Counting Calories and Balancing Macronutrients
Counting calories is essential in the quest for weight loss. Calorie counting is a pretty straightforward process as long as you are using the right tools. There is a lot of debate about calorie counting, whether it is truly necessary as well as the dangers of neurotic calorie counting. I believe that for someone first starting the journey to health, who does not have the nutritional knowledge of common foods, it is essential. After a while of counting calories, you will get a feel for nutritional content and serving sizes for whole foods like chicken, beef, nuts, fruits, veggies, etc. Once you are able to guesstimate calories and macronutrient contents of the food you eat, it then no longer becomes necessary to track every calorie.
Calories are not the full story when it comes to nutrition. It’s important to understand the nutrients the body needs and what they are used for. To understand how to count calories, we must also learn how to balance our macronutrients.
In my opinion, protein is the macronutrient to establish first. It is the macro requirement that does not change much day to day. The amount of protein you need should only change based on what kind of physical activity you do. A bodybuilder will naturally need more protein than, say, a dancer. Once you set how many grams of protein you need, the remaining calorie budget can be split between fat and carbs, depending on the energy need.
The minimum you should strive to achieve for protein is 1 gram of protein per lb of body weight. Since I weigh 129 lbs, the minimum protein I should strive to consume is 129 g/day. If you do intense weightlifting that focuses mostly on hypertrophy, then I recommend 1.25 to 1.5 grams of protein per lb of body weight. The numbers vary, and people have varying opinions on how much protein is required. If you get at least 1 gram of protein per lb of body weight, it should be sufficient. However, since I lift weights, I try to get about 200 grams of protein.
Since protein has an energy density of 4 cal/g, that means that 200 grams of protein equates to 800 calories. If we continue to use myself as an example, my daily calorie need is 2400 calories/day. This means I have about 1600 calories left to split up between carbs and fat.
The easy way to determine how much carbs and fat you need is to pay attention to your workouts. Do you weight lift? Hike outdoors? Row machine? Cross fit? Your chosen activity will determine your carbohydrate needs. Remember that your body wants to use carbs for intense physical activity. The higher intensity and longer duration your workout, the more carbs you need. For intense workouts, your carbohydrate intake should be 40-50% of your total calories.
My current chosen workout includes powerlifting and rock climbing. Both are intense, so I strive to eat about 40% of my total calories in carbs. This comes out to 1000 calories. The energy density of carbs is the same as protein, 4 cal/g, so 1000 calories equates to 250 grams of carbs.
Now that we have 1800 calories of our daily allowance set between carbs and protein, the rest will come from fats. Fats are the most energy dense at 9 cal/g. With 600 calories left, that equates to about 67 grams of fat. Recall that fats are the energy source your body wants to use for low intensity activities. If you did not exercise as often or as intense, you would need to increase your fat intake and decrease your carbohydrate intake.
So, following my example, a typical nutritional day for me would look like this:
Total calories: 2400 cal
- Protein: 200 g (800 cal, 32% of total)
- Carbs: 250 g (1000 cal, 40% of total)
- Fat: 67 g (600 cal, 28% of total)
This short guide should have elucidated some of the mentality that goes into counting calories and balancing your macronutrients. This example assumes a typical workout day, but in reality, your macronutrient and calorie intake will change depending on the circumstances. On a rest day, you wouldn’t need to eat as many calories and you would eat more fat than carbs. Knowing and manipulating your calories and macronutrient intake is essential controlling body composition and losing weight. In future lessons I will talk about advanced techniques such as carbohydrate cycling and nutrient timing.