If you’re trying to improve your nutrition, you’re going to need to know about macronutrients. After understanding calories, macronutrients are the next step for honing in on your nutrition. Keep reading to learn the basics, and dive a little deeper into each macronutrient category!
There are three macronutrients that, for the most part, make up our food. Each macro has its own unique function and will comprise a different percentage of total caloric intake based on an individual’s goals.
4 Calories Per Gram. Proteins are the building blocks of all cells and are made up of amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids (which means you must obtain these through diet) and 11 non-essential amino acids (which means your body has the ability to create them on its own).
4 Calories Per Gram. Carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that is not essential to consume, as the body has the ability to create them itself. But that doesn’t mean carbs aren’t important! Depending on your sport or lifestyle, carbs can be the best way to fuel your performance and enjoy your life.
9 Calories Per Gram. Fats are essential for all cellular and hormonal functions in the body. Contrary to popular belief, eating fat does not make your fat. Low fat consumption can lead to hormone dysregulation, low energy, and low libido.
7 Calories Per Gram. Alcohol is not technically a macronutrient, but it does still affect your overall caloric load as well as your ability to break down protein. While alcohol can have a positive role in a healthy lifestyle, it can significantly hinder fat loss.
A Deeper Level of Understanding
Protein is an essential nutrient to the body, composed of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Its building blocks, or smallest levels, are called amino acids. Amino acids can be broken down into three categories:
- Non Essential Amino Acids – The 12 amino acids we can make in our body, and consumption in our diet is not necessary.
- Essential Amino Acids – The 8 amino acids that cannot be made in our body and must be consumed in foods.
- Conditionally Essential Amino Acids – These amino acids are only essential under certain conditions such as childhood, extreme stress, or the aging process.
It is important to remember that we are always breaking down and rebuilding new proteins. And while our bodies have the ability to store carbohydrates and fats, we can’t store protein in the same way. Amino acid loss is always occurring, and this is why it is essential that we take in enough protein to keep the process of protein turnover happening.
Because of the diverse amino acid sequence of each protein source, it is important to consume a wide variety of protein sources in the diet. Non processed foods, and seasonal foods will always be preferred, but supplements can certainly help.
Primary protein sources in the diet will be:
- Meats like beef, steak, or wild game
- Poultry such as chicken or turkey
- Seafood like wild caught fish or shellfish
- High quality deli meats
- Dairy like greek yogurt or milk
- Beans and lentils
- Tofu and tempeh
- Protein powders and bars
Protein Intake Recommendations
There’s a lot of controversy around protein intake recommendations, but most of it comes down to specific application.
To start, we want to consider several factors: overall calorie intake, whether or not the individual is resistance training, body weight, body composition, and biological age. Prescription for protein intake will vary based on goals, but most studies give a range around .7-1.2 grams per pound of body weight. However, for those carrying a significant amount of body fat, using a target body weight or lean body mass might be a better number than current body weight.
The more physically active you are, the higher your protein needs will be. And as you age, your protein needs continue to rise as well.
Fat has several functions in the diet, including:
-Formation of cell membrane
-Nervous system support
-Providing essential fatty acids (which we cannot make and must consume)
Omega-3 and Omega-6
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are both important parts of our diet. Omega-3fatty acids are often considered to have anti-inflammatory effects. They help dilate blood vessels, decrease pain, and reduce systemic inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids have a pro-inflammatory effect on the human body. They increase inflammation, cause blood clotting, and can increase pain. While that sounds pretty bad on the surface level, also understand that we need them – and without them we wouldn’t be able to recover from training or injuries.
Both of these fatty acids are important to our body’s function, and both fatty acids are competing for the same enzymes internally. For this reason, it is recommended that we consume a diet that is balanced at a minimum of 1:1 omega-3 to omega-6. (Unfortunately, the current North American diet provides a ratio closer to 10:1!)
Food sources that are highest in saturated fats are:
- Fatty beef
- Poultry with skin
- Full fat dairy products
Food sources that are highest in monounsaturated fats are:
- Olive Oil
- Sunflower oil
- Nut butter
- Macadamia nuts
- Egg yolks
Food sources that are highest in polyunsaturated fats are:
- Sunflower seeds
- Flax seeds/oil
- Sesame seeds
- Chia seeds
- Grapeseed oil
There are several different lipoproteins, but the two most famous are Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL) and High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL). You may recognize these numbers associated with cholesterol in your blood work.
LDL – often called “bad” cholesterol – transports their content INTO arteries, while HDL – often called “good” cholesterol – transports their content OUT OF artery walls.
Fat Intake Recommendations
It is important to understand that fat is the most calorie dense macronutrient. While fats have many health benefits, eating them in excess will not contribute to positive physical changes. The quality of fat intake is also extremely important, with a ratio of 1:1 omega-3 to omega-6 intake as the goal. In the athletic and aesthetic world, fat intake can have a wide range, anywhere from 20%-70% of daily calories. Of course, training age, training modality, current intake, hormonal status, previous dietary status, and time of year relative to periodization are all factors that will influence your ideal fat intake.
Carbohydrates are a significant source of energy in most diets, but they are not considered an essential nutrient, meaning we do not need them to survive. However, it is important to note that in relation to fiber, inadequate intake has been linked to increased mortality.
Are some carbs BAD?
Over the years, carbohydrates have been classified as “simple” or “complex,” but the truth is these terms do not serve justice to the nutritional quality of food as they do not address the micronutrient content or even the blood sugar effect of the given food. The glycemic index was developed to help classify carbohydrates better by tracking how quickly food raises our blood sugar. Foods like sugar, candy, and cereals will have a higher glycemic index while high fiber foods like veggies and whole grains will have a lower glycemic index.
The reason this matters is in relation to insulin, our storage hormone. When blood glucose quickly shoots up, it usually triggers a release of insulin. High levels of insulin can lead to high levels of fat storage. Unfortunately, the glycemic index is flawed, as it does not take into consideration food pairings or time of day (pre/post workout) into consideration.
While virtually all carbs end up as glucose in the body, it is important to make a note about dietary fiber. Fiber is indigestible, and it comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber attracts water and turns to gel during digestion. Found in oats, nuts, seeds and some fruits and veggies. Because soluble fiber can help decrease cholesterol levels, it may help lower heart disease.
Insoluble fiber is found in foods like wheat bran, root veggies, and fruit and veggie skins. These fibers help us feel more full, keep things moving in the GI, and boost our overall gut health.
Fruits and veggies are the ideal carb sources. Others include:
- Whole grain breads
Carbohydrate Intake Recommendation
There is no “optimal range” for carbohydrate prescription. Typically, when creating a macronutrient prescription, carbohydrates are the last macronutrient to be decided upon, as fat and protein recommendations are more important for specific goals. If calorie, protein, and fat recommendations are done correctly, carbohydrate ratios will take care of themselves.