The Basics of Macronutrients
Food is fuel. Much like a car runs on gasoline and is held together with various nuts and bolts, our bodies run on food held together by a variety of nutrients derived from your food.
Learning the basics of macronutrients is a wonderful step in the right direction to helping get your nutrition on track. In grade school, we are taught the basics of the four food groups; fruits & vegetables, grain products, milk & alternatives, and meat & alternative. In my opinion, this information is rather confusing and tends to trip people up when they are trying to make smart food choices. The reason the food groups are confusing is because the body doesn’t recognize or utilize “food groups” – it uses nutrients. The body doesn’t tick a box when you consume a serving of “milk & alternatives” or a serving of “grain products”. The body uses three nutrients; carbohydrates, protein and fats. The body recognizes these macronutrients in our food and uses them to create the gas for our gas tanks and uses them as the oil, nuts and bolts to ensure that we are held together and run efficiently.
If you consider that the cells of your body are continuously being regenerated, what you eat today your body will literally become tomorrow. Therefore a bad diet, builds a bad body.
Carbohydrates, proteins and fat are the three macronutrients (macro = large-scale) classifications, therefore all foods must fall into one of these categories. Some foods contain more than one macronutrient; for examples, beans contain carbohydrates and protein; nuts contain fats and protein; and salmon contains proteins and fats. However, here is a simple breakdown of each macronutrient, its functions and its sources:
- Next to water, protein is the body’s most plentiful substance making up 20% of one’s body weight
- Each protein molecule is made up of smaller amino acids, which are broken down in the body
- Of the 21 amino acids, 9 are essential meaning they are not made by the body
- These 9 amino acids must therefore come from the diet
- Protein is the most efficient nutrient at switching off hunger signals; it is the most satiating nutrient
- Protein builds, maintains and repairs muscle, is responsible for the production of healthy blood cells and enzymes, and strengthening the immune system
- Animal Sources: Meat, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood and dairy
- Plant Sources: Spirulina, quinoa, buckwheat, tempeh, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds
- 1 gram protein = 4 calories
- ‘Carbs’ are the primary energy source for one’s body
- Just as the car runs on gasoline, the body runs most efficiently on carbohydrate
- Each carbohydrate consist of smaller units called sugars (there are many forms)
- Not all carbs are created equal: simple vs complex carbohydrates
- The body functions better on complex rather than refined or “white” carbohydrates
- Complex carbohydrates are typically less processed, higher in fibre and lower on the glycemic index. The sugars from these carbohydrates take longer to be digested, provide energy over a longer period of time and therefore help balance our blood sugar levels
- Simple carbohydrates are typically more processed, quickly absorbed into the blood stream, spike insulin, cause imbalances in blood sugar and tend to lead to more cravings
- The more colourful the sources of carbohydrates, the better – eat a rainbow
- Vegetables are the forgotten source of carbohydrates, so make sure you eat your greens!
- Sources: Vegetable, whole grains, beans, lentils, and fruits
- Complex Carbohydrates Examples: Oatmeal, quinoa, sweet potatoes and leafy greens
- Simple Carbohydrates Examples: Bagels, pastas, pretzels, cookies, candy and fruit juice
- 1 gram carbohydrate = 4 calories
- Fats perform many essential functions in the body
- They are needed for cell structure, brain health and play roles in many metabolic function as well
- Certain fats are used as energy and form a large “reserve” for future needs
- Fats come in many shapes and sizes; saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated
- Fatty acids are small molecules that are building blocks of fats in our body and our foods
- Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential because the body cannot make them, therefore we must eat them
- Fats help us absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E & K
- Fats have twice the calories per gram than protein and carbohydrate
- You don’t need to eat as much in terms of volume to provide the same amount of energy
- Sources: Fish, nuts, seeds, olives, cold-pressed oils, coconut oil and butter
- 1 gram fat = 9 calories
Taking the time to understand the macronutrients your foods are made up will help ensure you are building a better plate or bowl of food. The amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat a person will require in their diet varies. Unfortunately, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The balance of macronutrients depends on activity level, age, weight, gender, health goals, etc… If you are getting started, the “3 for 3” rule is a great way to go: eat all 3 macronutrients every 3 hours. This simple rule will help ensure that the body is being fuelled with all three macronutrient sources during the day. And of course, the more colour you can add to your plate the better!