The Better Snackn Blog

The Truth Behind Macros and Calorie Counting: A Simplified Guide


If you’ve spent more than 5 minutes googling diets and nutrition plans, chances are there are two popular terms you’ve likely saw repeated time and time again…. “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) and calorie counting. At first glance, these concepts seem like straightforward paths to achieving your health goals, whether you’re looking to lose weight, gain muscle, or simply maintain a healthy lifestyle.

However, the way our bodies process foods and nutrients is far more complex than just hitting macro goals or counting calories. Let’s break these ideas down into simpler terms and explore why not all calories are created equal.


Understanding Macros and Calories

“Macros” refers to macronutrients, the three main types of nutrients your body needs in large amounts: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Each plays a unique role in your body:

  • Proteins are the building blocks of your muscles and tissues. They’re made up of smaller units called amino acids.
  • Carbohydrates are your body’s primary “fast energy” source, broken down into sugar (glucose) that fuels your cells.
  • Fats are essential for hormone production, nutrient absorption, and providing energy.

Calorie counting involves tracking the total number of calories you consume from these macros to manage weight or health goals. The principle behind IIFYM is that you can eat anything you want as long as it fits within your daily macro and calorie targets.


The Complexity of Food and Nutrients

While IIFYM and calorie counting can be effective tools, they oversimplify how our bodies interact with the foods we eat. Here’s why:

The Role of Protein and Amino Acids

Not all proteins are the same. They’re composed of different amino acids, some of which are essential because your body can’t produce them. The quality of a protein source depends on its amino acid profile. For example, animal proteins generally provide a complete set of essential amino acids, whereas some plant proteins might lack one or more of these amino acids. This means that simply hitting your protein target with any source might not yield the best results for muscle repair and growth.

Hormonal Responses to Carbs and Sugars

Carbohydrates, especially simple carbs and sugars, can significantly impact your hormonal balance, particularly insulin. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. When you consume high amounts of sugar or refined carbs, your body releases more insulin to help lower blood sugar. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance, a condition where your body needs more insulin to achieve the same effect, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes and weight gain. This illustrates how not all calorie sources are equal; 100 calories from a sugary snack can affect your body differently than 100 calories from vegetables or whole grains.

What Are Calories And How Is It Calculated?

Calorific value, or the amount of energy a food provides, is calculated using a method called calorimetry, where food is burned in a controlled environment to measure the heat it produces. This process estimates the energy the food can potentially provide to the body. However, this laboratory-based measure doesn’t directly translate to human digestion because our bodies don’t incinerate food. Instead, we digest and metabolize it through complex biochemical processes that vary significantly from person to person. Factors such as the food’s macronutrient composition, the individual’s digestive efficiency, and the presence of fiber affect how much energy we actually absorb and use. Therefore, while the calorific value provides a rough guideline, it doesn’t fully account for the nuances of human digestion and metabolism, meaning the actual energy we derive from food can be quite different.

Not All Calories Are Created Equal

The saying “not all calories are created equal” stems from these differences in how our bodies process and respond to different types of food. Foods with the same calorie content can have vastly different effects on hunger, hormones, and metabolic health. For instance:

  • Fiber-rich foods (like vegetables and whole grains) can enhance feelings of fullness and improve gut health, despite being low in calories.
  • Processed foods often lack essential nutrients and are metabolized quickly, leading to spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, even if their calorie count is the same as more nutritious foods.

The Bigger Picture

While IIFYM and calorie counting provide a framework for managing your diet, they don’t capture the full picture of nutritional health. It’s essential to consider the quality of your calories and macros, not just the quantity. Incorporating a variety of nutrient-dense foods, focusing on whole food sources, and understanding your body’s unique responses to different types of food will lead to better health outcomes than simply filling macro and calorie quotas.

In conclusion, while tracking macros and calories can be a useful starting point, achieving lasting health and fitness requires a deeper understanding of how different foods interact with our bodies. By paying attention to food quality and the complex ways nutrients affect our hormonal balance, we can make more informed choices that support our overall well-being.

  • Protein Quality and Amino Acids:

    • Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein – Which is Best? Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 3(3), 118–130. This paper discusses different protein sources, their amino acid profiles, and their effects on muscle protein synthesis.
  • Hormonal Responses to Carbohydrates:

    • Ludwig, D. S. (2002). The Glycemic Index: Physiological Mechanisms Relating to Obesity, Diabetes, and Cardiovascular Disease. JAMA, 287(18), 2414–2423. This study explores how high-glycemic index foods influence insulin levels and the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity.
  • Insulin Resistance and Processed Foods:

    • Basu, S., Yoffe, P., Hills, N., & Lustig, R. H. (2013). The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-Sectional Data. PLoS ONE, 8(2), e57873. This research highlights the link between sugar consumption, insulin resistance, and the prevalence of diabetes at the population level.
  • Dietary Fiber and Satiety:

    • Slavin, J. L. (2005). Dietary fiber and body weight. Nutrition, 21(3), 411–418. This article reviews the role of dietary fiber in weight management through enhancing satiety and its impact on obesity.
  • Processed Foods and Metabolic Health:

    • Monteiro, C. A., Moubarac, J. C., Cannon, G., Ng, S. W., & Popkin, B. (2013). Ultra-processed products are becoming dominant in the global food system. Obesity Reviews, 14(Suppl 2), 21–28. This paper discusses how ultra-processed food consumption is linked to obesity and metabolic syndrome due to their poor nutritional quality and high sugar content.
  • Nutritional Quality of Foods and Health Outcomes:

    • Mozaffarian, D., Hao, T., Rimm, E. B., Willett, W. C., & Hu, F. B. (2011). Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men. The New England Journal of Medicine, 364(25), 2392–2404. This longitudinal study identifies how different types of foods and their nutritional quality are associated with long-term weight gain.