Before I start let me explain that when it comes to changing your body weight, calories matter.
Calories in > Calories out = weight gain
Calories in < Calories out = weight loss
However, in order to optimise health, performance and body composition goals, macronutrients must be optimised as well. This is the grams of protein, fat and carbs you are consuming. So when I speak of counting calories in this article I am using calories and macronutrients interchangeable.
Counting or controlling calories and macronutrients is a great method to track and monitor your diet along with assessing your progress. (1) So understand that fat loss or weight gains comes down to calories in vs calories out first and foremost, before food quality.
So without further a do here some serious and light hearted pros and cons to counting macros –
Pro – Provides a measure
Tracking macros over a set period of time, 2 weeks for example, allows you to work a measurable variable that you can relate back to.
It allows you to evaluate your weight/progress/performance eating ‘X’ amount of macros, and if any changes are required.
Sure, numbers change over time, but some people have no idea what their maintenance calories are or even what calories are.
Con – Stressful
Let’s face it, tracking food everyday can be stressful, confusing and demotivate you at times.
Of course you do not want to be tracking every day for the rest of your life, but even for short periods of time it can be too much of a requirement for some.
It can be especially stressful when you don’t have control over the cooking or buying of the food. Times like this should not be stressful but for some it takes a while to realise social events and eating out is not a stressful event within a calorie controlled diet.
Pro – Education
One common theme amongst dieters is simply not having knowledge of calories, macronutrients, food quality, vitamins, minerals, fibre etc etc.
Many individuals do not realise how many calories are present in say a caramel macchiato or in that full laden sandwich from the store. Counting macros and looking at the nutritional labels educates someone on food quality, along with macronutrient (pro/fat/carbs) content.
This leads to people underestimating their calorie/macro intake when not tracking and even overestimating their protein intake, due to a lack of education.
Many are simply not eating the required protein amount for their goals, therefore improving education can help a lot.
Therefore weighing your food over time will give you a solid idea of what 100g of chicken breast looks like, how much protein it contains, and how many calories it has, for example. Weighing also helps you know which foods are high in fibre, and what the macros are in your favourite dessert. This will greatly improve your knowledge of your food intake.
Con – Drains your phone battery
Unless you are a maths boff and can calculate everything and keep a tally in your head, you will probably use a phone app like MyFitnessPal to count for you.
However, a down side of this will be constantly using your phone and changing quantities, draining your phone battery.
Pro – You realise no food is off limits
Counting calories highlights the fact of the importance of calories in deterring weight change to you.
When you count calories you apply no food choice restrictions.
You realise that there is no such thing as ‘clean’ or ‘bad’ food and any food can be eaten in moderation and not affect your goals, as long as it is part of a calorie controlled diet.
Counting macros allows you to factor in your favourite type of food in moderation, allowing you enjoy and stick to your diet.
Con – Too focused on macros and not food quality
Related to the point above is when someone starts to focus on hitting numbers they can sometimes get caught up in trying to factor in all their favourite ‘junk’ food and forget about food quality.
For example, forgetting about fruit and veg, the benefits of oily fish, fibre, etc etc .
So we need to focus on food quality and caloric intake, not just one, when counting calories.
Pro – Increases awareness of eating for fullness
By counting calories you become more aware of eating for fullness and choosing high volume to calories ratio foods, for example potatoes, veggies, fruit, rice, etc.
This ultimately leads to better food choices and reducing the likelihood of feeling hungry.
Con – You can become very OCD
There are many problems with ‘clean’ eating which I have spoken of before (I Love To Eat Dirty!) but one of the problems with calorie counting can be the obsession with hitting the numbers bang on every day and weighing every food to the closest gram.
This can result in the feeling of guilt if you do not achieve this.
However, counting calories should not result in you becoming stressed and pissed off because you have accidentally eaten +1g of rice.
Being in the military and holding high standards I find this con very applicable to myself. I have only recently come to terms with realising going +/-5g over or under your targets will make no difference in the long run.
It is consistency that matters, being within a range will have more benefits both physically and mentally, than hitting the number spot on every day of the year.
Pro – Provides targets
Providing daily targets and goals is all part of the process of achieving your goals.
Setting long term goals is key to success but focusing too much on the final end point and not on smaller daily goals along the journey, can hinder progress and cause you stressful and even demotivated periods of time.
This is why setting daily macro targets can be beneficial for keeping someone motivated throughout the journey, and keeping them driven.
Process driven – ‘a set of logical related tasks performed to achieve a defined outcome’
For those who like structure and set routines/plans, having to log their meals and track intake each day can provide something they can achieve.
Con – Addicted to sharing food on social media
When you first realise that you can factor a brownie, or tub of ice-cream into your daily macros you become obsessed with sharing photos/statuses on social media and highlighting the fact that you can eat this stuff while achieving your goals.
Nothing wrong with this but be prepared to drain your phone battery posting and following other foodies.
Pro – In my opinion, necessary to optimise body composition
To get to the extremes of body composition for photos shoots or competition, I think tracking macros consistently and closely is necessary.
Con – MyFitnessPal
There are certain problems when you use MyFitnessPal for example –
1 Scanning a product and it comes up with something completely different like suntan lotion.
2 The target calories/macros MyFitnessPal provides are inaccurate and done off percentages.
3 Your food choice is not in their database resulting in you having to input it manually.
4 And even if it is in their database it is completely wrong.
5 Using your phone whilst preparing food, resulting in your phone getting covered in food.
6 When you have no internet you can not use the app to it’s full potential.
7 Spending time planning a meal on your phone, being an anti social git.
8 Some people thinking you're weird for counting calories on your phone.
Pro -Flexible Dieting has been shown to be provide better results and improved relationship with food compared to rigid dieting
Here are just some of the conclusions from the research;
‘Rigid restraint correlates with a range of preoccupying cognitions and attentional bias to food and shape-related stimuli. Flexible restraint, despite the impaired working memory performance, predicts better long-term weight loss. Explicitly encouraging flexible restraint may be important in preventing and treating obesity.’ (2)
‘The strongest canonical correlation (r=0.65) was the relationship between flexible dieting and the absence of overeating, lower body mass and lower levels of depression and anxiety.’ (3)
‘Overall, high rigid control in women and men was associated with greater eating and affective pathology.’ (4)
If you can think of more pros or cons please comment.
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1 Burke LE, Wang J, Sevick MA. Self-Monitoring in Weight Loss: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2011;111(1):92-102.
2 Westenhoefer J1, Engel D, Holst C, Lorenz J, Peacock M, Stubbs J, Whybrow S, Raats M. Cognitive and weight-related correlates of flexible and rigid restrained eating behaviour. Eat Behav. 2013 Jan;14(1):69-72.
3 Smith CF1, Williamson DA, Bray GA, Ryan DH. Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite. 1999 Jun;32(3):295-305.
4 Alix Timko and Julie Perone. Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior in a college population C. Eating Behaviors 6 (2005) 119–125