You can't lose weight without being in a calorie deficit, experts said.
Making sure you're consuming enough protein is also important.
Tracking fats and carbs can be interesting but is unnecessary for the average person.
If you want to lose weight, it can be confusing to know where to start. There are all sorts of diets and eating patterns promoted by everyone from nutritionists to your next-door neighbor, but the best approach is one you can stick to.
Business Insider spoke to two experts, a dietitian and fat loss coach, to clear up what you need to know.
Calories are most important for losing fat
"Weight management is directly related to energy intake," dietitian Alix Turoff said.
Calories are a unit of energy and the amount of calories you eat will determine whether you lose, maintain, or gain weight.
"Fat loss can be achieved without calorie or macro tracking, but nothing is as precise or clear as macro-tracking," Turoff said. "If you have no idea how many calories you're taking in, it makes it hard to know what to change so you start guessing and sometimes that leads to being even more restrictive than you need to be."
Macro just means protein, carbs, and fat
Macronutrients — protein, carbs, and fat — are nutrients that the body needs in large quantities and contain energy, while micronutrients — which are vitamins and minerals — don't provide energy and are are needed in smaller quantities, but are still important for our health.
Protein, carbohydrates, and fat are what people mean when they refer to macros. Protein and carbs provide four calories of energy per gram, whereas fat provides nine. Each macro is important for health and performance.
When it comes to fat loss:
Ensuring that you're getting enough protein will help to preserve your muscle mass and thus lose fat while in a calorie deficit, and it keeps you feeling full.
Eating an appropriate amount of carbohydrates can improve performance, energy levels, and blood sugar control, Turoff said.
Getting enough fat is important for optimal hormone function, she added.
Tracking macros can have benefits
Tracking macros helps you learn how many calories foods contain, and then how each makes you feel, fat loss coach and personal trainer Jordan Syatt said.
Some people feel better on higher carb diets, while others prefer higher fat, which is another reason tracking your macros even for a short period can be beneficial.
"Ultimately, calories determine if you lose, maintain, or gain weight, but the ratio of macronutrients you eat makes it easier or harder to stay in that calorie deficit without feeling hungry," Turoff said.
For example, you could in theory eat only cookies and lose weight if you're in a calorie deficit, but you'd likely find yourself hungry so it would be hard to stick to the deficit (not to mention your health would suffer).
For this reason, Turoff advises people looking to lose weight to start by getting a handle on calories before thinking about how much protein they're eating.
Protein is the most important macronutrient for most people
Unless you're a professional bodybuilder or athlete, you probably don't need to worry too much about how many fats and carbs you're consuming, because the difference they can make is small. Protein, however, is worth keeping an eye on if you're trying to lose fat.
"I'm not a numbers person, however I know that what's most important for fat loss and body composition is calories and protein, and as long as those are met, I can lose fat and maintain weight, get stronger, and build muscle," Syatt said.
For this reason, if fat loss is the goal, he recommends most people let their carbs and fats fall into place, provided they're consuming a balance of both and are in a calorie deficit.
Turoff said that if she sees people struggling with food fear around carbs and fat, she sometimes gives them minimum goals for those macros too. "But if someone has a healthy relationship with food, they really shouldn't have to be more precise than tracking calories, protein and fiber." Fiber is a type of carb that the body can't digest and is important for health.
However, if at the end of the day you've hit your calories but not your protein target, and fat loss is your goal, don't eat more protein, Syatt said: "Calories are priority number one."
If you're really hungry and know you're going to go slightly over your calorie goal for a day, doing so with protein can be beneficial if your intake has been on the lower side, but ultimately if it's only one day here or there and you hit your deficit the majority of the time, it doesn't really matter, Syatt said.
There's no one-size-fits-all solution for fat loss
The approach that works for you may depend on what kind of a person you are, Syatt said.
If you love numbers and data, you may enjoy tracking your food intake. If it stresses you out, you probably won't, so trying to do so long-term may make it harder to reach your goals.
If you suspect tracking your food may become an unhealthy obsession, it might be best to steer clear of it.
"I always screen for eating disorders before ever suggesting someone track their intake and if I do suggest tracking your intake, it would generally only be for a period of time so that you can learn what's in your food and then move to a more intuitive approach to eating," Turoff said.
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