Learn Why Macronutrients Matter More Than Calories

Updated 07/23/17
Arugula salad topped with boiled egg, avocado, and asparagus
@thefaraheffect

We have a confession: Sometimes our nutritionist friends use words we don’t know in conversation. While this isn’t a rare occurrence (they’re experts for a reason), there’s one word in particular that kept popping up for us: macronutrients.

Do you know what they are? We figured some of you might not so we enlisted registered dietitian Farah Fahad, MS, RD, to explain. First things first—we asked Fahad for the most basic definitions of both calories and macronutrients. “A calorie is how we measure energy in food. The more calorie-dense, the more energy-dense. Macronutrients are nutrients we need in macro—or big—amounts. ‘Macro’ alludes to the fact that we need it in big amounts, and it also alludes to the fact that it gives us a substantial amount of energy,” she explained.

And while there’s only one type of calorie (though not all calories are created equal—more on that later), there are three categories of macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Each macronutrient has a different amount of calories per gram. Protein is four calories per gram, carbohydrates are four calories per gram, and fat is nine calories per gram.

Alright, now that we know the basics of what macronutrients are, read on for Fahad’s take on why they matter, and how they might affect your health and weight.

Why Macronutrients Matter More Than Calories

You’ve probably known this for a bit, but Fahad was quick to remind us that all calories are not created equal. “You can have 80 calories from an apple or 80 calories from half a candy bar—but they’re different types of calories. What you’re going to get from the fruit is more nutritious than what you’re going to get from the same amount of calories from the candy bar,” she explained.

For this reason, counting calories alone is not a solid strategy if you’re looking for a balanced, nutritious diet. Instead, the focus should be on the quality, quantity, and type of food you’re eating. “There’s been a shift. Before, in the ’90s and late ’80s, even in the early 2000s, people were still counting calories,” Fahad says. Today, “It’s more a question of ‘what are we eating?’ Not ‘how many calories are in what we are eating?’”

Balancing Your Macronutrients

Fahad does not encourage her clients to count calories, and she also doesn’t suggest they track macronutrients—at least not too intently. “I don’t want them counting gram by gram, just monitoring their eating, and make sure they’re eating a serving of protein, complex carbohydrate, and good fat at every meal,” she explains.

Why does a balance of all macronutrients matter? “It’s important for your weight, it’s important for your thyroid function, it’s important for your metabolic function, and it’s important for energy levels,” Fahad says. Wondering what the exact macronutrient breakdown should be? While it will vary for each person, Fahad suggests, “If you’re eating the right type of complex carbohydrates—like fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans, legumes, or whole grains—I would say 30 to 40% complex carbohydrates, 30 to 40% protein, and about 20% healthy fat.

That’s a good range, and then you have a five to 10% wiggle room.”

Managing Macronutrients and Weight Loss

“If you’re trying to lose weight, increase protein, increase the right types of fat, and increase the right types of complex carbohydrates and decrease processed carbs. Any processed carbohydrates can go. Processed carbohydrates include anything white—white sugar, white flour, white rice, white bread,” she explains. Protein is especially important if you’re trying to drop some pounds because it will keep your metabolism high.

“A lot of diets will increase protein and decrease carbs for weight loss, but you can go overboard with that,” she says. What’s the real key? “Balance. And once you learn what works for you, you’re set.”

Do you keep track of your macronutrients? Tell us your philosophy in our private Facebook group!

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