Depending on who you speak to, the idea of tracking macros (macronutrients) or calories is the "best thing ever" or a terrible idea akin to one of those movie lines where the hero says "I got a baaaad feeling about this.....".
Allow me to make a case for the former.
To start, counting macros is simply a process of keeping track of the three (possibly four if alcohol makes up a large part of your calories) macronutrients we consume, and these are what give us our calories:
Protein - Which has 4 calories per gram
Carbohydrates - Which has 4 calories per gram
Fat - Which has 9 calories per gram
Oops! We learned something already! Fat has more calories per gram than carbs or protein. Darn it, and I thought this whole making a case for educating ourselves was doomed from the start.
So we know that counting macros is basically just keeping track of the inherent breakdown of our food in terms of what major macronutrients comprise them. All food in it's natural state is a mix of the above macronutrients, sometimes just two but you won't find something growing or breathing that is just ONE macronutrient. There is no meat that is ONLY protein or vegetable that is ONLY carbohydrates in it's raw state.
So this is very eye opening for people who only think in terms of calories or don't really think about their food intake at all. All of a sudden if we start tracking our food then we can see an actual breakdown of the protein, fat and carbs we are eating and get immediate feedback on what needs improvement.
Yeah but What's a Calorie and What Do Macronutrients Do?
This is the part in the argument where I need to back up and make sure that these ideas and concepts are clear and understood. This is the point in the conversation when I suggest tracking macros or calories to someone that I get either excited agreement or questions like:
Olive oil has calories?
Aren't carbs bad?
Is peanut butter a protein?
These are three common questions I get which clue me in that this topic needs a bit more education first.
What's a Calorie?
To keep this less sciency, just know that calories are ENERGY. They are the gas, diesel, jet fuel that your body uses to move, digest, recover and live. One common misconception is that since we think of calories as things that give energy we think of them like caffeine.
So let me make this clear: caffeine GIVES you energy because it is stimulating, it is actually producing a nervous system effect that stimulates your brain and increases flight or flight hormones so that you have more physical arousal.
Obviously, food does not do this. You don't really eat a sandwich and then get this huge kick of nervous energy that makes you talk faster, pace around and increase your heart rate. In this case, food is energy to perform functions but it does not make you energetic. Make sense?
Almost everything has calories. This is because all matter contains energy, so what we eat is basically limited to what we can digest. Apes, cows, termites can all eat highly fibrous plant products because they can digest cellulose which we cannot. So even though we don't eat wood, grass or bamboo this doesn't mean they don't contain calories.
What Makes Up a Calorie?
This is the next logical step. Ok, all food contains calories, which is basically edible energy. Our body breaks it down into simple form so our cells can use it to perform actions but what the heck is exactly providing that energy?
This is where we talk about protein, fat and carbohydrates. These are MACROnutrients and they are what makes up a food - and have a calorie amount associated with them based on the energy they provide.
There isn't a really good car or machine analogy for calories because our bodies are so adaptable and awesome that they can convert macronutrients to fit specific needs, store energy in the form of bodyfat, turn food into fat or fat into fuel and so on. So don't try to understand your body as a machine. your body is better than that. It's physical, chemical AND electrical which makes it very complex.
Luckily for us, we don't need to get too complex to get awesome results out of it!
The Basics of Macronutrients
Protein is special because it is the only macronutrient that directly affects muscle recovery and growth. You can use protein for energy but it is absolutely necessary for muscle building and recovery and you can't "sub" in fat or carbs to do that job.
Protein is also totally rad because it takes a LOT of energy to digest - up to 20% of the calories eaten in the form of protein go to it's own digestion! So that is great for fat loss and keeping your metabolism humming along.
Protein is also very satitating, it helps keep blood sugar elevated as an antagonist to insulin and it will increase your recovery and results in the gym.
Fat is a more calorie dense macronutrient than protein or carbs. It has more than DOUBLE the calories per gram. So why is it being pushed more recently over carbs? Simply because our trends like to swing into extremes so if it isn't low fat, it has to be high fat!
Fat is necessary for hormone production, healthy hair, skin and nails and it is also very filling and satiating.
Fat however makes a poor energy source for shorter intense activities like lifting, intervals and other short rest conditioning, sprinting and most strength sports. It takes a long time to digest and it has to travel through the lymph system, which protein and carbs do not. So while it makes for a good energy dense calorie source, it is better for endurance training and/or sedentary populations.
But interestingly enough, fat is MUCH MORE easily stored as body fat than carbs. Protein is more likely to be burned as excess energy/heat when in abundance and to a lesser degree carbs but fat is readily stored as body fat when calories are in excess.
We should know by now that carbohydrates are not bad or damaging but again, nutrition trends fall into extremes so we have to be patient until this low-carb thing blows over.
Carbohydrates are your body's preferred energy source. PREFERRED! Wow, whoulda thunk?!
They are readily use as energy for many activities, they help us spare protein so it can be used to build muscle and they can help increase recovery. Whole food sources of carbs also contain fiber which is positively linked to successful diets (along with adequate protein) and in fact insulin, which is most often associated with carbs, is a hormone that not only keeps blood sugar in check but tells our brain we are "full". So adequate carbs can mean healthy hunger and fullness cues.
You Said You'd Keep It Practical!
I meant to, I promise!
Using Macro Counting To Educate Yourself
Counting your macronutrients is not hard and in fact, it is a lot easier than it used to be just a couple years ago. I used to have to look up the nutrition facts on all my regular foods on the internet, usually at NutritionData.com and then remember the macros for those foods when I was eating them.
Now, you can just use an app on your phone like My Fitness Pal or Calorie King and al you have to do is weigh and measure your food, enter it into the app and it adds up and tracks the macros (and calories) for you.
The advantages in this are many:
1. Your phone is handy-dandy. For most people its easier to keep records on your phone than with pen and paper
2. The app does all the adding for you.
3. Keeping a journal of your food is THE, I repeat THE most educational thing you can do for yourself. Even when clients tell me they eat "x" amount of protein, carbs and fat, when I actually have them log it, they are usually surprised at what they are eating compared to their assumption. Believe me on this, if you do anything, track your food just to get a reality check.
4. Your familiarity with foods helps you make excellent food choices even when you can't or aren't tracking. After a couple months of counting macros, you will be so good at going out to eat or picking foods from the store that fit your needs. "Oh, the chopped salad....do you know how much fat is in that?!"
5. You can plan (and should plan) foods that aren't in your normal diet. This is one of the things many people, my clients included, like about tracking macros is that they can work in ice cream, beer, cheese, bread etc as long as they keep their macros in check.
So if you figured out that 150g or carbs a day was working for you for fat loss, you could technically eat a grilled cheese sandwich and still make sure you didn't exceed those 150g carbs and be absolutely fine.
I find #5 to be powerful because it helps eliminate some issues I have with dietary trends: labels.
Unlearn to Label Your Food
I know someone will say "but counting macros is labeling food with number". To that, touche. But also, keep in mind it labels ALL food with numbers, effectively eliminating categories and making all food simply: food.
So if you become confortable with tracking macros, a grilled cheese sandwich or a tripto Dairy Queen or some Belgian Ale are not good or bad - just a part of your diet. But knowing how they affect your daily intake clues you into making good decisions with food because you become aware of how they affect your allowances. So you can and should have them on occasion but your education and awareness is elevated to such that, if you know you want some ice cream, you will intuitively cut back on carbs and fats the rest of the day.
I think this helps to create good food habits too. Intuition and positive habits are cornerstones of healthy eating and counting macros can help set them in place.
Now, I don't think you need to or should count them forever. Some personality types don't do well counting them and for some people it just isn't practical or worthwhile and that is ok too. But to demonize the practice is missing out on the positive aspects for the right populations.
If nothing else, use one of the apps I mentioned to log your food and the simple act of keeping a written account will cause you to make better choices, it happens almost every time. Somehow SEEING what we are eating keeps us accountable and from glossing over what we ate or the quantities.
There are so many ways to tackle nutrition and this is just one of them. But methods are many and principles are few - so remember that no matter what method you choose the principles remain, it's all about finding the right fit.