One of the first places we start when wanting to lose weight is making sure our calories are on point.
“Eat less and exercise more” is the standard formula recommended to reach weight loss goals
Unfortunately, this formula is not entirely correct.
Because all calories are not the same.
I remember counseling a client who religiously tracked her 1500 calories a day, which was her recommended calorie goal. But her weight would not budge.
You may be thinking she should just eat less food.
But decreasing your calories is not always the right answer.
If you followed a 1500 calorie diet, and all you ate was a 1500 calorie brownie sundae, it would behave completely differently in your body than 1500 calories of broccoli, even though the calories are equal.
Besides the 50 cups of broccoli you’d have to eat to reach 1500 calories, the main differences between the two are the amounts of carbs, fat, and protein they contain.
Carbs, fats, and proteins are macronutrients, or macros for short. Our bodies need them in large amounts, and we need various amounts of each one.
When just counting calories, you may not be getting all the nutrients you need. You’ll know the total number of calories, but what are your calories composed of?
Different amounts of macros have differing hormonal responses in your body that can affect energy levels, body fat percentage, health status, and much more.
Depending on your health goal, you may need to change the percentage of carbs, protein, or fat you are consuming.
Let’s start with everybody’s favorite. Carbs.
Carbohydrates. The on again, off again “good guy” turned “bad guy” turned “I don’t know about you guy.” *insert side eye*
When you eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into simple sugars- glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Our primary energy source is glucose, which stimulates the hormone insulin to pull the sugar out of our blood and into the cells. Once the sugar is removed from your blood, your hunger hormones are stimulated.
If you typically eat a diet full of refined carbs, like white bread, white pastas, white rice, sugar-sweetened beverages, snack foods (like chips and pretzels), cereals, or desserts, your body may go through this process very quickly.
The lack of fiber causes these foods to be digested fast, causing a quick spike in blood sugar and then a crash. This repeated cycle leaves you always feeling hungry and unsatisfied, even if you are eating the right amount of calories.
Eating a diet high in carbs can lead to chronically high blood sugar levels. If glucose stays in your blood too long and your blood sugar levels get too high, it becomes damaging to your body.
Over time, this leads to insulin resistance (which means your insulin no longer works to remove the sugar from your blood), putting you at high risk for developing diabetes.
Fructose is even worse than glucose.
Fructose is typically processed into high fructose corn syrup. It is cheaper and sweeter than regular sugar, so it is added to EVERYTHING. Sodas, candies, and sweets are the more obvious choices. But high fructose corn syrup is also in many every day foods, like breads and condiments.
If you’ve ever wondered why you seem to always be craving something sweet, it’s because sweeteners are added to most of the packaged foods we eat. Another reason to eat your foods as fresh as possible!
Fructose may also stimulate the hunger signals in your brain. Not only that, but it does not tell your body when you are full. Both factors make it very easy to overeat.
Worried about belly fat? Fructose-sweetened beverages, like sodas, sports drinks, and fruit juices, have been shown to increase the amount of stomach fat in people who are already overweight/obese.
High fructose consumption contributes to fatty liver, elevated triglycerides, increased blood pressure, inflammation, and insulin resistance. And all of these lead to heart disease.
Need any more reasons to limit your intake of sweetened foods and beverages?
Fructose is also the main sugar in fruit, but fruit intake typically does not contribute to the issues mentioned above.
How Much Should I Have
The percentage of your calories from carbs is strongly determined by your fitness goals. Here’s the general breakdown:
Low: less than 40%
If your goal is to maintain weight or gain a significant amount of muscle, i.e. “bulking,” I recommend following a moderate or high carb diet. If your goal is to lose body fat, I recommend following a lower carb diet to maximize your results.
Aim to choose healthy types of carbohydrates like whole grain products, fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, and lentils. These foods are higher in fiber and other vitamins and minerals that are important for your body.
Protein has gotten a lot more hype over the past few years as interest in fitness has exploded. Protein is a necessary nutrient for building muscle and maintaining lean mass while losing body fat.
Protein is “kind of like a big deal,” being the building block for ALL CELLS in your body. Every cell in your body contains protein.
Despite its importance, some people don’t consume nearly enough for their fitness goal. I have found protein consumption to be a major make or break nutrient for achieving fitness goals.
- If you are not eating enough protein, your body cannot recover from your workouts.
Progress is made while your body is resting, and not during the actual workout. So, if you are killing yourself in the gym but you are not eating enough protein throughout the day, you cannot build muscle, and you may actually lose muscle, regardless of whether or not you are weight training.
- Protein takes a ton of energy to digest. This is called the thermic effect of food.
It takes energy to break down the foods you eat, and some foods require more energy than others.
Fats take the least amount of energy to digest. Surprise, surprise, right? It only takes about 2-3% of its calorie content to break it down.
Coming in second place is carbs, which burns up 5-8% of its calorie content.
Your body works the hardest when digesting protein, which burns a whopping 25-30% of its calorie content. This essentially means for every 100 calories of protein you consume, 25 of them are burned off during digestion. That’s HUGE!
By increasing the percentage of calories that come from protein, you may actually be absorbing LESS calories for the day. So it’s another way of creating a higher calorie deficit and helping you lose more body fat.
- Protein helps keep you full longer than if you just ate carbs by themselves.
Because protein takes longer to break down, it also slows down the digestion of carbs when eaten together. This process helps to better stabilize your blood sugar levels and prevent the quick rise and fall that often makes you feel hungry soon.
Many people eat carb-heavy meals and snacks and find themselves constantly hungry throughout the day and always craving something sweet.
By increasing your protein intake, you will feel more satisfied, burn more calories throughout the day, and have better recovery from your workouts.
How Much Should I Have
Here’s the general breakdown:
High: more than 30%
If your goal is to gain muscle, i.e. “bulking,” or to lose body fat, I recommend a moderate or high protein diet. If your goal is to maintenance, and you are actively working out, I recommend following a moderate protein diet. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle and do not work out, a lower protein diet is good for general health, but I do not recommend dropping below 15%, when possible.
Vegan and vegetarian diets will typically be on the lower end and may need supplemental protein if looking to gain more muscle mass.
Some good sources of protein include meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, beans, lentils, seeds, peas, and soy products.
Do you remember the low-fat craze of the 90’s? This was when they sucked the fat out of packaged products and replaced them with salt, sugar, and other additives.
At the time, it was widely thought that the fat content in our foods was making us fat.
As they pumped up the sugar content in EVERYTHING, waistlines continued expanding.
Then, the light bulb went off.
You don’t get fat just from eating fat. You get fat from overeating ANYTHING.
Anytime you eat more nutrients than your body needs to maintain its weight, you will gain weight.
But because of the low-fat craze, the country has become scared of fats, even healthy fats, though they have so many health benefits.
Did you know omega-3 fatty acids (which are found in flaxseed, chia seeds, fatty fish, walnuts, etc) can help with brain and heart health? They are also an anti-inflammatory, so they help decrease risk for chronic diseases.
They have also been shown to boost your metabolism and help you LOSE weight.
The main type of fat to avoid is trans fat. The recommendation is to consume as LITTLE as possible. Trans fat increases your risk for heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.
Most trans fat is man-made, and it is added to products to make them more shelf stable. The most common foods that contain trans fats are snack foods, baked foods, fried foods, refrigerated dough (like biscuits and pizza crust), creamers, and margarine.
Unfortunately, you cannot just look on the nutrition label to see how much trans fat in the food product. Did you know the label can list 0g for a nutrient even if contains that nutrient?
If there is less than 0.5g of a nutrient, the label can list 0g. But what if the food contains 0.4g per serving and you ate multiple servings?
The only way to truly tell if a food product contains trans fat is to read the ingredient label. Trans fat is listed in the ingredients list as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil. Make sure to check the list for this type of fat.
So it is important to eat enough fat in your diet, but it is even more important to check for the types of fats you consume.
How Much Should I Have
Here’s the general breakdown:
High: more than 30%
Low: less than 20%
For most fitness goals, sticking with a moderate fat intake will leave you enough room to tweak your carb or protein percentages to meet your individual needs.
Some body types (endomorphs) may require a higher protein and fat intake to meet their body fat goals. Also, various diet types, like the keto diet, require a very high fat intake (around 75-80% of your calories).
Healthy fats include avocados, fatty fish, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and oils (olive, avocado, coconut, etc.).
There is way more to calories than just meeting a number. If you are only tracking the number of calories without taking macros and other nutrients into account, you are not fully optimizing your nutrition to meet your fitness goals.
Plus, the quality of the foods you eat will make the biggest difference in your health, regardless of how many calories you eat.
Tweaking your macronutrient content may help you progress toward your fitness goal without having you change the amount of calories you eat.
It is important to do your own research and experiment to see what works best for you.
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Six Reasons Why a Calorie Is Not a Calorie. May 8, 2018. https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/dangers-benefits-fats-2508.html
The Dangers and Benefits of Fat. June 25, 2018. https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/dangers-benefits-fats-2508.html
Trans Fat Is Double Trouble For Your Health. March 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/trans-fat/art-20046114
What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Too Much Sugar. https://articles.mercola.com/sugar-side-effects.aspx