I'm often asked about the importance of calories in achieving weight loss (or even weight gain). My responses might vary depending on the subject and particular goal, but generally, my reply goes like this:
Don’t count calories, and certainly don’t dramatically restrict (or increase) them. Instead, focus on nutrient partitioning and manage macronutrient totals and mix.
The reason I mention nutrient partitioning is because it regulates changes in body composition (i.e. gains or losses in muscle or fat), and I suggest focusing on macros to influence favorable nutrient partitioning. Learning how to do this will enable you to take control of your physique and make the gains or losses you’re striving for.
I’ll show you how to do this below, but first, let me explain the basis for my recommendations.
This can be a complex subject, but conceptually, nutrient partitioning is pretty straightforward. In our context, it refers to how your body processes and directs nutrients/energy from your diet. In the most basic sense, there are only two possibilities: (1) calories (i.e. energy) are either burned, or (2) calories are stored in lean (primarily muscle) or adipose (fat) tissue for future use.
With respect to a long-term diet strategy for maximizing lean body mass and muscular performance, your aim is to influence positive nutrient partitioning so that calories consumed are either burned or preferentially diverted to muscle rather than body fat.
Macronutrients — Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats
Of the foods you eat every day, there are two basic types of nutrients ingested: (1) macronutrients and (2) micronutrients.
Macronutrients are proteins, carbs and fats, the sum of which provide (substantially) all of the calories you ingest to fuel your body (alcohol also contains calories, but let’s ignore it on the assumption that it only contributes marginally to your daily diet).
Theoretically, proteins and carbohydrates deliver 4 calories per gram, and fats provide 9 calories per gram. (The reason I say ‘theoretically’ is because these figures are based on bomb calorimeter readings…the actual energy yielded from foods you eat (by virtue of breaking their chemical bonds through digestion) might not precisely conform to these measures.)
Micronutrients, by contrast, are not calorie-containing, and can be thought of mostly as the vitamins and minerals needed through your diet to perform hundreds of vital roles for proper development and wellbeing.
It is common to hear nutrition-minded folks talking about ‘macros,’ and most commonly, about macronutrient ratios.
What is meant by that is simple.
Macronutrient ratios reflect the relative amounts of proteins, carbs and fats in your diet, and are often expressed as follows: 40/30/30 (for example).
In that example, one’s diet would consist of 40% protein, 30% carbs and 30% fats. The other way to think about that is 40% of one’s total calories would be derived from protein, 30% of total calories from carbs, etc.
Are Macro Ratios Important, And What Is The Ideal Ratio?
Going back to what I said in the intro above, I don’t believe in counting calories in order to achieve performance or physique objectives, but it is important to control your macronutrient totals, and also the ‘mix,’ or ratios.
Well, because macronutrient mix can influence nutrient partitioning, which again determines whether the foods you eat will be burned, or diverted to lean muscle or body fat.
This is why eating ‘clean’ is important. It isn’t simply a function of calorie restriction. Reducing calories will, temporarily, result in weight loss, but unfortunately it will lower your metabolic rate and, over time, actually sabotage your physique.
You’ll end up losing muscle and gaining body fat in the long run, which isn’t an acceptable outcome…even for health reasons.
Let me stress that there is no value in obsessing over this stuff, however. Drawing distinctions between 30 versus 35% protein, for example, is nonsense.
The idea is to shoot for reasonable ranges with respect to macros, in order to favorably influence nutrient partitioning so that the foods you eat will support increases in lean body mass, and prevent fat storage.
So, what macronutrient ratio is ideal?
I created a little infographic to answer this important question. Consider it Emergent’s revision of the classic food pyramid, essentially flipping it upside down.
You’ll notice that protein is the foundation of the pyramid (even though it’s not the primary source of calories).
I consider 30% of calories to be the absolute minimum requirement of this key macronutrient, for a number of reasons that I’ll briefly summarize below, but are best described in this blog series.
- Builds muscle: It both stimulates the synthesis of new muscle and provides the crucial building blocks for it.
- Burns fat: Due largely to its high thermic effect, protein eclipses the other macronutrients in fat burning.
- Produces satiety: Protein results in your feeling ‘full’ after eating, thus acting as a meal frequency and portion-size regulator.
One last thing on protein.
Numerous studies have shown a superior partitioning effect by consuming milk proteins in particular.
(So, if you happen to be one of those folks who believes protein should only be eaten and not consumed via a shake, this is why you’re WRONG.) Milk proteins (such as those delivered in their pure, un-denatured form in SynergyXP™) — i.e., whey and casein — have been demonstrated in research studies to have a powerful positive nutrient partitioning effect (directing calories to muscle) when consumed at 30% of total calories or more, irrespective of other dietary factors (that is, regardless of other dietary variables including total calories).
So, back to the infographic, you can see that at 40% of total calories, carbs are controlled but not avoided.
It’s true that excessively eating carbs contributes to body fat storage (negative nutrient partitioning), insulin resistance and other adverse metabolic conditions; however, carbohydrates are vital for health and athletic performance, and should NOT be all but eliminated from your diet. Instead, choose ‘clean’ carb sources such as fruits, vegetables and higher-fiber starches, and time your carb intake.
On training days, I try to consume at least a third of my daily carbs around the workout via peri-workout nutrition (i.e. pre-, intra- and post-workout shakes), when insulin sensitivity is very high and glucose (the end product of carbohydrate metabolism) is likely to be driven into lean tissue to build and replenish glycogen (muscle storage for carbs).
Lastly — Do NOT avoid dietary fats.
You’ll see that I suggest dietary fat at 30% of total calories. It is a longstanding myth that (dietary) fat makes you fat. It does not. In fact, some dietary fats are actually relatively powerful fat-burning agents, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) found mostly in meat and diary products (but also available as a dietary supplement). A healthy dietary fat intake also supports testosterone production, strength and performance. Don’t skimp on dietary fats.
Shoot for the above macro guidelines, and I’m confident you’ll get leaner, stronger over time, without cutting or even counting calories.
Have other recommendations? Let me know your thoughts in the Comments below!