The calories we consume from the foods in our diets are categorized into three different macronutrients (also commonly referred to as Macros) depending on how they’re metabolized and the purposes they serve our body once digested
Our macronutrients are where all vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, enzymes, and phytochemicals are derived.
Why We Need Macronutrients
Each of the three macronutrients, (protein, carbs and fat) have important and distinct roles in the body when it comes to the optimal regulation of our weight, hormonal balance, immunity, growth, repair, maintenance and development of our body.
I this article I’m going to break each one of these macronutrients down and explain their roles within our body.
Protein is incredibly important to our body. In fact, it is the most crucial element in helping retain a healthy body composition.
In fact, except for water, protein is the most abundant substance needed by the body.
And because our body is in a constant state of flux, continually breaking down and rebuilding its own tissues, we need to consume enough protein on a daily basis in order to aid in the process of making and repairing muscles, tendons, organs and skin as well as enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and body chemicals.
Protein is frequently referred to as the main building block of the body and contains 4 calories per gram. It is also the hardest of the 3 macronutrients for our bodies to disassemble and process therefore making it the most stimulating to our metabolism. (1, 2)
Protein is made of smaller compounds called amino acids which are divided into three different groups:
- Essential amino acids
- Nonessential amino acids
- Conditional amino acids
Essential amino acids: cannot be synthesized by the body. As a result, they must be taken in through your diet.
The nine essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine
Nonessential amino acids: are synthesized by the body. What this means is that the body is simply capable of creating them on its own; therefore, it is not necessary to attain them from an outside source.
They include: alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid.
Conditional amino acids: are not usually essential, except in times of illness and stress.
They include: arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.
All animal proteins are complete ‘meaning’ they provide all the essential amino acids in the right ratio for us to make full use of them.
So, if you’re eating animal products (like red meat, chicken, turkey, pork fish & seafood and eggs, every day, then you’re probably already doing pretty well with your protein intake.
For vegetarians, on the other hand, complete proteins can be obtained through certain plants, such as soy, quinoa, buckwheat, spirulina, and amaranth or by pairing things like beans, rice, legumes, seeds, nut butter and whole-grain.
4 Major Benefits of Adequate Protein Intake:
- Muscle mass: Studies conclude that adequate protein intake has a positive effect on muscle mass, and is crucial in preventing muscle loss. (3, 4)
- Energy expenditure: Studies show that protein increases energy expenditure the most out of all the macronutrients. (5, 6)
- Satiety: Protein is very satiating, and increasing protein intake can lead to a decreased calorie intake thus helping with weight loss. (7)
- Lower risk of disease: Increased protein intake is shown to help protect against diseases like diabetes and obesity. (8, 9, 10)
Carbohydrates, like protein, provide 4 calories per gram and are usually divided into two types.
These categories are based on their chemical structure and reflects how quickly they’re digested and absorbed.
However, within these two categories there are actually three separate classifications:
Sugars: Individual sugar molecules or short chains of sugar molecules. These include glucose, fructose, galactose and sucrose.
- Examples of these foods are: added sugar, cereal, pasta, pastries, cookies, pop and fruit juices
Starches: Longer chains of carbohydrate molecules that need to be broken down by the body.
- Examples of these foods are: sweet potatoes, potatoes, quinoa, long grain rice, barley, and buckwheat.
Fiber: A uniquely diverse group of carbohydrates that the body is unable to digest.
- Examples of these foods are: avocados, artichokes, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, black beans, chick peas, and nuts & seeds.
One of the main reasons why there is so much confusion in regards to carbs is that not all carbs are created equal.
The way carbs are normally classified is by the terms complex or what is referred to as (good carb) or simple meaning (bad carb). An example of this is that most people associate starch and fiber as complex carbs and all sugars as simple carbs.
However, this definition can be a little misleading. While some starches like sweet potatoes, quinoa and legumes provide many health benefits, other starches like refined wheat flour is associated with rapid blood sugar spikes and major hormonal imbalances that lead to many metabolic and chronic health issues.
Additionally, not all sugars have the same effect on your body. Added sugars like those found in baked goods and sugary drinks can be profoundly harmful to your health.
Therefore, it seems more appropriate to define simple and complex carbs in these terms:
- Simple carbs: Sugars and starches that have been refined and stripped of their natural fiber and nutrients.
- Complex carbs: Carb-containing foods that are in their whole, unprocessed form. Foods in this category include fruits, vegetables and legumes.
Carbs are NOT essential
Just to set the record straight, it is scientifically proven that carbs, whether they’re in the complex or simple form, are NOT an essential nutrient. Therefore, even though carbs generally make up nearly 40 to 60 percent of the American diet, the lower limit of dietary carbohydrates compatible with sustaining life is “ZERO” provided that adequate amounts of protein and fat are consumed. However, eating a moderate amount of the right types of carb containing foods has been shown to be quite beneficial for your health. (15)
Carbs to Eat
Carbs can be a healthy part of your diet but only if you’re choosing the right ones. The healthiest choices are those found in their whole, unprocessed form, like:
- Whole grains: Whole, unprocessed grains like oats, quinoa, barley, amaranth, brown rice, wild rice, etc.
- Legumes: Lentils, black beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, etc.
- Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, etc.
- Fruits: Apples, oranges, berries, plums, pears, grapefruit, etc.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, etc.
Carbs to Avoid
These foods are highly refined and should be eliminated, or at the very least reduced to a minimal level:
- Sugary beverages: Soda, sweetened tea, sports drinks, and fruit juices.
- Desserts and snack foods: Donuts, cakes, cookies, crackers, chips, pretzels, ice cream, and candy.
- Commercial Breads: This includes “white or wheat” bread.
- Pastas or anything made with refined wheat or white flour.
Despite what most people believe, fats actually don’t make us fat.
Unlike carbs which aren’t an essential part of the human diet, fat is a necessary and essential part of the diet and also capable of helping with weight loss, weight management and disease prevention.
Fat, is the most calorie dense macronutrient of the three at 9 calories per gram and also a very efficient energy source for the body.
In fact, saturated fats (SFA) and monounsaturated fats (MUFA) are the body’s preferred fuel choice in metabolically healthy people.
In addition to fats being a great energy source, they also help in the absorption of our fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and help maintain our core body temperature.
Although most people lump all fats into one single category there are actually four basic groups of fats:
- Polyunsaturated (Omega-3 & Omega-6)
Let’s break down the different fats to see where we can maximize our health benefits while avoiding any hazards.
Monounsaturated fat (MUFA) seem to be the only fat that most people, even the ones in the fat phobic camp, agree on as being a healthy fat.
MUFAs are actually non-toxic to the body, even in high doses, making them extremely appealing for both cooking and eating.
In fact, research shows diets high in monounsaturated fat has a host of amazing health benefits, including:
- Reduced cholesterol levels.
- Lower risk for heart disease
- Helping with weight loss
- Helping reduce belly fat
Common sources of monounsaturated fats can be found in things like:
- olive oil
- macadamia nuts & macadamia oil
- avocados & avocado oil
- almonds, cashews & pecans
- rendered pork lard & beef tallow
- beef – grass fed is always best
Polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) can basically be subdivided into two categories:
- Omega 3’s
- Omega 6’s
Although both of these polyunsaturated fats are essential “MEANING” they are needed by the body for survival, but cannot be manufactured internally, so they must be taken in through our diet.
We need to understand their relationship and the balancing act required in order to keep them from becoming toxic.
Omega-6 fatty acids are highly pro-inflammatory which is required for proper body healing.
Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are highly anti-inflammatory which keeps unnecessary inflammation in check.
While both are necessary for optimal health and healing, they must be consumed in the proper ratios in order for our bodies to receive their benefits.
How can we do this?
1. Consume More Omegas-3’s
The first step toward achieving an optimum fatty acid ratio is, of course, to consume more whole foods that are rich in the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in which most of us are deficient.
So, you’ll want to consume more oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, and sardines, and other seafood.
Grass-fed animal products, such as butter, eggs, and meat are also high in Omega-3’s.
Additionally, a good fish oil supplement is an excellent way to up your omega-3’s.
Now, for vegetarians, a plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids can be found in things like: green leafy vegetables, flax & Chia seeds, legumes and cruciferous vegetables
2. Consume Fewer Omegas-6’s
The easiest way to reduce our intake of omega-6 fatty acids is to avoid consuming the processed vegetable and seed oils that are rich in it.
The worst offenders in this category are:
- sunflower oil,
- safflower oil,
- corn oil,
- soybean oil,
- cottonseed oil
I’m sure what I am about say may come as a surprise to some of our listeners, only since we’ve been repeatedly told that saturated fat is unhealthy.
For the last nearly fifty years, saturated fat has been demonized as an artery clogging, obesity causing poison.
This widely accepted misconception has pushed a lot of people away from the healthful food many of us, from generations ago, grew up on, like, whole eggs, butter, pork, and red meat.
However, the truth is that we as humans have been eating saturated fats for our entire existence with no problem.
Saturated Fat is a Great Source of Energy
Unlike polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), saturated fats – the natural occurring unprocessed or minimally processed versions actually have no known toxicity level in the body, even in high doses.
What this tells us is that saturated fats are more easily converted to energy than polyunsaturated fats without leaving harsh and toxic byproducts.
Saturated Fat is Nutritious
There are many healthy foods that are naturally rich in saturated fat. These foods tend to be highly nutritious and contain an abundance of fat soluble vitamins.
Prime examples are eggs, meats (including organ meats), and full fat dairy products. The key is to try to consume animal products that were raised on foods that were as close to natural to them as possible, such as grass fed or free-range cattle, pastured pork, and pastured or free-range eggs.
Grass fed beef, pastured pork, free-range eggs, and dairy from grass fed cows are much more nutritious than their conventionally raised counterparts. They are especially rich in fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin A, E, and K. (16, 17, 18)
Saturated Fat is Great for Cooking
Saturated fats are great for cooking because they are much less likely to react with oxygen during the heating process than unsaturated fats.
Therefore, saturated fats like butter, lard, ghee, and coconut oil are better options when you need to cook something, especially at a high heat.
As I am sure you are all aware, there is a ton of controversy still lingering when it comes to fat in our diet, but one of the few things people actually agree on is that trans-fat is bad.
Fortunately, consumption of these unhealthy fats has dropped considerably in the last decade due to the awareness being circulated on their adverse effect on our health.
Despite this, we are still consuming far too much of them, not so much by choice but more out of the fact that we just don’t realize it, which I will explain briefly in the up-coming section “How Can YOU Avoid Trans Fats”
What is Trans-Fat?
First off, I need to clarify that there are actually two types of trans-fats: natural occurring trans-fats and artificial trans-fats. The primary natural occurring trans-fat in our diet is conjugated linoleic acid or (CLA) which is found in meat and dairy from ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats.
Natural occurring trans-fat has been a part of our diet since humans first began consuming meats and dairy and do not impose any harmful effects on our health. In fact, this type of fat may actually have anti-cancer properties and other major health benefits. The bottom line is we need not be concerned about natural occurring trans-fat. (19, 20)
On the other hand, artificial trans-fats, otherwise known as hydrogenated fats, have been linked to a host of diseases. Artificial trans-fat is created by pumping hydrogen molecules into vegetable oil. This changes the chemical structure of the oil, turning it from a liquid into a solid. (21, 22)
Why would companies want to create trans-fat? Food manufacturers discovered that natural occurring fat generally aren’t solid at room temperature and go bad quickly. Fat that is hydrogenated on the other hand has a long shelf-life and improved texture for palatability. So, hydrogenation plays well for a company’s bottom line – but not so well for our health.
Trans-Fat and Inflammation
We are now starting to better understand that excess inflammation is among one of the leading drivers behind chronic and metabolic issues in society today. Because of it, we continue to see a rise in heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes, arthritis, and numerous others.
When looking at numerous clinical trials and observational studies, the evidence clearly points out that artificial trans-fat is a key risk factor associated with inflammation, and they increase nearly all inflammatory markers which can potentially lead to a host of health issues. (23, 24, 25, 26)
Trans-Fat in the Modern Diet
Hydrogenated vegetable oils are the largest source of artificial trans-fat on the market today. Their obvious appeal to food manufacturers is that they are very inexpensive and have a long shelf life. For this reason, they are found in all sorts of modern processed foods.
Fortunately, the good news is that the governments and health organizations around the world have been cracking down on trans-fat, and therefore, consumption has gone down in the last decade. For instance, in 2003, the average US adult consumed 4.6 grams of artificial trans-fat per day. This has now been reduced to 1.3 grams per day. (27, 28)
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the harmful effect of trans-fat, the FDA only recently decided to remove the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status for trans-fat, even though the studies on its toxicity have been out for numerous years.
So, again, even though artificial trans-fat consumption is lower than it has been in recent years and we’re becoming more aware of its harmful effects, consumption is still way too high and should be reduced to zero.
How Can YOU Avoid Trans Fat?
Although there has been some improvement made in recent years, trans-fat is still widely present in many processed foods. You see, in the US, food manufacturers, via a government loophole, can label their products trans-fat free as long as there is less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving. Now knowing this, it’s easy to understand how a few “so called” trans-fat free crackers or cookies could easily add up to harmful amounts.
To make sure you’re avoiding artificial trans-fat, one of the first steps is to know what to look for on a food label. Again, don’t be fooled by bold marketing statements on the front of packages claiming “trans-fat free” – remember the loophole- and don’t pick foods that have these key words on the ingredients list.
- Fully Hydrogenated
- Partially Hydrogenated
Next, avoid industrial vegetable oils. These can contain artificial trans-fat without any indication on the label or ingredients list. A major US study that analyzed store bought soybean and canola oil found that up to 4.2 percent of the fat found in the oils was trans-fat – without any indication on the packaging. (29)
In order to avoid artificial trans-fat, the most obvious choice would be to eliminate as much processed foods from your diet as possible, and when using fat, use real butter over margarine, and olive oil and coconut oil instead of harmful industrialized vegetable oils.