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Calorie counting, it’s the new carb bashing. How many should we consume? How many should we get in a meal? What proportion of calories should come from each macronutrient (macro)? Will I burn those calories with exercise? How much exercise do I need to do to burn the right amount of calories? Which methods should I use, Zone, RP, Eat to Perform….?

As noted in Managing Nutrient Intake, I believe that for many people wanting to refine their dietary approach and therefore health and fitness results, food quantity is the next step after dialing in quality. Referring back to that article again, whichever nutrition approach you choose to follow it’s important to understand that we’re not looking for quick fixes. The goal is to implement changes that are both sustainable and that provide a base-a framework-from which to ensure sustainable results in the long term. It’s also essential to have a basic understanding of the good and the not so good of the approaches you’re looking at. Let’s look at the good and bad of calorie/macro counting, regardless of the method and with a perspective on long term health.

The Good

Without measurable, observable and repeatable data, any changes made will be guestimates. Now that’s not entirely a bad thing because you learn a ton along the way, but we’re also looking for efficiency in results and guestimates will take you on the long route.

In general, people aren’t great at eyeballing portion sizes! Some research shows that people mismeasure portion sizes about two-thirds of the time. A tablespoon easily becomes a heaped tablespoon, one cup becomes a cup “and a bit,” and “that looks like 100ml.” For these people, adhering to a measured amount of food most of the time works best. It also helps to ensure that they don’t end up yo-yo dieting.

Measuring food quantities also gets you thinking about what you’re eating. You’re therefore less likely to find yourself on that slippery slope of “just one more treat.”

Given the data-driven approach, it gets results, when adherence is good and the individual doesn’t become consumed by the numbers!

The Not So Good

Many advocates of calorie/macro counting say that it’s based on the science of energy balance. Energy balance refers to the energy in versus energy out equation. Consume more calories/energy than you’re expending and you’ll gain weight, or consume fewer calories/energy than you’re expending and you’ll lose weight. The problem is that’s a pseudo-science. The equation is MUCH more complex than that. Calories in and calories out are only two variables to the equation. There’s your basal metabolic rate (BMR, which some macro counting methods do use), insulin resistance, glycemic load, thermic effect of food, energy expenditure from both non-exercise physical activity and exercise (which your Apple watches and FitBits don’t calculate very accurately), undigested food, and macro proportions. And that’s probably just some of it! The image above gives you an idea of how complicated the energy balance equation really is.

When comparing studies that have evaluated caloric intake and changes in body composition we see that diets with the same caloric intake provide very different results. You could have two people consuming and expending exactly the same amount of calories, one may lose an unhealthy amount of weight while the other may increase all health and fitness markers. The results from these studies are partly explained by the proportion of macros consumed, but only partly. 

The point I’m making here is that a calorie is not a calorie, and saying that a calorie counting approach to nutrition is based on science is bullshit. The science is in the data being used for that person – their body composition, macro amounts, health and fitness markers. Using those numbers to measure, predict and make changes is where the science lies. Not on calories in versus calories out. 

Another problem with calorie/macro counting are food labels. The numbers you see on labels are averages, so the true content of what you’re eating is generally higher or lower than what is shown on the label. But if you’re generally ‘gathering’ your food from the same sources and the results aren’t as great as you’d like, at least you know that it could have to do with the food industry screwing us over.

We also don’t absorb all the calories we consume. Now there is a formula that tells you how many of the calories consumed per macro are available for absorption, but calculation doesn’t work well with nuts and seeds, and protein and fibre rich foods. So that too is not quite so simple.

How you prepare food also changes it’s caloric load, and everyone absorbs calories uniquely.

The above problems with calorie counting, however, are mitigated by the fact that you have data to work with. If the results you’re seeking aren’t quite happening then you’re able to make informed changes to your intake. Remeasure, retweak, repeat as necessary. So they aren’t really the bad things about calorie/macro counting. They’re things you need to know that may negate the calorie counting method. 

The real problems, for me, with calorie/macro counting lie in the psychology of food and the approach to these methods by some.

Research has shown that your favourite foods, especially refined and processed CHO, activates the body’s reward system. This system encourages you to repeat the behaviour that is providing the pleasure, and is the same system that casinos exploit in gamblers. It’s a powerful system. Research has shown that the reward system can override the body’s cues for satiety which may lead to overeating. We also know that dietary treats have the same effect on the brain as recreational drugs. These foods give you that feel good feeling.

Combine that knowledge with calorie counting and you end up with some justifying the use of poor quality ‘food’ – calorie dense but nutrient sparse, man made products – over quality food because “it fits their calorie/macro prescription.” Remember, I said that your dietary approach is a framework that you sustainably implement 80% of the time so that for the rest of the time you eat just for joy. For some, the calorie counting approach plays too much to the emotional relationship with food, they focus more on the flexible side of the equation and they forget about food as a fuel. Like pissing in a gas tank – the car still looks great and will run okay, for a while.

This is similar to the problem of people becoming consumed by the numbers. Instead of tuning into their bodies and learning what is hunger, satiety and thirst, they base everything they do on calorie/macro amounts. Food becomes a number and no longer something the mind and body needs as a fuel for general functioning or even as a pleasure.

These latter problems with the calorie/macro approach are individually dependent. Not everyone goes that way, as long as they’re being guided well. When you understand that both quality and quantity matter, that the method you choose should emphasise the means instead of the end, that food must be approached as both a fuel for basic human functioning AND as a joy, when you’re educated about the good and bad of an approach, then only will the calorie/macro counting method work for both your health, performance and sanity!

Do I measure macros? Absolutely, 80-90% of the time and have been for almost 3 years. Do I prescribe it for nutrition coaching clients? Yes, but not all. Does it work? Yes, as long as it’s data driven. Is it sustainable? Most certainly, but only if the base is good food.

“Exercise helps you to DO stuff better (strength, flexibility, coordination, power, endurance). Nutrition helps you to BE better (healthy body composition, insulin, blood pressure, blood glucose, inflammation etc all under control).” – Darren Ellis, founder of CFNZ and nutrition coach

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