My mother has been a dieter for most of my life. Over the years she has tried every diet imaginable in order to manage her weight – including one that involved eating mostly pineapples!
But I was completely surprised when she recently asked me a simple, yet crucial question.
“Katie (Mom calls me Katie), you know how they say you should only eat a certain number of calories per day to lose weight?”
“Yes, what about it?”
“Well,” my mom continued, “does it matter what those calories are made of?”
I was stunned. Mom, how did you miss that memo?
Food Shapes Our Metabolism
You can’t discuss weight loss for very long before someone pipes up with, “losing weight is simply a matter of eating less and exercising more”. Rest assured, the person who says this has probably never struggled to lose weight.
Calories in versus calories out was the golden weight loss rule for decades. It is based on the notion that if you burn more energy than you take in you can expect to lose weight, and vice versa. But the concept is oversimplified.
The foods we ingest do more than provide energy (calories). Food also shapes our metabolism. Different foods trigger the release of hormones that will dial our fat storage up or down. Simply counting calories ignores this effect.
We hear a lot less about calories these days, and lot more about carbs, protein, and fat. These are macronutrients, “macros” for short. They, along with dietary fibre, are the building blocks of food.
Carbohydrates and proteins each provide roughly 4 calories per gram. Fat delivers 9 calories per gram. This is one reason why fat was villainized for decades. But fat does more than provide calories. Fat fills you up, leading to a feeling of fullness or satiety that can last hours longer than quickly digested carbohydrates.
Conversely, food high in refined carbohydrates will cause insulin to spike, which encourages the body to store fat. Protein, fat, and fibre tend to have the opposite effect, or at least they don’t stimulate as much fat-storing insulin production.
The currently popular low carb, high fat (LCHF) and ketogenic diets mostly avoid calories in favour of minimizing insulin levels. Even with relatively high caloric intake from plenty of fat, most people lose weight following these types of eating plans.
The Great Calorie Caveat
Calories on a label or in a chart don’t accurately account for the energy we absorb from our food. The outdated way calories are calculated – in a laboratory crucible – doesn’t reflect what happens in the human body.
For example, the measured caloric value of coarse and fine ground flour is the same, however studies in people show we absorb more calories from finely ground flour. This is a major caveat to consuming a diet based on counting calories.
Considering switching to Team Macro in the weight loss game? The amount of protein, fat, and carbs you should be eating depends on your goals.
A popular macro ratio for weight loss is a diet that’s roughly 30% carbs, 40% protein, and 30% fat. Carbohydrate intake is typically higher for athletes, and lower for people following a ketogenic diet.
To turn those percentages into countable grams, we need to call on our old friend, calories. For easy math, let’s say your daily caloric intake should be 2000.
- 4 calories per gram
- 30% of 2,000 calories = 600 calories of carbs per day
- Total grams of carbs allowed per day = 600/4 = 150 grams
- 4 calories per gram
- 40% of 2,000 calories = 800 calories of protein per day
- Total grams of protein allowed per day = 800/4 = 200 grams
- 9 calories per gram
- 30% of 2,000 calories = 600 calories of fat per day
- Total grams of fat allowed per day = 600/9 = 67 grams
Based on this ratio, your daily intake would be 150 grams of carbs, 200 grams of protein, and 67 grams of fat.
It can get complicated to keep track of macros, which is why there are apps to help.
It’s What the Calories are Made of that Counts
Ultimately, the concept of counting macros explains how our body responds to the food we eat: 100 calories from a piece of cheese will affect us very differently than 100 calories from a cookie.
In other words, yes, Mom. What the calories are made of makes all the difference.