Not long ago, weight loss was a simple equation (well, in theory anyway.) You eat fewer calories than you burn, and you lose weight. But that was back when the main objective of dieting was simply to be thinner. Now, many of us aspire not to look like the thin runway model, but the super fit Instagram model. That involves shifting the focus from losing kilos or pounds and instead, replacing body fat with muscle. And here’s the thing—that’s a helluva a lot more complicated than just losing weight. As a result, calorie counting has fallen out of vogue and instead, counting macros is all the rage.
For the uninitiated, macro is short for macronutrient. These are what make up the caloric content of your food and include fat, protein and carbohydrates. We need all three for energy, but only the first two to survive. While calorie counters would just look at the total number of calories they’re consuming (and burning), macro counters would look at the foods that are making up that number. Personally, I’m on a program at the moment where I’m given a certain amount of macros I need to hit (high protein, moderate carbohydrate and fat) and am seeing great results.
However, I’ve also seen excellent results from the slow carb diet and the ketogenic diet (very low carb, high fat and moderate protein). And when I say great results, I mean it changed my body composition, not just the weight on the scale. It begs the question, does the macronutrient ratio actually matter? Or are these just different ways to achieve the exact same outcome? After all, I was eating around the same amount of calories on each diet. Here, we look at the facts.
Okay, first of all, let’s clear this up. No, you don’t necessarily need to track your macros to shed body fat—you simply need to eat a caloric deficit. “The formula for weight loss is pretty simple: fewer calories consumed + more calories expended = loss of body weight (tissue),” says strength and conditioning coach Tom Kelso.
In a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, 811 adults were put on calorie-reduced diets made up of different ratios of macronutrients. The research showed that all participants who actually stuck to their plans lost significant amounts of body fat—regardless of their breakdown of macros.
However, if you’re not paying attention to what you’re eating (specifically, how much protein you’re consuming) you may chew up some of your muscle while you’re losing body fat. “If someone wants to get particularly ripped (think fitness model), they will require a higher protein intake and some calorie restriction. Simply hitting their calorie target won’t allow for maximum muscle retention while in this calorie-restricted phase,” says personal trainer Harry Smith.
Protein is really the building block of muscles and if you’re not getting enough in your diet, it can be really difficult to maintain or gain muscle. And as many females aren’t conditioned to eat huge amounts of protein in our daily lives, paying attention to it through counting your macros can be really useful.
Some schools of thought argue that you also need carbs to gain muscle, as they get converted to glycogen which is stored within muscle tissue. However, the Ketogains movement has shown you don’t necessarily need carbohydrates to build muscle (although, it’s a lot more difficult without it).
Paying more attention to your macros than calories or eating ‘clean’ can be beneficial for your mindset around food. It can help remind you that no food is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and that a whole range of foods can have a place in a healthy diet. The macro counting movement has given way to IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) or Flexible Dieting where you can essentially eat whatever you want (including pizzas, burgers and cake) as long as it fits within your allotted macros. “It gives people the flexibility to eat what they like to eat and does not tell people to cut out complete food groups, like the keto diet,” says personal trainer Tom Mans. However, with this approach, it’s still important to ensure you’re getting your micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) by eating lots of greens, good fats and clean protein sources for your overall health and energy levels.
To sum up: yes, you can still change your body while not counting macros. However, it can be a more efficient (and in some cases, more sustainable and achievable) way to reach your body composition goals, especially if that goal is to gain muscle.