forget culture, religion, and tradition, the historical human nature of breaking bread. In this sense, food caters to facets far beyond our physical function, nourishing relationships and connecting cultures.

Caloric and macro values alone also don’t take into account how different combinations of nutrients affect the body within each feeding. Nor do these practices take into account the distribution of nutrients throughout the day. Though the combination and distribution of nutrients will have no impact on over all calorie intake, it will set off a series of chemical chain reactions that impact energy levels, mood, and cravings just to name a few physiological functions. For example, eating a simple sugar by itself – such as candy – will likely send blood sugar levels skyrocketing, which can then set off a chain of other metabolic reactions including cravings, lethargy, and mood swings to name a few. But combine that with protein, fat, and fiber, and the effect on blood sugar is blunted, completing changing the way the body absorbs and processes the food. Candy aside, this can be applied with two seemingly similar and characteristically “healthy” meals, as well, as shown below.

While both of these oatmeal bowls boast nutrient-dense ingredients and would certainly “Fit Your Macros,” one option is loaded with starch and sugar, while the other is topped with fiber and protein. Though either could round out your nutrient pie chart for the day, each would be metabolized completely differently – resulting in equally different effects on body composition and physical and physiological performance.

Macronutrient timing, which is crucial when performance is a priority, may also be ignored with the IIFYM approach. When it comes to fueling workouts, there are times when you might want little to no fat or fiber, and specific ratios of carbs and protein. Sometimes highly-refined and quickly-digestible foods are best for the body and at other times, the opposite. For those with performance priorities, eating for post-workout recovery should consider caloric and macronutrient values different than a pre-workout meal, intra-workout meal, or “anytime” meal.

As mentioned, but worth repeating, calorie counting and macronutrient tracking emphasize quantity, but on their own, quickly dismiss quality of food. You can easily meet your carb quota with sugary drinks, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily should for optimal physical and physiological function. Similarly, living off of pizza, french fries, and protein powder isn’t optimal – even if you can achieve your macros with those options alone. This is the concept of being fed, and in many cases overfed, without necessarily being nourished.

Overfed but Undernourished refers to exceeding energy (caloric) needs but not meeting micronutrient (vitamin and  mineral) requirements. For the first time in history, obesity correlates with malnourishment. Research indicates that lack of proper nutrition is at the root of obesity – even when people over consume calories. Take, for example, a power lifter with the goal of increasing muscle mass. In order to gain weight, she will need to consume more calories than she burns. In order for those calories to be metabolized efficiently and primarily converted into muscle mass as opposed to body fat, she needs to consume more high-quality, micronutrient-rich calories than she burns.

That’s because “empty calorie” foods like pizza, donuts, ice cream, and french fries are low in nutrient quality, and high in processed fats and sugars. Though a caloric deficit and corresponding weight loss can certainly be achieved by “eating whatever you want,” losing weight does not automatically equate to improved health. And, we cannot truly find our healthy homeostasis until we address our insides just as much as our outsides. Beyond calories in vs. out, we have to provide our body with the nutrients it requires (remember those vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and probiotics?). Without these key elements, it is nearly impossible to treat the root causes of most health problems and weight management issues: gut health, hormone balance, and inflammation.

Consider, for example, two different meals with very similar macronutrient profiles:

Though these meals would register as virtually identical on a MyFitnessPal macronutrient pie chart, they are hardly comparable outside the confines of a calorie tracking app and inside the body.

Check out the same meals when we layer in just two compounds among countless nutrients: sugar and fiber. One meal is packed with simple sugar, artificial additives, and processed products, while the other provides plenty of slow-burning complex carbs and lean protein. One meal would result in a sugar spike, crash, and burn, while the other would provide sustenance and nourishment in the form of lasting energy. And not only will these meals feel totally different on the inside (energy levels, cravings, mood, and more), but they’ll look totally different on the outside, too. Over time, one meal would promote insulin resistance, and ultimately the storage of body fat, while the other meal would promote a lean, muscular physique.

Lastly, counting calories and tracking macronutrients can lead to a lack of interoceptive awareness: the ability to acknowledge and apply individual inner body sensations, involving the sensory process of accepting, assessing, and appraising internal bodily signals. When relying numbers and percentages alone to determine when, what, and how much to eat, you may suffer a lack of attunement to your internal cues.

For certain individuals, reaching a numeric cap to food intake can spur feelings of restriction, and corresponding acts of rebellion. For others, reaching the end of the day with a bunch of macros left to backfill can send them reaching for energy-dense, nutrient-poor choices or eating past the point of physical fullness. In other words, if it’s 9 p.m. and you’re still hungry but have “hit your macros” for the day, the internal instinct to honor hunger may be blunted. Likewise, if it’s 9 p.m. and you are satisfied and satiated but haven’t “hit your macros,” the internal instinct to periodically fast may be disrupted.

Furthermore, choosing to eating a specific food for the sole purpose of meeting an arbitrary caloric or macronutrient value fails to support satisfaction by inhibiting an intentional, cohesive, mindful eating experience. Failure to understand and cater to sensory preferences reduces anticipation, pleasure, and excitement around eating experiences, which may be a catalyst for the restrict and rebel cycle, or just plain bring on burnout.

In the end, quantitative practices like calorie counting and macronutrient tracking can certainly contribute to a holistically-healthy, nutrient-dense diet by providing guidance for overall energy intake and as an added level of accountability. If it works for you, I’m here for it. But I’m also here to remind you that food is more than numbers. Remember to factor in quality to your equation.

And hey, maybe you’re totally a numbers guy or gal. In which case, I’ve got some qualitative quantities for you to focus on. Rather than the number of calories or percentage of macronutrients you consume in a day, try cataloging this data:

Numbers that count

GRAMS OF FIBER

25 to 35 grams. That’s how much fiber a day we need for optimal health, but most Americans get just 16 grams per day. Adequate fiber intake helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, prevents certain cancers, eases constipation, and keeps you feeling full for longer, which is helpful for weight management. Get more fiber from vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

CUPS OF FRUITS & VEGGIES

5 cups or more. That’s how many cups of fruits and vegetables it takes to optimize your physiological health from blood sugar, to mood regulation, to gut function, to hormone production. Healthy Hint: try adding a side salad to your lunch and dinner, and a piece of fruit to your breakfast and snack!

SERVINGS OF SUGAR

6 teaspoons (100 calories or 24 grams). That is the maximum recommended daily intake of added sugar, whether from artificial or whole food sources, according to the American Heart Association. Did you know that just one medium sized latte from your favorite coffee chain boats 66 grams of added sugar? That’s 2.75 times the daily recommended intake in just one beverage. It’s no wonder that the average American consumes about 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) of added sugar each day, which is 3 times the recommend amount – adding up to 66 pounds of added sugar per year. But it’s not just lattes, sodas, and candy bars. Sneaky sources of added sugar include your favorite fruit and veggie juices, granolas, and “protein” bars, too!

OUNCES OF WATER

Half your bodyweight. Though hydration needs vary based on biological blueprint, lifestyle, and even external environment, most Registered Dietitians and Exercise Science Nutritionists advocate a minimum daily water consumption of half an individual’s body weight in ounces. Hydration levels are linked to digestion, nutrient absorption, appetite, mood, cognitive performance, and skin health to name a few. 

HOURS OF SLEEP

7 to 8 hours. Are you getting that much sleep every night? Lack of sleep has short-term consequences, such as poor judgment, increased risk of accidents, bad moods, and less ability to retain information. Poor sleep over the long term has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So, turn off the Netflix binge, power down your devices and get the rest your body needs.

MINUTES OF EXERCISE

150 minutes. That’s the recommendation for how much physical activity you should get each week, preferably spread throughout the week in increments of at least 20 minutes. This amount of activity helps combat heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, dementia, and cancer.

Numbers that don’t add up

CALORIES

1,800 calories. Or whatever number you choose or calculate. You don’t need to count every calorie you eat – it’s tedious, often flawed, and it doesn’t necessarily help you choose nutrient-dense foods. If you had the choice between 100 calories of broccoli or fries, why not choose the fries, right? But that wouldn’t provide much nourishment and oversimplifies eating into one number. If you find calorie counting to be a helpful tool, there’s no reason it can’t contribute to your dietary approach, but just remember that it’s not the most vital number for your holistic health.

MACRONUTRIENTS

30-40-30. Or any other ratio of protein, carbs, and fat. While there is proven science behind adhering to specific macronutrient percentages, there’s also evidence of psychological effects like obsessive use of food diaries and apps and reduced interoceptive awareness. Similar to calorie counting, macronutrient tracking can be conducive to a holistically healthy diet… if you remember to focus on quality as much as – if not more than – quantity.

FASTED:FED RATIO

16:8.Or any ratio of hours spend fasted versus fed. Much like calories and macronutrients, when we consume our meals says little about the quality of our diet. If you’re eating french fries within your arbritary window, they’re still french fries – metabolized the same way as if they were eaten earlier or later in the day. Healthy Hint: humans intermittent fast by nature. We don’t eat when we sleep. Intermittent Fasting isn’t so much a new concept, but an expansion of our biological evolution.

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