I’m sure you’ve heard the term “macronutrient.” But what does it mean and why do you need to know more about it?
Macronutrients are the three main sources of energy: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
You might say, “ohh, I get it now.” but wait- there’s more important stuff to know about macronutrients. I know because I get questions about them all the time, and our weight loss industry has done some pretty impressive demonization of certain macronutrients, specifically carbs and fat.
First of all, you need each of the three macronutrients for optimum bodily functioning. This includes all the processes that keep you alive like tissue repair, respiration, temperature regulation, and blood circulation among a host of others. So lets take a look at these macronutrients and we’ll start with the one that I stress the most.
This macronutrient is extremely essential! Proteins are amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. Once consumed, most of the protein you eat is used as a building block for all types of tissue. Protein is found in all cells of the body and is a major structural component in muscle as well as most organs (like your heart).
The amino acids that make up proteins can be both essential or non-essential. I won’t go in to too much detail here, but basically you should vary the types of protein you eat to consume the necessary amino acids that can and cannot be manufactured by your body. You can also take BCAA supplements before working out, but it’s not needed unless you want muscles like a bodybuilder.
Eating higher amounts of protein is very satiating because it takes more time to be digested in your system. Protein is four calories per gram and can also be used for energy if you are in a negative energy balance (also known as a calorie deficit). If you are in a positive energy balance, excess protein can be stored as fat just like any other macronutrient.
Scientifically, fats are called lipids. There are a few different compounds for lipids, but we’ll focus on one that is composed of fatty acids (because thats the type that is stored in the body). This is probably where you’ve heard of fats: saturated and unsaturated. The difference between the two is found in the bonds that hold them together.
Saturated fats have a bad rap. Scientists have determined that high intakes of saturated fats are a risk factor for heart disease because they raise bad cholesterol levels. The new fad styles of eating (paleo, ketogenic etc) say that’s not true, that a high grain intake brings about heart disease.
Unsaturated fats are supposedly healthier and some provide important essential fatty acids that can’t be manufactured by the body. However you can’t just assume that all unsaturated fats are good for you. The American diet is really high in omega-6 fats and low in omega-3s. Most likely because of the high intakes of common foods like olive oil, peanut butter and high fat cuts of meat instead of more cold-water fish.
Between unsaturated and saturated fats, just try to eat variety. Don’t eat fatty steaks every night and don’t eat chicken soaked in olive oil every night, just moderate!
Fats are used for energy, for carrying fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, for insulation, for regulating nutrients in cells, for cellular membrane structure and function, for protecting vital organs, for signaling satiety and slowing down digestion. Fat is twice as caloric as protein, coming in at nine calories per gram of fat.
Besides all this, fats taste good! Our brain wants them for all of the reasons above which is why fried foods, whole milk lattes and ice cream are so appealing.
Woo carbs! Everyone loves carbs right? Wrong, low carb diets have been plaguing our diet industry before I was in high school. I’m still trying to convince my mom that carbohydrates won’t make her fat.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for all body functions and muscular exertion.
Yes, I made sure that was highlighted because it’s true. Low carb diets make it hard for people to exercise because our muscles function off glycogen. Our bodies cannot convert fats and proteins to energy quickly enough for intense activities. In fact, because our body uses carbs so much during activities, depletion in our muscles creates cravings for this macronutrient.
Carbs contain four calories per gram, setting it on par calorie-wise with protein. Carbs add bulk to our diet (hopefully in the form of vitamin rich fruits and vegetables) as well as maintain proper cellular fluid balance, control blood sugar levels, and spare protein for building muscle. Yes I said that:
Carbohydrates spare protein for muscle building
Eat your carbs so that your body doesn’t break down your precious muscles.
Vegetables are the best type of carb for you. Not only do they carry tons of vitamins and minerals, but they break down a lot more slowly than fruit. While fruit is good for you and also has a lot of things your body needs, it’s not always the longest lasting type of fuel, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. Eat it after exercising for quick energy or before cooking a meal if you’re particularly hungry.
There’s been a ton of debate over grains, whether or not whole grains are actually that much better for you, if grains leach minerals from your body etc etc etc. Really, the only solution when there isn’t conclusive evidence that screams at us is moderation. Eat some white rice, eat some sweet potatoes, try oatmeal and then have quinoa. As i’ve said before, vary the foods you eat so that you don’t feel deprived and so that you absorb the maximum vitamins and minerals possible.
What I do with this information
I build my diet around it! I eat a balanced and varied diet of all these macronutrients. Chicken, beef, fish, and protein powder are my favorite protein sources. While I love love love peanut butter, variety is important, so I throw in chia seeds, flax, coconut oil and almond butter to reach my fat intake goals. I strive to hit four servings of vegetables each day, and even if I don’t make that, I certainly eat starchy and vitamin rich sweet potatoes, pumpkin, or quinoa. I still eat bread (so good warm from the oven!) or rice from time to time, but I know that they have less vitamins and minerals than those carbs previously listed.
When I exercise harder, I eat more. I only count my macros and calories when I’m trying to lose fat after a fun vacation or muscle building period (BTW- you only build serious muscle in a calorie surplus).
Eating meals is an enjoyable activity. And all this said, I don’t believe that any foods are inherently “bad” and any foods are “good.” It’s important that what you eat doesn’t dictate your life and you enjoy the not-so-healthy treats you love in moderation.
But I will say this:
If you have a fitness goal, you need to be conscious of your macro and calorie intake so that you set yourself up for success.
*Most of this information comes from my NASM Certified Personal Trainer textbook and is therefore not referenced. If you want to know where I obtained certain facts, shoot me an email and I can refer you to any of the studies referenced in my book.