A recent post of mine discussed the use of the great food tracking app, My Fitness Pal, to keep an eye on what you’re eating – particularly if you’re monitoring your calories day to day. Following on from this, I thought it was only responsible to write a sequel post, delving into the big bad world of those calories themselves.
The science is simple: energy in = energy out
Energy in is made up of the food (and drink) we consume that fuels us in the form of calories. It is then expended through our physical movements – exercising, fidgeting, breathing and even sleeping. If more energy is burned than is consumed, you’ll lose weight; or if you ate a few too many eggs at Easter without hitting the gym quite enough, you’re probably going to find that your jeans are that bit tighter than they were before. People are quick to follow this logic when they’re looking to shed a few pounds for the summer – eat fewer calories to lose weight.
There are a huge number of calorie calculators online where you can enter your height, weight and activity level. They’ll then give you an estimate of the number of calories you should have each day in order to lose/maintain or gain weight. Once you have this, you can then start monitoring your daily intake.
Sounds like a flawless plan, no? Except there’s one teeny tiny catch….
Not all calories are equal.
A quick science lesson here for you (and one that I’ve spent a lot of time researching myself lately). Your food is fundamentally formed of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. These are known as macronutrients.
Carbs = 4 calories per gram
Protein = 4 calories per gram
Fat = 9 calories per gram
When you hear people talking about a ‘balanced diet’, this means getting enough of each macronutrient in your daily food total to ensure that your body can function effectively; a good starting place for this is a rough 40:40:20 ratio. Unfortunately, the modern diet often leaves us with too much of one, and not enough of the other, leaving us tired, sluggish and often carrying a bit too much around the middle.
Carbohydrates are what give us energy and can be found in all of my favourite foods…bread, pasta, rice, fruit….in fact almost everything contains some amount of carbs. These tend to make up the bulk of the average diet; however, this often means that your diet is lacking in the other key macros. We’ve all seen the ‘success’ of low/no carb diets like Atkins, but look at the percentage of your diet that is currently made up of carbs (up to 80% in some cases). If you suddenly cut this out, you’re leaving yourself with a huge calorie deficit – no wonder people drop weight fast! You’ll also find your metabolism will be wrecked.
Protein is what your body uses for muscle repair and growth. The average guidelines say your diet should consist of 0.7-1g protein per pound of bodyweight. Body builders will often include 1-2g per lb because of all the lean muscle they’re looking to build and maintain. Depending on your training schedule you may well need a higher amount of protein. If you’re hungry all the time, you should look at upping it as it’s what will keep you fuller for longer. A protein filled breakfast is more likely to see you through till lunchtime than a bowl of sugary cereal! A lack of sufficient protein also means that if you’re training, your body won’t be able to repair your muscles, and this is when you start to lose lean muscle.
Fats help your body to function, and contrary to popular belief it’s not all evil and should make up 20-35% of your daily calorie intake. There are still good and bad fats, and too little fat in your diet at all can lead to vitamin deficiencies, food cravings, cardiovascular problems and emotional issues. Obviously too much fat in your diet can lead to too much fat on your body, but make sure you hit the right amount. Some good fat sources include olive oil, eggs, nuts, fish and avocadoes.
When you’re purely tracking just calories, none of this comes into consideration. Say you’re on a 1600 calorie a day diet – you could live on a diet of cereal, pasta, chocolate, take out, fizzy drinks, but in smaller amounts. Technically each day you may well be within your calorie limit but there’ll be far less nutrition, and your body will suffer for it (struggle getting up? mid afternoon slump? Starving an hour after eating?). You definitely won’t be looking good either – ever heard of the term ‘skinny fat’? No lean muscle or definition, no bum, and a dangerous amount of fat lining the organs!
Macro counting has also been termed ‘flexible dieting’ – as it’s not as extreme as clean eating all the time (nothing processed, nothing refined etc etc) you can still factor in some of the treats you love, as long as they’re within your macro limit. This is a big deal for keeping your sanity in check! In theory this sounds like you could eat what you want ALL the time, but hitting your numbers while living on junk food is almost impossible. Trying to make as much of your diet healthy with as many micronutrients as possible (vitamins & minerals) will help you feel and look your best.
For the next few days I’m planning on tracking my macros– My Fitness Pal allows you to view your macro amount when you track your food, and it’s already proved interesting for me. I’ve calculated the daily calories I need and then worked out the macro split. My protein intake was definitely too low (I’m full all the time at the moment!) and it’s been an education on the composition of some of my favourite foods, especially some that people like to shout about as being ‘great sources of protein (yes…but how much fat is there too?). It’s a fine art…the ratios that work for some people may not work for others, but it’s about playing around with what works best for you.
The maths works – if you’re hitting your macro target each day, you will automatically be at your correct calorie limit, and you’ll know the breakdown of what you have will be what your body needs! It’s about eating smart, not less. Quality, not quantity.