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What Are Macronutrients?

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Macronutrients are the largest class of nutrients the body requires and include protein, carbohydrates, and fats. If you’ve heard anyone talking about “macros,” they’re referring to these major nutrients. The amounts and ratio of macronutrients a person needs every day vary by age, lifestyle (sedentary, active, or very active), gender, health status, and health goals.

The USDA provides general recommendations for how Americans should allocate calories per macronutrient.[1]The nutrition facts label included on food packaging echoes these ratios and is based on a 2,000 calorie diet for the average American, including children and adults. Many diets try to optimize macronutrient ratios to produce certain results, like consuming protein (along with weight training) to gain muscle mass, or consuming fewer carbohydrates to help lose weight.

What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates include starches, sugars, and fiber. Carbohydrates contain four calories (kcal) per gram. Your body uses carbohydrates to fuel your body. Carbohydrates come in two forms: complex and simple. Simple carbohydrates include sugars like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Technically, honey and maple syrup also fall into this category. Complex carbohydrates are usually only described as starches that contain fiber, but this simplistic definition includes foods like whole wheat pasta and white potatoes.

How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans should get between 45-65% of their daily calories from carbohydrates.[1]

Humans don’t produce the necessary enzymes to digest fiber, but it’s nonetheless required by the body. Your microbiota breaks down fiber by fermenting it and using it as their energy source. Your health relies on a balanced, well-nourished microbial gut community for many different functions, so make sure you get plenty of fiber-rich foods in your diet every day.

Sources of Carbohydrates

The best carbohydrates are micronutrient-dense whole foods that contain sugars or starches along with fiber. This definition leaves no room for confusion about whole fruit, which is considered a simple carbohydrate under some definitions. Fruit is an essential part of a healthy diet and 76% of Americans don’t eat enough.[2] Other excellent sources of carbohydrates include winter squash, beans, and ancient grains like quinoa.

What Is Protein?

Protein is the building block responsible for the growth and maintenance of your eyes, skin, hair, nails, organs, and muscle tissue. During digestion, protein is broken down into smaller chains called peptides and individual units called amino acids for absorption. Of the 22 amino acids, nine are essential to humans. These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.[3] Histidine is unique in that it’s only required during infancy.

Proteins do a lot of work throughout the body. They embed themselves in your cells to regulate what goes in and out. They even envelop and transport some molecules to other locations in the body. Enzymes that catalyze the various chemical reactions in your body are made of folded chains of amino acids. The body creates hormones like leptin, immune proteins like interferon, and antibodies using amino acids.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The USDA recommends that Americans get 5-35% of their calories from protein. This range is set to cover 97-98% of the population, and your needs may vary based on age and health status.[1] Protein, like carbohydrates, provides four calories (kcal) of energy per gram.

Sources of Protein

Whole, nutrient-dense foods are the best sources of protein. Notice I did not say they are the most concentrated sources of protein. So-called “high-quality” sources are very concentrated sources of peptides that share similar amino acid ratios with humans. Essentially, the more a source of protein resembles human tissue in amino acid composition, the better its “quality.” Regularly eating meat, just like regularly consuming concentrated sources of sugar, leads to several serious, and completely preventable health consequences.[4, 5, 6] If you think eating organic, free-range, grass-fed meat is significantly better than factory farmed meat, then wouldn’t it also follow that soda with 100% organic high-fructose corn syrup is equally healthy when compared to regular soda? That’s clearly not the case. It’s important to understand that some foods have few redeeming qualities, organic or not. Just because something is less bad for you than the standard option doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. Many people believe that plants only supply “incomplete proteins.” The need for protein complementation is a myth perpetuated in poorly researched literature. To be clear, all plant foods contain the nine essential amino acids. You won’t develop a protein deficiency on a plant-based diet. In fact, protein deficiencies only occur in those who have gone long periods without eating anything at all.

What Is Fat?

Weighing in at nine calories (kcal) per gram, fat is the densest source of energy in the diet. In the body, fats make up cell membranes, steroids, cholesterol, and 60% of your brain.[7] Fats support the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, cushion your organs, and act as your largest form of energy storage.

Dietary fats include saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats tend to come from animal sources, while most plant fats are unsaturated. There are also important essential fatty acids, namely omega-3 and omega-6.

There’s another type of fat, an unnatural type, known as trans fats. Trans fats are a product of food manufacturing and are created by hydrogenating less stable unsaturated fats to be more shelf stable. This process prolongs the life of processed food products. Trans fats are often described as poison, and it’s a description that’s fairly accurate. Trans fats raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol and have no place in a healthy diet.

How Much Fat Do You Need?

Like carbohydrates, the popularity of fat waxes and wanes with public opinion and even medical opinion as new diets and research emerge. Currently, according to the USDA, fats should account for 20-40% of your daily calories. Essential fats are undoubtedly a necessary component of a healthy diet. Some of the best sources of healthy fats are nuts, seeds, coconuts, avocados, and olives. Like the most healthy sources of proteins and carbohydrates, the fats in nuts and fatty fruits contain fiber, beneficial micronutrients, and phytonutrients that keep you healthy.

Sources of Fat

Just like with carbohydrates and protein, the best sources of fat are plant-based and nutrient dense. Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, coconut, and unsweetened dark chocolate are all excellent sources of fat that come with a healthy serving of phytonutrients and fiber. As always, I recommend whole foods over processed.

However, if you’re looking for healthy oils you have quite a few options: flaxseed, hemp seed, avocado, grapeseed, sunflower, walnut, sesame, and coconut oils. I highly recommend flaxseed oil for room temperature or colder dishes like salad dressings or hummus. For cooking, use oils that have a higher smoke point like grapeseed, coconut, avocado and sesame oil. When purchasing oils, always make sure the label says “expeller-pressed” and “unrefined.” Otherwise, the oil may have been extracted using chemicals and subjected to extensive processing, which disturbs the delicate essential fatty acids in the oil.

The Problem With Focusing on Macros

When you focus on optimizing the ratios or percentages of your macronutrients, you might forget to concentrate on the quality of the food itself. Make sure to eat a balanced combination of whole, plant-based foods that contribute to your health. Your macros may vary from one day to the next, but your body’s needs may differ based on your activity level, health status, schedule, or other factors. If you’re trying to make a big change in your diet and lifestyle, consider working with a certified dietician or nutrition counselor that can evaluate your needs, help you set achievable goals, and create a personalized diet plan for you.

The ultimate goal of any good diet is to fuel your day-to-day activities while keeping yourself properly nourished. Make sure the foods you chose are micronutrient dense. These nutrients are required in significantly smaller amounts, but they have a much larger impact on your health. If you want to learn more about what these essential nutrients are, check out my micronutrients article.

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