For a long time, the general consensus has been that if you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories and burn more off, creating a calorie deficit.
But counting calories doesn’t tell you anything about how balanced your diet should be: for 1,500 calories a day, you could eat four slices of chocolate cake or 375 strawberries, neither of which would be healthy.
So amongst the fitness community, there’s another measurement that is far more important: macros.
“I think counting macros can be hugely useful - perhaps the most useful thing - for people wanting to reach their health, fitness or weight loss goals,” personal trainer Harry Smith explained to The Independent. He’s a huge fan of counting macros and does it himself.
Macro is short for macronutrient, of which there are three: protein, carbohydrates and fats. All foods are divided up into a combination of these macros, and that’s how the calorie content is made up.
Protein and carbs are four calories per gram, and fat is nine calories per gram.
(There are also micronutrients which are your vitamins and minerals.)
Counting your calories in still important, whether you’re trying to lose fat or bulk up, but when it’s done in conjunction with counting your macros, that’s when you get the best results.
Research has shown that when you have a calorie deficit and keep your protein high, that’s when you lose the most weight.
A 75kg woman looking to get in shape by exercising lots, for example, might set her macros in a ratio of 2:1:1, meaning 50 per cent protein, 25 per cent fat and 25 per cent carbs. This works out that she sets herself a target of eating 150g protein every day (no mean feat), and 75g each fat and carbs.
“I think it’s best to think of tracking calories and tracking macros as a continuum,” says Smith.
“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.”
Smith recommends his clients count their macros (often alongside calories) because it allows for flexibility and as such is easier to stick to.
Unlike restrictive diets, you can go out to dinner with friends or have a drink as long as you factor it into your daily or even weekly target. “It’s just like earning a salary and budgeting it across everything you need to buy, and then all the things you want to buy,” Smith explains.
Calorie and macro counting is called flexible dieting: “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,” personal trainer Tom Mans explains to The Independent.
“Also if you have 200-300 calories left at the end of the day, you can have a little treat as long if it doesn’t ruin your macro targets.”
Many PTs recommend using an app - MyFitnessPal, for example - to log what you eat, thus making it easy to keep on top of your macros.
“I find it is the best way to educate clients on how many calories, protein, carbs and fats is in the food they eat,” says Mans, adding that he set their targets based on their age, sex, weight, height and activity levels.
Mans gives himself as an example: As a 30 year old man who weighs 80 kg, is 5’8” tall and works out five times a week, to maintain his weight he needs to eat 3,200 calories a day, which is roughly 50 per cent carbs, 25 per cent fats and 25 per cent protein.
Earlier this year, he wanted to put on 2kg of muscle for a powerlifting competition. To do so, he increased his calories to 3,500 a day, keeping his macros in the same proportions.
And after the competition he wanted to lose 2-3kg to get leaner for summer, so dropped his calories to 2600, adapting his macros to 50 per cent carbs, 30 per cent protein and 20 per cent fats. He lost 2kg in two and a half months.
Of course, it can seem a bit of a faff to log everything you eat and assess the labels on every food product you buy at first, but you get used to it. What’s more, it can be pretty eye-opening: it turns out there are carbs in so many foods you probably never considered to be carbs.
It's also incredibly satisfying if you achieve perfect macros one day.
And after a while, you learn what is in the foods you eat so you don’t have to log everything anyway.
As top personal trainer Nicola Addison explains, looking at macros can help you realise that not all calories are equal.
“200 calories – which may seem like a huge amount for a snack – from fat would equal 22 grams of fat or a small handful of raw nuts,” she told The Independent. “But 200 calories from sugar (carbs are 3.75 calories per gram) would amount to 53 grams of sugar (32.5 per cent above the daily recommended sugar intake) or a large chocolate bar.
“In the end, someone counting calories might see the two snacks as equal towards their weight loss aspirations but in reality it’s very different.”
Eating a diet that fits in with your macros isn’t enough to lose weight, you have to make sure you’re not eating far more than you’re burning off.
But once you’ve worked out how much you can eat, counting your macros could be just what you need to get the results you want.