Calories or Macros: Which is More Important for Weight loss?
What’s more important, calories or macros when it comes to weight loss?
This is a great question that I get asked often by my coaching clients and while the answer is pretty simple, I want to use this article to dig a little deeper and discuss why we shouldn’t just focus on calories alone and on the flip side why we shouldn’t focus on just macros alone either.
When it comes to losing weight or not, Calories are king!
Your body requires energy to function. If your body gets too much energy in a 24 hour period, it will store that energy as fat. If it gets too little energy in a 24 hour period, it will tap into fat reserves to replace that energy deficit.
This energy comes from food and more specifically the calories contained in that food. A calorie is a unit used to measure food energy. (This is the nutritional definition, not the physics definition. A food calorie is actually a kilocalorie in the “physics” sense.)
If you want to lose weight (fat) then you want your body to be tapping into its fat reserves on a consistent basis, therefore, you have to be sure that the total number of calories you are eating daily is going to make that happen.
This is the goal of All Diets. Whether it be low carb, keto, paleo, whole30, south beach, etc, etc, they all bring about weight loss because they all seek to create a daily calorie deficit. Most of these diets are cutting out calorie-dense foods so people will likely be in a calorie deficit because of that.
Many people mistakingly think that the restricted food is bad or the cause of fat gain but this isn’t true at all and has been debunked by solid nutritional research many times over. It’s not about this food or that, but about how many calories you are consuming on a daily basis.
The macros diet or flexible diet avoids food restrictions by establishing a calorie level that’s appropriate for your body and exercise level by estimating your body’s energy needs in a 24-hour period.
Setting the right TDEE for weight loss
This is why setting the right weight loss TDEE is so important. (In case you don’t know, TDEE is short for Total Daily Energy Expenditure and it’s how much energy your body needs in a 24-hour period considering ALL movement.)
If you estimate your TDEE too high you won’t go into a calorie deficit and on the flip side if you estimate your TDEE too low you’ll risk losing muscle tissue along with the fat tissue. Therefore, being as accurate as possible with your daily calorie estimation is key.
I recommend that people who want to lose fat set a deficit of 20% fewer calories than their bodies need for maintenance. My calculator is a great tool for this.
Why are macros important then?
In case you’re new to all this nutritional jargon. The word macros is short for macronutrients and there are 3 main macronutrient groups needed by your body and in the foods you eat: protein, carbs, and fat.
Some people mistakenly think that setting their macronutrient ratio differently will produce different fat loss results even though they are eating the same calorie amount. Whether you eat 35% or 40% of your weight loss TDEE as carbs makes no difference to your body when it comes to energy balance.
So, if ratios aren’t important for weight loss then why are they important?
We set macro ratios and track macro ratios to give the body the correct balance of raw materials in which it needs to be healthy and thrive. There is no “magic” ratio but a range of ratios that are healthy. Whichever ratio you choose should still be balanced but work well with your eating style and body chemistry.
Here’s why eating a balance of all macronutrients is healthy.
Note: This is just a brief summary of each macro. The important role each plays in the human body is extensive.
Carbohydrates are the human body’s preferred energy source. They digest efficiently and are utilized by all the cells in your body efficiently. Your brain loves carbs as does your muscle tissue. Yes, your body can convert fat and protein to energy too though not as efficiently and there are problems associated with using protein or using fat as a primary energy source, which I’ll get to below. About 35-45% of your daily calories should come from carbs.
Proteins are the building blocks of the human body so an adequate supply is needed daily to replace worn-out tissues and keep your muscle tissue strong. The protein you eat is broken down into amino acids and then the body uses these amino acids to make new proteins. The amount of protein you need depends on your unique body and activity level. Your body can convert amino acids into energy or fat storage and this takes place in your liver in a pretty involved process. Also, protein is an expensive energy source. Both animal protein and refined plant protein are costly at the grocery store so reserve protein for its primary purpose and not energy production.
Fats aren’t just for energy storage but they are vital for a healthy body. All your hormones are made from fats and so are your brain and nervous tissue. You’re blood also needs a healthy balance of triglycerides to be healthy. But, the human body wasn’t designed to thrive on a high-fat diet alone. Your body needs fiber (a carb) in order to keep your digestive system working well and a high-fat diet that isn’t mindful of triglyceride balance and omega fatty acid balance can lead to heart disease among other health issues. Therefore, keep your fat consumption around 25-35% of your total calories and if you do need some fat for energy, let that come from your fat reserves instead of dietary fat.
In summary, we rely on carbs for energy, protein for building, and fat for a healthy mind, hormones, and lubrication.
When we place any of these macros in domination on a regular basis or eliminate any of these macros, your body will not be operating as optimally as it should, and in the worst cases, your health will begin to degrade. Macro balance is key.
I like to start my coaching clients out at 30% protein, 40% carbs, and 30% fat which seems like a ratio that works for the most number of people based on my many years of experience working with over 1000 clients. However, I’m not afraid to tweak this based on the individual. Some people don’t digest fat well and need lower levels. Other people can have sensitivities to starch and therefore feel better with lower carbs. Find the ratios that work best for you and remember that there’s no “magic ratio” but a range of what’s considered healthy.
If I meet my macro goals won’t I automatically meet my calories?
Not necessarily. Here’s why:
- Alcohol is a separate macro although not as common and not needed by the human body. When you consume an alcoholic drink it provides calories at 7 per gram but will not count towards your protein, carbs, or fat allotment. Therefore, if on days you drink you only pay attention to your macro goals, you’ll go over your weight loss TDEE because of the alcohol. Here’s the best way to handle alcohol when counting macros.
- Fiber is a carb but not all fiber counts towards your calorie target because about 60-70% of dietary fiber is indigestible by the human body. If you eat a lot of fiber-rich foods you may have to exceed your total carb allotment to reach your calorie target.
- Nutritional label errors. I see errors on nutritional labels all the time so paying attention to calories and macros helps catch these and keep them from hindering your progress. Focus on calories first, then macro goals second.
Putting this all together…
When you begin a diet to promote weight loss, always start with establishing your body’s calorie needs and then establish a safe calorie deficit. Here are some tools that can help.
- TDEE calculator
- Calories burned through exercise calculator (this helps you establish your activity level.
- TDEE calculations from an expert like me.
After you have established your weight loss TDEE work on establishing a macro ratio that’s balanced and works for your body. Here are some resources.
- Macro calculator
- Macro ratio guide
- Top protein, carb, and fat-rich foods
- Sample macro meal plan
- How to use MyFitnessPal to track your macros
Keep things flexible. The beauty of a flexible diet is that it offers you variety and teaches you to have a better relationship with food and eating. It removes the guilt and the undo stigma associated with food groups. A 2021 study found that people who followed a flexible approach to weight loss had the same results as those who followed a rigid approach like low carb or high fat. So, why restrict if you don’t have to? This study also showed that the flexible group retained more lean mass too.
In conclusion, when it comes to losing weight, calories are the most important but macro balance is a close second because it ensures your body has the resources it needs in order to thrive.