If you want to start taking your nutrition more seriously by logging your food, then you’ve probably noticed that there are two different approaches to choose from: calorie counting & macro tracking.
The main difference between counting calories vs macros is the level of detail provided when tracking your diet. Counting calories provides a general overview of your energy balance, whereas counting macros offers a detailed nutrient breakdown of carbs, protein, and fats.
Although calorie and macro tracking can both work to alter your body weight, it’s important to understand the limitations of each of these approaches when it comes to your goal.
- Calorie counting can be helpful in providing information about calorie intake, as well as the calorie content of foods and drinks.
- Macro counting gives you control over your diet through detailed tracking; it also provides structure when distributing your macronutrients across meals and to fit around your workouts.
- Using diet apps like Noom, MacroFactor, and MyNetDiary to count calories or macros can improve your nutrition knowledge, which can help you build healthier habits to meet your weight and performance goals.
What Is Counting Calories?
Counting calories provides information on the number of calories consumed.
It is an approach that provides a general overview of energy balance and can be a helpful approach for those wanting to lose or gain weight.
If you want to lose weight, then you can count calories to ensure that you’re eating fewer calories than it takes for you to maintain your weight, which will result in weight loss.
However, the weight you lose could be from fat AND muscle.
What Is Counting Macros?
Counting macros provides information on the distribution of macronutrients and the quality of calories consumed.
With this method, you will track specific amounts of carbs, protein, and fat, which can be helpful for individuals with specific performance and body composition goals.
With macro counting, you will have to determine how many calories you need to lose weight, and then use this calorie target to assign macro targets for carbs, fats, and protein.
By assigning macro targets, you’re ensuring that you’re getting enough of each nutrient to retain muscle (protein), maintain hormonal health (fat), and provide energy for workouts (carbs).
When you lose weight while tracking macros, you’re more likely to lose fat rather than muscle.
- For more information on macros, check out this Beginner’s Guide To Macro Tracking.
Understanding Energy Balance
Energy balance refers to a state where the calories you consume through food and beverages (energy intake) are equal to the calories you burn through physical activity and bodily processes (energy expenditure).
When your intake matches your output, achieving “energy balance,” your weight will stay stable:
- Energy balance: intake = output
Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is a measure of how many calories you’re burning per day. For this reason, it is commonly used to calculate how many calories you need to maintain your weight (maintenance calories).
If your goal is to lose or gain weight, then your energy balance will need to be either positive or negative based on your goal.
Weight gain and weight loss ultimately depend on the balance of calories; however, the macronutrient distribution of these calories plays a larger role in modifying one’s body composition by determining whether you lose fat and/or muscle.
Which Is More Effective: Counting Calories or Counting Macros?
The effectiveness of both approaches depends on the individual’s goals and preferences because whatever you can stick to long-term will give you the best results.
However, macro tracking is superior because it ensures that you feel your best, perform your best, and look your best because you’re accounting for each nutrient.
With calorie counting, you could be hitting your calorie target but severely undereating or overeating a nutrient causing you to feel lethargic, lose muscle, and perform poorly.
To make the best choice for you, it’s important to be aware of the differences between the two approaches (which I’ll discuss next).
9 Differences Between Calorie Counting and Macro Counting
The main differences between calorie counting and macro counting are:
1. Nutrient Information
Calorie counting provides a general overview of the number of calories consumed, whereas macro counting offers a detailed analysis of your nutrient intake (the distribution of carbs, protein, and fat consumed).
Calorie counting allows for more flexibility with food choices because the primary aim of this method is to meet the calorie target regardless of macronutrient breakdown.
Macro counting takes into account the nutrient composition of foods, which impacts food choices and encourages a more balanced distribution of nutrients.
Calorie counting provides customization in terms of your total energy intake, but cannot be personalized to suit your goals beyond your calorie goal.
Macro counting allows for greater customization as it allows you to set specific targets for each macronutrient based on body composition goals like muscle gain, fat loss, and athletic performance.
Relying solely on tracking calories and macros is not sustainable long-term for most people.
However, counting calories short-term might be more sustainable because of the more flexible nature of calorie tracking, meanwhile counting macros might be more difficult to sustain because of the more precise and structured nature of logging macros.
Calorie counting provides a general overview of your calorie intake. It is a straightforward and simple method because it only focuses on one dietary aspect of your energy intake (calories).
Macro counting focuses on multiple dietary aspects and requires detailed tracking and target calculations of multiple nutrients, which is why it is more complex and has a larger learning curve.
Calories counting is commonly used for weight management because it uses more general diet tracking information which can be effective for those who just want to weigh less and don’t particularly care where it comes from (muscle or fat).
Macro counting is often favored for fat loss, athletic performance, or managing certain health conditions which require adherence to specific diet protocols (i.e. high protein diets, ketogenic).
As such, macro counting can be effective for those with more specific goals.
7. Food Content Awareness
Counting calories places less emphasis on nutrients and primarily focuses on energy balance and meeting a calorie target.
Macro counting likely encourages a greater awareness of the ingredients in food and fluids, which might also lead to consuming more nutrient-dense items as opposed to nutrient-poor items.
Counting calories is less time-consuming than counting macros.
This is because calorie counting involves logging calories and no other diet constituents, whereas counting macros requires more detailed and precise food logging (individual foods as well as macro breakdown).
9. Meal Planning
Counting calories involves less meal planning as it allows more flexibility with meal preparation.
Macro counting involves more extensive meal planning and preparation to meet specific macronutrient targets. This may require more time spent on selecting and preparing meals.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Counting Calories
The advantages and disadvantages of calorie counting are as follows:
- Simple for weight management: if you are new to tracking your food intake and you are looking to gain or lose weight, calorie counting is a simple tool that provides information about your energy balance.
- Flexible dieting: as long as the overall calorie target is met, calorie counting offers a flexible approach when choosing foods, regardless of the nutrient value.
- Learning about calories in foods: counting calories makes you aware of your total calorie intake based on the content of calories in individual foods, allowing you to make adjustments accordingly.
- Lack of detail: calorie counting does not provide detailed nutrient information regarding the macronutrient breakdown of your diet. This might make it more difficult to achieve specific goals (fat loss, improved performance, muscle gain).
- Less focus on food composition: by focusing solely on the calories in foods, you will not capture the nutritional value of the foods and drinks consumed. In turn, the focus on calorie counting can take away the emphasis and motivation on achieving a healthy weight in a sustainable way.
- Higher risk of obsession/restriction: tracking calories can lead to an unhealthy obsession over food restrictions and numbers, which is a typical behavior experienced by those with disordered eating.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Counting Macros
The advantages and disadvantages of macro tracking are as follows:
- Precise control over nutrient timing: as a recreational or competitive athlete, you have more precise control over your macro distribution and nutrient timing. This is important when planning how to distribute your nutrients in each meal to ensure adequate protein intake while managing carbohydrate and fat levels.
- More personalized goals: since it indirectly provides calorie intake data, it might be easier to set specific macronutrient targets based on your goals, such as muscle gain, fat loss, or athletic performance.
- Food composition knowledge: while counting macros, you will learn about the macro content of different foods. This can help you make informed choices about food selection, portion sizes, and meal planning.
- Risk for obsession/restriction: as with counting calories, counting macros can also lead to disordered eating behaviors by obsessing over particular ingredients in foods or fixating on meeting macro targets.
- Time-consuming: counting macros involves logging precise information (detailed tracking, weighing and measuring your food, calculations) and planning meals to hit your macros.
- Potential nutrient imbalances: nutrient-dense foods are not always prioritized when counting macros. While you might meet macro targets, you might also consume higher amounts of processed or nutrient-poor foods which do not provide the variety of nutrients needed to stay healthy.
Tools For Tracking Calories & Macros
The most popular tools available to help track calories and macros are mobile apps because they allow you to log your food using their extensive food databases.
Here are our top picks for mobile apps that help you track calories and macros:
Best Free Option: MyNetDiary
MyNetDiary tracks calories and macros, but is best used by those who want to track calories exclusively because the macro targets do not appear on your home screen and can only be viewed in your daily report.
The app also provides additional features which might be insightful when tracking food and aiming to gain, lose or maintain weight, including a virtual coach (with personalized nutrition advice), access to meal plans, and many recipes.
All of these features are likely to provide accountability and structure to help you stick to your calorie target and achieve your goals.
- Read my complete MyNetDiary Review
Best Paid Option (Calories Only): Noom
Noom tracks calories, with the added bonus of providing behavioral psychology and nutritional education to its users along with other tracking features.
A couple of features that benefit calorie counting are the large food database to make food logging easy, the presence of food color categories (green, yellow, and orange/red) to emphasize food quality, and the daily lessons for education on healthy habits and behaviors.
- Read my complete Noom Review
Best Paid Option (Calorie & Macros) – MacroFactor
MacroFactor tracks both calories and macros and our team of registered dietitians and nutritionists consider it the best macro-tracking app on the market.
It offers personalizable features, such as weekly adjustments based on weight trends to ensure you’re making progress toward your goal, and customizable calorie and macro targets (since energy and nutrient requirements change over time based on weight and body composition, targets need updating as well).
Some other features include a large verified food database which promotes accurate food logging and body composition tracking features like pictures and body measurements.
Lastly, this app is updated regularly as new scientific evidence merges, making it more likely to be as accurate and up-to-date as possible
- Read my complete MacroFactor App Review
Who Should Count Calories or Macros?
Count Calories If…
- You are aiming to lose, gain, or maintain your weight. It will help you understand your overall energy intake and compare this with your energy expenditure, allowing you to have better control over your energy balance.
- You want to learn about the calorie content in foods and drinks and be aware of portion sizes. Learning this can help you follow healthier eating habits and make more informed choices.
Count Macros If…
- You have specific fitness goals which require precise manipulation of your macro intake to support muscle gain, fat loss, or athletic performance. Think bodybuilders and sprinters.
- You want to ensure you balance your macros across your meals and learn about the nutrient content of foods, ensuring a balanced distribution of nutrients in your meals. It can be particularly beneficial if you want to optimize your macro ratios around exercise (to fuel your workouts and promote recovery).
If you want to dive deeper into which method is best for you, then read my other guide on Is It Better To Hit Calories or Macros?
Should You Work With A Nutrition Coach or Do It Yourself?
Whether you want to work with a nutrition coach or “do it yourself” (DIY) depends on your goals and preferences and level of knowledge.
You should work with a nutrition coach If you are someone who:
- Finds it challenging to hold yourself accountable
- Lacks nutritional knowledge
- Isn’t sure how and when to make adjustments
- Needs ongoing support
A nutrition coach checks in on you regularly (weekly), holds you accountable and tailors your nutrition plan to your lifestyle and performance goals.
Conversely, if you have the knowledge base, the time, or you have budget constraints, taking a DIY approach might work well. Working independently on your nutrition plan allows you to take control of your own health and nutrition goals.
However, if you opt for the DIY approach, it is important to educate yourself through trustworthy sources, which can be a challenge considering the vast amount of myths and misconceptions available about nutrition.
Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
Solbrig, L., Jones, R., Kavanagh, D., May, J., Parkin, T., & Andrade, J. (2017). People trying to lose weight dislike calorie counting apps and want motivational support to help them achieve their goals. Internet Interventions, 7, 23-31. ISSN 2214-7829. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.invent.2016.12.003.
About The Author
Giulia Rossetto is a qualified Dietitian and Nutritionist.
She holds a Masters in Human Nutrition (University of Sheffield, UK) and more recently graduated as a Dietitian (University of Malta).
Giulia aims to translate evidence-based science to the public through teaching and writing content. She has worked 4+ years in clinical settings and has also published articles in academic journals.
She is into running, swimming and weight lifting, and enjoys spending time in the mountains (she has a soft spot for hiking and skiing in the Italian Dolomites).