By Jason Fowlks (PFT, PNC, NPC national level bodybuilder, APA record-holding powerlifter)
For those of us who have ever tried to figure out how to play the “counting my macros” game, we all know that it can sometimes be a real pain in the ass to constantly add up, measure, and document everything we eat and drink everyday. And believe it or not, most of us would be surprised to see just how far “off” our numbers really are. That being said, if calorie counting has been working for you, by all means, continue doing what’s working. I always tell people “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However, I personally stopped trying to follow any “exact numbers” a long time ago. And as for the scale, if I can’t “eye up” about ten ounces of chicken and a cup of rice by now, then I don’t belong in bodybuilding anymore. After all, we’re human, and we eat food, not macros. We fuel our bodies with meals, not numbers. When we count macros, we are trying to add up types of calories coming from food and liquid intake, but not all foods, or bodies, or individual everyday lifestyles, are created equal. I’ll explain.
Some people do the same exact thing every day. Their jobs and home life consist of the same amount of energy expenditure, their workout routine never varies, and they never take a day off. Day in, day out..same activity level. Well, that would make it a whole lot easier to narrow down some exact numbers for them to follow in terms of daily caloric intake. But for the other 99% of us who live in the real world, and not every day consists of the same energy expenditure, our caloric needs may vary on a daily basis. I can’t go by the same “numbers” on a heavy work day, followed by heavy leg day, as I would on a light work day, followed by a “just cardio” or rest day. I must take into consideration the fact that I, with a very physical job (as opposed to someone with the same body composition, age, and fitness goals, who sits at a desk all day) am going to require a significantly greater amount of calories for fuel all day (except on my day off of course). Makes it kind of difficult to go by any “exact numbers.” I must instead fuel my body accordingly each day.
Another problem with calorie counting has to do with the way food is actually labeled, or, should I say, mislabeled. The way that fat, carb, and protein content of food is calculated and printed on shipping labels has a relatively large margin of error. Because of this imprecision, the FDA allows a 20% error on food labels. So even if you take the time to weigh and measure all of your food, you still might be consuming up to 20% too much or too little each day. This means the 150g of protein you were proud of consuming yesterday could have actually been anywhere between 120-180g.
To make matters even worse for my fellow “macro counters,” the way you cook foods can also change their macronutrient content. If you cook a steak well done vs. rare it will have less fat for example. Similarly, the glycemic index of boiled sweet potatoes was found to be about half that of baking or roasting, so boiled sweet potatoes give us less of a blood sugar spike. Also, for those who prefer to not eat the skin, the peel of a sweet potato has nearly ten times the antioxidant power as the flesh.
In terms of food differences, let’s first look at one example of a common carbohydrate- sweet potatoes vs. white potatoes. Both are a great source of complex carbs (and either one is a much better carb choice than a bag of Skittles or a jelly donut,) but compared pound for pound, sweet potatoes contain less calories (carbs and protein) than white potatoes. Although the “sweet” potatoes contain more sugar, they are lower on the glycemic index, which means they metabolize slower and don’t convert to blood glucose as fast, which means less of a spike of insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is made in the pancreas. Insulin’s main job is to keep blood sugar levels from rising too high (hyperglycemia,) or dropping too low (hypoglycemia). When you intake a lot of carbohydrates, which we all know eventually get broken down into blood sugar, (whether it be from potatoes or grape juice, for example) your body releases insulin to regulate your blood sugar (glucose) levels by stimulating the shuttling of any unused glucose into the muscles, liver, and fat cells, in order to lower blood levels. The “muscle” part…great! That’s exactly what were looking for to start buliding more muscle (or keep whatever we have.) The “liver” part…well, that’s just stored as glycogen for future use. It’s the “fat” part we have to worry about. The liver converts glucose into stored glycogen. Eventually, if the liver becomes saturated with glycogen, there is an uptake into adipose tissue and it is synthesized into lipoprotein (fat storage.)
Now keep in mind, that there are certain times when we WANT to spike our insulin, mainly first thing in the morning, and after a workout. This is because insulin has another important job along with regulating blood sugar, and this is to aid in reducing muscle breakdown and help kickstart the protein synthesis (muscle-building) process by quickly increasing the body’s ability to uptake amino acids. The word for this is “anabolic”. Yes, the insulin spike from carb intake is anabolic, and we all love that word, especially since we can get it from just eating food. “But doesn’t an insulin spike cause fat storage?” you ask. Well, during these times of the day, your liver’s glycogen levels are very low, and remember, the liver not only has to replenish it’s own stores, but first has to replenish the muscles’ levels also. By the time it does all of this, there won’t be enough of a significant excess leftover to transport into the fat cells. So if done correctly, we can use a properly timed high-glycemic insulin spike to help grow our muscles and/or fuel our bodies without getting fat. Yes, it is possible. It only becomes a problem when we take in way too much, or during a time when too much is not needed. Also, if your body produces too much insulin, or becomes insulin-resistant, it will cause you to store more fat.
Just remember that some carbs are more “anabolic” than others, it all depends on your individual goals and needs as to what and when you should be eating certain foods. This is just another reason why “counting carbs” makes no sense to me. There are certain days more or less carbs are necessary, and there are certain times of day different TYPES of carbs are necessary. This is true whether you’re competing in a few weeks, or just an average Joe trying to “get in shape.”
Just like a “carb is not a carb”, the same holds true for proteins and fats. Everyone knows that not all proteins are created equal when it comes to absorption, supporting muscle growth and weight maintenance. Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids in all that we need; nine of which are labeled as “essential” because the body cannot make them and they must be consumed through our diets. Foods that have all nine essential amino acids are called “complete” proteins. These include dairy, chicken, beef, fish, and eggs. Foods that don’t have all nine essential amino acids are “incomplete” proteins—grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. For building muscle, whey isolate protein rules not only because it’s a complete protein, but also because it has a high concentration of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—can be absorbed readily to stimulate muscle growth, especially if consumed after exercise.
And we are well aware by now that there is a huge difference between the “bad” trans fats from “partially hydrogenated oil,” margerines and shortenings, and the much healthier and more beneficial mono- and poly-unsaturated fats which we’ve come to know as “good fats”. Good fats come mainly from vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish. These fats we use to help fuel the body, maximize our metabolism, help our bodies to better absorb vitamins and nutrients, lower our bad cholesterol (LDL), and slow the digestion of other foods. But wait…there’s also these “in-between fats,” called saturated fat. Common sources of saturated fat include red meat, whole milk and other whole-milk dairy foods, cheese, coconut oil, and many commercially prepared baked goods and other foods. So..if I’m supposed to be counting my “fats,” how do I know if it’s a “good” or “bad” one? Or do I just add them all together, even though they act totally different upon my body? Should I not eat any steak or dairy for their great protein because they also have saturated fat in them? Hmm.
It all can get pretty confusing at times.
This is why the first thing I do when people tell me they’ve been eating according to these added up “numbers,” and haven’t been making as much progress as they thought they would by being so “precise,” is shake my head and say “let’s start all over” and learn how to fuel YOUR BODY in order to get where you’re trying to go. Throw away the notepad with all those numbers, and let’s learn how to use different foods properly, and what places different foods have within our plan. There is no “set formula” that’s going to work for every person. You can’t control the accuracy with which the macronutrients in your food are measured, nor can you always know which TYPE and HOW MUCH of a certain “macro” you should be eating at all times, nor can you always know exactly what “numbers” are best for you, but you CAN focus on creating HABITS that will eventually allow you to come up with a meal plan guideline made up of choices which will allow you to consistently eat the right foods at the right times to help keep you properly fueled, get lean, and reach your goals without driving yourself crazy with too many numbers. So whether you choose to count your calories all the time, or choose calories that will count at the right times, figure out what works best for you, and stick with it. Consistency is the key to success.