Whether you are training to be healthier, perform better on the field, in the ring, or just looking to lose fat and gain some muscle, having an understanding of calories and macronutrients can be an incredible tool to help you breakthrough plateaus and get even more results. Even if you don't have plans to weigh your food or track your calories/macros, understanding why they're important can be crucial to your success in the gym!
By the end of this article, you will understand what calories actually are, what role macros play in your diet, and which foods have which macros.
So, what is a calorie?
Simply put, a calorie is just a measurement used to calculate how much energy is in the food we eat.
The amount of calories you eat will determine whether you gain weight, lose weight, or maintain weight alongside how many calories you burn each day through exercise and non-exercise activity.
Quick note: the amount of calories that you may need to maintain your weight, for instance, can be drastically different than the next person. There are a ton of factors that play into this - with some having more impact than others. More on that later.
The most important thing to understand is that calories are the absolute king for weight loss and muscle gain. If you lose weight, it's because you ate less calories than you burned. When this happens, your body will turn to using energy stored in the form of fat to make up for the amount of calories that you didn't eat. This is known as a Caloric Deficit and it's the first big rock of weight loss. If you are not in a calorie deficit, you simply will not lose weight.
On the other end of that spectrum, is a Calorie Surplus. This is when you eat more than what you are burning. In this case, your body wants to save the calories for future energy use, so it will store it for later.
This relationship between calories eaten and calories burned is called Energy Balance. Energy Balance is extremely important to understand as it is what will help you hit your goals, especially if your goal has to do with body composition (losing fat or gaining muscle).
"Mike, if that's the case, can't I just focus on burning a lot of calories with exercise so that I don't have to worry about how much I'm eating?"
Unfortunately not, my friend. It is much more difficult to "out-work" a high calorie diet than it is to just focus on watching what you're eating.
WTF are Macros?
Macros are short for the term macronutrients. Macronutrients are the three main categories of the food we eat that contain calories. This is different than micronutrients which would be things like vitamins and minerals.
Protein, which has 4 calories per gram.
Carbohydrates, which has 4 calories per gram.
Fats, which has 9 calories per gram.
And alcohol, which has 7 calories per gram.
(Note: I did say before that there are three main categories. Alcohol is technically a fourth since it contains calories. We're mainly going to focus on the first three moving forward.)
An easy way to think about macros is to see them as the three categories we can put our food into. Each macros effects the body differently and gives it what it needs to function correctly and survive. Eating a balance of all three macros (protein, carbs, and fats) is best to build a body that is strong, has energy, and is lean.
Your macro intake (how much of each you have in your diet) can affect your body more than you may think - both positively and negatively. Thyroid function, gym performance, hormone balance, appetite control, energy balance, your daily mood, and fatigue are all affected by your macro consumption.
Protein tends to be the macronutrient that most people have trouble eating enough of -- however, it is incredibly crucial when it comes to your performance in the gym, and your body composition. Protein helps build, repair and maintain muscle. As previously mentioned, ever 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories. That means, if your goal is to eat 120g of protein, then 480 of the calories you eat that day will come from protein.
When losing weight, eating enough protein prevents muscle loss when in a calorie deficit. A high protein diet also keeps you more full, helping to curb your appetite. This means less snacking and sticking to your portions more easily. Eat that protein!
Our Go-To Protein Sources: Beef, Chicken, Turkey, Pork, Lamb, Seafood, Eggs, Non-fat Greek Yogurt and Whey Protein.
Secondary Protein Sources (these food contain about 15-20% protein. We wouldn't count these as our proteins when making our plates, but they do deserve mention because they have protein): Nuts, Seeds, Beans, Lentils, Peanuts, Peas, Oats, Quinoa and Rice.
Carbs unfortunately have gotten one of the worse reputations from the media for no reason other than misinformation. Despite what you may have heard, carbs do not inherently make you fat. They do not cause you to gain weight by themselves. As discussed, overeating calories consistently will do that. It just so happens that the tastiest foods are usually a mix of carbs and fats, and that's why we overeat them. But when we have our calories in check, carbs provide us many benefits.
The biggest benefit is energy. Carbs are our bodies' go-to source of energy. After being broken down through digestion, they are stored in our muscles, our liver, and our brain. Like protein, they contain 4 calories per 1 gram. If our daily carb goal is 200 grams, then 800 calories will come from carbs that day.
Because of their ability to provide us energy, carbs can be used to increase our performance in the gym, positively influence our mood and assist in cognitive function in the brain. For females, carbs also play a role in balancing hormones.
Carbs come in many different foods. Some carb sources contain more fiber than others. Fiber will keep you full longer and plays a major role in digestive health. Our go-to carb sources tend to have higher fiber, so focus on getting these in throughout the day!
Our Go-To Carb Sources:
Fruits: apples, bananas, berries, pineapple, watermelon, etc
Starchy Vegetables: butternut squash, parsnips, carrots, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkin, spaghetti squash
Non-Starchy Vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery, mushrooms, onions, salad greens, peppers, tomato, zucchini
Grains: rice, quinoa, oatmeal
Legumes: beans, lentils, peanuts, peas
Nuts & Seeds: almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds
Misc: Whole Wheat Bread and Whole Wheat Pasta
Secondary Carb Sources
These carbs are not "bad" because there is no good or bad food. There are foods that hold more nutritional value and foods that hold less nutritional value. These foods are part of the latter. On top of that, they're typically made to be hyperpalatable, or so tasty that you don't want to stop eating them. Remember, some guys in a bunch of suits are paid a lot of money to make food taste so good you won't stop eating it. These foods fall into that category.
Candy & Desserts: cookies, pastries, cakes, ice cream
Fried Foods: chips, french fries, etc
Sugary Drinks: fruit juices, soda,
Misc: White Bread and Pasta
One of the most important things to realize about fat is that fat, the macronutrient, does not inherently store as fat, the soft tissue that we see on our bodies. Fats are crucial to keeping us alive and without them we would die.
They help with our energy, hormone function, brain health and are key to absorbing vitamins and minerals. Unlike protein and carbs, they contain 9 calories for every 1 gram. This means, if you had goal of eating 70 grams of fat in a day, it would take up 630 calories of your daily caloric allowance.
Our Go-To Fat Sources:
Cooking Oils: extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, grass-fed butter, lard, duck fat, avocado oil
Fatty Meats: chicken thighs/legs, fatty cuts of steak, grass-fed ground beef, duck, etc.
Fatty Fish: wild salmon, herring, sardines, trout
Nuts: walnuts, almonds, pecans
Seeds: flaxseed, chia seeds
Nut Butters: almond butter, cashew butter, peanut butter
Misc: Avocado, Egg Yolks
Avoidable Fat Sources:
These fats should be avoided when possible. We understand that it's impossible to know what's in every single thing you eat (especially if you're eating out) but it's a good idea to make a conscious effort eat our go-to fat sources in stead of these. There's no health, performance, or body composition benefit to them. They make food taste good and are cheap, so companies tend to use them instead of healthier fats. Don't go crazy, but keep an eye out and shoot for our Go-To Sources instead if possible.
Vegetable Oils: canola oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, grapeseed oil
Hydrogenated/Partially Hydrogenated Oils: ‘buttery spreads’ like “I can’t believe it’s not butter," Earth Balance, etc.
As previously mentioned, alcohol is the fourth macronutrient. It holds no nutritional value and is 7 calories per gram.
If you track your calories, you need to track whatever alcoholic drinks you are consuming because of their caloric value. If your goal is fat loss, we recommend cutting out alcohol completely or at least limiting how much you drink to only a few. When consuming alcohol, your body focuses on breaking it down instead of burning fat or rebuilding muscle. Not only that, but we all know that being drunk increases our likelihood of overeating the less nutritional foods we've discussed which can severely impede our progress.
Macro Cheat Sheet
The Next Step
Now that we know what calories are, and the different types of macros, it's time to learn how to calculate the right macros for your goal, as well as how to track them!
Part 2 of this series goes over that, and you can read it here!
Much of this article was inspired by and pulled from The Healthy Consultant. We recommend checking her out for recipes, articles, and more!