Beginners Guide to Macronutrients
What are Macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the larger molecules that make up our nutrition and break down into three categories: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. These nutrients provide the body with energy in the form of calories. Each macronutrient needed depends on many factors such as sex, age, height, weight, activity level, level of health, where one is in their hormonal cycle, etc. Therefore, no one number fits all; every person's needs are dependent on their body.
Proteins make up about 20% of the body, making them the most abundant component after water. Protein is the backbone of many structures throughout the body, such as hair, muscles, nails, tendons, ligaments, blood, hormones, enzymes, and immune cells. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and the human body can make most of the 23 amino acids. However, there is nine amino that the body cannot make, and these are known as the essential amino acids: isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine, and histidine. Protein from animal sources is considered a complete protein food source, but plant-based protein sources are often deficient in essential amino acids. But when specific plant-based foods are consumed in combination, they do equate to a complete protein (see chart below for combinations).
Proteins can be found from animal-based sources and plant-based sources. Animal proteins should be as organic as possible to prevent ingesting hormones and other chemicals from the animals, including grass and/or pasture-raised cows, pigs, and poultry. For fish, it should be sustainably caught in the wild, not farmed. It is also suggested to consume the muscle meats and skin, organ meats, and broths from the bones to ensure the consumption of a wide range of nutrients animals have to offer. Plant-based proteins need to be consumed in combination.
The amount of protein one should consume depends on multiple factors: health status, sex, age, weight, activity level, etc. But the typical rule of thumb for average servings is about .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. But an athlete or someone recovering from surgery will have increased needs of around 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight.
Carbohydrates are often painted in a negative light by today's media-driven diet culture. But they are essential to proper functioning throughout the entire body, especially your brain. Carbohydrates are the body's primary fuel source; once digested, they are broken down into glucose. Carbohydrates can also aid in the regulation of protein and fat metabolism, fuel the brain, keep your digestion happy, and so much more. Although carbohydrates are commonly associated with grains, they are also found in many different plant based foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, containing fiber, sugars, starches, vitamins, and minerals.
Refined carbohydrates are carbohydrates that have undergone processing which strips foods of many nutrients, especially B vitamins, and adds in artificial sweeteners and other chemicals. These carbohydrates are then converted to glucose in the body and spike the blood sugar exceptionally quickly. This overworks the pancreas, over time, can lead to blood sugar imbalances. Therefore, look to consume more unrefined carbohydrates than refined ones.
Fruit and Vegetable Juices
Jams, jellies, and canned fruit in sweetened syrups
White bread, rice, pasta, cakes, cookies, flour, cereals
Soda and Alcohol
Sweeteners: sugar, commercial honey, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, agave,
Whole fruits and vegetables: fresh or frozen
Whole Grains: brown rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat
Legumes: fresh or dried (without sweeteners)
Sweeteners: Raw honey, date sugar, pure maple syrup
There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber absorbs water in the gut and forms a gel-like substance that promotes beneficial bacteria, slows glucose uptake, improves cholesterol, and softens the stool.
Insoluble fiber is a plant carbohydrate that cannot be digested, which keeps your digestive system running smoothly. Fiber helps add bulk to the stool, lower colonic PH, and improve transit time, aka keep you regular! If you consume adequate amounts of healthy carbohydrates each day, you are likely getting enough fiber. But if the diet is saturated with refined sugars and processed foods, your fiber intake might be lacking. The more fiber one consumes, the less sugar that gets absorbed. But drink too much fiber, one might not absorb nutrients as well or experience slight bloating.
It is recommended to consume around 20-40 grams of dietary fiber per day. Great sources of fiber include almonds, apricots, beans, lentils, broccoli, berries, whole grains, apples, diet fruit, etc.
Dietary fats are an essential component of our nutrition. Fats are responsible for balanced hormone production and regulation, reduce inflammation, aid in PMS and menopausal symptoms, improve eczema, and support mental disorders like depression and ADHD. When consuming fats, aim for pastured/organic fat-containing foods and fats in their unrefined states. Excellent sources: nuts and seeds, olives, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, virgin organic coconut and palm oils, organic/pastured animal fats (butter, ghee, full-fat milk), supplemental oils. It is best to avoid synthetic oils, margarine, Crisco, and polyunsaturated oils in clear bottles. Fats are split into multiple categories:
Trans fat should be avoided and completely cut out of the diet. Trans fats are hydrogenated, meaning hydrogen molecules are added to unsaturated fats to produce hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenation is a common practice because it extends the shelf life extensively. Examples of trans fats are shortening, margarine, certain oils, fried foods, baked goods, etc. Trans fats also are known to increase inflammation, worsen insulin resistance, and negatively affect lipid profiles. To check if something you are consuming contains trans fats or not, check the nutrition label!
Saturated fat is solid at room temperature and is mainly used for energy by the body. Due to the fact, there are no double bonds where oxidation can occur, they are the least vulnerable to oxidative damage, even when heated. These fats are considered safe to sauté with. Sources include high-quality dairy fats, coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter, and tallow. Consuming large amounts of saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels and put you at higher risk for heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends around 13 grams of saturated fat per day.
Unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature and is less stable than saturated fat, meaning unsaturated fats are more likely to be damaged by high heat and refining. These fats are fats we aim to include in our diet; they have decreased the risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats should not be heated or exposed to light; this will cause oxidation and rancidity.
Monounsaturated fats have only one double bond; increased consumption can lower the LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase the HDL (good) cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are found in avocado/avocado oil, nuts, and vegetable oils.
Polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds. PUFA's contain both omega 6 and omega 3's, which are essential fatty acids. Omega 6 tends to be overdone in the standard American diet, but having a balance of both omega 6 and omega 3 is extremely important to one's health. The standard American diet tends to be a 10:1 (Omega 6:Omega3) ratio, whereas it should be around a 3:1 ratio. These fatty acids cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from the diet. At least 1-2% of daily caloric intake should come from EFA's, but 3-6% is considered optimal.
Safflower oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, peanuts, pecans, borage oil, black currant oil, and evening primrose oil
Flax, hemp, chia, walnuts, cold-water fish, fish oils, pastured eggs, dairy, meat, and algae
A Few Tips to Help Navigate :
Aim for 90 to 95% of your diet to come from whole foods, and anything that is packaged should have ingredients you recognize or understand what they are.
For carbohydrates, aim for 1-2 servings of grains, and the rest comes from fruits and vegetables.
At least half of your plate is filled with veggies at most meals.
A serving of protein is about the size of your palm.
Aim to use healthier oils for cooking, avoid canola, vegetable, cottonseed, and rapeseed oils
Eat slowly and chew your food; this will allow your body the time to give fullness cues. After you're full, stop eating (you can always come back to the food later).
The ratio for each person is specific and dependent on many factors (age, weight, sex, height, activity level, disease history, stress level, etc.). But a great place to start is with the following guide for each meal:
Carbohydrates: aim for half your plate to be unprocessed carbohydrates: fruits, vegetables, and unrefined grains
Protein: aim for 1/4 of your plate to be high-quality, unprocessed proteins
Fat: aim for a quarter of your plate to be high-quality, unprocessed fats
Different combinations of these percentages can help one achieve different results or to manage various disease states. What may work for some might not work for others, which is why it is essential to work individually with your healthcare provider or nutrition professional to find a balance that works best for you.