The Three Macronutrients: A Love Story
Once Upon A Time...Macronutrient!
Macronutrient is not referring to the nutrients found in macaroni (I know, I know, I shouldn't quit my day job), all it is, is a big, fancy name describing something extraordinarily simple. Basically, nutrients are divided into 2 categories: Macronutrients and Micronutrients. Carbohydrates, Fats and Protein are the three macronutrients which our body turns into energy for our bodily functions and daily living requirements, via metabolism; long story short, they are the fuel our body uses. Micronutrients are the antioxidants and vitamins found mostly from plant sources. There are quite a few, but the most well known are: vitamin C, B12, B6 etc. These nutrients are necessary for health because the body cannot make (or make enough of) enough to sustain itself in homeostasis, but right now we are going to talk about the three energy-yielding nutrients.
There are a lot of mixed messages out in the media, diet industry and American culture which have some people scratching their heads on what to even eat. Some people say to eat gobs of protein, while others favor a low fat diet. There's so many conflicting messages out there on how and what to eat, it can make your head spin! As a Diagnostic Health and Fitness Technician I am amazed at how the diet industry capitalizes on the general population's ignorance on nutrition. They all act like they have stumbled upon the key that will unlock the door to a paradise full of great health and fit bodies when in reality you could be damaging your health and setting yourself up for disease.
My goal is to shed some light on how these nutrients are turned into energy, to provide information, based on science, on how they each affect the body (good and bad) and for you to have a clearer understanding on how your body turns food into fat, and why. So next time your up late at night and that infomercial comes on with Miss Size 1 saying she owes all to this crazy diet, you won't be fooled. Now lets take a look at how the three macronutrients work together in perfect harmony to provide you with energy for living. This is a love story after all!
Eat Your Carbs!
A Love Affair: Carbohydrates
Your body's first love is carbohydrates. Ever since the 'Atkin's Revolution' carbs have been getting a bad rap. Most people I talk to believe them to be the source of all their extra adipose tissue woes and that they should be something to be avoided, at all costs. This couldn't be further from the truth. Carbs are your body's first pick, out of the macronutrients, for energy. They are the easiest to breakdown and be used by the body for energy or be stored later. It is recommended that 60% of your caloric intake should be from carbohydrates, but not all are created equal.
Monosaccharides and Disaccharides are considered the simple carbohydrates. Glucose, fructose and galactose are the three monosaccharides which contain only one single sugar unit, they are the simplest for the body to metabolize and absorb. Glucose is the sugar the body breaks down everything into. Your brain runs entirely on glucose (ever wonder why when your blood sugar gets low you can't think straight- well this is why).
Disaccharides are sucrose, maltose and lactose, these have two single sugar units. Although there is nothing 'bad' or 'evil' about simple sugars, the reality is they are very easy for your body to absorb, which means you will tend to get hungry more and then end up consuming more calories. Maybe this is where the saying "it's a piece of cake", came from in order to describe something easy, because digesting a piece of cake is just that easy for your body to accomplish. Furthermore, since these simple sugars are so easy to digest, they cause more of a harder, faster spike in your blood sugar, which means your body needs to produce more insulin. Eventually you will run out of insulin, ie: diabetes (dun, dun, dun).
Complex carbohydrates are called polysaccharides. These carbs contain long, complex chains of sugar units, called polymers and provide your body more of a challenge breaking them down. Remember your body's goal is to convert all food into glucose, which is as simple as a sugar can get, so these carbohydrates are the ones that keep you fuller for longer. Starch, glycogen and dietary fiber are the main three polysaccharides. Starch is a digestible form of carbohydrate which provides energy. Glycogen is how the body stores glucose. Glucose is converted into glycogen, by a process called glycogenesis, then stored in your liver and muscles. Fiber is the indigestible part of the complex carbohydrate and aids in the cleaning of the digestion track.
Again, 60% of your total caloric intake should be from carbohydrates. So if you are eating 1200 kCal a day then 720 need a to be from carbohydrates. Now before you panic, just know that fruits and vegetables are considered carbohydrates too! Your body isn't going to know the difference between a carbohydrate from a slice of whole wheat bread or a cup of spinach; the only difference is that per gram there will be more carbohydrates in the slice of bread than the spinach. So a good way to make sure you aren't eating too many carbohydrates (if you do they will be stored as fat) or eat too little (you will lose energy and fat breakdown will happen in an unhealthy way), is to have a wide variety in your diet. Eating half a sandwich and a great big spinach salad is a great choice for lunch!
Simple and Complex Carbohydrate Sources
Food for Thought
Is coconut oil a saturated or unsaturated fat?
Second Best: Lipids (fats)
The second macronutrient your body turns to when in need of energy is fat or when talking about it in a nutritional sense: lipids. Lipids are what your body turns to when doing low-intensity, high duration type exercise, (like cleaning the house all day). Only 20% of your caloric intake should come from lipids and, at 9kCal per gram, that means you can't go crazy with the butter! Saturated and unsaturated fats are the two sub-divisions of lipids and you are going to need different amounts of each.
A saturated fat is when, in the fatty acid chain, there are hydrogen saturating the single bond, holding the chain together. Saturated fats should make up 30% of that 20%. For example if you ate 1400 kCal then 280 of them should come from lipid sources and 84 should be saturated fats. As you can see the body needs very little and the reason is because saturated fats also contain cholesterol. A known heart artery clogger!
With an unsaturated fat the fatty acid chain is held together by double bonds, so there is no need for the hydrogen, in turn these bonds remain unsaturated. Of the 20% of lipids you eat per day, it is recommended that 70% of these come from unsaturated fats. Again, if you ate 1400 kCal a day, 280 will be lipids and 196 of those 280kCal will be unsaturated fats. Remember, with all food you eat: the more of a natural state and unprocessed it is the healthier it is going to be for you!
Lipid Food Sources
Nuts and Seeds
Almonds are a source of lipids!
The Last but not the Least: Protein
Protein has got to be one of the misunderstood macronutrient and that is mainly due to the diet industry. To tell you the truth it wouldn't even be in this category of energy yielding nutrients if it weren't for the fact that your body does convert protein to glucose, in a process called gluconeogenesis. This happens when it is desperate, starving or your being funky with your macronutrient distribution. When your body is forced to derive energy from this macronutrient, during gluconeogenesis, a by-product called a ketone body is left behind. This ketone body is similar to a little ball of acetone and now its just floating around in you. If too many of these ketone bodies build up in your system, it can cause all kinds of problems. Cancer cells can only thrive in an acidic environment. Knowing what you know now, do you think there is a correlation between cancer rates rising around the same time Americans started eating more meat (more protein)? And now protein is added to tons of non-meat products and it is marketed as healthier!
Your body does love protein though! The amino acids found in protein are beneficial for muscle structure, immune system support and tissue repair. There are 21 amino acids in total and 9 of those we need to obtain through nutrition. Protein is also more difficult for the body to digest, so if you combine a small amount of protein with every meal and snack you will help keep your blood sugars down, stay fuller longer and at 4kCal per gram still stay in control of your caloric intake. Out of your total caloric intake protein should be 20%, but its easier to measure it in grams. An average full grown woman needs around 45grams of protein a day while a full grown man needs 55-60, that's it! Try to get protein from a wide variety of plant and animals sources, as there are different benefits in each one.
The 9 Essential Amino Acids and Sources
Break a Sweat!
A Love/Hate relationship: Energy Balance
Energy Balance is important to overall health, so I will touch lightly on the subject. All that energy balance refers to is calories in vs. calories out. Our bodies burn a specific amount of calories based on age, gender, body composition (muscle vs. fat in the body) and activity level. Everyone has a number. If you consume too many calories your body will store it as extra energy in the form of fat, if you eat slightly less than what is required your body will take the extra fat and use it as energy and if you starve yourself (by eating less than 1000kCal per day) then your body will lose fat as well as muscle. When muscle is lost then your body's daily requirement of calories also decreases (which is bad) and you won't have enough energy for working out!
Cardio and strength training type workouts are the best way to tip your body's energy balance in the deficit, without losing muscle! You will actually be doing the opposite, you will be building the muscles that will use your body fat for energy, like while you are cleaning the house (remember? low intensity, high duration exercise is what burns fat; the more muscle the more required calories needed to sustain that muscle, which means more fat burned with every movement). Think of cardio burning extra calories from the day and strength training as increasing your metabolic rate for the rest of it!
A Wonderful Dance
I like to think of the macronutrients doing a harmonious dance inside our bodies, complementing each other and helping us stay energized and in homeostasis (the body's correct balance). When you feed the body right and then use that body for what it is meant for: moving-or what I like to call exercise, you find an increase in energy, a better body composition and increased vitality. Do not be fooled by a diet ad promising a miracle in 30 days- its just not going to happen. Real, lasting fat loss involves a steady process of exchanging fat for muscle and 30 days is usually an unrealistic expectation. I myself have lost 85lbs of body fat and I completely understand when you are overweight you want the weight gone; like yesterday, but if you try to get there the fast/easy/more convenient way, then you just might find yourself back where you started; only in worse shape. Get out there and move, eat right and fight the good fight. You will never regret getting there the right way!