The fitness industry runs wild with bulls**t myths, guys.
And one of the most popular myths is that we can strike an optimum macronutrient split which overrides the need to track calories.
Eat however many calories you want… just no carbs.
Eat however many calories you want… just no fat.
How many times have you heard advice like this?
My guess is too many. Muscle building magazines and self-proclaimed fitness gurus will quite happily lead people to believe there’s a “magic formula” of protein, carbohydrates and fat which can suck body fat into the space/time continuum…
… but there isn’t.
You see, when it comes to losing weight and building muscle, your macronutrient split means precisely d**k.
Calories are king.
I’m not saying macros are useless. I’m saying they’re useless if you are still eating too many (or too few) overall calories.
And I’m gonna explain.
Killing The Macro Myth
There isn’t one shred of academic data to support the belief that overeating can produce weight loss.
That’s not just my opinion, that’s the law of thermodynamics. (1)
But just this morning at my local gym, I heard this:
“Hey man, don’t track your calories.
You can eat however many calories you want, as long as you track your macros!”
If someone ever tells you this, feel free to inform them that the only reason they happen to be losing weight is because they are still in a calorie deficit.
Just because they might not keep track of it doesn’t mean they’re not in one.
If someone maintains their body weight at 2500 calories, consuming 4000 will definitely lead to weight gain, regardless of how much is coming from protein, carbs or fat…
But here’s the thing…
Information like this increases the likelihood of analysis paralysis.
Ever had so many jobs to do on your day off from work that you ended up doing none of them at all and took a nap on the sofa instead?
That’s analysis paralysis.
And it’s a diet killer, especially at the beginning.
Because if someone is coming from an unhealthy diet, the worst thing they can do is over-complicate things.
Suddenly, instead of just trying to eat less junk food and make small, manageable changes, they’re worrying about individual ingredients.
And when we look at what the science says, you’ll see why I tell my clients that calories are king…
Macros Don’t Matter
When I have a client who’s trying to lose weight, the first thing we’ll do is look for ways to reduce their daily calorie intake.
It’s as simple as that.
Once they have this nailed down, we’ll begin optimizing those calories by ensuring they’re eating enough protein to help them build as much lean muscle as possible.
That’s around 1g to 1.2g per lb of body weight. (8)
And once they have that habit nailed down, they are free to experiment with foods alongide hitting those two targets above (control total calories, and eat enough protein).
It never gets any more complex than that!
You’ve probably got a question for me right now…
In a world where every “expert” is hailing certain foods as game-changers and demonizing other foods as the root of all evil, why do I keep things this simple?
Well, because it works.
And don’t just take my word for it.
Studies clearly show us that when total calories and protein are controlled, you can get the remainder of your calories from fat or carbs (or from a mixture of both) and achieve the same weight loss results. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
So once you’ve take care of the big two (calories and protein), it makes sense to build your diet around foods you enjoy and shoot for long-term sustainability to unlock continued, life-changing results.
That could mean a low carb and high fat diet… or it could mean a high carb and low fat diet… or moderate in both…
And the worst part?
The thing that’ll make you want to slap every so-called “expert” trying to sell you the latest next big thing?
The worst part is that this isn’t new information.
The graph above shows the results of a 1992 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Uncle Russ was only 12 years old.
And had a glorious head of red hair.
This study compared the effects of several isocaloric diets which consisted of 15% protein followed by a mixture of 15-85% carbohydrates and 0-70% fat.
The researchers were attempting to see if they could manipulate weight loss despite keeping overall calories and protein the same, so they had groups going low carb and high fat, moderate carb and moderate fat, and high carb and low fat.
There was no difference in net weight loss.
The researchers concluded that caloric restriction is the ultimate factor which determines weight loss results, not macronutrients. (2)
And it’s not the only study to show this…
In 2005, researchers from the University of Minnesota doubled-down on the earlier findings.
They found that when total calories and protein are controlled there were no significant differences in weight loss results regardless of the make-up of other macronutrients. (6)
In fact, the net difference between the three groups in this study was less than 0.1kg!
And it continues…
Fifteen years after the original 1992 paper, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published another study on this matter.
This time, researchers were comparing weight loss results of participants following either a strict high carb, low fat diet, versus participants following a ketogenic diet.
In case you’re one of the few lucky people who doesn’t have a friend trying to convince them keto is the answer to all of the world’s problems, this is a very low carb, very high fat diet.
Aside from the fact they were controlling total calories and protein, these two models were on either end of the carb/fat scale.
And what happened?
You know what happened. Once again, there was no difference in weight loss results. (7)
Calories Are King
If you’re just starting a diet, keep it simple.
You will see better results, and there’s much less chance you’ll end up in a food cult.
Reduce your total calories and make sure you’re eating enough protein each day.
It’s as simple as that – but we (humans) love to over-complicate things… so you’ll find a stack of “gurus” ready to sell you programs which are based on the idea that you can eat as much food as you want as long as it’s on their magical list…
Don’t fall for it.
Remember, the very idea that we can eat in a calorie surplus and still lose weight is absurd and goes dead against the laws of thermodynamics.
As I wrote in this article for Women’s Health magazine, optimizing your macronutrients is great but results will always hinge on you being in a calorie deficit .
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- Howell S., et al. “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. (2017)
- Leibel R.L., et al. Energy intake required to maintain body weight is not affected by wide variation in diet composition . Am J Clin Nutr. (1992)
- Golay A., et al. Similar weight loss with low- or high-carbohydrate diets. Am J Clin Nutr. (1996)
- Golay A., et al. Weight-loss with low or high carbohydrate diet. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. (1996)
- Luscombe-Marsh N. D., et al. Carbohydrate-restricted diets high in either monounsaturated fat or protein are equally effective at promoting fat loss and improving blood lipids. Am J Clin Nutr. (2005)
- Raatz S. K., et al. Reduced Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Diets Do Not Increase the Effects of Energy Restriction on Weight Loss and Insulin Sensitivity in Obese Men and Women. J Nut. (2005)
- Johnston C. S., et al. Ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets have no metabolic advantage over nonketogenic low-carbohydrate diets. Am J Clin Nutr. (2006)
- Bandegan A., et al. Indicator Amino Acid-Derived Estimate of Dietary Protein Requirement for Male Bodybuilders on a Nontraining Day Is Several-Fold Greater than the Current Recommended Dietary Allowance. J Nutr. (2017)