Macronutrients...know your food!
Updated: Oct 24, 2020
A Nutrient by definition is a substance used by an organism to survive, grow, and reproduce. Both macro and micronutrients are needed to accomplish all of our survival, growth and reproductive functions, just to name a few. This post we’ll focus on the macronutrients and in the next one I’ll go over the micronutrients.
Macronutrients consist of 3 primary macros; Carbohydrates, Fats, and Protein.
Carbohydrates (4g per calorie) - abbreviated as CHO
- CHO’s consist primarily of fibre, sugar and starch which when broken down into glucose is used by the body for energy or stored by the body as fat.
- There are 2 types of carbohydrates, Simple & Complex.
- Simple CHO’s are easy to break down as they are made up of only 1 or 2 sugar molecules, and often lead to the release of more glucose than the body requires, which is then stored as fat. They also have less micronutrients (vitamins/minerals) and while they do occur naturally in milk, most can be found in the form of corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, raw sugar, glucose, fructose, and sucrose, along with fruit juice concentrate. The most common forms of simple CHO’s are;
bread, cakes, cookies, biscuits, baked goods in general, cereals, juices, pop, soda, or fizzy drinks.
- Complex CHO’s are more commonly associated with slow release energy due to a higher ratio of fiber and starch. Note that you want to have more fiber than starch as a high starch content will break down faster than a high fiber content food. When CHO’s are broken down slower, the body is able to obtain more micronutrients from the food which is always beneficial.
- Some higher fiber to starch complex CHO’s are:
above ground vegetables (broccoli, kale, cauliflower, spinach etc),
fruits (raspberries, apples, bananas, oranges)
nuts, beans and whole grains.
- Some higher starch to fiber CHOs include;
root vegetables like potatoes and carrots
whole grain cereals, corn, oats and peas.
- Fiber is the indigestible part of the plant important for maintaining our digestive system, and there are 3 types of fiber worth mentioning for the sake of this post; Soluble, Insoluble, and Resistant.
- Soluble helps to slow down the passage of food through the stomach, helping to keep you feeling fuller longer. Sources;
dried beans, oats, oat bran, rice bran, barley, citrus fruits, apples, strawberries, peas, and potatoes
- Insoluble helps to absorb water and regulate bowel movements. Sources;
wholegrain foods such as wheat bran, brown rice and couscous.
Root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and potatoes.
Celery, cucumbers and courgettes.
Fruit with edible seeds.
Beans, pulses and lentils.
Nuts and seeds.
- Resistant is not digested in the small intestine but does start to ferment as it moves through the digestive tract. Along the way feeding our good gut bacteria as well as gathering cholesterol and toxins.
Fiber is very beneficial in helping to improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels as well as disease prevention. Sources;
Oats. Oats are one of the most convenient ways to add resistant starch to your diet.
Cooked and Cooled Rice.
Raw Potato Starch.
Cooked and Cooled Potatoes.
- In summary, try to obtain the majority of your CHO’s from the complex category and that have a higher fiber content. This will help ensure the body gets the most micronutrients, breakdown speed is slow, energy levels are more balanced and maintained which will help to avoid the storage of excess glucose as body fat.
Protein (4 calories per gram)
- Proteins are made up of amino acids, of which the body can make many, but there are 9 essential ones that we can’t make. These 9 can be found in all meat sources along with a varied diet containing legumes and grains. Note many vegan and vegetarians may need to supplement with B12 as even the most hearty plant based diet cannot often reach the required levels.
- Proteins are used in many of the body’s processes from the building and maintenance of cells, organs, bones, muscles, hair, enzymes and hormones, all the way to helping strengthen the immune system function as it is vital to building and repairing body tissue, and fighting viral and bacterial infections. Immune system powerhouses such as antibodies and immune system cells rely on protein. Too little protein in the diet may lead to symptoms of weakness, fatigue, apathy, and poor immunity.
- Most people only require .8 g of protein per 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of body weight, for example if you weigh 80 kg you want to aim for approximately 64 g of protein a day. This is just a guideline though as it depends how active you are as well.
- Excess protein can be as damaging as too little so it is important to take note of protein intake. Excess protein is usually stored as fat while the surplus of amino acids are excreted. This can potentially lead to weight gain over time if you are consuming excess calories as well in order to increase protein intake. It’s about balance just like everything else.
- Protein foods that contain all the amino acids are called ‘complete proteins’ and they can be found in;
meat, dairy, quinoa, hemp, chia seeds, and soy.
- Many plant based proteins are not complete, for example the likes of beans, grains, legumes and vegetables, as they only have small amounts of proteins. Luckily we can combine these foods to give us complete proteins and ultimately good tasting meals in most cases. Some basic examples are;
beans and rice
peanut butter and whole grain bread
macaroni and cheese
- Contrary to popular belief they do not need to be eaten together but merely combined within the same day.
- Good sources of protein are;
fish, chicken, beef, pork, eggs, some dairy like aged cheddar, and plain yogurts or cottage cheese.
- Plant based sources include;
legumes, beans, chia, flax, and hemp seeds, nuts, avocado, spinach, kale, edamame, tofu, and tempeh.
Fats (9 calories per gram)
- There are several types of fat but there are 4 primary ones that are focused on most in relation to diet and those are: Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs), Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs), Saturated Fats, and Trans Fats.
- Fats have a variety of roles in the body such as; protecting organs, assisting in hormone production, insulation for nerves, brain function, as well as contributing to skin and hair health.
- Fat can be used as a fuel source when CHOs intake is restricted by breaking down both dietary fat and stored body fat into fatty acids. These are then converted in the liver into ketones which produce more energy per unit of oxygen than CHOs, which means while they may be higher in calories they produce more energy for less grams.
- There are more aspects that fat plays in the role of the body as well with regards to cholesterol, heart health, and blood pressure but that is a post unto itself that involves a lot of medical research I don’t want to get into here.
- MUFAs are fats that are not made by the body and must be consumed through food. The most recognized forms of MUFAs are oleic acid and can be found in;
avocados, nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews), olives, olive oil, and peanut butter.
- These fats have been shown to have positive effects on heart health by lowering triglycerides, blood pressure, cholesterol (LDL), and aiding in the reduction of inflammation through these actions. They may also aid in calcium absorption and provide an element of satiety after eating which helps to keep you feeling fuller longer.
- PUFAs are a fat you may be consuming more of than you even realize through the use of these types of fats in the form of oils in packaged foods and other areas of the food production industry. Because of this you may be offsetting your omega 6 to 3 ratio by having a higher intake of omega 6 to 3, which we don’t want. This in turn can have the knock on effect of increasing inflammation and inflammatory conditions. - If possible try to avoid processed and packaged foods, opt for natural or raw versions of food sources, in relation to PUFAs the likes of ;
seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, flax), brazil nuts, salmon, tofu, almonds and walnuts are all good options.
- Saturated Fats get a bad wrap in a lot of ways but new science is always emerging in this area and some positive attributes of sat fat are now associated with brain health. One type of saturated fat contains what are called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which if you are familiar with Keto you will have heard of.
These types of sat fats are digested easily by the body into ketones, which can cross the blood brain barrier (BBB), and allows for direct use by the brain, primarily as a source of fuel. Ketones also activate brain derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF), which are growth factors the brain uses for repair, growth, enhancement, protection of brain cells, and the regulation of dead or dying brain cells. All of which are key aspects in reducing risk factors for neurodegenerative disease.
- So while saturated fats in high quantities is still in question, small amounts from healthy sources can play a positive role in a healthy diet for the mind and body. Sources include;
coconut oil, ghee, grass-fed butter, goat's milk, and whole fat dairy products.
- Everything in moderation though and these should be inline with a balanced diet as over consumption in any one area may have less positive effects elsewhere in the body.
- Can be found in some meat and dairy products in small amounts and would be considered to be healthy, given the small amounts.
- The majority of trans fats come from the hydrogenation of unsaturated fat in order to make it spreadable and lengthen shelf life. Sounds yummy doesn’t it? Please don’t say yes here! They can be found in products like:
baked goods, snacks (crackers, some chips/crisps), fried foods, and margarine.
- There is concern that these types of fats have the opposite effect of what we want our diet to do, in that they tend to raise LDL cholesterol (bad), while reducing HDL cholesterol (good), which can lead to an increased risk for coronary heart disease.
- Try to reduce your intake of foods associated with these fats and it will lend to better health overall.
One final note for you, in relation to omega’s, there are 2 main types of omega-3s which are EPA and DHA
- Both are shown to have strong anti-inflammatory properties proven to be beneficial in mood related disorders and possibly in obesity as well.
- EPA and DHA can work independently in the body or together to have positive effects on growth and development.
- DHA is especially beneficial in the development of the fetus, and as children are growing.
- EPA can play an important role in cognitive development as well helping with mood related disorders, as mentioned above.
- For more info on this subject check out my Food and Mood post, among others.
As always this post is just to be used as an informative guide, if you are planning to take on any major change in your diet please consult a profession first, this includes Nutritionists, Dietitians, or a GP if you have underlying health conditions.
Now go enjoy good food in moderation and in conjunction with an active lifestyle...and don't forget even the tasty foods are OK now and then!