Calories and Macros explained

You may have heard a lot about calories in recent years, especially with the inclusion of nutritional information on the front of most products stating the amount of calories per serving. But what is a calorie?

Although we associate calories specifically with food, a calorie is a unit of energy and therefore applies to anything containing energy.

For example, a litre of petrol contains 7,553 calories. More specifically if you remember physics lessons from school, a calorie is the amount of energy (heat) it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF0000″ class=”” size=”14″]Calories in relation to food are actually kilocalories (1000 calories = 1 Kcal).[/pullquote]


1. Why do calories matter?

The human body requires energy to function and we acquire this energy from the food we consume.

The number of calories we require to function varies from person to person due to a variety of factors such as height, weight, gender, age and activity level. Working out your daily caloric needs is made easy through the use of a BMR (basal metabolic rate) calculator.

For example:

How do calories relate to fat and exercise?

In short 3500 calories equate to 1lb of body fat, which is the body’s mechanism for storing energy for a rainy day. Therefore, if you consume 3500 more calories than you burn over a set period of time you will put on 1lb of body fat.

Consequently, if over the course of a week you burn 3500 more calories than you eat, whether by exercising more, eating less or a combination of both your body converts 1lb of stored fat into energy to make up for the deficit.

Does it matter where your calories come from?

If we talk simply about eating the same number of calories that we burn and only refer to weight then a calorie is a calorie, with a calorie from protein being no different than a calorie from fat.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF0000″ class=”” size=”14″]As long as you burn what you eat you will maintain weight, and as long as you burn more than you eat you will lose weight.[/pullquote]

However, if we talk about the more complex matter of nutrition, health and building muscle then the source of your calories is very important.

The three main sources of calories in our diets are carbohydrates, fats and protein which are known as macro-nutrients (Macros). Each of these macro-nutrients are important for a variety of reasons.

For example, our bodies require a certain amount of fat to function properly as fat allows your body to better absorb many of the vitamins you ingest, yet an excess amount of vitamins can have serious health consequences.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF0000″ class=”” size=”14″]Protein can be very important for individuals who partake in a lot of exercise, as your body requires protein to repair the tissues that are damaged through exercises such as weight training.[/pullquote]


2. Facts – Proteins, Fats, Carbs

Proper nutrition is very important, especially if you want to see the best results from training programme. This is not simply consuming the adequate amount of calories; it involves the proper ratios and proper timing of macro-nutrient (Macros) consumption.

Macro-nutrients are nutrients that we need in large amounts, and mainly consist of Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats. The body also needs micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals in much smaller quantities.

Each nutrient plays a specific role in body functions either individually or in combination with other nutrients.


3. Protein

Protein also plays a pivotal role in the body’s ability to build, repair and maintain muscle tissue. The word protein  comes from the Greek word ‘Protos’ meaning ‘of prime importance’. This is due to the fact that after water our bodies are largely made up of protein.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF0000″ class=”” size=”14″]Protein is made up of approximately 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential as the body is unable to produce them and therefore relies on dietary intake. Amino acids are generally referred to as ‘the building blocks of protein’.[/pullquote]

As stated earlier, protein is essential in the growth and repair of tissues and therefore directly ties into recovery from working out. This is due to the fact that as you work out you are likely to damage muscle fibres, and it is the repair of these fibres that improve performance over time.


As additional muscle mass is a luxury to the body, any lack of adequate protein in the diet can cause the body to begin a process of breaking down tissues with a high protein content (I.e. Muscle) in order to meet its daily protein

You may have heard of the bro-science term ‘positive nitrogen balance’, which refers to the body being in a state of having more than adequate protein available through the diet for both the daily requirements as well the additional requirements caused by working out.

But what does nitrogen have to do with protein intake?

One of the most important elements of all protein is Nitrogen, and is essential for tissue building. If you are in a positive nitrogen balance your body is likely in an anabolic state (building phase), whereas if you have a negative nitrogen balance you will likely be in a catabolic state (tearing down state).

What does this mean with regards to protein intake for muscle growth?

The consensus for the ideal protein intake level for muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) is 1.5-2g of protein per lb of body weight. Although this can be achieved through high protein foods such as turkey, chicken and eggs this can be easily aided through the use of protein shakes.

What protein powders should I get?

The general consensus on how to judge the quality of a protein powder is the advertised amount of protein per serving. However, this is a poor indicator to the quality of a protein supplement. This is due to the fact that protein contains 4kcals per gram, so any variance stated on supplement labels comes from using varying scoop and serving size.

So when selecting a protein powder, one should attempt to gain a wider picture of the supplement by comparing serving size, carb and fat content.

Other good sources of protein:

– Lean beef
– Chicken
– Turkey
– Fish


4. Carbohydrates

As with most things, there has been a lot of varying advice flung around with regards to carbohydrate intake and bro-science advice such as carbohydrates (carbs) make you put on fat. However, this is quite simply not the case as carbs are the preferred source of energy for both the body and brain.

There are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex.

The other important fact to remember is that too many calories in general can lead to fat gain as stated previously, which as people tend to eat far too many sugary/simple carbs which generally contain fats; it is easy to exceed your daily calorie requirement and in turn gain fat.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#FF0000″ class=”” size=”14″]In terms of trying to gain mass, you should aim to consumer 2-3 grams per pound of body weight. If however, you have a high body fat percentage aim for 1.5 grams per pound of body weight.[/pullquote]

You should try to intake mainly complex carbohydrates, as the only real time that it is beneficial to consume simple carbohydrates is with a pre/post workout and morning shakes.

Another time when simple carbohydrates are beneficial is during exercise which requires the body to maintain and produce high energy levels over a prolonged period.

For example during a rugby match, it may be beneficial to intake simple carbs to aid the body in providing adequate energy levels to continue performing to a high level.

Sources of complex carbohydrates:


– Whole grains
– Oatmeal
– Brown Rice
– Sweet potatoes
– Beans, lentils and peas


– Fruit Juices
– Sugary Sweets such as jelly babies
– Sugars


5. Fats

Fats (lipids) are the most energy dense of all the three macros, containing 9 calories per gram of fat. Like proteins fats are composed of a range building blocks, in this case it is fatty acids.

There are three main fatty acids:


Saturated fatty acids are mainly found in animal products, such as beef, pork, milk and some oils such as coconut oil. The main use of saturated fats by the human body is to make cholesterol, and despite popular believe cholesterol has a beneficial use in the production of hormones such as testosterone.

Polyunsaturated (PUFAs)

Polyunsaturated fats can be mostly in nuts, seeds, fish and leafy greens, and increasing the intake of PUFAs have been shown to help lower cholesterol. Although lowing cholesterol can aid in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, it is important to limit the intake of PUFAs as it can also lower the levels of good cholesterol as well.

PUFAs can be used to make Trans fats through a process known as hydrogenation, which hardens vegetable oils into
solid foods such as margarine.

Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)

Monounsaturated fats are generally considered as good fats, being liquid at room temperature, they turn solid when chilled. Common sources of MUFAs are Olive oil, sesame oil, nuts and avocados. MUFAs are recommended above PUFAs as they can aid in the reduction of LDL (bad cholesterol) without lowering HDL (good cholesterol)


6. Conclusion

In conclusion, it is important to maintain an adequate amount of fat in your diet to aid the body in maintaining hormone production. However, one should be aware of the type of fats in their diet as to garner the benefits of fat intake whilst negating any negative effects.

How to Track Your Diet?

The easiest way for an individual to track their diet is by filling out a diet journal.

This is a simple method which allows for an individual to accurately track calorie and macro consumption, which in turn will allow for evaluation of a diet and identification of the areas in which one can make improvements.

Although this may sound like a complicated way to keep an eye on your diet, applications such as MyFitnessPal are very easy to use and even have useful features such as:

– A Barcode scanner: This allows you to scan the barcode on the packet and instantly have the nutritional breakdown in front of you.

– A Large database: If you do not have a barcode to scan, then there is an ever growing database of foods containing most manufacturers. You will be hard pushed to not find the food you are searching for.

– Build your own meals and recipes: If you are consistently having the same meal then you can create your  own meal/recipe for quick and easy addition in the future.

– Varying goals: You are able to tailor your calorie and macro goals to your exact requirements, making tracking even easier.




How things work, “Calories and how they work” 2003

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